Perhaps you've heard of the bestselling book, The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven by Kevin Malarkey and his son, Alex. The book purports to recount the son's death after an automobile accident, his going to heaven, and his return to life. This past week, Alex, the young co-author, revealed that the book was a fraud. Ironically, the authors' surname – Malarkey – means nonsense.
Given our awareness of our own mortality, interest in what happens to a person at death is unsurprisingly widespread, perhaps even universal. Christianity asserts a claim similar to the Malarkey's that Alex had visited heaven. The Apostles' Creed, which is part of our liturgy for Holy Baptism as well as for Morning and Evening Prayer, declares that he (i.e., Jesus) descended to the dead. In prior versions of the Book of Common Prayer, preserved in Rite I, the wording feels more troubling he descended into hell. What's the origin of this claim? What does it mean?
The primary biblical bases for thinking that the crucified Jesus descended to the dead are a verse in this morning's epistle reading and one in the following chapter. Contemporary English translations of 1 Peter 3:18 describe Jesus going and proclaiming the gospel to those who are in prison. The Greek word is actually hades, incorrectly translated as hell, sometimes translated with accuracy as the place of the dead, and occasionally translated as prison.
The idea that the dead are in prison, presumably awaiting judgment, reflects Jesus having lived during a transitional time in Judaism. Before the second century BC, Judaism taught that a person's life ended at death. During Jesus' lifetime, Jewish thought was divided on this issue. In sharp contrast to those like the Sadducees who held to traditional teachings, the Pharisees, the Qumran community, and others, including the first Christians, believed that a person's existence continued after death.
Secondary biblical bases for the claim that Jesus descended to the place of the dead are allusions to the sign of Jonah in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. Jonah's three days of captivity in the fish presage the three days that these gospels report between Jesus' death and resurrection. In the wider cultural and historical context, several Greek, Roman, and Egyptian deities visit the place of the dead; the Qumran scrolls also mention the Messiah visiting the realm of the dead.
Christian preaching has traditionally linked three motifs of enduring importance to the claim that Jesus descended to the place of the dead. First, the claim underscores Jesus' humanity. Jesus' death was no different from the death of any other human. Too often, Christianity has emphasized the deity of the second person of the Trinity at the cost of ignoring his humanity. Saying the Apostles' Creed and declaring that Jesus descended to the dead, affirms that he was a human, just like us.
The second motif tied to the Christian teaching that Jesus descended to the dead is that while in hades Jesus preached to the dead. A wealth of interpretations cluster around this idea. Some have Jesus preaching to fallen angels, some to righteous Jews, some to all of the dead. These interpretations express the confidence, dating almost from Christianity's beginning, that God's salvific work in Christ extends to all creation. In other words, the claim that Jesus visited the dead is a traditional formulation of saying that God welcomes all, that God's love embraces not only humans, but also all living things and all creation. God's love is inclusive and not exclusive. Even as the rainbow is a sign of universal hope, so is Jesus' descent to the place of the dead a sign of universal hope.
The third motif linked to claiming that Jesus descended to the dead is that Jesus defeated the power of death. We can experience this deliverance occurs in the present. Sometimes we, though nominally alive, may feel dead. Life's crises, compounded by the challenge of making sense out of the Christian tradition in a post-modern world, have created a hunger for evidence of God's continuing care and love that the unscrupulous exploit, perhaps explaining the popularity of books such as The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven. This sense of being alive yet dead probably contributes to the current popularity of vampires and zombies.
Christianity's good news is that in Christ God defeated the powers of death. In Holy Baptism, a dove alights upon each of us, symbolic of God's Spirit in and with us. And, if we listen carefully, we can hear God communicate, softly but distinctly, not only in Holy Baptism but at other times as well, You are my daughter, my son, my beloved. Death has no more power over you.