He Descended Into Horror

The approach of Halloween and Reformation Day begs an interesting question for the modern Tertullian: […]

Ian Olson / 10.30.17

The approach of Halloween and Reformation Day begs an interesting question for the modern Tertullian: what hath Halloween to do with Jerusalem? As a rhetorical move, the implied answer is: nothing at all. In the eyes of many a pious Protestant, it is some rough beast that slouches off towards Halloween while soldiers of the five solas parade to the fanfare of “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” “Trick or treat!” and “Here I stand” seem poles apart, incommensurately opposite. But what if the convergence of the two in one day presents an apposite moment for reflecting upon solus Christus in a manner we are not regularly accustomed to? Might it be that the horrors of Halloween and the recovery of the gospel in the Reformation collide together in the cross of Christ?

In churches that recite the Apostles’ Creed there is often little attention given to a clause in the second article on the person and work of Christ, a line some wish could be blotted out from the textual history of the creed: “He descended into Hell.” There is considerable debate between theological schools over this terse statement. Some understand it to reference the unleashing of God’s wrath upon Jesus, the substitute of sinful human beings; others, a limning out of an arcane assault upon the dark shores of Sheol in which he rescues the saints of the Old Covenant era. Luther interpreted the descent along these lines, as an act of exaltation in which Christ appeared as conqueror over the Devil and his minions. The Reformed, broadly speaking, understood the descent to refer to the apotheosis of Christ’s humiliation and suffering. The Heidelberg Catechism, in Question 44, interprets the descent in this way:

Q. Why is there added:

He descended into hell?

A. In my greatest sorrows and temptations
I may be assured and comforted
that my Lord Jesus Christ,
by his unspeakable anguish, pain, terror, and agony,
which he endured throughout all his sufferings
but especially on the cross,
has delivered me
from the anguish and torment of hell.

Calvin similarly states:

If Christ had died only a bodily death, it would have been ineffectual. No—it was expedient at the same time for him to undergo the severity of God’s vengeance, to appease his wrath and satisfy his just judgment. For this reason, he must also grapple hand to hand with the armies of hell and the dread of everlasting death.

(Institutes of the Christian Religion, II.xvi.10)

Calvin thus understands the descent into Hell as a dogmatic insight into the invisible quality of Christ’s sufferings. After all, the full depths of the mediator’s work are opaque on the level of human history. To the crowd assembled to mock the victim being tortured to death, Jesus of Nazareth was simply a vain messianic pretender receiving his due for his blasphemy. But even to his disciples Jesus’ torments would have been understandable only as the agony and shame of crucifixion. How could they know what was taking place until after the fact? How could they ascertain the enormity of Calvary apart from Jesus’ testimony? The darkness of that afternoon matched the dim comprehension on the part of Jesus’ followers.

Whatever it was precisely that took place during Jesus’ postmortem sojourn, the descent-into-hell clause safeguards the church’s confession that Jesus Christ bore to the fullest extent the judgment of God upon sin. But as we examine the life of Jesus Christ from birth to burial we wince and mutter as we recognize the shape of that life as abjection, as three decades of debasement and destitution. It isn’t that Jesus Christ experiences a single night in the grip of dread—we recognize that the work of redemption is accomplished through a lifetime of subjection to degradation and grief. We do not limit the darkness of the life of Christ to a single day: we confess that in becoming incarnate for us and for our salvation, he descended into Horror.

Horror is not innate to God. In the repose of his being-in-himself, he is tranquility in its essence. But in his electing will to bind himself to humankind, something else enters the picture. God, in electing humanity for himself, divests himself of imperviousness to horror. God-in-himself and God-for-us are one and the same God, and his eternal act of turning towards humanity in Jesus Christ is an eternal self-ordination to horror. God’s choice to be our God is his choice of Gethsemane and Golgotha. For God’s determination to create the human race and appoint them to fellowship with him has always entailed this downward movement, an inevitable path to unimaginable suffering on behalf of his covenant partner.

God, in assuming humanity for himself, divests himself of imperviousness to horror. For in taking flesh he takes on the radical vulnerability to suffering and horror that is our inheritance from Adam. From the moment of his birth he gives himself utterly to the world’s disposal, adopting the limitations we resent and inhabiting our frailty. For the first time, the Son subjectively experiences futility and the grief of lifelong defeat at the hands of intractable, anti-human, anti-God powers. Becoming man means forsaking invulnerability and from his first breath he is inundated with the disappointment and dysfunction of the world. He comes to his own and his own do not receive him. But it is particularly in his movement from baptism to cross that he “submits himself even as the accused,” in Calvin’s words. His baptism in the Jordan is an entry into total solidarity with the rebellious image-bearers he has come to rescue. There the Son of God is consecrated to go to Golgotha as Sinful Man, the representative of the God-forsaking race of Adam. On behalf of those who stood accursed by the Law, he became a curse; for all under the sway of the tyranny of sin he became sin.

We all have feared becoming someone, becoming something reprehensible, something we loathe, but in time most of us discover simply being ourselves is horror enough. We ourselves are the primary fuel of our nightmares. We haunt our own lives with a thousand different horrors: the left-hand path we ought not have taken, the fruit we should not have snatched, the prestige we should not have grasped at, the ones we ought not have trampled upon. All our covetings, all our pointless cruelties make visible the horror we are all subject to in this fallen world, and the horrors we embrace as would-be antidotes. Jesus Christ, the dwindled infinity of the living God, stooped into our sorrows to suffer the utterly alien distress of this nothingness we, as sinners, groan under and yet grow accustomed to. Born to die, yes, but more than that: born to be trampled upon; born to dissolve within horror, to draw out the poison into himself. The One whose existence was innate life and light and love breathed in the fetid air of the world-tomb, ate the rancid fare of the world-market, was made the object of scorn and ridicule by pathetic cretins like you and me.

In binding himself to humanity in the incarnation, the Son plunges into what is antithetical to God. The Son of God, though he was rich, emptied himself and became poor for our sake. Bereft of the free exercise of his own innate abilities, he was harassed by horror to the utmost depths of his being. And though our loathsomeness was loaded upon him, he was never contaminated. But this amplified his torment all the more unspeakably, for the One who is unoriginate goodness is subsumed into the torrent of godlessness that defines the present age. You and I ache and reel under the weight of sin but none of us know the suffering of resisting its gravity to the point of bloodshed (Hebrews 12:4). The gnawing emptiness at the heart of human sin began to flood his senses the night before his crucifixion. His vision of the one he called Father had grown more and more dim since the Passover meal, the sharing of which opened the transfusion of transgression into his being, tightening the aperture of his consciousness of God’s nearness. This distance became unbearable as he petitioned his Father in Gethsemane but reached its consummation at his execution the following day, where at last it was extinguished. The body and soul of Jesus Christ became a black hole absorbing all the putrid stupidity of the world’s fallenness. Darkness fell on the land as God’s wrath inundated the crucified Christ. Light receded until it was as black as night, for God was present as the One circumscribing the world’s sin to the abyss of his Son.

But in the passivity of his demise he nullified the economy of death itself, dismantling its machinery and reversing its reciprocity of wrath. For the first and only time, a single human being was ordained to serve as priest and sacrifice, as judge and as the condemned. In his life and death the God-Man soaks up and severs and renews, giving himself to the uttermost to the accomplishment of his mission which, at bottom, is his person: the horror-defeating love of God made flesh. His death is an antimatter blast negating Death from within, abolishing the estrangement and nothingness of sin and banishing its horrors from the creation he has committed himself to. For Jesus Christ is Adam’s Son, and yet he is simultaneously Adam’s Lord, the One of whom Adam was crafted to be the living icon. His descent into the horrors of Adam’s race brings the destiny of horror upon its own head. For in faithfully inhabiting the squalor of that ruined icon he has transfigured it. It is a delivery from tyranny and a delivery of an altogether new destiny, one that is hilariously disproportionate to Adam’s original capacities and desires. It is a destiny fit for a new Adam, the final heir to our first father and the restorer of his inheritance.

What then of the horrors Jesus Christ was made subject to? In his death all horrors lie dead. True, they persist in a ghoulish half-life unworthy of the descriptor, “life,” but the self-giving of Christ has secured their ruin and t is in the contemplation of Christ’s office as horror-defeater that horror’s grip upon us is unfastened. “Jesus! The name that charms our fears, that bids our sorrows cease,” Charles Wesley exults; “’tis music in the sinner’s ears, ’tis life, and health, and peace.” Joseph Ratzinger elaborates:

It is a challenge to suffer in the dark night of faith, to experience communion with Christ in solidarity with his descent into the Night. One draws near to the Lord’s radiance by sharing his darkness… Hope can take it on, only if one shares in the suffering of Hell’s night by the side of the One who came to transform our night by his suffering.

(Eschatology: Death and Eternal Life, 217-218)

A theology of the cross exults in the defeat of horror by recognizing the light that shines in darkness, that is made more brilliant by that darkness, that persists in spite of being overcome by that darkness. For the love of God is stronger than death—even his own. Stronger than death, it is stronger than darkness, and transforms death and darkness and renders them its servants. The Son’s descent into the horrors of fallen existence is the first movement in a parabola that sweeps sinners up into a new dominion, a new economy, no longer strangled by the tendrils of sin and its wages, but energized by the very life of God: pure light, pure life, pure love. For God, in assuming horror for himself, has rescued his rebellious covenant partner and secured them for himself. The Christ whom we trust alone through faith alone by grace alone is the obedient Son who did not shrink back from horror—he loved his own to the uttermost and surrendered himself to the uttermost. Sin and hell lie devastated, for Christ has carried us with him from the grave.

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4 responses to “He Descended Into Horror”

  1. Sean says:


  2. Jason says:

    Ian, this is exceptional.

  3. Caleb says:

    I didn’t think you could top “Halloween is for All the Saints,” but this is marvelous. I hope you’ll continue to write a Halloween piece every Reformation Day. Thanks, Ian! (Oh, and I’ve sent this to at least a dozen people so far. More are sure to follow.)

    • Ian says:

      Wow, thank you Caleb- that is a tremendous honor! I hope to do so as well (“I can do no other”?)!

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