Cruce Tectum

Cruce tectum, hidden under the cross, a blog for Epiphany Lutheran Church, Dorr, Michigan

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Saturday, April 23, 2011

The Vigil of Easter


The Vigil of Easter: The Miracle of Christ’s Descent into Hell[1]

April 23, 2011

Text: 1 Peter 3:18-19: “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison” (ESV).

Sometime after sundown on Saturday evening, the beginning of the new day according to the Old Testament reckoning of time (cf. Gen. 1), our crucified and buried Lord was “made alive in the spirit,” which is to say that He who was dead is now bodily risen. Yet even before this is manifested, revealed to the world by the earthquake as the stone is rolled away to display the empty tomb, even before the women come in the wee hours of the morning to witness all of this, our Lord descends bodily into hell where St. Peter says He “proclaimed to the spirits in prison.” This is the first step in our Lord’s state of exaltation, wherein He now, in His glorified resurrection body, always and fully uses His divine powers. He descends into hell for this purpose: to declare His victory to the devil and all his demons, as well as to the unbelievers who are confined there as a result of their unbelief, awaiting their judgment on the Last Day when they will be cast into the Lake of Fire (Rev. 20:14-15). We don’t understand all the mechanics of our Lord’s descent into hell. We cannot grasp with our reason and our five senses how these things can be. And that’s okay. We simply confess this truth. We confess that Jesus descended into hell in both the Apostles’ and Athanasian Creeds. With the early Church, with Dr. Luther, and with the writers of the Formula of Concord, we confess on the basis of the Scriptures that “We simply believe that the entire person (God and man) descended into hell after the burial, conquered the devil, destroyed hell’s power, and took from the devil all his might… So we hold to the substance and consolation that neither hell nor the devil can take captive or injure us and all who believe in Christ” (FC SD IX: 2-3; McCain, pp. 596-97).

Many people misunderstand the purpose of our Lord’s descent into hell and what it is that He is doing there. He did not descend into hell in order to suffer more for our sins. No, remember, He suffers hell on the cross. This is why He cries out from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46). That forsakenness is hell. Nor did Jesus descend into hell to give condemned unbelievers another chance to believe and be saved. There are no second chances. “(I)t is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment” (Heb. 9:27). Nor is the “prison” into which Jesus descends anything other than Hades, the hell where the souls of unbelievers go to await the resurrection of their bodies unto judgment, to be cast into Gehenna, the end-time hell, also known as the Lake of Fire. It is not the case that this is some sort of Limbo in which the Old Testament believers were held until the time of Christ and the New Testament. The Scriptures say no such thing. The biblical teaching is this: In the moment of our Lord’s death, His soul went to heaven, as He said to the thief on the cross, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43). Then, sometime between sundown on Saturday and the early hours of the morning on Sunday, our Lord was bodily raised from the dead, and He descended as God and man into hell where He proclaimed His victory to the spirits in prison. This is His victory parade through downtown hell! In ancient times, when a city was conquered, the conquering general or king would do a victory parade down Main Street. Jesus' proclamation in hell is nothing other than the preaching of His victory. And St. Paul says that in this way, “He disarmed the rulers and authorities,” which is to say, the devil and his demons, “and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him” (Col. 2:15).

So you see, Christ’s descent into hell is good news for us. This is the good news of Easter. We are no longer enslaved to hell. The devil is conquered. The dark forces no longer have any power over us. It is good and right, therefore, in these first moments of the Easter Feast to celebrate with our Lord His victory over Satan and hell. And I can think of no better way to celebrate this magnificent truth than to confess it to one another and to the world as we declare boldly: He is risen! He is risen, indeed!! Alleluia!!! In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[1] The theme and many of the thoughts in this sermon are from Miracles of Lent (St. Louis: Concordia, 2011).

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