From: Good Goats
What if it appears that some people, such as Hitler or the Nazis who hung the innocent child before Elie Wiesel’s eyes, have closed the door of their heart from the inside, and chosen hell? Is there anything God can do? By descending into hell, God can come to heal us even there. The common understanding of Jesus’s descent into hell, (1 Peter 3:19), is that Jesus goes to preach the good news only to the just souls awaiting redemption. However, according to the New Jerusalem Bible, this understanding overlooks that Jesus goes also to the chained demons mentioned in the Book of Enoch and those in Noah’s time who were punished by the flood because they “refused to believe.”
Theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar asserts that Jesus’s descent into hell, commemorated each Holy Saturday, signifies Jesus’s utter solidarity with sinners. As the expression of God’s infinitely merciful love for sinners, Jesus identifies completely with them, to the point of dying on the cross as one of them. Seemingly abandoned by God, Jesus cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” In this moment Jesus experiences the “hell” of God’s absence more acutely than would be possible for any other person.
Then, on Holy Saturday, Jesus goes to be with sinners in still another way, in what we call his descent into hell. If we define hell as the adamant choice to close one’s heart to God, then it would seem that hell is the one place where God cannot be. By going there anyway, Jesus refuses to accept that choice and expresses God’s adamant unwillingness to leave us to our own worst selves. Von Balthasar says,
And exactly in that way, he disturbs the absolute loneliness striven for by the sinner: the sinner, who wants to be “damned” apart from God, finds God again in his loneliness, but God in the absolute weakness of love who unfathomably in the period of nontime enters into solidarity with those damning themselves. The words of the psalm, “If I make my bed in the netherworld, thou art there,” (Psalm 139:8), thereby take on a totally new meaning.
Loving friends and family will not leave a suicidal person to his or her worst self. They will do everything possible to enter into that person’s hell in order to intervene and stop that person from taking his or her worst self. They will do everything possible to enter into that person’s hell in order to intervene and stop that person from taking his or her own life. In a similar way, Jesus’s descent into hell is his refusal to accept our choice of destruction. Holy Saturday proclaims that Jesus’s mission is to demonstrate solidarity with us by even, if necessary, descending into our hell and being with us there until his healing presence renews us enough to rise with him on Easter.