As the Passion ends, we leave with Jesus laid in the tomb. Was he asleep? No, scripture clearly strives to prove and proclaim that Jesus truly died on that cross. Did he go to heaven? Actually, scripture leads us to believe that Jesus was somehow still miraculously at work but not in heaven.
Our Lutheran confessions state that “we believe simply that the entire person, God and human being, descended to Hell after his burial, conquered the devil, destroyed the power of Hell, and took from the devil all his power.” (See Solid Declaration, Art. IX.) Luther seems to have believed it an ultimate mystery that Jesus descended. Nothing tells us if he did so in “humiliation” or in glory, but we should just believe the faith in which we baptize (see the Apotles’ Creed: Jesus descended into sheol – in Hebrew the place of the dead, sometimes called hades).
Early Christianity believed this and scripture alludes to it in such passages as 1 Peter 3:18-20: For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight people, were saved through water.”
In the Old English, harrowing was the term fused to describe Christ’s descent. Ancient icons often show Jesus amidst previous saints of the Jewish Testament, standing on the gates of sheol now opened. The gates are often an “X” or Chi in Greek, reminding us that Jesus is Χριστός, or Christ – the Annointed One and our Messiah come to save us from sin, death and the Devil.
Christians may debate whether Jesus entered triumphantly or suffered more indignities, but mainstream Christianity looks to both scriptures and the faith handed down to us. Jesus’ entrance into the grave was not the last of his journies for us. With sundown, his burial was complete. The Jewish sabbath had begun, and Jesus went to work. The Saturday of our Holy Week is indeed good (holy), and we rightly rejoice even as we wait for the Day of Resurrection. Jesus has come to save all his people.
Unless otherwise indicated, all scripture quotations for this article are from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) translation.
© 2013 The Rev. Louis Florio. All content not held under another’s copyright may not be used without permission of the author.