Apostle's Creed - Storming the Gates of Hell
Girdwood Chapel Sermon, 18 June 2017
“Storming the Gates of Hell”
Isaiah 66: 22-24
Mark 9: 42-48
1 Peter 3: 19-20
Ephesians 4: 7-10
John 14: 6
“In the middle of the journey of our life, I came to myself, in a dark wood, where the direct way was lost. It is a hard thing to speak of, how wild, harsh and impenetrable that wood was, so that thinking of it recreates the fear. It is scarcely less bitter than death: but, in order to tell of the good that I found there, I must tell of the other things I saw there. I cannot rightly say how I entered it. I was so full of sleep, at that point where I abandoned the true way.” - Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy (Inferno), 1472.
I am sure some of you recognize these words as the beginning of Dante’s Divine Comedy, Inferno. This work, published in 1472, speaks of the nine levels of Hell based upon the author’s vision and his biblical interpretation. In 1472, the audience hearing the tale before them was likely terrified at the prospect of their own sins leading them through such torment and wretchedness.
Out of curiosity, I tried to dig up some statistics to see what the typical thought about a condemnation to Hell would be. What I found were some interesting facts based on a Baylor University Sociological research project done in 2007:
Only 67% of Protestant Christians believe in Hell.
Only 49% of Catholic Christians believe in Hell.
Only 53.5% of Americans (all faiths) believe in Hell.
I would imagine that this study, done now, ten years later, would have even lower percentages attached with the idea of belief in Hell.
It becomes curious then, how our Creed can include a statement that Christ descended to a place that so many people do not believe in? Furthermore, does it matter that we believe in heaven and don’t believe in hell?
Let me propose to you that without this belief and without this understanding we miss one of the most wonderful acts of God’s love and mercy, for Christ is willing to storm the gates of Hell for you and for me.
Fire and Brimstone
As I have mentioned, my grandfather was a preacher in West Virginia. His congregation was pretty large and was comprised of a great part of the community. The community was certainly considered to be in the country and I am fairly sure the congregation was a good cross-section of the people of the community. My family and I did not live in that community though. We lived in the “city” and went to a larger Methodist church. The service at our church was, we’ll say, “methodical”. Much like we do here, there was a structure of songs, recitations, a Children’s sermon, naptime, and the closing hymn. Did I say naptime? I meant sermon. But, c’mon I was 5 years old. Nothing really ever exciting or out of the ordinary happened at our church. But, I remember a couple of things from my first memories of my Grandfather’s church. The first is hearing someone stand up and shout, “hallelujah!” while someone else was talking..and no one reprimanded them! The second is hearing my grandfather use the word “Hell” from the pulpit. I looked around and everybody else seemed to be okay with this. In fact, there were some “hallelujahs” being shouted.
I am not sure my grandfather was a fire and brimstone preacher, focused on sin and the depths of eternal despair in the fires of hell for those who didn’t repent. I heard him talk more about the salvation of Jesus than I heard him talk about anything else. But, I know he made sure his congregation knew about the struggle of a life apart from Christ in this world and in eternity. We don’t talk much about hell anymore in our churches. Maybe that is why we see a decline in the numbers of those who believe in hell. Afterall, I have been here nearly a year, and this is the first time I am bringing it up.
We don’t like to think that there is a place of punishment or a place of torment for not living a life in accordance with God’s word and apart from the faith in the salvation of Jesus Christ. It seems mean and vengeful of God to have such a place. In fact, it is becoming very popular for many Christians to think that all people go to heaven one way or another. Probably, this is because we are uncomfortable acknowledging that our faith teaches differently.
Our Scripture readings today offer an answer to the first part of the understanding about Hell, and that is that it is a place referred to in the Bible. It is a place that those who do work opposite to God’s love and rebel against God are cast. It is a place, according to Isaiah, where the fear of knowing what is happening to those who reside separated from God in an unending supply of worms and of fire, serves as a reminder to be obedient to God and to do what is right and just in God’s Holy name.
I can see your uncomfortableness with me saying that. I can see you start to shift in your seats a bit. Don’t worry, I feel uncomfortable saying it myself. To think that people I know and people that I love may end up in this horrible place is not something I want to even consider. But, Jesus, accentuates its existence in His own teaching. In fact, he says it is better to go through life maimed and without sight then to let yourself fall into sin. Because the torment of this life is fleeting, but the torment of Hell is for eternity.
So, for the sake of the argument. Let’s say that Hell does exist. It has been shown to be a place in scripture. It is mentioned by the prophets and it is mentioned by Jesus, himself. Therefore, it is of sound doctrine in our faith. But, through just by its existence, does that mean that Jesus traveled there during the time between his death and resurrection?
Paul lets us know in his letter to the Ephesians that this is of great possibility. He states in Ephesians 4: 7-10, that Christ has climbed up to the heights with captured prisoners and that for Christ to “climb up” meant that He first had to go down to the nether regions of earth. While there, Christ captured prisoners? What does that mean? Peter provides us some insight in his letter 1 Peter 3: 19-20. Peter writes, “Christ was put to death by Humans but rescued through the Spirit. It was by the Spirit that he went to go preach to the spirits in prison.” Peter goes on to tell us that these are the Spirits that date all the way back to the time of Noah’s flood. So, Let’s go all the way back to Genesis 6. Genesis 6 is about the flood. During this time there is only one man who serves God and he and his family are spared. Noah builds the ark and the rest of humanity dies. They die because they are disobedient to God and behaved corruptly on the earth.
Jesus descends to Hell to rescue the souls, the Spirits, that do not know Him but that are now saved by His atonement.
I have been very careful to stay with Scripture in this section of our exploration of the Apostle’s Creed. As I simply do not want to get it wrong. To talk about Hell and the ramifications of life associated with it is humbling to our human understanding. In the Apostle’s Creed it is one sentence. But, it is one sentence that makes people so uncomfortable that we can say the Creed with it, or without it. To me it is a strong and important statement of our faith, however. It shows that we do believe in Hell, a place where inhabitants are tormented, not just by the physical pain, but also by the separation from God. It is a place where those who lack obedience and live a life that is in the direct opposition to God may find themselves. Again, look at Scripture, Revelation 20: 10 states, “Then the devil, who had deceived them, was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur, where the beast and the false prophet also were. There painful suffering will be inflicted upon them day and night, forever, and always.” This is not a soft punishment, this is the wrath of God! Yet, we want hope, we want to leave this building with the ability to rejoice in the understanding that this eternal condemnation is not something we are going to face.
Here is the hope. Here is the peace. Jesus said, “No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14: 6) In Jesus there is salvation from our sinful ways and our sinful natures. There is the love of the Gospel that we so desperately want and need to hear. We need to know that our flaws do not condemn us to a life or torment and pain for eternity. We need to be able to walk a line of faith that is based on our knowledge and obedience to a faithful and righteous God, and not to live in fear of that God at all times. That is the person of Jesus Christ.
For a couple of days, the person of Jesus Christ died just like you and I will die. But, during that time he became Spirit form and went to the depths of Hell and to the region of the dead and shared his love with all of those who had already passed and did not know Him. In doing so, he rescued them from an eternal life separate from God and forgave them for their sins. Even after death.
Don’t you see what that means?! Jesus has been every possible place we could go and there is no human experience unfamiliar to him. Beyond that, you and I are important enough to Christ that he is willing to storm the gates of Hell to set us free. We do not need to dilute our faith to find comfort in it. It is present and it is even more significant when we look at the depths that Christ goes to bring us salvation. Believe in Him, and you will find mercy. You will find grace. You will be forgiven.