Several years ago a young woman I knew attempted suicide. She was 23 years old and away from home. Her frightened, concerned family rushed to her side. They brought her home, got her the best medical care and psychiatric attention available and, more importantly, rallied around her, trying in every way to bring her out of suicidal depression. They weren't successful. Two months later she killed herself. She had descended into a place into which no human love, medicine or psychiatry could penetrate : a private hell beyond human reach.
What hope do we have here? Humanly, there isn't any. Outside of faith, she is lost to us and we are helpless to reach her. But inside of faith, there is hope : surprising hope. We have a doctrine within our faith that to my mind is singularly the most consoling belief in all religion: the belief that Christ can descend into hell. One version of our Creed tells us that Jesus "descended into hell." What does this mean?
We are not always sure. There are various traditions as to the meaning. In one version, perhaps the most common, the idea is that the sin of Adam and Eve closed the gates of heaven and they remained sealed until the death of Jesus. Jesus' death opened them and Jesus himself, in the time between his death and resurrection, descended into hell (Sheol, the Underworld) where all the souls who had died since the time of Adam somehow rested. He took them all to heaven. His "descending into hell" in this version refers to his going into the underworld after his death to rescue those souls.
But there is another understanding, suggesting that Jesus' descent into hell refers especially to the manner of his death, to the depths of chaos and darkness he had to endure there, and to how the depth of love, trust and forgiveness he revealed inside that darkness manifests a love that can penetrate into any hell that can be created. That's rather abstract, to be sure; so allow me an illustration.
In Saint Paul's Cathedral in London, England, there is a famous painting by Holman Hunt. It is a painting depicting Jesus outside a door with a lantern. The picture suggests that we who are inside the door must open the door to allow Jesus in. Otherwise he will always remain outside. In some imitations of this painting, artists have taken things further. They have placed a knob on the inside of the door, but none on the outside, suggesting that Jesus cannot enter our lives unless we open the door to let him in. I recall as a child seeing this image on a holy card and being haunted by it, fearing that one day I might be too hurt, depressed or paralyzed to open that door. But powerful as this image is, it is belied by the Gospels. How?
John in his Gospel gives us this picture: On the day Jesus rose from the dead, he finds his disciples huddled in fear inside a locked room. Jesus, unlike the imitation versions of Holman Hunt's great painting, does not stand outside the door and knock, waiting for the disciples to come and open the door. He goes right through the locked doors, stands inside their huddled circle of fear and breathes out peace to them. He isn't helpless to enter when they are too frightened, depressed and wounded to open the door for him. He can descend into their hell by going through the doors they have locked out of fear.
This is also true for the various private hells into which we sometimes descend. We can reach a point in our lives where others can no longer reach into our pain and where we are too wounded, frightened and paralyzed to open the door to let anyone in. Human care can no longer reach us. But Jesus can still enter those locked doors. He can descend into our hell to breathe peace upon us.
I am sure that when the young woman whose suicide I mentioned woke up on the other side, she found Jesus standing inside her fear and sickness, breathing peace, love and forgiveness, just as he did in the darkness and chaos that he descended into in his death. I am sure too that she, sensitive woman that she was, found in him a peace that was for many reasons denied her in this life.
Our belief that Jesus did, and can, "descend into hell" is the single most consoling doctrine in all religion. It gives us hope even when, humanly, there isn't any hope. Sometimes, because of illness and hurt, someone we love can descend into a place where we, no matter our love and effort : can no longer reach. But not all is lost: Jesus can descend into hell and even there breathe out a peace that heals all hurts.