...And in Jesus Christ...who...suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried. He descended into hell....
Written by Terry Schlossberg
Modern views about abortion in the Christian Church tend to be shaped by beliefs that dominate the culture. Even the language the church uses to talk about abortion often is the language of the culture and not of the church (the language of public policy rather than morality). As a result, many in the church have developed the belief that abortion is an issue unsuitable for discussion in the church. Many assume that the church has nothing significant to contribute to the discussion. This series shows how central to the Gospel are our views about the nature and value of the human person.
"...And in Jesus Christ...who...suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, dead, and buried. He descended into hell...."
Here, the Creed is coming to a crescendo in the center section with its emphasis on Christ as both God and human being: Jesus, One with the Father, who identified fully with our humanity. Luke Timothy Johnson writes in The Creed,
It is Jesus’ suffering above all that demonstrates God’s full embrace of our human condition. The Son of God did not live his human life safely above the plane of human suffering as a dispassionate observer, but entered fully into the struggle of human life. The Son of God did not end his human life when he chose, but died in agony as a young man arrested violently in the prime of his life, subjected to official and popular mockery, scourged, spit on, crowned with thorns, and nailed naked to a cross in a death of hideous shamefulness and horrifying pain.
Jesus’ suffering accomplished our redemption
The Heidelberg Catechism, referring to this phrase of the Creed, asks: "What do you understand by the word ‘suffered’?" It answers,
That throughout his life on earth, but especially at the end of it, [Jesus Christ] bore in body and soul the wrath of God against the sin of the whole human race, so that by his suffering, as the only expiatory sacrifice, he might redeem our body and soul from everlasting damnation, and might obtain for us God’s grace, righteousness, and eternal life.
We learn from the Heidelberg’s teaching on this phrase of the Apostles’ Creed how deeply we are loved and valued by God—and not just some of us, but all of us: "the whole human race."
In this series we have already considered the matter of God’s value for us in that we are made in his image. Now we are reminded of the extent of God’s love for us: that God laid down his life for each one of us, and has opened to each of us his grace, righteousness and eternal life. This is the meaning of Christ’s suffering; our redemption is what is accomplished by his suffering. John Calvin says, " For us the substance of life is set in the death of Christ." (Institutes, II, XVI, 5)
Perhaps the most popular of all Scriptures is that which tells us that God so loved the whole human race that "he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life." (John 3:16) So loved are we that the God who created the universe stooped to become one of us and submitted to humiliation and death to redeem us.
And so, two of the great truths of Christ’s passion and death are the love of God for us and that his suffering was filled with meaning and purpose.
Jesus’ suffering was the result of his obedience
In his agony before his betrayal, Jesus prayed, "Not my will, but thy will be done." Jesus did not seek the humiliation of betrayal, the judgment of a common criminal, the ridicule, scourging and cursed death. But he understood that he was fulfilling God’s plan to redeem us and he yielded to it. In his suffering he showed that suffering itself is not without purpose. As Johnson writes,
...Jesus’ suffering is important to us not only because it demonstrates his full sharing in our humanity and the extreme to which the divine love will go for us, but also because it reveals some-thing essential about the human condition itself. Human suffering—so often identified as intrinsically evil—can be as much a sign of life and growth as a sign of decline and death. It is capable of being transfigured, and has been transfigured by the suffering of Jesus Christ.
The discipleship calling to suffer
We as Christ’s disciples are called to share in his sufferings. We also are taught to have confidence that he shares in our sufferings.
Again, the Heidelberg Catechism summarizes the gospel beautifully in the answer to its first question:
My only comfort in life and in death is that I belong—body and soul, in life and in death—not to myself but to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ, who at the cost of his own blood has fully paid for all my sins and has completely freed me from the dominion of the devil; that he protects me so well that without the will of my Father in heaven not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, that everything must fit his purpose for my salvation. Therefore, by his Holy Spirit, he also assures me of eternal life, and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.
The Fall assures us that suffering is a part of the human condition. Our Savior’s love for us assures us that our sufferings are not in vain and that his Sovereignty will shape everything to accomplish his good purposes for us.
Suffering is neither intrinsically good nor evil
We live in an age when suffering is deplored as an evil and when some seek escape from suffering for themselves and others by extreme measures. Assisted suicide and abortion are two ways in which some now seek to respond to suffering. Relief of suffering is thought to justify bringing about the deaths of innocent human beings.
It is no virtue to seek suffering or to impose suffering on others. But Scripture expects us to accept suffering that comes to us if we cannot prevent it without sinning.
The message of Christian Faith is hope precisely when the greatest temptation is to yield to hopelessness. The hope in every painful and humiliating experience of life is that not a hair can fall from our heads without the will of our Father in heaven and that he will use each terrible event of our lives to further our salvation. It is hope grounded in the reality of another kingdom that we see now only as through a glass darkly. It is hope lived out in often difficult service of love for others.
Suffering is neither intrinsically good nor evil. It isn’t wrong to seek relief from suffering. But relief from suffering does not justify any means to obtain it. If we cannot find relief without sinning, we ought to seek our Savior’s help to endure. Our faith in God’s goodness teaches us to believe that God is making good use of our suffering even if we cannot see it in the short run.
What does God have for us if he prolongs our lives when there seems to be no hope for our recovery? Perhaps he will grant a miracle of recovery after all. Perhaps he wills to commune with us in our suffering. Perhaps he will lead us to reconciliations and blessings that we otherwise could not know before our deaths.
Seeking God’s goodness and purpose in suffering
What does God have in store for those who are pregnant with a child who has special needs? Perhaps he intends to nurture an overcomer in this new human being. Perhaps he means to help the medical and scientific community discover something new about treating human beings with similar problems. Perhaps he intends to work a miracle of grace in us as we live with the suffering of another of his children. Perhaps he means to change us and work salvation in us.
Properly applied, Jesus’ own submission to suffering for our sakes teaches us to suffer for the sake of others. It restrains us from raising our hands to deliver death as a mercy to a child who may be born suffering even a severe disability if God allows that child to live. It prompts us to look for God’s purpose as we do the hard work of ministering to the most needy among us. God may be planning to work a great miracle of transformation in the family into which a suffering child is conceived.
Lutheran theologian Gilbert Meileander once wrote that in the family, more than any other place, "we are presented with unwanted and unexpected interruptions to our plans and projects." "Morality," he said, "consists in large part in learning to deal with the unwanted and unexpected interruptions to our plans." Each family member is in some sense a burden to the others in the family, but not burdens only. And many families have discovered the immense joys and blessings of bearing the lifelong burdens that God has given them in other family members.
The Bible teaches us that in bearing one another’s burdens we fulfill the law of Christ: we fulfill our calling of discipleship.
If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.
-Luke 9:23 (ESV)
"He descended into hell"
The Heidelberg asks further about this phrase of the Apostles’ Creed: "Why is there added: ‘He descended into hell’?" and answers:
That in my severest tribulations I may be assured that Christ my Lord has redeemed me from hellish anxieties and torment by the unspeakable anguish, pains, and terrors which he suffered in his soul both on the cross and before.
In his suffering, and in our own, there is joy to be discovered in knowing Jesus. Jesus has gone before us in suffering. He knows what I am suffering and he cares for me. Therefore, I will not seek the end of my own life or to end the life of another.
Scripture promises that he will carry me in my suffering and work everything to his own good purposes. He will not leave me or forsake me. He wants me to trust him as my help and to seek his benefits.
Mrs. Terry Schlossberg served as the Executive Director of PPL from 1986-2005, during the time when these essays were written.