Thursday, March 28, 2013

The Holy Spirit's Descent into Hell

This time of year we naturally focus on the death of our Lord Jesus Christ, and rightly so.  As we contemplate such a brutal, horrifying moment questions confront us.  Why did Jesus die?  Why such a horrible death?  Why the cross?  How do we interpret the meaning of Jesus’ crucifixion?  These are critical questions, yet rarely, as Jurgen Moltmann notes, does anyone focus upon the Holy Spirit in this context. What was the Holy Spirit doing when Jesus was ridiculed, unjustly condemned, beaten and tortured, and then crucified on the cross?  Jesus was conceived in the Spirit, lived his entire life in the Spirit, and offered himself up on the cross in the Spirit.  So how do we understand the Holy Spirit in relation to those horrible hours of Good Friday?

In our Western, legalistic framework we are led to think of the Father as rejecting his own Son as the sin of the world was placed upon Jesus.  Some, in this framework, go further and argue that on the cross the Father actually poured out his wrath—due to fall upon us—upon Jesus, and then abandoned him in utter rejection.  In the context of such disastrous notions it is striking to ask about the Holy Spirit. What did the Holy Spirit do when the Father rejected his Son?  What happened in the Holy Spirit’s heart, if we may so speak, when the Father forsook his Son and poured out his wrath upon Jesus?  If we accept this model of the Father rejecting and damning his Son on the cross then we are left with the Holy Spirit simply and profoundly torn between the two!  Did the Holy Spirit have to choose a side?  Which one?  Or perhaps the Holy Spirit is like a mother caught between an angry husband and her only son.  Perhaps here we see the reason there is so little discussion of the Holy Spirit in the context of Jesus’ death. But if we sit at the feet of Athanasius and his insistence on the equality and utter oneness of the Father, Son and Spirit we find ourselves in a different world.  Here a different answer to the question of the Holy Spirit’s relationship with Jesus in his death emerges—and a different answer as to what the Father was doing when his Son was being murdered by the human race. 

Let me back up for a moment.  First, I believe that Athanasius and the early Church were right in their development of their vision of the Trinity.  The relationship of the Father, Son, and Spirit that we see lived out on the pages of the New Testament is not something that came into being 2000 years ago.  This is an eternal relationship.  There was never a time, as Athanasius argued, when the Father was alone and simply God, without his Son and Spirit. 

Second, according to John 1:1-4; Colossians 1:16-17; and Hebrews 1:1-3, Jesus Christ is directly involved in the creation and sustaining of all things.  Among other things this means that the Father’s eternal Son had a relationship with the human race and all creation prior to Christmas.  Before he became a human being the Father’s eternal Son, who is face to face with the Father in the Holy Spirit, not only created all things, but also constantly upholds and sustains them. 

Third, when this Son became a human being he was not creating a relationship with the human race and all creation; he was establishing his existing relationship inside our humanity.

Fourth, when the eternal Son became human he did not leave the Holy Spirit or his Father behind in heaven.  At Christmas it was the Son who became flesh, but precisely as the Son and as the one anointed in the Holy Spirit.  The incarnation does not mean that Jesus abandoned his Father and the Holy Spirit, but that the Son in his relationship with his Father, and in his anointing in the Holy Spirit became human.  This means that in Jesus Christ—the incarnate Son—the Father, the Holy Spirit, the human race, and all creation are together in relationship.  Jesus is the relationship, the place of meeting.  In fact, the relationship that the Father, Son and Spirit had with humanity and creation prior to Christmas is here in the incarnate Son being established inside his humanity.

Fifth, now we are ready to see something even more astonishing that our legalism prevents us from ever seeing.  The death of Jesus on the cross was not about a rejection of the Son by his Father, and the Holy Spirit trying to hold things together.  The death of Jesus on the cross is about the Triune God entering into the deepest, darkest pit of our broken, sinful humanity.  What happens on the cross is that the relationship that the Father, Son and Spirit had with creation prior to Christmas, which is then established inside Jesus’ humanity in his incarnation—this relationship —is now being established inside our sin and iniquity, bondage to evil and death.

The cross is not about the Father’s rejection of Jesus, but ours.  The wrath poured out on Calvary’s hill did not originate in the Father’s heart, but in ours (see Matt. 20:18-19; 16:21; Mark 10:33-34; Luke 24:7; and Heb. 12:3).  It was not the Father or the Holy Spirit who beat Jesus, detested him, cursed him, and abandoned him; it was the human race.  We mocked him.  We cursed him.  We crucified him.  As Jesus himself suffered our rejection, as he endured our betrayal, and submitted himself to bear our scorn and hostility, he was personally entering into our iniquity—and he was not alone.  The Father and the Holy Spirit were with him.  “God was in Christ” as Paul teaches (2Cor. 5:19).  Neither the Holy Spirit nor the Father were spectators to Jesus’ suffering. 

What does this mean? It means that in Jesus Christ the Holy Spirit, and the Father have descended into our hell, and used our betrayal of Jesus as the way to get there. It means that the Father, Son and Spirit have taken our rejection of Jesus and turned it into our adoption, and new birth, and the recreation of all things in Jesus.  For as Jesus accepted our rejection, as he experienced personally our bizarre, blind disdain, he was establishing his relationship with us not simply in our humanity, but inside our broken humanity at our very worst—and he brought his Father and the Holy Spirit with him.  Thus the death of Jesus is the entering of the trinitarian life of God into the blackest darkness of our hell.

As we focus on the Father’s inclusion in Jesus’ suffering, or on the fact that far from rejecting Jesus and abandoning him at the crucial hour, the Father was in Jesus all the while, we are given eyes to see the deep inner meaning of our adoption in Christ.  Adoption is not a doctrine; it is reality.  In Jesus, as he accepts our beatings, the Father is finding us, the broken, rebellious, betraying, sinful us, and embracing us, and including us in his own life.  Jesus is himself the way or place, as always, where the Father meets us, and now as the result of our crucifying Jesus the Father has met us in chaos of the great darkness.  What redemptive genius is at work here!  Our contribution to our inclusion in the life of the Trinity was to reject and murder the Father’s eternal son. 

As we focus on the Holy Spirit and the Spirit’s inclusion in Jesus’ suffering, or on the fact that as Jesus was rejected, betrayed and murdered by the human race, the Holy Spirit was not merely holding a carton of tissues and watching from a distance, but in Jesus, we are given eyes to see the deep, inner meaning of new birth.  As the Creed says, the Holy Spirit is “the Lord and giver of life.”  The way the Holy Spirit gives life, or rebirths, or recreates all things is not by external command, but by descending—in Jesus—into the dark world of sin and evil.  Resurrection is not something that the Father externally confers upon Jesus as a sign of his acceptance of Jesus’ sacrifice, or upon us as a sign of his acceptance of us in Jesus. Resurrection is the direct, personal, and inevitable fruit of the Holy Spirit’s entrance—in Jesus—into the hell of human sin and darkness and death. In Jesus, as the result of his shocking submission to our bitter contempt, the Holy Spirit has made his or her way inside our death, and done so not as a watered down spirit, but as the Holy Spirit, the Lord and giver of life.  What can death do to the Holy Spirit? 

In Jesus Christ, by virtue of his relationship with us, and by virtue of his anointing with the Holy Spirit, and through his submission to our treachery to the point of death, we and our dying and death have been ushered into the world of the Holy Spirit and anointed with the life of the blessed Trinity.

The Holy Spirit’s descent—in Jesus—into our hell means that death has been transformed into the way of recreation and resurrection life. 

Thank you Holy Spirit. We will have more please.