It is believed that Jesus died on the Cross at 3pm on Friday afternoon. He was witnessed alive again on Sunday morning. What was going on? Why?
His death can be explained without any major theological reference, apart from his ability to heal and do miracles, as this was possibly the presence of the Spirit in his life. His popularity and total spiritual independence upset the Jewish authorities who then upset the Roman authorities, and it was decided the best thing to do was to have him killed. So he was executed by legitimate authorities for all the wrong reasons.
But this does not explain his resurrection.
Other explanations have been offered down through the centuries that do. He was an innocent scapegoat whose resurrection broke the bonds of evil that had killed him; He died in our place and so satisfied God’s sense of justice; He suffered the wrath of God because of our sin, on our behalf. It is typical now to suggest that something of all of these explanations and more give us insight into what we call the Atonement, the bringing together of God and His creation in Christ’s death and resurrection. But most explanations seem to assume God’s anger rather than God’s love. Can there be a more positive reason for Christ’s death, serving a God of love?
Have you thought about Christ’s actual experience? No one doubts crucifixion was horrific physically. But there seems to be good evidence that Christ’s suffering was more psychological and spiritual. For instance during his experience in the Garden of Gethsemane when it seems he is having insight into what lies before him, he sweat drops of blood. And his final words, My God, my God, why have you abandoned me. We could say this evidence points to inner distress and anguish. He is being pulled into something he had never experienced. What ever was happening?
From the beginning his followers believed he descended to the dead. This was his katabasis, his going down. Paul seems to believe this was a descent into the abyss. The writer of Ephesians saw it as a descent to the lower parts of the earth. Peter believed he preached there to entrapped spirits. Later, in English speaking parts of the world at least, it came to be believed that he descended into Hell. This was a rendering in English of the word inferos which was used in translating the Apostles’ Creed from its original Greek into Latin. The Greek does not easily support such a translation into English.
As he descended, so he ascended. His anabasis followed, his resurrection. Paul is in no doubt that the agency of his anabasis was the Holy Spirit. But where was the Spirit when he died, in his katabasis? Why such a descent and ascent anyway?
This question has exercised my mind since an experience I had when I was in my late twenties. I had a vision as if I were standing looking down into black nothingness, a bottomless pit if you like. It was horrific. At the height of this vision, the words came clearly to my mind, My Son not only looked into this, he went into it. Ever since I have believed that these days between his death and his rising are critical in understanding the meaning and significance of Christ’s death. I have no doubt he went down into the abyss.
It was not until some years later when I was studying in England that I began to understand what the abyss might be about. I was reading evolutionary theory and analytical psychology, and coming to understand that not only are our bodies built upon less complex organisms, right down to the beginning of life, but so also are our psyches. The structure of our psyches also goes back to the beginning of life. We are the story of evolution both physically and psychically, structures built up from - ‘nothing!’ We are all built psychically over an abyss. Could we ever become conscious of what this entails, not objectively but within our subjective experience? Could we ever experience ourselves subjectively at the level of say an orang utan, or a tarsier, or a rabbit, or a fish, or a protosome, or an amoeba, or (dare I think it) at the Great Historic Rendezvous (as Richard Dawkins calls it), the beginning of it all. Could our psychic story ever be re-told within a human being’s subjective consciousness as a human being? Could the story of life be re-capitulated into human consciousness?
I believe this is exactly what happened when Christ died. His whole being was spiritualized, caught up into the Spirit. In his first preaching after Pentecost, Peter says as much in quoting from the prophet Joel: You will not let your Holy One see corruption. He descended within his subjective being into the very origins of life within all of us, and he experienced the levels of consciousness and unconsciousness that are fully implied in thinking we are evolved psychic beings. The ‘gateway’ to our vast unconscious structures, built up over the great story of life on our little planet, was fully opened. These structures rose into his consciousness, as he experienced his great katabasis, his descent into the abyss. The great energy required for such a thing to happen was the Holy Spirit. The story of life was recapitulated in Christ’s consciousness; creation was spiritualized, caught up into human consciousness. It was the moment of absolute knowledge within human consciousness in the story of life and the human race. Humanity in Christ is now forever part of the Godhead. The veil in the temple was rent asunder.
Thinking of Christ’s death in this way puts a whole new emphasis on the centrality of the Holy Spirit in the story of Creation and History. The Holy Spirit is no longer just a birthday gift to the Church at Pentecost as one theologian reckoned. The Spirit is central to the story from Creation onwards. And Christ’s katabasis and anabasis are the centre not only of history but of creation; it is the moment of the Spirit’s great triumph, and the final moment of his nurturing, over aeons of time, of the Son from the clay of the earth to the place of absolute knowing.
So where was the Spirit in Christ’s katabasis? The Spirit was enabling it to happen, just as He also enabled his anabasis to happen. Christ’s death and resurrection is the central moment of the Spirit’s movement in Creation and History.
Believing this, I want to hold a time of true silence between 3pm on Good Friday and Easter morn; and so pray that the enormity of this mystery take over more of my whole being.