Christ’s Descent into “Hell” (Part 3)

What does the Bible say about Jesus’ so called descent? More than most people realize. The descent never is the main topic of any book of the Bible or even clearly the subject of so much as a paragraph. Oddly, in the clearest reference to it, the descent of Jesus isn’t even the topic of the sentence. It is only a clause. Surely, it can’t be very important then, you may think. Well, it was very important to the Old Testament redeemed. That is for sure. It is part of Jesus’ work of salvation. Plus, it pulls together and clarifies what seem to be several disjointed and obscure passages of scripture, and even gives an additional ray of hope to some peoples’ situations.

Let’s take a look at the passages that can be connected to Jesus’ descent, and see how they fit with the remaining theories of our list. The main one is 1 Peter 3:18-19:

For Christ also suffered for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, because they formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is eight persons, were brought safely through water.

Peter makes this wild run-on sentence as a bridge between the topic of Christ’s death and baptism.   In doing so, he drops a rather distracting piece of information in our laps. He tells us that Christ went in spirit to preach to people from Noah’s day. Then he leaves the topic, temporarily. These people are in prison not comfort, and Jesus speaks to them in the spirit (which only suggests that His physical body was still in the tomb). They are there because they disobeyed rather than believed. The prison must be the bad neighborhood of Sheol. To be formally in Hell would mean being forsaken. That wouldn’t include a visit from Jesus for any reason. What did Jesus say to them? Theories abound on this. Information does not.

The standard answer, at least among Lutherans, is that Christ is proclaiming His victory. In other words, this theory makes it something like a touchdown dance for Jesus, but there is no proof of such an interpretation. The Bible does say that Jesus made “a public spectacle” of the spiritual forces of evil, but that seems to be accomplished by his resurrection.

Sometimes exegetes make this a proclamation to Satan. Something like the taunt, “nyah, nyah, nyah, nyah-nyah.” First, that doesn’t sound much like Jesus. Second, there is nothing connecting fallen angels with Sheol–nothing biblical anyway. There are plenty of cartoons. Fallen angels are described as going to the Abyss. The confusion again is caused by using the word, “Hell”. In the final lake of fire (Hell), the contents of Hades are deposited along with the devil and his angels. That is a judgment day event (Rev. 20:10,14).

Another common interpretation is that Jesus didn’t descend anywhere, and that this passage refers to Jesus preaching through Noah during Noah’s lifetime. This answer is popular in the reformed tradition. It is also surprisingly the interpretation of Augustine, who accepts the reality of Christ’s descent, but doesn’t believe this passage refers to it. Either way, this is hardly a satisfying answer. Peter is doing a little word association, but to have him bounce to an event from a completely different time for no particular reason seems a little strange. In this interpretation, what is the prison? It also ignores all the other passages that will follow.

Why speak to people from Noah’s time? They are the specific recipients mentioned. God’s ways are not our ways, so it is not beyond possibility that Jesus specifically wanted to speak to this group. It seems more likely to me, that Peter chooses this group as representative of all the disobedient in Sheol, because of how they perished by water. Peter is making a point about baptism and speaks of their water experience as a parallel. Paul does a similar thing in speaking of Israel passing through the sea in 1 Corinthians 10.

Perhaps the content of the speech is only to tell them what they had missed.  That would seem strange.  The Eastern church has always thought that this visit was for more than that.  As we will see, there is a passage to possibly support this theory.  There is also another function of Christ’s descent that had support in both the East and the West but has little support in Protestantism.  More about this is future posts.

Christ’s Descent (Part 2)

Last blog, I mentioned that many think “Christ’s descent” merely refers to his death and burial.  This explanation may appeal to modern reason, but it ignores Scripture.

The next theory has at least some plausibility. John Calvin, the father of the Reformed movement, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, the recently retired pope, and other esteemed theologians have stated that “descendit ad inferos” refers, at least in part, to what Jesus experienced on the cross rather than where He went after death. Let’s consider this possibility next.

In Matthew 27:45-46 we find this,

Now from the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land until the ninth hour. And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice, saying, “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?”, that is “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Without a doubt, this was a pivotal moment in the history of our salvation. Jesus isn’t just feeling the depth of despair. He is experiencing exactly what He said. He was being forsaken by the Father. What it means for one person of the Trinity to forsake another is beyond our comprehension and appreciation, but this is huge. Jesus, as the representative of all of creation, is experiencing the true penalty for sin and thus is fulfilling the requirements of the Law. “The wages of sin is death”, declares Romans 6:23. “Death” in this context doesn’t just mean the cessation of heartbeat and brainwaves. It means having the presence, help and even thoughts of God completely taken away from you. Eventually, this is what all the damned experience.

Some think of spiritual death as referring to descending to the dead, or in other words, going to Sheol. Therefore, Jesus had to first physically die on the cross and then descend to the dead in Sheol. The book of Revelation is rather explicit in describing what “death” fully entails. It speaks of a “first death”, which is physical, and a “second death”. In Revelation 20, the post-judgment day lake of fire (Hell) is the second or spiritual death, not Sheol.

We often think of Hell as being horrible because of fire and maggots and demons. These things are child’s play in comparison to being forsaken by God. Forsakenness is the termination of all joy and hope. Forsakeness is what makes the final judgment the worst thing of all. The ill effect of being forsaken can been seen in Jesus. Jesus is the Son of God. Jesus is fully aware of the plan. Still, when forsakenness comes upon Jesus, He is wild-eyed desperate and cannot even remember why this is happening to Him. Forsakeness is spiritual death. Often we think of spiritual death as following our physical death. Just about everything else concerning Jesus was unusual, why not also this? Jesus experienced the second death first.   He was forsaken and then He physically died.

Jesus experiences forsakenness so that we never have to experience it directly. Through baptism we die with Christ. We experience our “second death” first by being baptized and later physically dying.

What Jesus experienced on the cross was hellish, the worst thing anyone can experience, but “descendit ad inferos” speaks of going to a place with a purpose not experiencing hellish conditions, as we will see. It sounds bad, but really it is the beginning of good for Jesus. When Jesus descends to the lowest place, He is going there in triumph. The lowest point in His experience is on the cross when He is forsaken, but inferos is low for other reasons.

Lumping Jesus’ forsakenness with His descent into Sheol creates more confusion than clarity. The only reason to group them is misguided use of the word, “Hell”. Our English word “hell” can trace its roots through several languages to the Greek word “Hades”, but in current usage it does not mean the same thing. Jesus is going through “hell” as an adjective, but He doesn’t exactly go to “Hell” the noun. He does eventually go to Sheol. Sheol was the place of both the unrighteous and the redeemed at that point. It is a place of comfort and torment, depending on what side the chasm you are on.  Sheol is referred to as the lowest place in the Old Testament.

Christ’s Descent into “Hell” (Part 1)

For many people, the Apostles’ Creed is a regular part of their worship life. In confirmation instruction, we are taught what each line of the creed means; but if there is one line that is quickly glossed over, it is this: “He descended into hell”. It is through the Apostles’ Creed that most of us become first aware of Jesus’ descent into hell. Though curious, we may not ever get much information about it, and eventually most people just let it go. We do ourselves a disservice if we do that, however. In the next several blog entries, I want to talk about why this line appears in the creed and how Jesus’ descent fits in the overall story of what God has done for people.  It is interesting and important aspect of the work of God.

This topic is far more understandable if you have already come to some understanding of what Sheol is and the confusion that exists over what to call Sheol in English.   So if you haven’t read the blogs I posted back in August and September, you need to do so first. You should be able to get to them through the calendar on the right.  I stand opposed to calling Sheol, “Hell”, considering our modern connotation. Still, most English translations of the Apostles’ Creed say either, “He descended into Hell” or “He descended to the dead”. This should sound familiar to you. Often Sheol is translated as “Hell” or “grave”.

What did the original say in Latin? It says that Jesus “descendit ad inferos”. Literally, “He descended to the lowest place” or “He descended to the underworld”. Given what we discussed previously about Sheol, clearly this is saying that Jesus descended to Sheol.

There is a shockingly wide variety of understandings when it comes to Christ’s descent “into hell”. Here is the spectrum of beliefs as far as I have found them, starting with probably the most common:

  • What? Do you mean that we believe that?
  • The descent simply means that he was buried. (Liberal)
  • The descent refers to Jesus’ suffering on the cross. (Reformed)
  • Jesus descended to Hell to proclaim His victory. (Lutheran)
  • Jesus descended to Sheol to proclaim His victory. (Various)
  • Jesus descended to Sheol to pay the final price for sin. (Some Roman)
  • Jesus descended to Sheol to free the Old Testament righteous. (Roman)
  • Jesus descended to Sheol to proclaim the Gospel to Old Testament damned and save some of them. (Certain Orthodox)
  • Jesus descended to Sheol to liberate everybody, both the righteous and the unrighteous. (Certain Orthodox)
  • Jesus descended to Sheol to liberate everybody and basically destroy it. (Certain Orthodox)
  • Any combination of the answers above.

There is also a difference in regard to the importance that various groups assign to the descent. Eastern Orthodoxy makes Christ’s descent critical to both theology and liturgical life. Roman Catholics regard the doctrine as important, but modern Catholic theologians want to de-emphasize it. Lutherans acknowledge the reality of Christ’s descent, but consider the purpose of the descent to be too unclear to establish it doctrinally and not important enough to explore. The Reformed and liberal theologians find ways to dismiss or demythologize this part of the story.

So can anything be definitively known about Christ’s descent or should we just stay away from this part of the story and wait until we get to Heaven for answers? What Christ did after His death does not change what we are to do as His disciples. Still, it is a part of the story of Christ and potentially has some explanatory power on several levels. For this reason it merits our exploration, even if we can’t settle all disputes. Ignorance, then, is not a good choice even if it is a popular one.

I hope you will continue to follow this discussion.  You might be surprised at how many references and possible references exist in the Bible.

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