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.

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.