Easter Sunday is a hard act to follow. “The strife is o’er, the battle done / Now is the Victor’s triumph won / He closed the gates of yawning hell / The bars from heaven’s high portals fell.” And, this hymn by Charles Wesley, “Christ the Lord is risen today. Alleluia!” Or this one, by William Chatterton Dix, sung to the melody of Hyfrydol: “Alleluia! Sing to Jesus! / His the scepter, His the throne; / Alleluia! His the triumph, His the victory alone.” What could possibly trump that? And so it is not surprising that the day after the Feast of the Resurrection, Easter Monday, is a liturgical letdown, a prosaic return to the quotidian.
Still, there is something in the human spirit that wants the party to go on, at least for a while. This sentiment finds expression in the various traditions of Easter Monday, all of which have religious connotations despite their secularized form. In this country, the most famous of these is the Easter Monday Egg Roll on the South Lawn of the White House. It is a day of laughter and fun for Washington’s children, with a chance to meet the official White House Easter Bunny and perhaps even the President and the First Lady. In the Czech Republic, this is the day of the famous Prague Easter Market at Wenceslas Square, with puppets, dolls, and many tasty pastries on offer. In Poland, the day after Easter is Wet Monday, so called from the medieval custom of village boys going from house to house to switch the girls with twigs and to drench them with water (shades of Lenten penitence and baptism). In good egalitarian style, it is said that of late the girls too have become switchers and dousers. The day is often rounded out with a good serving of leftover kielbasa and sauerkraut from Easter dinner.
The fact that some of these rituals, like our decorated trees at Christmas, are rooted in a pagan past doesn’t bother me—it simply shows the deep reach of redemption. It also shows something else, I think: the collective need for a good sanctified belly laugh at the beginning of Eastertide, a counterpart to Mardi Gras just prior to the rigors of Lent. Within the framework of redemptive history, it is also a chance to tweak the beard of the Evil One and remind him that his kingdom has been rattled: He is un roi prétendu. Despite the devil’s worst doings, God still reigns, Christ is risen, love conquers, and hilarity happens. The drama of Easter weekend includes a depiction of the victory of Christ that enables us to celebrate the day of resurrection, and all that follows from it, with all the gusto we have. This is the historic doctrine of the descent of Jesus Christ into hell.
Several weeks ago, the Reverend Luke Powery, the dean of Duke University Chapel, announced to his congregation that the traditional version of the Apostles’ Creed, including the statement that Jesus “descended into hell,” was being restored to their worship. Whatever prompted the dean’s decision, I applaud it. Among many Protestants and evangelicals, the confession of Christ’s descent into hell—or his “descent to the dead,” as the Latin descendit ad inferna is often rendered—has been attacked from both ends of the spectrum.
On the one hand, many contemporary Christians shy away from anything that cannot be explained in purely naturalistic terms. What are folks like this to make of the descent into hell when they stumble over the virgin birth, the miracles of Jesus, or the resurrection itself? Superstitions all, they snort. On the other hand, there are some conservative evangelicals who want to remove the descent from the creed entirely, not because it is too biblical but because the biblical evidence for it, they say, is too thin.
In my view, the accommodationists are worse than the biblicists, but both are missing the point. On the biblical evidence, 1 Peter 3:18–20, the famous New Testament text which declares that Christ “went and preached to the spirits in prison,” is only one of several passages referring to Christ’s mission between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. This teaching must be understood in light of both Jewish apocalyptic traditions, of which it is a part, and many other New Testament passages which prompted its (admittedly late) inclusion in the Apostles’ Creed. These include: Colossians 2:9–15, a proto-Apostles’ Creed in nuce; 1 Peter 4:5–6; Romans 10:6–9; 14:8–9; Philippians 2:5–11; Acts 2:24–36; Matthew 12:29, 40; 27:51–54; Luke 23:43; and Revelation 1:18.
Another crucial text is Ephesians 4:8–10, with its quotation of Psalm 68:18, in which Christ’s descent “into the lower parts of the earth” is connected to his triumphal ascent into heaven. God’s Anointed One returns to glory carrying in his train the ransomed booty of Satan and distributing Spirit-endowed gifts to the church. In presenting Hans Urs von Balthasar’s interpretation of the descent, Edward T. Oakes described this event as a mighty, reverberating “thud” so powerful that it shook everything up, including the devil’s bourgeois kingdom. Like a depth charge exploding near the ocean floor, Jesus landed “at the bottom so heavily” that he continues to radiate outward in all directions “so that his ripple effects will never fade.”
If this did really happen—and the church since the time of Peter, Paul, and Polycarp has confessed that it did—what does it mean? The answer is: many things and various, with differing nuances between East and West, Lutherans and Calvinists, Barth and Balthasar. Even Calvin, who interpreted the descent less literally than most others in the tradition before him, still declared that it was “a matter of no small moment in bringing about redemption.” In the approaching death and spiritual sufferings of Christ on the cross, Calvin taught, Jesus had to “grapple hand to hand with the armies of hell and the dread of everlasting death.”
In explaining why he had decided to incorporate the descent article into the Apostles’ Creed at Duke Chapel, Dean Powery gave a good pastoral answer. This affirmation of the Church’s historic faith, he said, forcefully reminds the Church that “Christ’s presence goes with Christians, even to the darkest and most tortured parts of their lives. Even hell is not beyond the bounds of Christ’s presence, graces, and redemption.” That’s a good word for those who are in the grips of hell already, both the hell within and the hell around. Jesus the Victor has given the unspeakable gift of his presence to all who believe in him. As Joseph Ratzinger has put it: “This article thus asserts that Christ strode through the gate of our final loneliness, that in his passion he went down into the abyss of our abandonment. Where no voice can reach us any longer, there is he.” And because this is true, “death is no longer the path into icy solitude, the gates of sheol have been opened.”
I think we need to connect Holy Saturday more closely to Easter Monday. If the former is rightly observed as a day of silence and contemplation, anticipating the sunrise at the end of Easter Vigil, then let the day after Easter Sunday be one of jubilation and holy hilarity for, as the gospel song declares, “Our God Reigns.”
The descent, like the cross and the ascension, was a one-time event. It happened like a sudden lightning flash, “once for all” (Greek hapax), as the New Testament says. But the harrowing of hell has changed things forever, with consequences both cosmic and personal. With Martin Luther we can rejoice and sing:
What might of ours can naught be done,
Soon were our loss effected;
But for us fights the Valiant One,
Whom God Himself elected.
Ask ye, Who is this?
Jesus Christ it is,
Of Sabaoth Lord,
And there’s none other God;
He holds the field forever.
Timothy George is dean of Beeson Divinity School of Samford University and general editor of the Reformation Commentary on Scripture. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.