May 142015

I believe I only attended Lutheran church service about three times. I attended Sunday School largely because my mother told me to, although I don’t recall feeling victimized by attending. I went through confirmation, which consisted of a series of night classes taught by the pastor. I remember studying Luther’s Small Catechism, though I don’t recall learning about Luther’s weird and hateful ideas about Changelings and Jews.

From there I remember attending regular adult church services about three times. My memory is hazy, but one element that really stood out was the recitation of what I believe was the Apostle’s Creed, specifically the Lutheran version. Per the Wikipedia entry, the text is as follows:

I believe in God, the Father Almighty,

Maker 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.
On the third day He rose again from the dead.
He ascended into heaven
and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.
From thence He will come to judge the living and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit,

the holy Christian Church,

the communion of saints,

the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen.

The part that seemed weirdly unsettling was the line “He descended into Hell.” I always wondered about this: Why did this happen? Why did Jesus go to Hell? I would imagine that His crucifixion was somehow not enough propitiation for God himself, that he needed MORE torture. Considering that the crucifixion story is a major centerpiece of Christian theology, I had to wonder why Jesus’ time in Hell was not discussed more widely. How do we know he went to Hell? Did he tell the dudes at Emmaus with whom he dined, post resurrection? Why was the above ground crucifixion story given so much more prominence? Why wasn’t crucifixion enough punishment? Perhaps Jesus went to Hell to hang out with sinners. If so, what was that outcome? Did he save them through his Grace? Did they go to Heaven?

I’m sure those with a more sophisticated understanding of Christian theology have ready answers for these questions, as I’m surely not the first person in the last 18 centuries to wonder about this. Ultimately of course, there is simply no evidence whatsoever that Jesus went to Hell, or that Hell exists at all. And that’s what really matters.

I became curious about these matters not long ago, as I began to wonder how more liberal strains of Christianity concluded that Hell was not a real place. Again, it’s an enormously complex question, and ultimately not grounded in any sort of good evidence, so it could be argued that it’s a fruitless intellectual exercise. Yet it’s a fact that many people are truly terrorized by fear of Hell. As long as an idea is in one’s mind, it can be troublesome. Sometimes as I fall asleep I experience rather frightening “visions” of falling out of a burning World Trade Center building. When I saw 9/11 coverage on TV, I had enough understanding of my own mental health to know that watching images of this atrocity would do ~some~ psychological damage. Still photos of humans jumping out of the burning buildings were particularly disturbing for me. I can’t “unsee” the images. I imagine for some Christians, “Hell” is a very real place, and this is the sort of pathological meme that damns the Christian religion: The propagation of fear based on claiming to know things that are not actually known.

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