When I was teaching fifth grade Religious Studies at St. Stephen’s and St. Agnes, before coming to St. Alban’s, I had a day once a quarter when students could ask me any theological question they’d like. Sometimes the questions were pretty straightforward, other times they reflected a genuine curiosity about what we believe as Christians. They ranged from, “So who is God’s mom?” to things like, “So if Jesus died to save sinners from hell, what happens when a non-Christian like my friend ________ who is Jewish dies, or a non-believer dies? Is THAT person going to heaven or hell?” Those question days were always eye-opening.
One question that was asked was: “What is actually happening to Jesus after he’s been crucified and dies, but before he is raised from the dead?” Great question!
I don’t think we give much thought to what happened when Jesus was dead, and perhaps we should. On this Good Friday, please allow me to jump ahead a day and think a little bit about this in-between time for Jesus and our faith.
The day after Good Friday is known by many different names by Christians around the globe. Some call this Saturday, “Joyful Saturday,” “Black Saturday,” or, “Holy Saturday.” In the Episcopal Church we call this day Holy Saturday. Now, as to what Jesus is doing on this day we get only a bit of a clue from Holy Scripture. One passage that provides some clarity comes from the prophet Hosea (Hosea 13:14) and the most colorful translation of this verse is: “O death, I will be thy death; O hell, I will be thy bite.” The two other passages in Holy Scripture that seem to come close are Ephesians 4:9 and 1 Peter 3:18-20.
Apart from the verses we have in the bible, we mention this time in-between Jesus’s death and resurrection quite clearly in The Apostle’s creed: “He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried. He descended to the dead. On the third day he rose again.” (BCP p. 96, my emphasis added) The Nicene Creed puts it this way: “For our sake he was crucified, under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried. On the third day he rose again from the dead…” (BCP p. 358)
Now, scholars are rather divided about what is going on when Jesus goes down amongst the dead. Many in the Middle Ages believed this is when Christ triumphantly freed all of those souls from the Old Testament who did not have the option of believing in Christ because, well, Christ had not yet come into the world. There are numerous icons and images that depict this scene. Others think that perhaps Christ is redeeming the fallen angels who sided with Satan. Still others believe that Christ literally is closing hell–that all souls are redeemed through Jesus’s death and resurrection as the living Christ.
This belief of Christ saving the souls of people like Adam and Eve makes one wonder about hell (Sheol or Gehenna, or “The Pit”) and how that whole system works. Clive Staples Lewis presents a particularly Anglican view about how hell works and I invite you to explore for yourselves by reading The Great Divorce. No matter what we think Jesus is up to on this Holy Saturday, one thing is clear: Jesus is busy. He is at work, even in death.
On this day when we concentrate on Jesus’s death, and tomorrow, Holy Saturday–when for a brief bit of time Jesus is dead-and-not-yet-risen–let us focus on the love of our God who CHOOSES to die on the cross for US. God chooses to die so that we all might be cleansed of our sins. How much does God love us? How much does God want us to be reunited with God’s self? Jesus. That’s how much.