+ We’ve all been here. We’ve been here, in this belly of hell. We’ve been in this place in which there is nothing. Bleakness. No hope. Or so it seems. It’s not just a bad place to be. It’s the worst place to be.
We have been in that place in which we seemed abandoned. Deserted. No one was coming for us, we believed. No one even knew we were here, in these depths of hell.
Holy Saturday is the time in which we commemorate not only the fact that Jesus is lying in the tomb—in which we perform a liturgy that feels acutely like the burial service. We also commemorate a very long belief that on this day, Jesus, although seemingly at rest in the tomb, was actually at work, despite the fact that it seemed he was dead. He was in the depth of hell.
This belief, of course, comes to us from a very basic reading of 1 Peter, and from the early Church Fathers. Jesus descended into hell and preached to those there. The popular term for this is the Harrowing of Hell. Harrowing is a harvesting term. One harrows the field. Jesus went to hell and harrowed until it was empty.
As a follower of Jesus, I find the story of the Harrowing of Hell to be so compelling. I find it compelling, because I’ve been there. I’ve been to hell. More than once. As we all have.
I have known despair. I have known that feeling that I thought I would actually die from bleakness. Or wished I could die. But didn’t.
Even death wasn’t, in that moment, the worst thing that could happen. That place of despair was the worst place to be. It is the worst place to be.
Which is why this morning’s liturgy is so important to me. In the depth of hell, even there, when we think there is no one coming for us—just when we’ve finally given up hope, Someone does. God sends Jesus to us, there. He comes to us in the depths of our despair, of our personal darkness, of that sense of being undead, and what does he do? He leads us out.
I know this is a very unpopular belief for many Christians. Many Christians simply cannot believe it.
Hell is eternal, they believe. If you turn your back on God, then you should be in hell forever and ever, they believe. If you do wrong in life, you should be punished for all eternity, they will argue.
I don’t think it’s any surprise to any of you to hear me say that I definitely don’t agree. And my faith speaks loudly to me on this issue. The God I serve, the God I love and believe in, is not a God who would act in such a way.
Now, I am not saying there isn’t a hell. There is a hell. As I said, I’ve been there. But if there is some metaphysical hell in the so-called “afterlife,” I believe that, at some point, it will be completely empty. And heaven will be absolutely full.
What I do know is that the hell I believe in does exist. And many of us—most of us—have been there at least once. Some of us have been there again and again. Any of us who have suffered from depression, or have lost a loved one, or have doubted our faith, or have thought God is not a God of love—we have all known this hell.
But none of these hells are eternal hells. I do believe that even those hells will one day come to an end. I do believe that God sends Jesus to us, even there, in the depths of those personal hells. I believe that one day, even those hells will be harrowed and emptied, once and for all.
Until that day happens, none of us should be too content. None of us should rejoice too loudly. None of should exult in our own salvation, until salvation is granted to all.
If there is an eternal hell and punishment, my salvation is not going to be what I thought it was. And that is the real point of this day.
I love the fact that, no matter where I am, no matter where I put myself, no matter what depths and hells and darknesses I sink myself into, even there God will send Jesus to me to find me. And I know that the Jesus I serve and follow will not rest until the last of his lost loved ones is found and brought back.
As I said, It’s not a popular belief in the Christian Church. And that baffles me. Why isn’t it more popular? Why do we not proclaim a God who comes to us in our own hells and bring us out? Why do we not proclaim a God of love who will bring an end, once and for all, to hell?
We as Christians should be pondering these issues. And we should be struggling with them. And we should be seeking God’s knowledge on them.
On this very sad, very bleak Holy Saturday morning, I find a great joy in knowing that, as far as we seem to be in this moment from Easter glory, Easter glory is still happening, unseen by us, like a seed slowly blooming in the ground. That Victory of God we celebrate this evening and tomorrow morning and throughout the season of Easter is more glorious than anything we can imagine. And it is more powerful than anything we can even begin to comprehend.
In my own personal hells the greatest moment is when I can turn from my darkness toward the light and find consolation in the God who has come to me, even there, in my personal agony.
Even there, God comes to me and frees me. God has done it before. And I have no doubt God will do it again. In the bleak waters of abandonment, God has sent the buoy, the lifesaver of Jesus to hold us up and bring us out of the waters.
That is what we are celebrating this Holy Saturday morning. That is how we find our joy. Our joy is close at hand, even though it seems gone from us. Our joy is just within reach, even in this moment when it seems buried in the ground and lost.