Sunday, April 8, 2012

Did Jesus really descend into hell?

The above, known as "The Apostle's Creed" is one of the oldest statements of faith of the Christian church. For any of you who can read Latin, here is the creed in Latin:

Credo in Deum Patrem omnipotentem;
Creatorem coeli et terrae.
Et in Jesum Christum, Filium eius unicum, Dominum nostrum;
qui conceptus est de Spiritu Sancto,
natus ex Maria virgine;
passus sub Pontio Pilato,
crucifixus, mortuus, et sepultus;
descendit ad inferna;
tertia die resurrexit a mortuis;
ascendit ad coelos;
sedet ad dexteram Dei Patris omnipotentis;
inde venturus est iudicare vivos et mortuos.
Credo in Spiritum Sanctum;
sanctam ecclesiam catholicam;
sanctorum communionem;
remissionem peccatorum;
carnis resurrectionem;
vitam oeternam.

And here it is in Greek:

Πιστεύω εἰς θεòν πατέρα, παντοκράτορα,
ποιητὴν οὐρανοῦ καὶ γῆς.Καὶ εἰς Ἰησοῦν Χριστὸν, υἱὸν αὐτοῦ τὸν μονογενῆ, τὸν κύριον ἡμῶν,
τὸν συλληφθέντα ἐκ πνεύματος ἁγίου,
γεννηθέντα ἐκ Μαρίας τῆς παρθένου,
παθόντα ἐπὶ Ποντίου Πιλάτου,
σταυρωθέντα, θανόντα, καὶ ταφέντα,
κατελθόντα εἰς τὰ κατώτατα,
τῇ τρίτῃ ἡμέρᾳ ἀναστάντα ἀπὸ τῶν νεκρῶν,
ἀνελθόντα εἰς τοὺς οὐρανούς,
καθεζόμενον ἐν δεξιᾷ θεοῦ πατρὸς παντοδυνάμου,
ἐκαῖθεν ἐρχόμενον κρῖναι ζῶντας καὶ νεκρούς.
Πιστεύω εἰς πνεῦμα τὸ ἅγιον,
ἁγίαν καθολικὴν ἐκκλησίαν,
ἁγίων κοινωνίαν,
ἄφεσιν ἁμαρτιῶν,
σαρκὸς ἀνάστασιν,
ζωὴν αἰώνιον.
And finally, in English:
I believe in God, the Father Almighty,
the Maker of heaven and earth,
and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord:
Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost,
born of the virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, dead, and buried;
He descended into hell.
The third day He arose again from the dead;
He ascended into heaven,
and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty;
from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Ghost;
the holy catholic church;
the communion of saints;
the forgiveness of sins;
the resurrection of the body;
and the life everlasting.
Most of the creed is accepted as a standard of orthodoxy by almost every major tradition of Christianity. But there is an exception: the phrase "descended into hell". With respect to that phrase there is variation. Some modern versions of the creed (e.g., the United Methodists) excise the phrase.

So, it being the Saturday of the Paschal weekend, I thought it would be appropriate to post briefly on how this phrase came to be in the creed and, more importantly, whether it's really true that Jesus descended into hell. Please forgive the fact that I haven't properly footnoted and referenced everything below. I'll do that later as I'm trying to get this post out in answer to a friend's question.

The Latin text of the Apostle's Creed is a conglomerate from a number of Latin (and maybe Greek) versions, themselves based on texts assembled from various written sources, dating from second to the third centuries (e.g., Irenaeus, Tertullian, Cyprian, Novatian). The early Roman creed was as follows:
I believe in God the Father almighty;
and in Christ Jesus His only Son, our Lord,
Who was born from the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary,
Who under Pontius Pilate was crucified and buried,
on the third day rose again from the dead,
ascended to heaven,
sits at the right hand of the Father,
whence He will come to judge the living and the dead;
and in the Holy Spirit,
the holy Church,
the remission of sins,
the resurrection of the flesh.
The first version of the creed to incorporate the phrase "descendit in inferna" is the Aquileian version of the creed recorded by Rufinus ca. 390 A.D. Other versions of the creed that existed prior to and contemporaneously with the Aquileian version (e.g., versions from Rome, Milan, Hippo) do not include the phrase. Moreover, no Latin versions of the creed from that time until approximately 650 A.D. contain the phrase.

Interestingly, a number of the Eastern (Greek) versions of the creed use the phrase (as above) "κατελθόντα εἰς τὰ κατώτατα" ("descended to the lowest [parts]") instead of "descended into Hades". This is interesting, because this phrase in Greek is reminiscent of a phrase in Ephesians 4:9 "κατέβη εἰς τὰ κατώτερα μέρη τῆς γῆς" ("descended to the lower regions of the earth"). Which would mean that the creed originally may have been doing nothing more than describing Jesus burial by echoing Paul's description of Jesus' "descent".

Moreover, it's sometimes the case that the Greek texts that use these phrases (i.e., "descended into Hades", "descended to the lowest") don't mention the burial of Christ, and the ones that mention His burial don't mention a descent.

Indeed, Rufinus himself says in his commentary on the creed that he believes "descendit in inferna" to be synonymous with being buried.

Well, that's the history of the text of the Creed, such as it is.

More important than any of this, what does the Bible say on the subject?

First, I should say that having Jesus go to the literal hell (called Gehenna, and described as the lake of fire by Jesus and in Revelation 20:10 - which seems to be a different place than the abyss or bottomless pit in Revelation 20:1) creates some problems. One of those is that it isn't clear that hell is even populated yet. It seems from the latter part of Revelation 20 that people are only thrown there after the final judgment. Moreover, the texts used to support the idea of the descent into hell (see below) talk about Jesus going to Hades (the underworld, the place of the dead), not to Gehenna (the place of eternal punishment).

Texts which are used to support the idea of "the harrowing of hell" are Psalm 16:8-10, Ephesians 4:8-9, 1 Peter 3:18-20, 1 Peter 4:4-6. Sometimes the resurrection of departed saints described in Matthew 27:52-53 is also put forward in combination with the above passages as evidence of Jesus' descent into the underworld and taking saints to heaven.

The Psalm 16 text "you will not abandon my soul to Sheol" was quoted by Peter in his sermon on the day of Pentecost, recorded in Acts 2. He quotes the same text from the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures that was in use at the time of Jesus and the apostles) as "you will not abandon my soul to Hades." This is all fine, since both the Hebrew Sheol and Hades generally mean "the grave" or "the place of the dead". Unfortunately, though, the King James Version translated Hades in Acts 2:27 as "hell", which has led many to use this verse as support for Jesus' descent into hell.

The Ephesians 4:8-9 text (already mentioned above) doesn't say that Jesus went to hell, but rather that he descended to the lower parts of the earth. In the context it probably makes more sense to understand this as being about Jesus' incarnation and subsequent ascension, rather than being about the events between His death and resurrection.

The 1 Peter texts are notoriously difficult to interpret. The major options for interpreting these texts are to understand the "spirits in prison" as being one of:
(1) people from prior to the flood who were preached to by Noah (1 Peter 3:19-20)
(2) evil angels
(3) the spirits of the just from the times prior to Jesus' death who were in "Abraham's bosom" or "Paradise" in Sheol (in contrast to the evil who, as in the parable of Lazarus and the rich man in Luke 16:19-31 were in the "bad" part of Sheol)

All of these options present some problems. In option 1, we would have to account for why the people to whom Noah preached prior to the flood should be in a special category of people that get a second chance for repentance after death. It seems more likely to me that in referring to Jesus preaching to the "spirits [presently] in prison", what is meant is that it was the Spirit of Jesus preaching through Noah during the time that he preached to those people who were ultimately judged in the flood.

As for the evil angels theory, it's based on not only on the reference to "spirits" in 1 Peter 3, but also on passages such as the situation in which Jesus threw the legion of demons from the Gadarene demoniacs into the herd of pigs. The demons begged Jesus not to torture them "before the time". They also asked Him not to send them to the abyss (Luke 8). This seems to show that there was a place called "the abyss" (also mentioned in Revelation, e.g. 9:1 and 20:1) which is a place of imprisonment and punishment for demons. And, the theory goes, Jesus went to this place to announce His victory to the evil spirits imprisoned there. The problem with this theory is that it is hard to reconcile with what seems to be going on in 1 Peter 3. Why would only evil spirits from the time of Noah be imprisoned there? There's nothing else in Scripture or Jewish tradition about evil spirits from the time of Noah being imprisoned in the abyss, so this one verse seems like a bit of a dubious foundation for a doctrine. Moreover, there seems to be a distinction in scripture between "the abyss" and Hades and Gehenna and there's no explicit support for the idea that Jesus went to the abyss.

The third theory, that Jesus went to preach to the righteous in "Abraham's bosom" seems at first to make some sense, especially when considered in light of the parable of Lazarus in Luke 16 and in light of the events described in Matthew 27:52-53. But this theory also runs into problems, in that it's not the righteous that are being preached to according to 1 Peter 3, but the ones who did not obey in the time of Noah.

In short, none of these theories seem especially strong - certainly not strong enough to make their way into a major confession of faith of the church.

So, in light of this background, how has the church interpreted this passage in the creed over the centuries?

Well, as already mentioned, up until the 7th century or so there doesn't seem to be any strong evidence of the presence of the phrase "descent into hell" in the creed.  From that point forward to the present, though, the Roman Catholic church interprets the phrase "descent into hell" as referring to Jesus preaching to Old Testament saints in limbo. The Anglican church teaches that Jesus preached to the Old Testament saints, but that they were in the "Paradise" part of the underworld instead of in limbo. Lutherans teach that "descent into hell" means that  Jesus proclaimed his victory to evil spirits (i.e., as the first phase of His exaltation). The Reformed/Presbyterian branch of the church teaches that the descent into hell refers to the fact that God poured out His full wrath on human body and soul of Jesus during the entire time of His suffering and death and that it is this suffering and death that is referred to. Other non-Lutheran, non-Reformed, non-Episcopal protestant churches either excise the doctrine from the creed or treat it as something of a mystery about which they are not dogmatic.

So what do I think? I probably pretty closely follow the Reformed view.

The view that makes the most sense to me is to say that Jesus experienced my punishment in place and that that punishment was not only the physical judgment of the body, but also the judgment of the human nature by experiencing the full measure of the anger of God -- which I would call hell. And I think He experienced this during His Passion. I'm inclined to think that when Jesus said "Tetelestai!" (It is finished!) on the Cross and gave up the ghost, that He really meant that it was finished. Moreover, I think that the promise He made to the repentant criminal on the cross next to him that that day he would be with Him in Paradise was fulfilled ... and that idea is not really compatible with Jesus going to hell for a whole day first.

But yes, I also think that it's somewhat of a mystery what was happening during the time that Jesus was in the tomb so I'm not too dogmatic about it.

So I can still say the words of the creed, interpreting the "descended into hell" as undergoing in my place all of the wrath of God that, had it been poured out on me, would have resulted in my being thrown into hell. He delivered me and every other Christian from the hell that we were condemned to by taking the hell of God's righteous anger onto Himself.

Hope that helps in clarifying what I think about it. As always, your views are welcomed!

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Hidden in Plain Sight

It's pretty amazing what some artists are doing in 3D pavement art nowadays. Here's an example by Edgar Mueller.

In order for you to experience the effects of this art, though, you have to be standing in the right place. If you stand in the wrong place, it doesn't look anything like what it's supposed to look like. For example, here are two images of another piece of pavement art, one taken from the "correct" perspective, and the second from an "incorrect" one:

You see, the picture only makes sense when looked at the "right" way.

It occurs to me that in some cases, truth can be like that too. You can have the same collection of data, but if you don't look at it in the right way or from the right perspective, you can completely miss the point.

In fact, sometimes what we see or don't see can be a very accurate barometer of the state of our hearts.

I've been reading the book of Matthew this week. One thing that comes through over and over in the book of Matthew is the fact that when Jesus was physically here, he was not recognized because people had completely the wrong idea about the kind of Messiah that they were expecting.

When Jesus showed up, people had available to them the same books (of the Old Testament) that we read. They had the same data we have, but they were only seeing the parts about the conquering King. They generally overlooked the passages that talked about how Messiah was also a suffering Servant who would take away the sins of the people (as in Isaiah 53).

And the fact that they overlooked the complete picture of Jesus was not at all an accident. The reason that the people overlooked the prophecies of the suffering Servant was because they didn't want that kind of Messiah.

Even more than that, the complete concept of salvation that many had at the time that Jesus walked the earth was mistaken. People conceived of salvation as being primarily a matter of physical descent from Abraham combined with the doing of good deeds. And many thought of the blessings of salvation primarily in "this-worldly" terms - as being a matter of experiencing national sovereignty and freedom. In short, they had missed the entire point of the story of the Hebrew Bible: that God had promised to make Abraham the "father of many goyim; that Israel would be a light to the nations and that through her he would raise up a Deliverer for all of mankind; that the goal was ultimately to restore the right relationship between man and God.

Of this all the Law and the Prophets spoke. But no-one could see it. Because, although they had the same text, they were looking at it all wrong.

We see this even among Jesus' own followers. For example, in Matthew 11, John the Baptist, who had been thrown in prison by Herod sends his disciples to ask Jesus whether He was the expected One or whether they should await another. It seems likely from this that even the Baptist was confused about what was going on. Jesus tells John's disciples to tell John the messianic signs that He was doing and to have faith. As John's disciples were leaving, Jesus turned to the crowd and asked them metaphorically whether they thought that John was a soft man, or one who was likely to be of weak opinions. The answer was a decided no. In fact, says Jesus, John is the greatest of all of the prophets up to that time. But, Jesus said, even the  least of the Kingdom would be greater than John.

A lot of people have different opinions about what Jesus meant by that. My own feeling, though, is that Jesus meant that the citizens of the Kingdom are greater than John in that they have a clearer revelation of the truth about God and about His Kingdom and His Messiah.

In contrast, Jesus shows that the people rejected both John and Jesus for opposite reasons, thus showing that they were not really open to the truth at all. They would reject the truth no matter what form it came in. Jesus then finishes the discourse by praising God that He has hidden Himself from the wise and learned but revealed Himself to children.

The same theme is there a couple of chapters later when Jesus tells a bunch of parables of the Kingdom, one of the common themes of which is the "hiddenness" of the Kingdom. He even says explicitly, quoting Isaiah, that He taught all things in parables so that

dYou will indeed hear but never understand,
and you will indeed see but never perceive.
15 For this people's heart has grown dull,
and with their ears ethey can barely hear,
and ftheir eyes they have closed,
lest they should see with their eyes
and hear with their ears
and gunderstand with their heart
and hturn, and I would heal them.

That is, he veiled the truth in such a way that only those who had been given hearts able to receive the truth would be able to receive it.

Today is Palm Sunday.

On Palm Sunday Jesus rode down from the Mount of Olives into Jerusalem as King. The crowds surrounding Him were shouting hosanna, but Jesus, when He drew near the city said the following (recorded in Luke 19):

41 rAnd when he drew near and saw the city, she wept over it, 42 saying, tWould that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now uthey are hidden from your eyes. 43 For vthe days will come upon you, when your enemies wwill set up a barricade around you and xsurround you and hem you in on every side 44 yand tear you down to the ground, you and your children within you. And zthey will not leave one stone upon another in you, because you did not know athe time of your bvisitation.

Ultimately, the people of that time were held accountable not only for the truth that they did know, but for the truth that they should have known but didn't want to see.

It wasn't like it was easy to see and that we're all so much smarter and better than those who missed it. Even after Jesus had been raised, we read in Luke 24,of how, on the road to Emmaus, the risen Jesus chides the men He's walking with for being "foolish of heart and slow to believe" all that the Scripture said about Him. It wasn't until the Holy Spirit was poured out that people began to really understand Jesus, because the Holy Spirit is the One who enlightens our hearts to reveal the truth.

In short, the truth about Jesus is always there, "hidden in plain sight". But only those who have been given "eyes to see"will actually be able to perceive it.

As it says in 2 Cor 4:6:
For God, who said, mLet light shine out of darkness, nhas shone in our hearts to give othe light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.
Jesus is still the the hidden King. Hidden in plain sight.

Hebrews 4:7

tToday, if you hear his voice,
do not harden your hearts.

Don't be mistaken about who Jesus is. Keep seeking to understand Him more. Don't miss Him on this your day because you did not know the time of your visitation.