Moltmann Monday: Jesus at the Gates of Hell

Happy Moltmann Monday! I’m straying from a theological book choice today and instead sharing a short paragraph from Moltmann’s autobiography A Broad Place. (You should read this. So many fantastic stories, plus insights into his life among family, colleagues, etc. You’ll just love him all the more for it.) He has a chapter about his life as a prisoner of war, which as you know was an incredibly formative and transformative experience for him. It is the reason we have his work today. And if that isn’t a portrait of Romans 8:28, that a German POW in WWII can have a conversion experience that leads to a theology of hope, I just don’t know what is… I know it isn’t Holy Week or Holy Saturday yet, but my heart is heavy today with some dear beloved beautiful friends who struggle with depression and I couldn’t help but stop on this page and lift it up as my feeble prayer for them this morning. Here’s the excerpt:

This early companionship with Jesus, the brother in suffering and the companion on the road to the land of freedom, has never left me ever since, and I became more and more assured of it. I have never decided for Christ once and for all, as is often demanded of us. I have decided again and again in specific terms for the discipleship of Christ when situations were serious and it was necessary. But right down to the present day, after almost 60 years, I am certain that then, in 1945, and there, in the Scottish prisoner of war camp, in the dark pit of my soul, Jesus sought me and found me. ‘He came to seek and save that which was lost,’ and so he came to me when I was lost.

There is a medieval picture which shows Christ descending into hell and opening the gate for someone who points to himself as if he were saying. ‘And are you coming for me?’ That is how I have always felt. Jesus’ God-forsakenness on the cross showed me where God is present-where he was in my experiences of death, and where he is going to be in whatever comes. Whenever I read the Bible again with the searching eyes of the God-forsaken prisoner I was, I am always assured of its divine truth.

There are two really beautiful spiritual truths at work in these recollections. The first is the description of how we actually live into our faith, which is not all-at-once but again and again and again. I grew up Baptist, so I’m familiar with the idea that this one big decision can be all you need to change your life. And though I absolutely believe we have moments that do turn us around or awaken us, I also know it to be true that faith is lived out much like my marriage is: not at the altar one day, but every morning and all throughout the day, as I choose again and again. I love that Moltmann is so honest here, explaining that discipleship really comes into focus in serious situations that force us to choose how we will respond. And we hope we will respond in a way that marks us as Jesus’ followers. But then, sometimes we don’t. Which is where the second part comes in (although I don’t think he meant this as a one-two punch).

The second beautiful truth is of course that we have been found. We have all found ourselves lost at one point or another, and most honestly at many points along the way. We’ve found ourselves¬†inches from falling into the pit of despair. In those moments, when the shadows are closing in and we lose sight of any way forward, Jesus seeks us out. Good shepherd that he is, he finds the one lost sheep who took a turn into the brambles and brings her back to the fold. Under all of our Lenten practices, I hope we remember that this is after all what we’re trying to remember. We are marked as his, which simply means: there is someone who loves us and will always come for us. Even when we get lost in the brambles. Even when we’re sitting in a prison camp and the world seems to be falling in around us.

I don’t know if the picture above is the one Moltmann is describing, but it does seem to have that quality of elated surprise that he mentions: Who, me? You’re coming for me, Jesus? All this way? All the way down here in my hell?

Yes. Yes he is. Yes he does. It’s not yet Holy Saturday, when we proclaim what the creeds confess, that Jesus descends into hell and opens the gates, but Holy Saturday happens, as we know, all the time. In the most unlikely of times. Often, just in the nick of time.

Life can be so hard. Life can be hell. I have dear friends who struggle with depression, who battle ghosts of the past and trauma that always seems to be lurking around the corner no matter how far forward they’ve come. It’s easy to feel resigned to hell, like you have to stay there, like it’s your rightful home address. The most holy thing God ever did was to meet us there and to reach out his hand as we crouch there, nearly too afraid to whisper, to hope, “Are you coming for me?”

Yes. From the depths of hell to the height of Easter’s heavens, his answer is always yes.

There is someone who loves us and who will always come for us. 

God. I don’t think I’ll ever get over the beauty of that.


  1. Thank you for coming for me. This is the embodiment of all faiths, I believe- the audacity to believe in such hopeful things, the faith one has in the existence of love, and then *being* that Love for a fellow sojourner. Doggedly, persistently, patiently. You were the only one who came, but all I needed was one, and now this little sheep believes in and is full of love and life again.

  2. So glad you’re here, S. I think you should stick around. :) Love and life always find their way back. Honored to be there when it happened. Sending much love your way- xoxo.

  3. staring at this hoping in tears. read it about 10 times now. thank you. thank you god.thank jesus. thank the spirit . thank anyone everyone who has been helpful along the way. a joyful heart is good medicine. it hurts to even write it but i want this so i do why not got nothing to lose but joylessness. thanks for the good news.

  4. Totally was thinking of and praying for you while writing this, R. Hope you could sense that. Love love love to you. He always finds us. :)

Your email address will not be published.

Facebook IconTwitter Icon