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.

Our Oversimplification of Life After Death

Most people, if they believe in life after death at all, would subscribe to a basic Heaven for all or a Heaven and Hell model.  They would also believe the Bible supports these models.  It seems too few understand that the resurrection of the body leads not to Heaven but to a New Earth.  Why is this so?  I have even found pastors not clear about this.

The teaching that post-Judgment Day the saved will inhabit a New Earth is well attested in the Bible.  You can find it in Isaiah 65, 2 Peter 3 and Revelation 21 and 22.  This blog will eventually get around to each of these.  For now, I just want to ponder why were we taught that we will go to Heaven forever.

I starts way back with the first century church.  The Greek idea of the afterlife was a strongly “spirit only” model.  The body was seen as corrupt and worthless and had no part in life after death.  The Jewish understanding was different.  It was focused on the resurrection of the body.  Old ideas can die hard, and for quite a while the Church had to fight a Greek heresy called Gnosticism.  While repudiated, Gnosticism subtly had its influence just as the Greek worldview affected the thinking of Western culture.  Those influences and the scarcity of Bibles to read and for that matter the ability to read gave the common Christian the idea that Heaven was the end goal.  Even the presence of “the resurrection of the body” in the creeds didn’t dissuade people.  They just assumed that the resurrected body was made for Heaven.

Plenty of the Church fathers understood about the New Earth.  In fact, that is what is dominately talked about with respect to the afterlife.  Some question whether the hope of Heaven is biblical.  Heaven does show up in the Bible, however.  It is not part of Old Testament teaching as a destination for people most likely because God didn’t reveal it as a possibility until after Jesus’ death and resurrection.  The teaching of our having a place in Heaven is found in Luke 18:22, 2 Corinthians 5:1, Philippians 3:20, 1 Peter 5:4 and Revelation 6:9-10, 7:9-17.  In fact the 2 Corinthians passage speaks of “an eternal home in Heaven” which might have led some to conflate Heaven and the New Earth.

The conflation of the doctrines of Heaven and the New heavens and Earth seems to be a particularly big problem during the period of the Enlightenment.  I am not sure why.  That period also gives us a number of our hymns about Heaven.  Try to find a hymn verse about the New Earth in Lutheran Service Book.  There are only a few verses, typically something like verse 8 and 9 which you never sing, about the resurrection of our bodies.  This adds to the ignorance of the Bible’s promise of a New Earth.

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.

The Resurrection of All

“Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake:  some to everlasting life, others to everlasting contempt.”  Daniel 12:2

 

One huge surprise with respect to the resurrection of the dead is that everybody, not only the saved, will be resurrected.  This clearly not the same as everybody being saved.  Some will rise to “everlasting contempt”.

The Bible would place this event as a part of Judgment Day.  Just think about the situations of all who participate in the “general resurrection”.  Some have been dead for years, centuries, millennia.  If they have been saved through their connection to Christ, Heaven has been their place of residence.  Their physical body would probably be long decayed with its elements returning to the Earth in some way.  If a person had died without Christ, their abode has been Sheol–a place of suffering.  Like the others, their bodies have decayed away.  Then there are those who are still alive to that Day.  Some will belong to Jesus but most will not. What happens to them?

1 Thessalonians 4:13f speaks of the residents of Heaven returning with Jesus.  That passage only speaks of their resurrection, though there is no solid reason to imagine that this is at a different time than the resurrection Daniel speak of above. 1 Corinthians 15:51-52 gives us this information:

Listen, I tell you a mystery:  We will not all sleep, be we will all be changed–in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, the last trumpet.  For the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.

So everyone, at the same moment,  the last trumpet, will be resurrected or changed to a resurrected, imperishable body.  That is quite a picture.  Is it too much for you to believe?  One need not balk at logistical questions like, “What if someone was cremated or utterly destroyed in another way?” or “What if my atoms were shared by multiple living people?”  Our resurrected body will be ours not because it uses the exact same material we had while we lived.  So the final disposition of a body means little.  I doubt that we will resurrect where we were planted.  God is capable of reforming and reanimating.  There is nothing you need to do to help nor is there anything you can do to stop it.

The resurrection is completion of the promise of everlasting life for some and it is the whole person sealing of everlasting contempt for others.