Did Jesus descend into hell? No! Er…yep.

hell - Jesus

Did Jesus really descend into hell? The earliest forms of the Apostles’ Creed do not contain the statement “he descended into hell,” however, the clause appears in a Greek version of the Creed in 359AD and since that time the church has never been willing to remove it.[1] Yet this small statement has been extensively debated, which serves to illustrate the difficulty of crystallizing the teaching of Scripture into clear and concise doctrinal statements. Formulating doctrine is hard because our presupposed theological views affect our interpretation of Scripture – our doctrinal understanding often shapes our interpretation of Scripture, rather than our understanding of Scripture shaping our doctrine. I will try to avoid this problem by first examining three passages of Scripture used to support the belief that Jesus did not descend into hell after he was crucified and then I will examine three passages that appear to teach that he did; finally I will seek to harmonize these six texts and square them with the teaching of the Apostles’ Creed to conclude that Jesus did in fact descend into hell, but he did so not to pay for sin as a victim, but to proclaim his triumph as a victor.

Before discussing these six key passages it will be helpful to clarify immediately what the Apostles’ Creed means by the word “hell.” Swain, in The New Dictionary of Theology explains that “[t]he ‘hell’ in question is not a place of punishment but the traditional resting place of all the dead (Isa 38:18; Ezek 31:14), a virtual prison from which they are destined never to escape (Ps 88:10; Job 7:9).”[2] Likewise, Packer cautions against anachronism in our understanding of this clause:

Originally, ‘hell’ meant the place of the departed as such, corresponding to the Greek Hades and the Hebrew Sheol…[b]ut since the seventeenth century ‘hell’ has been used to signify only the final state and final retribution for the godless, for which the New Testament name is Gehenna.[3]

Therefore, in the discussion that follows, whenever the word “hell” is used with reference to Christ’s descent, it should be understood as referring not to Gehenna where the godless find their final resting place in the “lake of fire,” but rather to the place of the dead, where the dead await their final judgment.

 

Some Scripture Passages seem to affirm Jesus did not descend into Hell

There are at least three passages of Scripture which appear to teach that Jesus did not descend into hell. In Luke’s account of Jesus’ crucifixion we find a short dialogue between Jesus and two criminals on the cross, of whom one is unrepentant and the other unrepentant (Lk 23:39-43). The repentant criminal, who strongly believes that Jesus is the Messiah, turns and asks, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Lk 23:42).[4] To this Jesus replies, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (Lk 23:43). Jesus delivers this promise with what Bavon rightly describes as “solemn authority” for Jesus’ statement, “truly, I say to you” reveals his strong confidence in what he promises; namely, that for both men death will not be the end – paradise awaits.[5] The word “paradise” (paradeisos) is Persian in origin and is used by Luke in such a way that it “refers to ‘God’s garden,’ an eschatological image of new creation.”[6] The word is found two other times in the New Testament and in both these contexts heaven (the presence of God dwelling with people) is in view (2 Cor 12:4; Rev 2:7). We should not miss the immediacy of this promise – Jesus declares that they will be in paradise “today” and thus Fitzmyer has concluded that in fact Luke “seems to know nothing of a descensus ad inferos [a descent into hell]if that  is to be understood as something more than death itself.”[7] Therefore, this small pericope in Luke’s Gospel is one of the strongest passages that seems to indicate that Jesus did not descend to the place of the dead after he was crucified, for on that very same day he went to be in the presence of God in paradise.

This conclusion appears to be supported by two other passages of Scripture: Luke 23:46 and John 19:30. A few verses after the discussion between the criminal on the cross and Jesus, Luke records that Jesus, before he died, called out loudly, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” (23:46). This verse, taken from Psalm 31:5, implies that Jesus trusted the Father for life that he would soon realize beyond death.[8] Grudem explains that this “suggests that Christ expected (correctly) the immediate end of his suffering and estrangement and the welcoming of his spirit into heaven by God the Father….”[9] Therefore this verse likewise suggests that Jesus’ spirit went to be with his Father.

Finally, as Jesus died he cried out, “It is finished!” (Jn 19:30). And so we must ask, “what is finished?” There is a theological meaning intended here.[10]The answer to the questions is “the entire purpose for which the Father had sent the Son into the world…salvation and eternal life [are] henceforth freely available.”[11] In this way, the exclamation, “It is finished” could equally be translated “It is accomplished![12]This supports the conclusion that Jesus did not need to descend to suffer in hell in to accomplish his mission. Therefore, John 19:30 is an additional piece of evidence to support the conclusion that Jesus did not descend into hell in order to pay for sins as a way of accomplishing salvation.[13]

 

Some Scripture Passages seem to affirm Jesus did descend into Hell

Lest we hastily declare that the historic clause “he descended into hell” has no biblical foundation, we must now consider three passages of Scripture that affirm the descensus ad inferos. 1 Peter 3:18-4:6, Romans 10:6-7, and Ephesians 4:8-9 all seem to indicate that Jesus did in fact enter into the realm of the dead after he was crucified.

1 Peter 3:18-4:6 is perhaps the most difficult New Testament passage to interpret, and yet the most likely interpretation of this text teaches that Jesus did descend into hell. The context in this passage in 1 Peter 3:18-4:6 is an encouragement to suffer for doing what is right, and as an encouragement Peter says to consider Jesus, who suffered and yet was vindicated (3:18-19, 22). Although Peter’s flow of thought is complex and convoluted, there are a few important phrases that need to be examined to answer the question of whether or not Jesus descended into hell.[14]

The first phrase is in 1 Peter 3:18-20 where Peter says that Jesus was “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 time of Noah….” When Peter says that Jesus was made alive “in the spirit” he means, most likely, that Jesus’ spirit was alive even as his body was in the tomb. Peter is making a “contrast between a mode of being in the flesh and a mode of being in the spirit…the phrases are pointing to some kind of realm or forces.”[15] Many scholars see a reference here to the resurrection since they find it odd to have the language of being “made alive” to refer only to the life of Jesus spirit and not his body too; however, it is not unheard of for the biblical writers to think in terms of a spirit-flesh dualism and thus a coming to life, as it were, of the spirit (Lk 24:36-37; Jn 3:1-7).[16] Therefore, the most natural reading of this difficult text points to the reality that Jesus visited the place of the dead in spirit.

But what did Jesus do in the realm of the dead? When 1 Peter 3:18-22 is read alongside 1 Peter 4:6 it seems that Jesus did two things: he proclaimed judgment on evil angelic forces and he proclaimed the good news of vindication for dead believers. 1 Enoch indicates that the “spirits in prison” to whom Christ proclaimed in 1 Peter 3:19 are most likely the angels (“sons of God”) who rebelled in Genesis 6:1-4 and took the “daughters of man” as their wives.[17] This interpretation is strengthened by Davids who argues that the unqualified “spirits” always refers to nonhuman beings in the New Testament.[18] The proclamation that Jesus made to these evil angels was one of judgment, which both 1 Peter 3:22 and Colossians 2:15 support (and perhaps Mark 4:24-27). Therefore, Jesus descended into hell, not to proclaim a second chance to these spiritual beings, but to announce his triumph over their power.[19]

At the same time, 1 Peter 4:6 teaches that Jesus preached the gospel, the good news, to godly believers and thus he “harrowed hell” and vindicated godly believers who had died before the crucifixion. 1 Peter 4:6 says that “…this is why the gospel was preached even to those who are dead, that though judged in the flesh the way people are, they might live in the spirit the way God does.” The evil angels did not have good news preached to them in the realm of the dead; they had bad news proclaimed to them. However, dead, godly believers who were judged and perhaps condemned and killed by people who judged using human standards now had the good news preached to them by Jesus’ proclamation; God had witnessed their faith and now vindicates them so that they might live “in the spirit the way God does” as they await the resurrection.[20] Those who have read C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe may recognize that Lewis portrayed this event when Aslan, the great lion and Christ figure, ran to the White Witch’s stronghold after the stone-table scene and breathed life into the dwarves, giants, centaurs, Dryads, and animals that had been turned into stone.[21] This theme of Jesus loosing the bonds of the godly was important in first century preaching and was also found in various plays during the Middle Ages, as von Balthasar explains, but is now “increasingly lost to view in systematic theology.”[22] In sum, when 1 Peter 3:18-22 is interpreted with 1 Peter 4:6 it becomes apparent that Jesus descended to the place of the dead and proclaimed the triumph of the cross to the defeat of the evil angelic forces and the liberation of the godly dead.

This conclusion that Jesus did in fact descend to the place of the dead is confirmed by two similar New Testament passages: Romans 10:6-7 and Ephesians 4:9-10. In Romans 10:6-7 Paul speaks of the hypothetical situation of one descending down to the abyss to bring Christ up from the dead and in Ephesians 4:9-10 Paul speaks of the fact of Christ descending to the lower parts of the earth. Thielman’s commentary on Paul’s use of the phrase “descended into the lower regions of the earth” is worth considering:

“It seems extremely unlikely that Paul would use [this phrase – ‘descended to the lower regions’] in such a cultural environment and expect his readers to understand by it anything other than a descent to the realm of the dead…. According to Paul, then, the ascent of Christ inevitably implies his descent to the earth’s lower reaches, the place of the dead.”[23]

 

In both of these passages from Paul, we do not find detailed discussion of how, why, or when Christ descended into the realm of the dead; however, we do have the affirmation that it happened, the same affirmation we find in the Apostles’ Creed.

 

(See part two here…)

 

[1] Jonathan F. Bayes, The Apostles’ Creed: Truth with Passion (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2010), 88.

[2] Lionel Swain “Descent of Christ into Hell” in The New Dictionary of Theology (Joseph A. Komonchak, Mary Collins, & Dermot A. Lane, eds.; Wilmington, DA: Michael Galzier Inc. 1987), 280.

[3] J.I. Packer, I Want to be a Christian (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1977), 63.

[4] All Scripture citations are form the English Standard Version.

[5] François Bovon Luke (Vol 3; Hermeneia; Helmut Koester, ed., James Crouch, trans. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2012), 311.

[6] G.B. Caird, Saint Luke (Pelican Gospel Commentaries; London, UK: Penguin Books, 1963), 254 and Joel B. Green, The Gospel of Luke (NICNT; Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans 1997), 823.

[7] Joseph A. Fitzmyer, Luke the Theologian: Aspects of his Teaching (London, UK: Geoffery Chapman, 1989), 220.

[8] Donald G. Miller, The Gospel According to Luke (The Layman’s Bible Commentary; Balmer H. Kelly, ed.; Richmond, VA: John Knox Press, 1959), 166.

[9] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), 593.

[10] Ibid.

[11] F.F. Bruce, The Gospel of John (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1983), 374.

[12] George R. Beasley-Murray, John (WBC; Vol 36; David A. Hubbard, Glenn W. Barker, eds.; Dallas, TX: Word, 1987), 352.

[13] See also Grudem, Systematic Theology, 593.

[14] It appears that Peter’s flow of thought goes something like this: continue suffering for doing the right thing (1 Peter 3:17); for Jesus suffered for the unrighteous in order to save them (3:18); indeed Jesus was put to death in the flesh (3:18); but Jesus was made alive in the spirit and in spirit he proclaimed to the spirits in prison who did not obey at the time of Noah (3:19-20); for example baptism is the antitype of the salvation that Noah and his family experienced through the flood (3:21); furthermore baptism is an expression of a repentant appeal for a good conscience on the basis of Jesus’ resurrection, by which he subjected all angelic powers to himself (3:21-22); therefore continue to suffer well just like Jesus did and reject your flesh even if the gentiles malign you for refusing to join them (4:1-4); for the gentiles will be judged by God who also judges the dead (4:5); yet the believers who die will have good news proclaimed to them, vindicating them and giving them spiritual life (4:6).

[15] Lewis R. Donelson, I and II Peter and Jude (NTL; Lousiville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 111.

[16] Joel B. Green, 1 Peter (THNTC; Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007), 127. Contra Beale: the ‘proclamation to the spirits in prison’ is likely a reference to Christ proclaiming his victory in resurrection and the defeat of all satanic and antagonistic forces as he ascended into heaven.” G.K. Beale, A New Testament Biblical Theology: The Unfolding of the Old Testament in the New (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2011), 328.

[17] See further 1 Enoch 10-16; 21.

[18] Peter H. Davids, The First Epistle of Peter (NICNT; F.F. Bruce, ed.; Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1990), 139.

[19] J.N.D. Kelly, The Epistles of Peter and of Jude (Henry Chadwick, ed.; Black’s New Testament Commentaries; London, UK: Adam and Charles Black, 1969), 156. See also William Joseph Dalton: “[t]he proclamation to the disobedient spirits, or the subjugation of angels, is merely another way of saying that the definitive act of salvation has taken place.” Christ’s Proclamation to the Sprits: A Study of 1 Peter 3:18-4:6 (2nd ed.; Analecta Boblica; Rome: Editrice Pontificio Istituto Biblico, 1989), 158.

[20] Douglas Harink, 1 & 2 Peter (Brazos Theological Commentary; Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2009), 110.

[21] C.S. Lewis, The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe (New York, NY: Collier, 1956),142-74.Pointed out in Green, 1 Peter, 130.

[22] Hans Urs von Balthasar, Mysterium Paschale (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1990), 180.

[23] Frank Thielman, Ephesians (BECNT; Grand Rapids, MI: 2010), 271.

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