Descendit ad inferna (3) theological and pastoral questions

Catherine Ella Laufer’s book Hell’s Destruction: an exploration of Christ’s Descent to the Dead is a great example of how to use a narrow lens (the descent clause in the Apostle’s Creed) to magnify and expand a plethora of profound, important and controversial theological questions.

Whether you agree with where she ends up, she integrates the historical story of the descent clause and critical theological analysis with aplomb.

What she does do is raise big questions about hell, justice, grace and love. Christians need to be thinking about these things because these are big public questions floating around post-Christendom cultures.

What are your answers to these questions?

1. What is your theology of hell, universalism and the justice of God?

Can humans endlessly resist the redeeming love of God? Who will have the last word?

Rob Bell [she never mentions Bell, I’m just bringing him in as a conversation partner] had an empty hell as a strong possibility, but he had too central a place for absolute libertarian free will to say with any certainty that hell would be empty. If anyone was there, it was determinedly self-chosen and wasn’t God’s doing.

Similarly Laufer tends to distance God from hell rather than have an emphasis on the retributive justice of a holy God against evil and sin.

For me there is simply too much in the Bible about God’s retributive judgement of sin and evil to believe in universalism. Sin and evil aren’t just ideas, they are child soldiers, torture, rape, violence, exploitation, ruthless greed, hatred of the Other, cynical disregard for the poor and vulnerable, arms traders dealing in death,  ad infinitum …

She isn’t as strong as Moltmann on universalism but is sympathetic to his universalist image of God’s transforming grace emptying hell.

At one moment she says

‘If he [Jesus] has gone through death and hell for each and every soul ever created, and been raised from thence, then we can hope that ultimately, his work will be complete.’ (189).

This is optimistic universalism, not dogmatic universalism.

But this is vague on the basis of such salvation ….. how does each and every soul come to share in the complete work of Christ?  Is it some sort of endless post-mortem opportunity to come to faith? How does this fit in with very ‘terminal’ images of judgement in Revelation 20 and the final destruction of all forces of evil, death and sin? Where does the atoning work of Christ come in?

Yet she also speculates that the presence of God in heaven will be hell for the wicked. ‘The only hell is the hell of our own making’ (203)

I’ve a couple of problems with this. First, it seems to contradict her optimistic universalism. Second, it is proposed as a possible solution to the impasse between biblical texts that point to both universal salvation and eternal punishment.  I’m not convinced that Hitler & co experiencing heaven as hell actually solves the impasse. Hell still exists and God is still ‘on the hook’ for making possible the existence of hellish experience.

Linked to this is a second big question:

2. In the midst of suffering, what sort of God do you believe in ?

Christianity does not believe in a distant transcendent deity. I found Laufer really helpful here on the pastoral implications of how the descensus clause speaks of the real human death and suffering of the Son.

We do not suffer alone. Christ is with us. Laufer gives examples:

Heidelberg Catechism Question 44:

Q. Why does the creed add,
“He descended to hell”?

A. To assure me during attacks of deepest dread and temptation
that Christ my Lord, by suffering unspeakable anguish, pain, and terror of soul,  on the cross but also earlier, has delivered me from hellish anguish and torment

Bonhoeffer: ” Only a suffering God can help”

Luther: In Christ’s descent to hell, we can know our hell is defeated

Pannenberg: ” But since Jesus dies, no one who lives and dies in communion with Jesus and in trust in him need die this death any more.”

Moltmann of course wrote The Crucified God and is opposed to notions of an apathetic God. Laufer quotes him in History and the Triune God as saying ” … the Son of God who died forsaken by God, helped me … in a messy concentration camp in 1945, tormented and forsaken by God ..” (123)

Laufer goes as far as arguing that ‘God’s presence in the grave’ is the controlling motif of the gospel. It is Christ’s descent to the dead, she argues, is the place to begin gospel proclamation in a broken and fearful world.

Well, I wouldn’t go all the way with her there, the gospel is the good news of the victory of God in Christ over sin and death and Jesus is the risen Lord. It is more than Jesus died our death.

But neither is it less than the good news of the immeasurable self-giving love of God who ‘died for our sins’.

Comments, as ever, welcome

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