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.

The Resurrection of the Body

Many people have a model of the afterlife that is too simplified.  For them it is either Heaven or Hell.  To make it even more positive, many have scratched Hell from this list.  It is just universal happiness.  Who wouldn’t want that?  We cannot believe this into existence, however.  The Bible would teach us that we are merely hiding from the truth.

For those who do believe in Heaven and Hell, but just Heaven and Hell, the idea of the resurrection of the body does not fit in their model.  Why would anyone want that?  Still, the resurrection of the body is a prominent part of biblical afterlife theology.

Here are some important things to remember as we approach the topic of the resurrection.  First, the wages of sin is death.  Death has a two-fold meaning for a human.  First, it is the aging, expiration and decay of our physical being. Second, it is the forsaking by God of our immortal nature–our soul.  Through a connection to Jesus the forsaking of our soul is no longer necessary, because Jesus was forsaken for us.  As we all know, this is not true for the physical death of our body.  Our body needs to die, decay and go away because sin, that is sinful nature, is an integral part of our physical body.  It would be fair to say that we are suffering the wages of sin until the day of the resurrection of our bodies, because our body is a part of what we are.  We are not a soul renting a body.  We are body and soul.

God has redeemed us so that we can be both a body from this physical realm and a soul connected permanently to Jesus, who is also body and soul.  In a way, His plan is to return things to the way they were supposed to be in the first place.

The resurrection of the body is primarily a Judgment Day event for the whole of mankind.  I say, “primarily”, because it has already happened once.  Jesus is resurrected.  The Bible calls Him the “first-born of the dead”.  This title naturally implies more to come.  There is a big difference between being resurrected (like Jesus) and raised from the dead (like Lazarus for instance).  A resurrected body is fundamentally different from the body that died.  It is no longer subject to aging, dysfunction or death.  A person raised from the dead was still going to die again.  They were merely repaired and reanimated.

In my next entries, I will look at some the passages that speak of the resurrection of dead.  It is a long-standing expectation that raises interesting questions.

 

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.

When Will It Happen?

Since Judgment Day was first mentioned, people have been trying to predict when it will happen.  This is true even though Jesus makes it very clear that no one knows the day–not even Him.  There are no hidden codes or mathematical formulas for predicting a date.  If someone is selling you one, run.  Sell nothing.  Don’t quit your job.  Don’t get out a lawn chair and look up at the sky.  The Bible offers no clues only criteria of what must happen first.

The more well know criterion is mentioned by Jesus in Matthew 24 as he tours the temple grounds with his disciples. He states:

And this Gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations and then the end will come. (Matthew 24:14)

My main question is what defines a “nation”? The geo-political boundaries of the world are in constant flux. Some are not even recognized by the people who live within them. Revelation 5 offers insight :

You were worthy to take the scroll and open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased men for God from every tribe and language and people and nation (Revelation 5:9)

Language groups, tribal identity, racial groups and political groups all play a part in not only who will hear the Gospel but who will be saved by it. God would love to save all, but that seems to be something that will not happen. Even so, he will save somebody from every group.

Using such a definition there is more people groups than one might realize. For instance, defining how many distinct languages exist on Earth is a hard thing to do for definitions of what makes a language distinct are not standardized. Still, you can get a feel for the scale of magnitude. In 2009, Ethnologue, enumerated 6909 languages of which 2508 had a translated version of the Bible. The number is changing rapidly. Mission India, an evangelistic outreach group, shows that unreached people groups have been reduced in half during a mere four year period from 2010 to 2014. Of course, God gets to decide who is a people group and when we are done. The point is that we could be getting close.

The other criterion is found in Revelation 6:11:

Then each of them was given a white robe, and they were told to wait a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and brothers who were to be killed as they had been was completed.

The context is Heaven where martyred Christians were eagerly awaiting Judgment Day. The Day has to wait until a pre-known number of martyr deaths was realized. This may cause you to wonder why God would want more martyrs. Martyrdom is a tragedy. Apparently, it is also a high honor to die because of your testimony for Christ. Future martyrs deserve the opportunity to fulfill this destiny.

This, of course, flies in the face of Islam’s definition of a martyr.  A Christian martyr commits no violence and has their life taken from them rather than deny Christ.  It is a witness (which is what “martyr” means) to the impact of Jesus on a person’s life in the form of bravery, gentleness and conviction.  The Islamic “martyr” makes a witness too–one that should be quickly understood as not from the God would created and loves mankind.

So what do we learn from these criteria? First, the reason the world continues to turn is so that more people can be saved through Jesus’ death and resurrection. Secondly, the path to the completion of God’s plan will include resistance, persecution and violence. Still, it is an eternal honor to be a part of bringing God’s plan to its completion.

Finally, we learn to be ready, because it could happen any day.

The Day of the Lord

In churches that use a pericope system (a system of bible readings that can cover one to three years), this time of year, near the end of the Church year, is often dedicated to passages about Judgment Day.  Judgment Day is definitely a part of the conversation if we want to be comprehensive in talking about life after death.  Everyone will be a participant in Judgment Day, says the Bible, like it or not.

Judgment Day is a very prominent theme in Scripture, all of the Abrahamic religions and even within our secular society. Prominent or not, Judgment Day is largely misunderstood, especially with respect to the role it plays in a Christian’s existence.

So what do you think of when Judgment Day is mentioned? Is it destruction and mayhem? Is it a mass extinction event caused by natural catastrophe, nuclear war, or even intelligent robots? Our fears get embodied in Judgment Day themes, and in general, Judgment Day is something we fear. There are fearful events connected with Judgment Day for sure, but there is also hope and promise.

In our study of Judgment Day and Judgment Day-like themes in the Bible, we start with a phrase, “The Day of the Lord”.

 The Day of the Lord

The first revelations about the coming of God’s judgment start in the Old Testament prophetic books. Here a phrase is coined, “The day of the Lord”. Immediately, we might conclude that “the day of the Lord” has to be Judgment Day. Without a doubt there is a connection, but it seems that there have been several such days with perhaps more to come. In each case, there is strong negative judgment carried out by God. Considering that God characterizes Himself as a God of love, why would the “day of the Lord” be a day of harsh judgment?

Several things are important to recognize about the character of God and His bringing judgments on the people of Earth. First, we must note that God is not quick to arrive at a day of Judgment, nor does He do so without a long time of warning. Bringing punishment is not God’s goal. Showing mercy, granting forgiveness and relenting from judgment are preferred by God. That said, God will bring judgment. We say that this is His “alien” character. It is contrary to His main character. But it is a part of His character and we would be wise to respect this.

Those who want to focus solely on God’s love for the purpose of dismissing judgment or denying hell, do no one a favor. Their logic about how God has and will operate is flawed. God does bring judgment, even permanent judgment on sin, but not without providing every opportunity for repentance and forgiveness.

Probably the first chronologically to speak of the “Day of the Lord” is Amos, though it seems to be a topic already understood by the people around him. He says in chapter 5:

18 

Woe to you who desire the day of the Lord!

Why would you have the day of the Lord?

It is darkness, and not light,

19 

as if a man fled from a lion,

and a bear met him,

or went into the house and leaned his hand against the wall,

and a serpent bit him.

20 

Is not the day of the Lord darkness, and not light,

and gloom with no brightness in it?

 

Apparently, people were looking forward to God’s judgment because they thought it would affect other nations and not them. But is this a reference to Judgment Day? Amos later explains, “I will send you into exile beyond Damascus”. In this case, “the day of the Lord”, is the Babylonian exile–a day when God will bring judgment on His disobedient people. So why talk about it here? The phrase is definitely used in a New Testament context to speak of Judgment Day. In other Old Testament references it could be so as well. Considering the use of “the day of the Lord”, it would appear that the Babylonian Exile was a type, or mini-version, of Judgment Day itself.

Isaiah also has language about the “Day of the Lord” that seems to be a double entendre. In chapter two he warns Israel about impending judgment on them because of their cultic practices, materialism and idolatry. Yet there are phrases here that are quoted in Revelation in regard to Judgment Day. In this case references to hiding from God in caves and underground. In chapter thirteen, the warning moves to Babylon. Their “day of the Lord” will come at the hands of the Medes, but Isaiah also speaks of the sun being darkened and the moon not giving its light, both used in the New Testament about Judgment Day.

 

What Kind of Music Is In Heaven?

For many of us, music is a big part of everyday life.  Music can both sooth and excite.  It is proven that music can assist our memory.  It clearly interacts with our brains in a special way.

When we think about Heaven musically, probably the first thing you think of is the harp.  It is definitely a big part of our cultural picture of Heaven.  I once had a church member who was hospitalized and close to death.  Our local hospital had a woman who would go to patients’ rooms to play the harp because it was so soothing.  As this woman entered the room of my member, she asked, “Would you like to hear some harp music?”  This feisty old lady replied, “No, honey, I’ll be hearing plenty of that soon enough.”

But will she?  Harps are mentioned in Revelation 5 and 15, but it is important to remember that all of the pictures of Heaven found in the Bible are visions, not field trips.  The big difference is that a vision can have symbolic elements to it, similar to our dreams.  They can also be simplified so that we can relate to what was seen.  Harps were the possessions of the wealthy in the time of the Bible.  They represented having leisure.  That may be all the harp represents in Revelation.

The Bible, especially Revelation, does speak of singing in Heaven.  Including the phrase “new song”.  Those who have had out of body experiences of Heaven often also mention the music, and how captivating it is.  Expect heavenly music to be a musical genre that is truly something new to you.  Something hard to describe and never before experienced.  If you don’t care for harp music or even hymns, don’t let that darken your mental image of Heaven.  The desire to praise God and to do it with song will be as natural to you as breathing is now.

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.