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 (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.

Sheol in the Book of Job

The oldest book of the Old Testament is not the first one. It is the book of Job. When Job lived exactly is unclear. That he and friends knew about Sheol is abundantly clear, because they use the word many times.   In discourses like you find in Job or in the poetry that you find in Psalms, a certain degree of translational caution is in order. Some poetic license is used in these books. Also, in Job, several people speak who do not speak the truth. Consequently, determining the meaning of a word like Sheol or deriving doctrinal information about it using these books must be done with caution. The good news is that we can learn the meaning of Sheol from other places. While one might poetically refer to a non-existent place of the dead and call it Sheol, the reality of the place is established by its use in other books. So it is proper to understand Sheol as a place even in Job, Psalms and other poetic passages. You just have to double check what you glean from them.

Job first speaks of Sheol in 7:9

As a cloud vanishes and is gone, so he who goes down to (Sheol) does not return.

Job is despairing of his life, but is even more concerned at this point with his death. He knows that he will eventually go to Sheol and considers it to be a one-way trip. This is not to discount Job’s belief in his eventual salvation. Job does speak of the resurrection at the last day in Job 19:25-27:

I know that my Redeemer lives and that in the end He will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God: I myself will see Him with my own eyes—I and not another. How my heart yearns within me!

Job, a righteous man, speaks of Sheol and the resurrection of the body, but not of Heaven! It makes you wonder that if Job received knowledge of Sheol and the resurrection by revelation from God, why would God withhold information about Heaven?   Gaps like this leads the skeptic to conclude that Heaven is a theological innovation of a later time, but God has His reasons for rolling out information at appropriate times. He doesn’t need to share those reasons with us.

In Job 11:8, Job’s friend Zophar speaks of the mysteries of God. His statement is a metaphor comparing the scope of the mysterious nature of God to the height of the heavens and depth of Sheol. Often when the word heaven is plural it is referring to the universe. Sheol is repeatedly referred to as the lowest place, but does this comparison mean that it is part of this universe? Here the poetic nature of the reading would not justify such a conclusion. Nonetheless, if it were just a grave, a grave would not be considered very deep. Clearly Zophar is referring to something else.

Job 14:13 provides an interesting contrast to what Job said in 7:9. Earlier, he did not wish to die, but as his suffering continues he now begs to be hid in Sheol until God’s wrath is done.  So what is more desirable, to suffer in this world or be in Sheol? The question is pondered further in chapter 17:

If the only home I hope for is Sheol(grave), if I spread out my bed in the darkness, if I say to corruption, “You are my father” and to the worm, “My sister”, where then is my hope? Who can see any hope for me? Will it go down to the gates of Sheol (death)? Will we descend together into the dust?

Truly this is a sad passage. Job grasps for any kind of hope, because suffering stifles hope. It is easy to see why translators might choose “the grave” and “death”, because Job speaks of corruption and the worm. That makes it sound like we are talking about the condition of the body. But Jesus speaks in the terms used in this passage as well. We’ll address these passages later, but for now lets note that Jesus wasn’t speaking about the fate of the earthly body.

Job seems to have a hard time deciding whether Sheol is a desirable or undesirable place. In Job 21:13, he gripes about the injustice that exists in life. He notes that wicked people sometime have a good life, and they go to Sheol peacefully. Since Job’s life is such a horrible trial, it is understandable that he is a bit jaded. To note, he doesn’t seem to see Sheol as a place of justice. In other words, it’s not a place where the evil people get what’s coming to them. To him it is just the common fate of us all. Jesus would paint a significantly different picture. So would Job’s friends. One of his “buddies”, Bildad, describes death and Sheol as a punishment for sin in 24:19. Whether ultimately saved or damned, Sheol exists because of sin.  Bildad is at least correct about this.

The Bible doesn’t paint death as a deliverance from what is undesirable about life. Death is the direct result of sin. It is punishment, and it’s a punishment that every human being has earned through sin. What lies on the other side of death is also the consequence of sin, at least in part. This is true of whether we are talking about Sheol for the righteous or for the unrighteous, or even for that matter in one way, if we are talking about Heaven.

Humans are properly a body and a soul (call it consciousness if you like). Having those two things segregated as they are by death is undesirable, even though one might argue that having soul and body together in a life like Job’s is worse.

Next Time:  There is more to say about Sheol, but lets take a break and look at some of what the Bible says about Heaven