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.

Mortality and Morality

‘Mortality’ knows nothing of ‘morality’.

The words are separated by one letter, but they are foreign to each other. Mortality always trumps morality. The young die before the older without explanation or moral reasoning.

Tonight 92 year-old Bob Cuthill will participate in the celebration of his younger 72 year-old friend Phil Brown. Bob and Phil became friends professional colleagues years ago. Over the years Bob had been to Phil the wise older mentor, confidant, and friend.

Phil, 20 years Bob’s younger, was not supposed to die. He was the picture of health until two months before they diagnosed a rare, hidden Lymphoma, performed emergency surgery, and watched his life ebb away organ by organ in the post-surgery ICU. If life were ordered by moral reasoning, Phil was not supposed to die before Bob.

Tonight I’m thinking of Bob and Phil’s dear wife, Faith, gathered with Phil’s local friends at the White Bear United Methodist Church for pizza, vanilla ice cream (Phil’s favorite flavor), and story-telling back in Minnesota.

The older survivors of the deceased often ask Why? Why him? Why her? Why not I?  The answers never come. What comes instead to the fortunate is a great thanksgiving for the life that has passed and the life one has for yet awhile before others gather for pizza and ice cream.

– Gordon C. Stewart, friend and classmate of Phil Brown (1942-2015), July 6, 2015.