“God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them… We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5: 19-21).
All man-made religion stands in opposition to the gospel. It is an ascent toward the eternal, perfect God. Up, up – that is its call. God is high above and we are down below; and now we shall soar by means of our moral, spiritual, and religious endeavors out of the earthly, human depths into the divine heights. God is too high and the evil in us too deep for us to reach the goal this way. Our souls become crippled and cramped by trying to rise to the highest height. The end is despair, or a self-righteousness that leaves room neither for love of God nor for love of others. So if we are honest, we have to say that we cannot reach the goal. We cannot become what we ought to become, true men and women. Many let the matter rest there; they confess it, but take no action. They make themselves satisfied with half because they cannot have the whole. God demands it all, not just half. And this “all” we are not capable of giving. What is impossible for us is what God wants—all love to him and to our fellow humans. If this is true, it would seem that we can have no good conscience, no trusting relationship with God, no inner peace, and no freedom of the soul. But God has in his mercy shown us a different way.
“You cannot come up to me, so I will come down to you.” And God descends to us human beings. This act of becoming one with us begins at Christmas and ends on Good Friday. God goes to the end. He reaches the goal. We wish to climb up to heaven; God, however, descends—down to where? To death on the cross. This is why Jesus had to descend into hell. He had to go the way to its very end. Only there has God completely come to us. Jesus Christ has gone into hell in order to get us out of there.
Adapted from Bread and Wine (Emil Brunner)