Every Christian knows the story: Jesus was crucified on Good Friday and rose from the dead on Easter Sunday. But what did he do on Saturday?
That question has spurred centuries of debate, perplexed theologians as learned as St. Augustine and prodded some Protestants to advocate editing the Apostles' Creed, one of Christianity's oldest confessions of faith.
Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and most mainline Protestant churches teach that Jesus descended to the realm of the dead on Holy Saturday to save righteous souls, such as the Hebrew patriarchs, who died before his crucifixion.
The idea of Christ's descent into hell is, I think, symbollically central for an understanding of the Christian doctrine of salvation. Of course, as the article points out, some evangelical leaders, emphasizing a particularly blinkered understanding of Biblical authority, reject the doctrine, and thus fail to understand the degree to which the entire process of divine kenosis culminates in the descent into hell, representing Christ's solidarity with us in even the most godforesaken dimensions of the human condition. If, as the ancient theologians taught "what is not assumed is not saved," then absent the descent into hell, there is a dimension of human experience that remains unredeemd.
One needn't believe in an literal, or at least eternal, view of hell and damnation in order to believe in the importance of Christ's descent into hell. On the contrary, one may believe that Christ's redemptive activity is precisely that which saves us from the hell that he himself suffered. He deprived hell of its enternity, not to rescue us from divine wrath, but from our own experience of god-abandonment.
Here, as is so often the case, I find Jurgen Moltmann's insight to be instructive:
The logic of hell seems to me not merely inhumane but also extremely atheistic: here the human being in his freedom of choice is his own lord and god. His own will is his heaven or his hell. God is merely the accessory who puts that will into effect. If I decide for heaven, God must put me there; if I decide for hell, he has to leave me there. If God has to abide by our free decision, then we can do with him what we like. Is that ‘the love of God’? Free human beings forge their own happiness and are their own executioners. They do not just dispose over their lives here; they decide on their eternal destinies as well. So they have no need of any God at all. After a God has perhaps created us free as we are, he leaves us to our fate. Carried to this ultimate conclusion, the logic of hell is secular humanism, as Feuerbach, Marx and Nietzsche already perceived a long time ago.