“He Descended Into Hell”: How Holy Saturday Shapes Our Work

by Jeff Hoffmeyer

A few years ago I went to the Columbine Memorial with some high school students from a church where I was a pastor. Our group was serving at a church in Littleton, along with a much larger group of junior high students from another church. Our smaller group of students got to the memorial first and were silently walking around the holy ground of the place, reading the names of those who had died, and taking in their stories. It was a quiet, somber moment. Then the other group got there, barreling in with loud, junior high energy. My annoyance that a holy moment had been ruined didn’t last; within seconds, all of the students were quiet. No one scolded them. They didn’t need to be instructed. They knew, as did we, that the place required silence, commanded it, even. 

Silence is the final and most pronounced expression of what the Bible calls lament. Lament is grief and rage and doubt and bitterness all rolled together and directed toward God. Somewhat surprisingly, it is a form of prayer commended in the Bible, particularly in the Psalms. It can often be loud, particularly at first. But eventually words fail, as do our voices, and then there is only silence. 

Holy Saturday and the Bible

The New Testament, in a very limited manner, describes Jesus’ descent into hell. In 1 Peter 3:19 we read that Jesus “made a proclamation to the spirits in prison”; however, this occurred after he had been “made alive in the Spirit” (1 Peter 3:18). Whatever is meant by Jesus preaching to those who have died, this happens after resurrection, after the stone has been rolled away, after the tomb was empty.

Holy Saturday is the day in between, the interstitial space flanked by Good Friday and Easter Sunday. It is the day Jesus was in the tomb, dead. His body was decomposing. It was, and is, a day of silence. The wailing of the faithful women who were at the cross is finished. The jeering of the crowds has ended. Jesus’ disciples are holed up in the upper room, afraid for their lives. Silence pervades – not by choice, but by necessity.

In the Bible, there is not much written about Holy Saturday, because, well, nothing happened. The Gospel of John, for example, moves from Jesus’ burial (“. . . they laid Jesus in the tomb”-19:42) to resurrection (“Early on the first day, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb . . .”-20:1) without comment. What comment can be made? A corpse requires no narration. And yet. Resurrection does not happen immediately after Jesus’ death. He dies, and then stays dead. His death is durative, and in this duration, in this silence, there is hope. This is true, to be sure, because the tomb that was filled would soon be empty.

We experience Holy Saturday knowing how the story ends, and knowing that death will lose its sting. But it is precisely this knowledge of resurrection that makes Holy Saturday so important. Biblical hope is not cheery optimism, nor is it Pollyannaish ignorance. Biblical hope–resurrection hope–flourishes in a Holy Saturday world. 

Hope, Not Optimism

The first way in which Holy Saturday should inform our lives as Christians, particularly in our work, is precisely this difference between hope and optimism. Optimism is the belief that things will “get better,” largely due to human efforts. Biblical hope is something quite different. Biblical hope is grounded in lament, in tragedy, in injustice, in brokenness. Biblical hope is grounded in Holy Saturday, in the silence and the pause that follows Jesus’ cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Knowing that the tomb is empty, we dare to hope in a world that is full of tombs with stones that have not yet been rolled away. Optimism inoculates us from darkness; hope leads us into darkness, into the Holy Saturday world, carrying the light of resurrection.

In our work, we can live out this otherworldly hope. Faithful Christians I know who are living out resurrection hope in a Holy Saturday world include:

  • a real estate developer who is repeatedly building housing for chronically homeless individuals;
  • a hospital administrator who has developed a compassion fatigue program for hospital staff; and
  • a CEO whose company pays for funeral expenses for employees who have lost loved ones.

Where are the marks of Holy Saturday in your industry, in your business, in your vocation? The biblical narrative does not rush from Good Friday to Easter, but rather leaves room for a lasting experience of death. Knowing this, we can confront death and injustice and godlessness, for God himself has confronted these things.

Silence is Golden

The second way Holy Saturday should shape Christians in their work is through the practice of silence. As a pastor, and now as a fundraiser, my career has largely been based on the currency of words. Words can indeed offer hope and comfort and love. But in the midst of any kind of true Holy Saturday experience, when the tomb is not yet empty, silence is what is required. I once sat with a young mother, pregnant with her third child, who had just found her husband dead in their bedroom after a sudden cardiac arrest. All of my words failed that night. Any hope I offered was given simply through presence, and through sharing in the silence of lament.

The Word who became flesh entered so fully into humanity that he entered into the unspoken-word of Holy Saturday, the day of silence. The hardest, most redemptive work that God calls us to is this work of silence. One of the guiding principles of Denver Institute is to “embrace relationships.” In our work, embracing relationships might mean carrying the burden of another not by offering platitudes, but by offering presence and prayer. It also might mean the hard work of addressing injustice. The easy work comes through words offered in a social media post. The hard, redemptive work comes in silently putting our shoulders to the plow of injustice, wherever it may be found. It is in that sweat and silence that we follow our Lord past Good Friday, into Holy Saturday, hoping for Easter Sunday.

For well over 2,000 years, Christians have affirmed the words of the Apostle’s Creed: “He descended into hell.” This descent originates in the depths of the Trinity, in the love shared between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In the Gospel of John, we learn that Jesus loved his disciples “to the end” (John 13:1). This end is Holy Saturday. This end is death and despair. This end is the end that is not the end, for the tomb did not remain full. Knowing this, we dare to hope, and to work, and to remain silent. Ours is a Holy Saturday world. Ours is a Holy Saturday world on the edge of resurrection. Thanks be to God.

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Jeff Hoffmeyer

Jeff serves as vice president of advancement. Prior to his time at DIFW, Jeff served in a variety of pastoral roles for more than fifteen years, most recently as the senior pastor of La Cañada Presbyterian Church in California. He has a Ph.D. in systematic theology from Graduate Theological Union, is developing curriculum for Fuller Seminary’s Doctor of Ministry program, and has actively led fundraising campaigns for churches as well as for the Boulder Shelter for the Homeless. Jeff lives in Boulder with his wife, Heather, and their children, Eleanore and Andersen.