What in (pardon me) Hell is Salon talking about? Missing the story of Holy Saturday

Permit me a few moments here to talk about liturgy and doctrine, a bit. In a moment I will link this to a rather bizarre Salon.com that someone called to my attention.

Since I am an Eastern Orthodox Christian, I spent several hours this morning at church taking parts in the rites of Holy Saturday. If you want to know what Holy Saturday is about, look at the icon at the top of this post. Tomorrow, of course, is Pascha (Easter) on the older Julian calendar.

This is the Orthodox icon that most people think of as the icon of Pascha (Easter) and the Resurrection of Christ. But look carefully. In this icon, Jesus is standing on gates that he has just broken, gates that are surrounded by bones and even a body in a shroud. Also, he is grasping the hands of a woman and a man -- it's Adam and Eve -- and pulling them out of their tombs.

What is happening here? Well, this image is actually of Christ breaking the gates of hell on Holy Saturday. The Resurrection is already a reality, but he has other work to do. It is perfectly normal to hear Orthodox priests preach on this point in Holy Week and, of course, on Holy Saturday.

In the ancient Divine Liturgy of St. Basil, which was used this morning, here is the relevant language in the consecration prayers:

Having cleansed us by water and sanctified us with the Holy Spirit, He gave Himself as ransom to death in which we were held captive, sold under sin. Descending into Hades through the cross, that He might fill all things with Himself, He loosed the bonds of death. He rose on the third day, having opened a path for all flesh to the resurrection from the dead, since it was not possible that the Author of life would be dominated by corruption. So He became the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep, the first born of the dead, that He might be Himself the first in all things.

Of course, you also have similar language in The Apostles Creed, the creed familiar to both Catholics and most Protestants:

I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of Heaven and earth;
and in Jesus Christ, His only Son Our Lord,
Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.
He descended into Hell; the third day He rose again from the dead;
He ascended into Heaven, and sitteth at the right hand of God, the Father almighty; from thence He shall come to judge the living and the dead.
 I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy Catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body and life everlasting. Amen.

Now, why share all of this with GetReligion readers today? Well, with these texts, images and rites in mind, consider the top of the following Salon.com offering, care of Ed Simons of Religion Dispatches. It's a commentary, I think, but there is a rather interesting news feature hidden in here somewhere. But let's start with that double-decker headline:

Jesus went to hell: The Christian history churches would rather not acknowledge
Prior to his resurrection, Christ descended to the underworld -- a paradox most churches prefer not to confront

Now, the top headline says "churches" and the second deck says "most churches."

Really now? Here's the top of the feature:

“It was Saturday that Jesus Christ went to Hell.”
This is one phrase that Christians, whether mainline or evangelical, Catholic or Protestant, will likely not hear from the pulpit this week. And yet the story of Christ’s descent to the underworld has deep roots in tradition.

So now the statement is that these Christians, or "most" Christians, are "likely" not to hear about this creedal doctrine this week. I guess this is supposed to mean that they don't hear about this doctrine at Easter -- which was this past Sunday for Western churches -- or in the week after. I guess.

However, this is in fact a doctrine that is repeatedly referenced in the Church of Rome, the world's largest Christian body, and in Eastern Orthodoxy, the world's second largest communion. In the East, it's right there in the Pascha icon.

In other words, it's rather strange to say that this is an obscure doctrine. Let's keep reading:

The fourth century Apostle’s Creed tells us that following his crucifixion, but before his resurrection, Jesus “descended to the dead.” The Athanasian Creed of at least a century later is more explicit, Christ “descended into hell.” Depending on context and translation Jesus either journeyed to Sheol, Hades, or Hell. But allowing for differences in language Christianity held -- and technically still holds as a central tenet -- the view that Jesus spent the gap between his death and resurrection “harrowing” Hell, that is journeying to the underworld to liberate the imprisoned souls of the Hebrew patriarchs who had been imprisoned there since their deaths.
Contemporary congregations will often translate “hell” into a more palatable “death” or “the grave.” There is something unseemly in the idea of Jesus among the murders, rapists, fornicators and heretics of Hell. And yet it was central to Christological accounts of salvation for two millennia that God Himself be present in the lowest rung of creation  to justify redemption for all mankind.
Holy Saturday was a day in which God was not in His heaven, but rather in his Hell.

So what is going on here? What is this strange Salon piece actually trying to say?
I think there is a valid subject in here, but I'm not sure that the Salon editors know what it is.

But do all churches avoid this topic? No. Do "most" churches avoid it, with Rome and the East putting this doctrine into play on a regular basis? No.

So what is this story actually about? I think -- just guessing -- that it's actually about three things: (1) Evangelicals are not quite sure what to do with this creedal doctrine. (2) Liberal, oldline Protestants (Salon.com Protestants maybe?) may be embarrassed by these doctrines linked to sin, death and salvation. (3) Perhaps there are liberal Catholics who feel the same way, enjoying a kind of neo-Episcopal Church status.

Is there a valid story there? Yes, there is. But it's not the story that is framed in the headline or in the text of this particular piece, which states:

As far as credal confessions of Christianity go, the harrowing of Hell may be the least remarked upon in the contemporary world. Some Protestants, citing a lack of scriptural backup, have abandoned it; others have softened the edges around the word “hell.”
I’d argue that this relative silence reflects a discomfort with some of the frankly weird aspects of Christianity.

See my point? This essay is on to something, but Salon.com needed to be much more clear about who does or does not believe in, well, the ancient liturgies and creeds.

Please respect our Commenting Policy