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.

What Kind of Resurrected Body Would You Like?

The Resurrection of the Body gets a mixed emotional response from people, because people have a love/hate relationship with their own bodies.  So let us start with the body you have.  Perhaps it falls short of the body you wish to have.  You might be feeling some of the affects of getting old.  You may have to struggle with weight control.  You definitely have physical limits.  You may no longer, or maybe not ever, been seen as particularly attractive.  These things hurt.  But let us also acknowledge this, even with its flaws under sin and the curse, your body is quite an amazing feat of engineering.  The processes that each cell must do just to keep you alive is astounding.  The Bible says, “I am fearfully and wonderfully made”, and the psalmist who wrote that didn’t have a tenth of the information we have about the body.

So how much will your resurrected body have in common with your current body.  I think, not much.  We don’t have much information about our resurrected bodies, so most of our questions are for now unanswerable.  I would urge you, based on the information the Bible does give us, to keep an open mind about what it will be like.  Here is what we know:

So will it be with the resurrection of the dead.  The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body.  1 Corinthians 15:42-44

From this you can dismiss aging, sickness and death for sure.  There may be physical limitations, but they sure won’t be the limitations you face now.  Sinful nature will be gone.  I wouldn’t interpret “spiritual body” to mean “without a physical presence” or anything like that.  The next paragraph in 1 Corinthians unpacks this phrase a bit:

If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body.  So it is written:  The first Adam became a living being”, the last Adam (Jesus), a life giving spirit.  The spiritual did not come first, but the natural.  The first man was of the dust of the Earth, the second man from Heaven, so also are those who are of Heaven.  And just as we have born the likeness of the earthly man, so shall we bear the likeness of the man from Heaven.

This would encourage us to look at the properties of Jesus’ resurrected body.  He is tangible, but seems to move freely and instantly without barrier.  His appearance is recognizable except when he doesn’t wish to be recognized.  Possibly changing in appearance.  He bears some marks from His life, but only as marks of honor.

Without unpacking every proof passage that might suggest the answer.  Here are some understandable questions about the resurrected body, and my humble opinion of what the Bible says about them:

  • Will we recognize people?  Yes, including people we never met.
  • Will we be beautiful?  Absolutely gorgeous.
  • Will we retain any of our personality?  Yes, but sin and damage free.
  • Will we eat?  Yes, but never hunger.
  • Will we sleep?  Not so sure.
  • Will we work?  Yes, but not labor.  Our activities will be very satisfying.
  • Will we love and be loved? Yes, all relationships will be loving.
  • Will we be male or female?  I think yes.
  • Will we be sexual?  Most say no.  I think yes.
  • Will we be confined to the New Earth?  I think not.
  • Will we remember our lives here?  Yes, but in a fading fashion

We can speculate on many things, but there is very little information.  The information does intrigue, however.  For those who belong to Christ, the resurrection will be a great thing.

Judgment Day for the Righteous

Imagine this scenario, because you very well might live it.  You belong to Jesus through the faith He formed in you and your baptism into His death.  You have died years ago and have been with Jesus in Heaven, and now the Day has finally arrived.  What day?  Judgment Day.  This should be largely irrelevant to you, right?  Clearly you have already been judged and since you have been covered in the blood of Jesus, you have been found sinless in the eyes of God.  All of this is true, except for the irrelevant part.

The Bible clearly states that Judgment Day is a day of judgment for all–saved or lost, living or dead.  It is not a formality.  It has a real bearing on our future.

Matthew 25:31f tells the “parable” of the sheep and goats.  It is not exactly a parable.  It uses one metaphor to explain that on Judgment Day, the righteous and the unrighteous will be spatially separated like a shepherd does with sheep and goats.  This separation is important to note in this story, because it is where grace is found in this description.  A reader who fails to recognize this will observe the judgment of our deeds which is described here and jump to a very false and dangerous conclusion–that we are saved based on our works.

In this description, the people on the right (those who are righteous) are commended for all the good things they did.  But ask yourself, do you really think they never did anything wrong or missed an opportunity to do good?  Why aren’t they being called out on the carpet for all their sins?  It is because they are on the right, and those on the right have been saved by what God has done for them through Jesus’ death and resurrection.  Jesus covers their sins and all that is left is their good.

Those on the left are sternly rebuked  for their sins.  Ask yourself again, do you really think that these people never did anything charitable or kind?  Why are they only condemned for their failures.  The answer–they don’t have Jesus’ forgiveness, and without that no charity, goodness or kindness can compensate for or cover your sins.  It is all for nothing.  They are damned.  Some of them are relatively nice people.

For those who are ultimately damned, Judgment Day is about their damnation.  Clearly this is not a hypothetical group.  It is a substantial group–a majority even.  Why would a God of love do this?  Because He is also a God of uncompromising justice and He had already provided a costly solution that was soundly rejected by this group.

The Sheep and the Goats discourse describes the Judgment Day experience as if it were a group experience.  Next time, I will take you to another Judgment Day passage that describes it as an individual experience.  I think it is very interesting and important.  I hope you read it.

Daniel’s Vision of Heaven

Most of the information that we have about Heaven comes in the form of visions.  It is important to note that visions are not field trips.  They are messages.  As such, they come embedded with symbolic meaning or modify the reality of Heaven so that we can comprehend it.  One such vision is found in Daniel 7.

As I looked, thrones were set in place, and the Ancient of Days took His seat. His clothing was as white as snow; the hair of His head was white like wool. His throne was flaming with fire, and its wheels were all ablaze. A river of fire was flowing out from before Him. Thousands upon thousands attended Him; ten thousand times ten thousand stood before Him. The court was seated, and the books were opened.

Here is a description ripe for misinterpretation. Remember that this is a vision, not a heavenly version of C-Span, where Daniel is watching the actual proceedings. Not only are we told that no one has gone into Heaven, we are also told that no one has ever seen God. So, even though Daniel describes God on His throne, he is not actually observing God. This image described here is then a symbolic image or manifestation for Daniel’s benefit. We would therefore be errant to conclude that God is an old man in a flaming wheel chair. First, the hair is white, not because of age, but because of glory. When Jesus appears gloriously in Revelation 1 his hair is also “white like wool”. The wheels referred to in Daniel no doubt correspond to “wheels” that are described in Ezekiel 1. The function of these “wheels” is unknown. Their description sounds somewhat like a gyroscope, but they are definitely not the wheels of a wheelchair.

What do we learn about Heaven from this reading?   For one, humans will not be alone there. God is attended by thousands and ten thousand times ten thousand (100 million or so) stood before Him. Thousands and millions of what? Not humans according to Jesus. These must be angels. Angels are not humans. They are a species all of their own.

It would also seem that God doesn’t just sit on a throne all the time. The court was seated, suggesting that there is somewhere else to be beyond the throne room.

The last thing to point out in this reading is the river of fire. In Ezekiel 47 and Revelation 22 a river of living water flows from the temple of God. In those passages the message is of God’s blessing. Here in Daniel the message is of impending wrath upon certain nations. In both cases the river is most likely a manifestation of the Holy Spirit. Jesus refers to the Spirit as living water, but juxtaposition would suggest that the river of fire is also the Spirit.

The throne room of God can seem like a very alien place, and indeed it is. From bizarre creatures like the Seraphim to the multi-formed presence of the Spirit, you might find it rather frightening in description. It is true that this isn’t your living room, but, though unworthy, it is by grace that we are invited to come to this place. Far from frightening, the experience of God’s throne room will be glorious.

Is It Perfect?

Many people resort to describing Heaven with one word, perfect.  Is it?  What does that word even mean?  Without a doubt the things that can make life here miserable will not be a part of Heaven by the time we get there.  But there is at least one section of the Bible that indicates that Heaven was at one time far less than perfect.

Revelation 12:7-10:

Now war arose in Heaven, Michael and his angels fighting against the dragon. And the dragon and his angels fought back, but he was defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in Heaven. And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him. And I heard a loud voice in Heaven saying, “Now the salvation and power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ have come, for the accuser of our brothers has been thrown down.

This is a very different idea of Heaven then what most people think about. Heaven can’t have war, can it? But it seems that Heaven had rebellion problems just as the earth does. Satan, the source of all rebellion against God, is seen prowling around Heaven up until the time of Christ. Jesus speaks of seeing Satan fall from Heaven like lightening.   Jesus’ victory seems to be soon after a military type assault carried out by Gods’ angels against Satan and his cohort.

We can see Satan’s Old Testament access to God’s throne room in the picture of Heaven found in Job. The account gives no physical details of the place but speaks of the relationships between the “sons of God”, which includes Satan, and God himself. Satan is a tolerated and yet rebellious figure in this story, but his expulsion seems to be prevented at the time. The reasons for Satan’s continued presence in Heaven throughout the Old Testament are uncertain, but the reason probably rests in rules whose existence we can infer through biblical phrases like “it is written” and “this must happen”.

In a similar fashion we can see Satan’s antagonistic presence in Heaven in Zechariah 3. Here Satan is accusing the high priest, Joshua, of some wrongdoing. Satan is strongly rebuked by God and Joshua’s sins are forgiven.

Another Heavenly squabble is told of in Jude. This time it is the archangel Michael disputing with Satan over Moses body. No details of this dispute are found in Scripture, but a story about this event is found in the apocryphal book, the Assumption of Moses. Jesus’ words in John 3:13 would preclude anyone being “assumed into Heaven”, but apparently there is some truth in this reported dispute.

What do the stories in Job, Zechariah, Jude, and Revelation teach us about Heaven? For one, it was not as peaceful and perfect as we assume. That may no longer true, but the rebellion against God didn’t get its start on earth—it started in Heaven. Perhaps this may explain why God is intent on a new heaven and earth, as opposed to forever in Heaven.

Is Heaven For Real?

Let’s start with a very basic question. Do you think there is a Heaven? You hear that question asked every so often in books and movies and, I presume, it is asked quite often in real life. Even those who regularly attend church have their occasional doubts. Nothing brings this question into more focus than your own impending death. Is Heaven for real?

There are many sorry substitutes for a resounding “yes”. To believe in Heaven seems anti-intellectual for some. We fear that it may be myth or wishful thinking, so many are guarded. As a result, some will say that we live on in people’s memories or that Heaven is a state of mind we have while we are alive. Let me give you an example. I recently had the opportunity to go to Israel. In Jerusalem, I visited the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, which is on the traditional site where Jesus was both executed and buried.  I was standing in a chapel that is on the top of Golgatha where Jesus was crucified. Golgatha was not some huge mountain or even much of a hill. It was a rocky outcropping in a garden just outside the walls of Jerusalem, maybe 25 feet tall. The chapel was in three parts, each utilized by a different church body. I was in the middle chapel and in the chapel to my right, well within earshot was a Roman Catholic priest giving a sermon and celebrating Mass with his tour group. As I listened he said something like this, “I don’t know what eternal life is, but I would like to think it was something to do with this world. I believe we will live on in the memories of those who love us and our deeds will continue to have a lasting impact.” I was both stunned and repulsed. Here we are, mostly likely standing on the place where Jesus died to win us eternal life, and a member of the clergy was equating eternal live with being remembered. I was torn by incredulity, pity and anger. Luckily, the later did not win.

Let me assure all readers, that Jesus did live. There is plenty of evidence for that. Five hundred witnesses can also attest that He did actually die on a cross and rise again. The purpose of this whole process was not, for sure, so that you can live on in somebody’s memory. That is just sad, sad garbage. Heaven is neither imaginary nor is it wishful thinking to calm us as we face death. Heaven is a place that is perhaps more “real” than this universe.

Both the Bible and the testimony of many people who have had Near Death Experiences (NDEs) attest to the reality of Heaven. Jesus speaks frequently about ascending to or descending from Heaven. This type of language would be nonsense if Heaven were a mere state of mind. In John 14:6, he goes out of his way to affirm that Heaven is not only a place, but a place for us, when he says, “In my Father’s house are many rooms”.   Perhaps that would still seem like mythical, wishful thinking for some if it were not for frequent experiences of Heaven when people’s consciences are temporarily separated from their body (usually because of medical circumstances).

Since we all will die, we should all be terribly interested in what we can learn about eternal life and the places described by the Bible that exist outside of our world and beyond our lives. I would argue that, other than how to get to Heaven, this topic is one of the most relevant topics that there is. Still, there is an interesting abundance of people who don’t want to talk about life after death. I suspect that this is caused by a deep fear of death or a still festering grief over the loss of a loved one, or maybe it the desire to be God. Whatever the cause, this is the wrong approach.

Clear knowledge about Heaven and about how God has arranged that we get there can result in just the opposite. We can look to Heaven with great anticipation and excitement. We can be as certain about what happens after our death as we are certain that the sun will rise. That is an incredibly powerful position to be in. Death really has no sting in this case, and life itself is given new and fuller meaning.

Such certainty can and must rest on the reality of Jesus’ death and resurrection and confidence in the promise of God to forgive our sins and bring us home. As Jesus said, “I am the way and the truth and the life, no one comes to the Father except through me.” On the flip side, confidence that rests on ignorance or wishful thinking is extremely dangerous.

A common and dangerous belief is the belief that all of us end up in Heaven. It makes us feel better. It is what we want. If we believe this uncritically, then we don’t even have to think about the topic. I want everybody to make it to Heaven as well, but it isn’t so. The Bible is clear about this and that reality is also backed by many NDEs (Near Death Experiences), where people experience Sheol. For this reason, we should all think about this critical topic of life after death.

Heaven is not the default destination of a human being. Jesus speaks of many heading to destruction in Matthew 7. Romans tells us that everybody falls short of the glory of God in chapter 3. Our default is to be damned, but Jesus’ death and resurrection is enough that anyone who is connected to Jesus through faith and baptism is not condemned and has eternal life (John 3). Eternal life has nothing to do with the quality of our behavior and whether we were good enough. Eternal life is completely the gift of God, and it is a very good thing this is so, for even a partial responsibility for gaining eternal life would put it out of our reach.

Having a wrong idea about who goes to Heaven and why is clearly the worst of the misconceptions about eternal life, but there are many more. Some of these misconceptions are likely to be held by you. Ask yourself from where they came.