Why did Jesus have to go to hell?

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I’d forgotten the moment during the children’s sermon until David’s mother Jan refreshed the memory of everyone around the dinner table the night before David’s ordination. “Do you remember the time David asked you why Jesus had to go to hell?'” David is forty now. He was five or six when he asked the question on the chancel steps.

Who knows what goes on in a child’s mind? Who expects a Presbyterian church to become a comedy theater? When I turned to look back a my colleague for help, Jack smiled, shrugged, and said, “Your sermon!”

Jack was working toward his PhD. in semiitic langauges at Hebrew Union College at the time. Why Jesus had to go to hell wasn’t question of a Jewish education! Knox Church wasn’t big on hell either. The idea of Jesus in hell was strange enough, but David’s question was why Jesus had to go to hell.

David was a pure soul. A concrete thinker like others his age. He was also thoughtful. Curious. Questioning. Listening carefully to the words we adults spoke, like the Apostles’ Creed: “He was crucified, dead, and buried. He descended into hell.”

“Why did Jesus have to go to hell?”

The Eastern Orthodox tradition of the Christian faith celebrates “the Harrowing of Hell” — the descent of the crucified Jesus to open the gates of hell. The Harrowing of Hell expresses symbolically that no one is so far from God that they cannot be reached; there is more mercy in God than there is sin in us.

This preserved parchment scroll from the sixteenth century depicts Christ having “gone to hell,” taking the hand of Adam, a symbol of the unyielding persistence and sovereignty of reconciling Love.

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The Harrowing of Hell — Christ leads Adam out of Hell (1503-4)

David’s ordination took place on the same chancel where he had stumped the pastor. Now it’s his turn to field the questions. I’m retired!

— Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, January 27, 2019.