Friday, April 13, 2012

Editing hell out of Wesley

Earlier this week, I critiqued John Piper's call to amend the Apostles Creed. Piper finds no Scriptural basis for the clause, "He descended into hell." I begged to differ. Piper's rejection of that particular clause, however, is by no means unique. Many, perhaps most, Protestant worship books and hymnals over the years have either deleted it or placed it in [brackets]. Sacred Tradition notwithstanding, the thought of our Lord spending time in hell, whether to preach to the souls imprisoned therein or what have you, is simply taboo in many churches.

Later in the week, as I was compiling a few hymns for a service at a local nursing home, I was reminded yet again of how ingrained is the disdain for the thought of Christ descending into hell. With it being Easter Week, I wanted to focus, naturally, on the theme of the resurrection. One of the most stirring hymns on that subject is Charles Wesley's "Christ the Lord is Risen Today." Growing up a Methodist, this was the one "must sing" hymn every Easter Sunday. From childhood, I remember singing the second stanza thusly:
Love’s redeeming work is done, Alleluia!
Fought the fight, the battle won, Alleluia!
Death in vain forbids His rise, Alleluia!
Christ hath opened paradise, Alleluia!
That is not, however, the way Wesley originally wrote the hymn. Aside from the fact that the Alleluia's were added along with the music, this stanza is actually a merger of portions of two stanzas. Here are Wesley's original words, with the deleted phrases italicized:
Love’s redeeming work is done, Alleluia!
Fought the fight, the battle won, Alleluia!
Lo! the Sun’s eclipse is over, Alleluia!
Lo! He sets in blood no more, Alleluia!


Vain the stone, the watch, the seal, Alleluia!
Christ hath burst the gates of hell, Alleluia!
Death in vain forbids His rise, Alleluia!
Christ hath opened paradise, Alleluia!
Note the strong affirmation, "Christ hath burst the gates of hell." How many hymnals omit this line? My guess is, most of them. The truncated version makes good enough sense, but the uncut version makes perfect sense. The opening of paradise is coupled with bursting the gates of hell. The affirmation of Christ's victory is made all the more complete.

Perhaps at some point long ago, a well-meaning hymnal editor was looking for a way to fit a long hymn into a short space. More likely, however, the now standardized edited version of Wesley's hymn of the resurrection reflects a long-standing aversion to the touchy subject of Christ descending into hell.