Hans Urs von Balthasar is justly famous for his creative reflections on Holy Saturday. The thesis of his book, Mysterium Paschale, is that Jesus Christ suffers not only a physical death on the cross but a spiritual death in hell. Von Balthasar’s speculations are inspired by the creedal phrase descendit ad inferna as well as 1 Peter 3:19, which says that Christ, after he was put to death, preached to the spirits in prison. Von Balthasar’s critics typically argue that he went too far in putting Christ in the actual precincts of hell. My criticism with Von Balthasar has nothing to do with the location of Christ’s descent but everything to do with what Jesus did when he got there. Simply put, did he suffer or did he preach?
Those who reject Von Balthasar’s thesis argue that Christ did not “go all the way.” Instead of descending to hell, he stopped short at a place called “the limbo of the fathers,” where Abraham, Moses, and various Old Testament prophets resided at a safe distance from the burning flames. God kept these men in this special place because they were righteous and faithful, lacking only an affirmation of Jesus to be permitted entry into heaven. Christ woke them up, introduced himself, and off they went—a process that was, evidently, quick and easy, since they were primed and ready to go.
Von Balthasar’s version of this event certainly makes for better drama. Rather than a quick stop to save those whom God had no plans to abandon anyway, Christ experiences the complete package of death, which includes not just dying but also being dead. By depicting Holy Saturday as the furthest reach of Christ’s suffering on behalf of sinners, Von Balthasar makes it the climax of the cross. The cross, we could say, casts its shadow over Jesus’ death, so that even while his body is in repose his soul suffers inconceivable torment.
My experience with prison ministry has led me to see Christ’s descent in another light—that is, the light of the resurrection, rather than the darkness of the cross. Preaching to the prisoners in hell was the culmination of Jesus’ ministry, not the prolongation of his crucifixion. Jesus, after all, was condemned as a criminal and died between two criminals. It is even likely that he was imprisoned, although the Bible says nothing about this. Where else would he have been between the arrest on the evening of Holy Thursday and the trials that began on the morning of Good Friday? Luke, anyway, seems to indicate a gap between his mocking and the Sanhedrin trial the next morning (Luke 22:65-66). At some point that night, and maybe again after he was sentenced to death, he might have been put in a holding cell. Such cells were often little more than holes in the ground, dark and silent. He would have prayed to his father, but nobody but a drunken guard would have been there to hear him. Perhaps this is where he was truly silenced, and perhaps that is why the Bible passes over this episode in silence.
In any case, after his death he visited the ultimate prison of hell itself. Having accepted God’s judgment on all of humankind, Jesus would have felt right at home in hell, and the prisoners would have been glad to welcome him. The sharing of the good news is a joyful event, especially in a place where its message is most needed.
My speculations are no less fantastic than Von Balthasar’s, but they have more biblical basis. Von Balthasar insists that Jesus was utterly passive (and thus silent) in hell. The Swiss theologian is thus forced to interpret 1 Peter 3:19 (and the reference to proclamation to the dead in 4:6) to mean that Jesus was in solidarity with the dead. Just being dead, evidently, was a form of proclamation. Von Balthasar’s inability to account for these passages in 1 Peter is surely an indication that he puts too much emphasis on suffering, as if sheer torment is the most accurate measurement of Christ’s salvific efficacy.
Preaching to the condemned is the very essence of the Gospel. That, in any case, is how I experience preaching in prison. Outside of the privacy of the confessional, the prison is the only place I know that provides the conditions for unfettered honesty and openness about personal sinfulness. The men I worship with know they have made terrible mistakes. They also know that the judicial system, with its plea bargaining and assumption of guilt, is not interested in their confessions. When we worship together, we are freed from all pretensions that we are anything but guilty of numerous sins—more than the system will ever know, of course.
And I am right there with them. I too have experienced condemnation, though not by the judicial system. I have also experienced the superficial sanctity that fills so many of our churches, where people gather as believers, not sinners, the saved, not the damned. If Jesus took on the sins of the world and suffered the ultimate judgment of guilt and defeat, then I am convinced that he found camaraderie and understanding among the prisoners in hell. His descent was the first step toward his resurrection and our rehabilitation.