Christ’s Descent into Hell (final)

In this final installment, I want to share with you a few more probable references to Christ’s descent in Scripture and then tie up a few loose ends on the topic.

There are a series of passages in Isaiah that can be understood to refer to the liberation of the Old Testament redeemed. The clearest is Isaiah 49:6 where the Father speaks to Jesus and says,

It is too little of the thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and bring back the preserved of Israel…

Typically this passage is understood in a very metaphorical way, which dismisses what it is really saying. The “preserved” in Israel are clearly not already in Heaven according to this language. They need to be “raised up” and “brought back”. This isn’t just speaking of people alive at the time of Jesus or part of the exile at the time of Isaiah. It makes perfect sense that this is speaking of people who already are deceased or will become deceased before the time of Jesus. These people need to be raised from Sheol.

The same understanding informs the meaning of Isaiah 42:7b,c, “I give you …to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.” Jesus did not lead any jailbreak during his earthly ministry. To understand this solely as freeing people from their dungeon of sin, doesn’t quite follow the pattern of the passage. The things spoken of in Isaiah do have a broader spiritual application, but Jesus also actually did these things for some during His earthly ministry (like healing the blind). So for these passages to be understood as a literal liberation from the prison of Sheol makes perfect sense.

Captives are also mentioned in Psalm 68:18, which is quoted in Ephesians and Isaiah 61:1, which is quoted in Luke 4:18.

With this many passages either directly speaking about or alluding to the liberation of the Old Testament redeemed, there is little doubt the Christ’s descent into Sheol accomplished at least this much.

This doesn’t keep modern theologians from being a little embarrassed about the topic of Christ’s descent, also called “the harrowing of hell”.  The mythology that grew up in the Eastern Church about this topic leads some to want to dismiss the whole topic as a myth.

Modern people are sensitive about confusing a myth with a historical truth. There are many religious myths in the world including some that hang around Christianity in non-canonical literature.   Depending on your view of scripture, you may even consider some biblical stories as fictional. So is this one of them?

Without a doubt, some segments of Christianity have approached the story of Christ’s descent with a degree of embarrassment, preferring to see it as an intentional metaphor of some sort. Also the presence of similar ideas of life after death in other religions makes people wary of the even the idea of Sheol. Adding to the pressure to paint this as a myth is the desire for there to be no Sheol, Hell or final judgment at all.

Still there is a clear testimony in the Old Testament of the expectation of Sheol after death for both the righteous and the unrighteous. There is a reasonable explanation as to why other cultures expected basically the same thing. There is also a future hope that this would be changed. Christ’s descent to Sheol is very reasonably the thing that changed the fate of the Old Testament righteous.

Christ’s descent into Sheol is therefore foreshadowed in the Old Testament, spoke of in the New Testament albeit somewhat obscurely, and clearly testified to in the earliest Christian literature. Together they make a coherent whole.

A cosmology that includes only a heaven, the current universe and a hell has no more proof or disproof from our scientific understanding of reality than does a cosmology that contains a Sheol and an Abyss. We don’t know with certainty where any of these places are but we know enough to doubt that reality is only three-dimensional space.

So is Sheol just a metaphor for death and Christ’s descent just a metaphor for his suffering or burial? You won’t get me to buy into that explanation, and that is saying something. As I embarked on this study I honestly did not know the teachings of either the Orthodox nor the Roman church on this topic. In fact, I would have to admit that I am biased against these church bodies if anything. But, when you start with trying to understand what Sheol is without confusing it with hell or the grave, the testimony of scripture points to a real descent of Christ to Sheol to liberate the Old Testament redeemed and even to attempt to save some of the Old Testament damned. That was a real paradigm shift for me, and a very hopeful one.

 

Christ’s Descent into Hell (Part 5)

One of the reasons that most people have learned very little about Christ’s descent into “hell”, is a reaction to an overreaction about this part of the story in the early Eastern Church.  “Christ’s descent” became the ancient equivalent of a superhero story.  There are stories about Jesus being swallowed by Sheol and in Jonah-like fashion, Sheol vomited out Jesus and everybody else.  You can still get a very popular story of the time on Amazon, The Gospel of Nicodemus.  I read it on Ibooks.  Stupid book, but it was free.  It is about Jesus saving the Old Testament people from Sheol, but all the characters could only say lines that they had said in the Bible.  Anyway, the fiction around this story became so thick that people couldn’t discern fact from fiction.  Augustine expressed this complaint, and that seems to have carried down to the Reformers.

One idea that arose in the Eastern Church and remains to this day is that Christ’s descent was not only to free the Old Testament righteous, but also to bring a saving Gospel to the unrighteous.  This bothers a lot of people.  Some church bodies have expressed doctrines that your destiny is sealed at your death.  Others basically have that same assumption without enshrining it as a doctrine.

Is there anything biblical to say or even suggest this?  One comes shortly after the passage in 1 Peter mentioned earlier in 1 Peter 4:6:

For this is why the gospel was preached even to those who were dead, that though judged in the flesh the way people are, they might live in the spirit the way God does.

The chapter and verse number system was introduced to the Bible during the Reformation period. It is invaluable in helping us find stuff. But sometimes it gets in the way and makes us break up the context of the Bible in our minds. In this case, if you ignore the big number four and let Peter continue his thought, it seems pretty clear that the preaching to the dead referred to in this passage is the same dead Peter spoke of in 3:19. A more literal translation might be: “For this reason, the dead were evangelized”. The verb rendered here as “were evangelized” is what is called an indicative aorist verb. In Greek, this indicates past continuing action. One common interpretation of this verse is that it refers to the evangelization of people while they were living who are now dead, but that doesn’t quite fit the sentence. What is past is the evangelizing, not the people’s lives. What this sentence seems to propose is shocking. It says the dead were evangelized, and almost all of us assume that once you die the opportunity for evangelism is over.

This makes it sound like the preaching was a second chance for people who had disobeyed God during life and had not had an opportunity to hear the promise of salvation. Peter is acknowledging that the disobedience of these people resulted in their judgment—namely death in the flood and thousands of years in the agony of Sheol. But the purpose of this visit from Christ is that they might live in the spirit.

Obviously, this makes us nervous on one hand and relieved on the other. It has always seemed unfair that some would go to Sheol without the benefit of hearing the Gospel in some form, even though they are sinners and knew right and wrong inherently. All humanity deserves the judgment and cannot earn salvation, but cannot God be gracious to whom He chooses when He chooses? Can we say for certain that physical death marks the end of your opportunity to believe and be saved? Judgment Day could be the end of opportunity.

The main biblical objection to this interpretation is found in Hebrews 9:27:

And just as it is appointed for man to die once and after that comes judgment, so Christ having been offered once to bear the sins of many will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.

This passage is not primarily about whether there is any chance of being saved after physical death, but it does make a statement about dying once with judgment assumed to immediately follow. This passage is essentially saying, “Just like we live and face judgment only once, Christ lived and died once, not over and over again. This would rule out a reincarnation scenario, but can we really say it precludes Jesus reaching out to someone in Sheol. As noted in an earlier blog about Psalm 139, Sheol is not quite yet forsakenness. The timing of the judgment in relation to physical death is not specified in the Hebrews passage. We just assume it to be immediate and final.

In one sense, judgment upon our death is immediate. The dead found themselves in Sheol and not Heaven. That is a judgment. Their residence in Sheol could be for thousands of years. But is it final? If it is final, then is Judgment Day simply perfunctory?  I will say here that I do not know God to be simply perfunctory about anything. Everything has its purpose. Some treat baptism as perfunctory, for example. It isn’t. Baptism has a definite function.

Establishing that Jesus can, did or even does reach out to the lost in Sheol is a radical enough of a suggestion that one needs more than these somewhat obscure passages in 1 Peter. Another possible reference to Jesus liberating even some of the damned in Sheol is Psalm 107.   Once again these words:

He brought them out of darkness and the shadow of death, and burst their bonds apart. Let them thank the Lord for His steadfast love for His wondrous works to the children of man! For He shatters the doors of bronze and cuts in two the bars of iron.

The phrase “doors of bronze” gets frequent use in non-canonical literature as a reference to Sheol. So if this passage applies, and I think it does, it is speaking about the “disobedient” rather than the righteous. Still other passages, namely Isaiah 42:7b and Luke 1:79, speak of “captives”. These passages are inconclusive, however, because they do not specifically say to whom they are referring.

For some early Eastern Church fathers and for the Orthodox Church, the teaching that Jesus preached the Gospel to perhaps save some of the lost or even all of the lost in Sheol is a big piece of their doctrine and liturgical life. They consider it to be simply logical that this process continues to this day. I will say I hope this is right.

Does this teaching do violence to any other understanding or practice within the Church? It certainly seems in line with the mercy and passion of God. It doesn’t necessarily suggest that everyone is saved in the end. We will see in a later entry that people are eternally damned and in great number. Some argue that a loving God couldn’t and wouldn’t damn someone eternally. They don’t understand the unchangeable nature of God’s Law. God clearly does damn people because of the requirements of the Law, but a loving God could pursue someone up until the last possible moment and that last moment may be Judgment Day rather than death.

If Christ did preach the Gospel in order to save in Sheol, wouldn’t everybody there repent and believe? I mean what sort of idiot would decline such an offer after experiencing such suffering? The rich man in Jesus’ story of Lazarus seems open to a change. Still, we might be surprised. Saving faith is not the result of even overwhelming proof. Faith is the gift of God to people who are able to receive it.

Whether Christ was giving the disobedient in Sheol a chance to hear the Gospel and believe is hard to concretely determine. At best, we can say that it is possible. This shouldn’t rob us of any motivation to share the Gospel among the living. People suffer in Sheol. If we care, we would want them to avoid this. If people become disciples while still living they can carry out their God-given purpose and even realize reward for it. We are rewarded for our faithfulness in this regard. Beyond this both love and Christ’s command compels us.

Christ’s Descent into Hell (part 4)

Another likely function of Christ’s descent has to do with the Old Testament people whom God regarded as His elect.  These people were not in Heaven at the time of Jesus’ death.  John 3:13 precludes such an understanding.  Their expectation as expressed in the Old Testament was that they would be in Sheol.  Not necessarily in a position of suffering, but definitely isolated from the visible presence of God.  That is isolated until Jesus did His work.

The case for Christ’s descent for the purpose of releasing the Old Testament righteous who are captives in Sheol is more clear in scripture than any other interpretation. One verse that supports it is Ephesians 4:7-10:

But grace was given to each of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Therefore it says, “When he ascended on high, he lead a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men.” In saying, “He ascended”, what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower regions of the earth? He who ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.

Once again, Sheol is referred to as the lowest or lower region.  This passage connects Christ’s descent to eventually leading a “host of captives” on an ascent.  One cannot help but wonder if Jesus is hinting at His descent to Sheol in Matthew 12:29:

Or how can someone enter a strong man’s house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man? Then indeed he may plunder his house.

The context of this passage is a discussion of how Jesus can liberate people from demon possession. Jesus plunders Satan’s kingdom by binding the demons and setting the person free. Is Satan bound as Jesus fulfills the Law on the cross? Is Jesus’ descent into Sheol a big-time plundering of Satan’s house?

As mentioned in our discussion about Sheol in the Old Testament, the liberation of the Old Testament redeemed is prophesied in a couple of passages. First Zechariah 9:11-12:

As for you also, because of the blood of my covenant with you, I will set your prisoners free from the waterless pit. Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope; today I declare that I will restore to you double.

The context of this passage is established in verse 9:

Behold your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

Clearly this whole section is about Jesus and prisoners released during his time. These released captives are the righteous people of the Old Testament. David put himself in that group in Psalm 16:10:

For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol, or let your holy one see corruption.

The ascension of Christ with the captives of Sheol is the most likely explanation for a strange, temporary resurrection of the righteous recorded in Matthew 27:52-53:

The tombs also were opened. And many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many.

Without the connection to the release from Sheol, this passage is obscure and meaningless.

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.