by Kendall Ellis
This semester I had the joy of guiding my staff through a weekly devotional inspired by the Apostles’ Creed. Though Baptists have historically been a non-creedal people, my staff was an ecumenical group of believers, and we found a renewed hope in God as we studied the creed and scriptures together. Below is an adaptation of one of these devotionals, and I pray that God uses it to renew and speak to your spirit as well.
I believe Jesus descended to the dead, and on the third day rose again.
Scripture: John 8:1-11
Unlike the poor disciples or Mary, we have the luxury of knowing that Jesus rose again three days after his death. But this still means that we’re stuck with three “missing” days where we don’t exactly know what Jesus was up to.
We do, however, have some interesting texts throughout the New Testament letters that describe Jesus spending these three days in Hell. Or, in other translations, “among the dead.” 1 Peter 3 describes it as a time when Jesus was preaching to those who had gone before, sharing the good news of life first to those who are the deadest of the dead.
Of course, these New Testament passages are complicated. How literally should we take them? What does it mean that God went to Hell? Does this mean that people can be saved from sin after death?
Excellent questions! And I certainly don’t know all the answers!
But there is something I do know: Jesus’ grace knows no limits. In the Apostles’ Creed, to proclaim, “I believe Jesus descended to the dead,” in essence, means that Jesus is willing to meet me anywhere.
In John, we read a well-known story about Jesus being tested by the Pharisees. The Pharisees “caught” an unnamed woman in the act of adultery, dragged her unwilling to the center of town, humiliated her in front of everyone, and tried to get her stoned to death. And what did Jesus do? He bent down in the dirt.
We don’t know fully what Jesus was doing in the dirt. We don’t know what words he was writing on the ground, or if Jesus was just buying some time before responding to the Pharisees. We simply know that before Jesus pardons this woman, he gets down in the dirt.
This imagery of Jesus getting in the dirt has stuck with me since high school. My pastor at the time was preaching this text and I remember his saying, “Jesus isn’t afraid of your dirt.” Jesus isn’t simply going to forgive you—though he will. Jesus is going to get down on your level and get in your mess with you. Then he will clean the mess, because Jesus’ grace knows no bounds.
The sort of physical symbolism we see in this story can be traced throughout Jesus’ life. Jesus descended from Heaven to be in the messiness of the world because his grace knows no limits. Jesus allowed himself to be humiliated and tortured in the messiness of the world because his grace knows no limits. Jesus died, even in death on the cross, because his grace knows no limits. And you know what? Jesus’ grace didn’t stop with death. Jesus descended as low as one could go, even into the messiness and darkness of hell, because Jesus’ grace knows no limits.
But glory be to God that Jesus’ grace which knows no limits going down also knows no limits going up! For the creed doesn’t say just that Jesus descended into hell. The creed also proclaims, “I believe that Jesus rose again three days later.” The same grace that descended arose and, with that limitless grace, Jesus raises us out of our messiness into glorious life.
Ben Myers said it like this in his book, The Apostles’ Creed:
“Because Jesus shares our nature, he is able to fall with us into death; because he is the Son of God he is able to fill death with his presence so that the grave becomes a source of life. In Christ, the dead are united to God and are alive in the strength of that union. The resurrection is not just an isolated miracle that happens to Jesus. It is something that happens to us—to Adam and Eve, to me, to the human family. As Jesus rises, the whole of humanity rises with him…Where others see only defeat, Jesus’ followers see a paradoxical victory. Where others see only contamination, we see the sanctification of human nature. Where others see only darkness and despair, we see broken gates. Where others see an end, we see new beginnings. Death is serious: but not as serious as life. It has been placed in a wider context of meaning. We bury our dead under the sign of the cross. We lay our bones to rest not in horror but in peace. The dominant sound at a Christian funeral is not mourning but the singing of praise.”
Or, put more succinctly, Athanasius wrote, “We no longer die as those condemned, but as those who will arise.”
I may not know where in this messy life you find yourself. But I can assure you that Jesus will get in your dirt. Jesus’ grace has extended all the way down into the pits of hell and is resurrected again. How much more can Christ resurrect you?
This message of God’s grace may not be “news” to you if you’ve been in the church for any amount of time. And yet, if we are honest, Christians never stop struggling with the concept of grace, especially the mind-blowing grace of God that knows no limits. So friends, I invite you to be amazed by God’s grace. May we proclaim with confidence, “I believe Jesus Christ descended into hell and rose from the dead in three days.” May we proclaim this creed with faith, accepting this radical, limitless grace as Jesus begins cleaning and sanctifying whatever mess we have found ourselves in today. Amen.
Kendall Ellis is current dual-degree Master of Divinity and Master of Social Work student at Baylor University’s George W. Truett Theological Seminary and the Diana R. Garland School of Social Work in Waco, Texas. In addition to her studies, she serves as a Resident Chaplain to first-year Baylor students.