Jesus the victor, not victim, of hell

hell - Jesus

Now that we have examined and drawn some conclusions from biblical passages that seem to both affirm and deny that Christ descended into hell (see part one), we must now harmonize these passages into an integrated biblical theology. Two of the passages that were used to affirm that Jesus went to his Father’s presence after his death are quite easily harmonized. First, the discussion of the 1 Peter passages actually confirms the discussion of Jesus’ declaration that “It is finished!” in John 19:30. After looking at 1 Peter 3:18-22 and 4:6 we discovered that Jesus declared his triumph over evil angelic powers and declared the good news to the dead on the very basis of the accomplishment of the cross! Therefore 1 Peter actually serves to reinforce our initial conclusion that Jesus did not need to suffer in hell to secure salvation. Moreover, Jesus cry in Luke 23:46, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” can also be harmonized with 1 Peter. Since it was the Father who made Jesus alive in the spirit, even as he was dead in the flesh, we can then understand Jesus entrusting his spirit to his Father’s care. Indeed, it was the Father who made his spirit alive – we should assume the “divine-passive” in 1 Peter 3:18 when Jesus is said to have been “made alive.” This understanding that the Father brought life to Jesus’ spirit means that we can easily understand Jesus’ cry in Like 23:46 as Jesus entrusting his spirit to his Father. Now this brings us to the most difficult passages to harmonize: 1 Peter 3:18-4:6 and Luke 23:43. How is it that Jesus said to the criminal on the cross “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise” and still affirm the reality that Jesus descended to the place of the dead (Lk 23:43)? This is a difficult theological question and perhaps any answer one postulates will invariably contain an element of conjecture. Nevertheless, there is a hint in 1 Peter 4:6, which says that the dead believers will have the good news preached to them such that they will “live in the spirit the way God does.” Surely if Jesus brings a new spiritual existence to these dead believers, then this existence will be a paradisiac one. J.I. Packer provides some intriguing commentary on this idea:

[Jesus] by his presence he made Hades into Paradise (a place of pleasure) for the penitent thief (cf. Luke 23:43), and presumably for all others who died trusting him during his earthly ministry, just as he does now for the faithful departed (see Philippians 1:21-23; 2 Corinthians 5:6-8)…. [He] perfected the spirits of Old Testament believers (Hebrews 12:23; cf. 11:40), bringing them out of the gloom which Sheol, the “pit,” had hitherto been for them (cf. Psalm 88:3-6, 10-12), into this same Paradise experience. This is the core of the truth in Medieval fantasies of the “harrowing of hell.[1]

Now to ultimately harmonize these passages in 1 Peter and Luke in a truly satisfactory way is outside the scope of this paper, since it raises some pretty substantial metaphysical questions – was the place of the dead split into two different experiences for the godly and the ungodly only after the death of Christ? Was the experience of Sheol/Hades the same for the godly and the ungodly before the descent of Christ? At any rate, the reality is that if Jesus is proclaimed victory in hell, it must surely have meant paradise for all those who trusted in him. Therefore, these passages of Scripture also can be harmonized in a way that upholds the teaching of the Apostles’ Creed.   So did Jesus descend into hell? Yes. The Apostles’ Creed should not be changed; it should be affirmed. But it should be affirmed with the worshipful conviction that Jesus Christ never suffered in hell after he died – he was never a victim of hell. He was, and is, the victor of hell. The place of the dead is under his authority. His cross and his kingdom extend even over the powers of sin and death. Therefore, Christians can face the future with confidence, knowing that the powers of Hades will not prevail against those who have placed their faith in Christ.   [1] Packer, I want to be a Christian, 64.

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