Saturday, April 16, 2022

He Descended Into Hell

I threw the pastor off during Maundy Thursday service by saying that loud enough to hear during the Creed, though our denomination as switched to "Hades."*  In my ignorance I considered this mere wimping out, prettifying the reality. A day later I learned differently, as my second son's podcast at First Methodist Houston tackled the sent-in question "Why Don't We Say 'He Descended Into Hell' in the Apostle's Creed Anymore?" Teaser: Methodists have a different answer than everyone else for this.  They have gone back and forth. 

I was wrong in my understanding of why the Evangelical Covenant Church made the switch (though I still maintain not entirely wrong - there is translation justification, but we are still too deeply immersed in the Gospel of Nice in our originally Swedish denomination). As with many simple-looking questions of the faith, a wealth of fascinating material cascades upon you when you look at the creeds and what we have fought over. When things hit this level of complexity, however, I rejoice rather than despair. 

We depend almost entirely on artistic and poetic statements about heaven and hell. If you have read CS Lewis on why metaphorical language is inevitable in nearly everything of importance that is not strictly sensory, you will see why this could not be any other way. Not only do other religions, and even secular philosophies that purport to be foundationally neutral rely on such things, but sciences do as well. Physics is used to the charge because it is most obviously subject to it and has provided some defenses against it, but even things that are all equations are not really...all equations. Biologists pretends otherwise but keep slipping into intentional and even teleological explanations of evolution, the web of life, ecology, the definitions of life...everything.  I don't fault them for it.  We all try to remove as much of that from our language about Big Ideas as much as we can, but...we can't.  Or rather, we can, sometimes easily, but then don't sustain it for long.

So art, poetry, metaphor will always be there in discussions of heaven and hell. The actual scriptural references are few and point many directions in three-dimensional space. Most of those are from Hebrew, though some of those come from even earlier Semitic precursor languages, and there are uncomfortable hints that some of the Sheol, Abaddon, Gehenna, Hades language come from God-knows-where, long before writing. And for Christians it rapidly becomes worse.  If we have descriptions of Jesus preaching to the spirits in bondage, or of making some sort of descent, where would we have heard those? Hmm, they would have to come from the mouth of Jesus himself, our only witness to those events. (See also our account of the temptations in the wilderness.  Unless you have one of those words-as-magic concepts of God dictating in a particular language to the authors of scripture, so that they were strictly copyists with no understanding of what they were setting on the page, we are left with "that's what Jesus told us.  In a different language.") 

So he would have described these events in Aramaic, a language related to Hebrew. His followers likely discussed them in the same language. But when they came to write them down, well gee, no one wrote things in Aramaic much, that was just a local language.  Important stuff went into Greek. Or one of the Greeks that was around. By the time the creeds were being debated, Latin had come in as more important, at least in Rome. So we're talking about what the land of the dead/condemned/separated is like in Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, and Latin.  We want it to be simple.  We want it to be "Textus Receptus  is in Greek, so we're calling that the real word of god and digging into that obsessively.  Yes, yes, we are deeply influenced by Dante and Milton, but we're pretending we aren't and this is the declared KJV reality.  Deal with it."

As I said, I rejoice whenever I see these things.  God is telling us that we can only come at this from many angles independently, because he wants us to puzzle over it and wrestle with it, not summarise it in a few sentences and go back to our regularly scheduled programming. It's why we wrestle with angels, why there is no "private interpretation," why Jews require a minyan, it's why we need two or three gathered, it's why we have a tribe at all rather than a one-page document dropped off at the Temple by Jesus who then says "Okay, I'm going off to die now as a sacrifice. Follow the rules.  See you in heaven."


*I go 50/50 on whether I say Catholic or Christian Church a few seconds later.  I don't think about it, I just roll into one or the other. The Covenant Church says "Christian," but a lot of the music I used to memorise it by used "Catholic."

6 comments:

G. Poulin said...

Saying "holy Christian church" is just a dodge to avoid saying "Catholic", rather than being an equivalent of the word "catholic". If the word carries too much baggage, then say "universal" or some such.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

You are correct that that is what the word Catholic originally means (and why the Roman Church therefore uses it). But the meaning of words are a shared agreement, and the word Catholic means only Roman Catholic to nearly all Americans now. You couldn't use it on the SAT, because even most of the smart kids would get it wrong. A few have encountered the phrase "having catholic tastes," meaning widespread or diverse, yet even that phrase is rare now, because it is so misunderstood.

I don't know where we draw lines and say "regardless of its original and literal meaning, this word has come to mean something else." But we no longer think of Tuesday as Tiw's Day, we no longer think that silly means "blessed."

I do take your point. If the Protestant churches had not fed into the change in order to be as far from being Roman as they could manage, we would still have that meaning, and it would be a clean and instructive one. But that was literally centuries ago now. I use "Catholic" out of an automatic run from a sung Creed I learned in high school, and I don't mind its shock value to those around me, because I want people to think. Yet I am just as likely to read what I see on the page or screen, and don't feel at all bad about that. And if I were standing near others who I knew to be newbies I would take care to avoid the word "Catholic," so as to not unnecessarily confuse them.

G. Poulin said...

My point is that "Christian" is a bad translation of the word catholic. It obscures the meaning.

Texan99 said...

I agree. In the Episcopalian liturgy we still say "catholic," and I suppose a few of us know it means "universal" rather than the Vatican. (We also still say "Hell.") If we were going to improve "catholic" by modernizing, "universal" would be a far better choice than "Christian." The word always makes me ponder the importance of healing the divisions, not only between the Protestants and Catholics, but between the Eastern Orthodox and Roman churches, not to mention to the point that this Truth, if it is True, is true for all human beings, regardless of whether they've ever heard of it.

Much of the Project Gutenberg work I've done lately is in a long series of Biblical exegetical works, wrestling with the original Hebrew or Greek as well as the later translations into many tongues, including Latin. In the New Testament analyses, this includes figuring out how the original words probably were understood by Aramaic speakers within the Jewish culture of the time, and then what Greek alternatives were available to someone trying to preserve in writing the popular oral traditions handed down by eyewitnesses. All descriptions of the afterlife, whether or Heaven or Hell, present difficulties, but there are also a lot of problems getting the pencil sharp on concepts like "the kingdom of God" or "the kingdom of Heaven" or "the Son of Man." I try to remember that Jesus was awfully plain about some things that affect what I must do daily and throughout my life, so if He didn't feel He needed to give me detailed instructions about exactly how the Trinity works, or what will happen in Heaven or Hell--other than the central concept of union-vs.-conflict with God--then I probably shouldn't get too distracted by sterile speculation.

Which is not to say that artistic or metaphorical explorations of these hard ideas aren't terribly valuable. Raised an atheist, I was caught at an early age by the image of death and resurrection in "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe," not to mention by the climactic scene in Ben Hur, when the post-Crucifixion rain washes away leprosy. Mawkish? Maybe. So what? It makes a theological construct real in the gut.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Good comment, and I am going to keep that phrase about "getting the pencil sharp."

Unknown said...

In my current congregation, the most difficult part is getting the typist to stop capitalizing the word 'catholic' -- I'm beginning to think it is more from frustration at autocorrect 'fixing' it back than any deeper reason.

Other than that the only recent discussions I've had on the Nicene Creed is with a scholar of the history of Greek church-music giving me the third degree on my justification for saying "descended from the father and from the Son."