Saturday, April 7, 2012

The Passion Week - Saturday

With Jesus being dead, there was nothing He was doing on earth.  There is a theory that He actually descended into Hell to finish His work.  I hope to show that, whether this actually happened or not, Scripture may not actually support this theory. (This is something that I actually wrote in 2001, and I think that my position has somewhat shifted, but I will set forth what I wrote then with parenthetical notes...)

The major proponent holding this doctrine together has been the Apostle’s Creed and the tradition thereof. It should be noted Rufinus first used the phrase “descended into [Hades]” in AD 390. In his usage, he meant “buried” instead of a literal descent. It wasn’t until AD 650 that a version of the Apostles’ Creed contained the phrase, as it’s “understood” today.  So, for nearly 600 years the phrase was not used in today's sense in Christianity.

There are generally 5 passages that are used in support of the view of a literal descent into Hell after Christ died.
1.  Acts 2:27 has generally been used to support this, but if we read the NIV we see a more proper translation:  “because you will not abandon me to the grave, nor will you let your Holy One see decay.”(NASB [and ESV] render this as “hades” while KJV renders “hell”) This translation tends to hold with the historical view that Christ didn’t descend. It took around 600 years after the writing of this event for it to be taken as “hell” in the Creed. (Of course the term Hades can mean grave, but really in its more proper sense it would mean the abode of the dead - both the righteous and the unrighteous. So I'm not so sure I would go with what I stated on this point.)
2.  Romans 10:6-7 offers a couple of questions.  “But the righteousness based on faith speaks as follows: ‘DO NOT SAY IN YOUR HEART, "WHO WILL ASCEND INTO HEAVEN?' (that is, to bring Christ down), or ‘WHO WILL DESCEND INTO THE ABYSS?' (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead).'' (NASB) (KJV and NIV render “abyss” as “the deep.”) What does “abyss” mean? See Genesis 1:2 (darkness was over the surface of the deep) and Genesis 7:11 (all the fountains of the great deep burst open). Also, see Deuteronomy 8:7, and Psalm106:26 and Psalm 107:26. From the OT usages of the term for “abyss” it is seen that it would mean a more physical, earthly realm. A better understanding can come from the 3rd verse used to support a descent. I don't believe the usage here was intended to mean "hell." (I would still agree with this that the statement in Romans supports the theory that Christ descended into hell after his death.)
3.  Ephesians 4:9 is used as well.  “He also descended to the lower, earthly regions?” This is most properly understood as a contrast of Christ’s ascension from earth to heaven. He descended to earth from heaven in the same sense that He ascended to heaven from earth.
4.  1 Peter 3:18-20 is another passage used. This passage is best understood when tying into the comparison of Christ and Christians ministering to unbelievers just as Noah did. There is a major factor to look at as far as a timeline goes of the “proclamation to the spirits now in prison.” When did the Spirit of Christ do this?  “When the patience of God kept waiting in the days of Noah.” This was not something done after Christ’s death, but something ages past. Cross-reference this with 1 Peter 1:10-11 – the prophets were being led by the same Spirit of Christ that Noah was and that’s mentioned in chapter 3.  Several parallels with Noah and the believers to whom Peter was writing give more strength to this position as well. (I would still agree with what Peter wrote here as not meaning a descent into hell after Christ's death. Though this is definitely a much-debated passage of Scripture. I definitely recommend Wayne Grudem's appendix on this passage in his commentary on 1 Peter.)
5.  1 Peter 4:6 is also used: “For the gospel has for this purpose been preached even to those who are dead, that though they are judged in the flesh as men, they may live in the spirit according to the will of God” This, if looked at as preaching to those who will die, directly contradicts Luke 16:19-31 (The rich man and Lazarus – cannot go from hell to heaven!) and Hebrews 9:27 (judged after you die – no second chance). This passage is best understood that WHILE THEY WERE ALIVE, the gospel was preached – they are NOW dead, but the gospel had BEEN (past) preached to those who were alive (but NOW dead). It’s the same gospel being preached today, and it gives hope to those who wonder. An analogy is "I knew President Clinton in high school."  He was not president in high school, but the statement is still wholly true. That would be the sense in this passage.

Well, the key passages used to defend a descent are not so clear when used in context and in the historical setting. What passages offer the opposite view? Luke 23:43 is one. How can the thief be with Jesus in paradise immediately after he died if Jesus is going to hell? It is also commonly known that paradise in Hebrew thought of the 1st Century actually meant heaven – not just a holding place until judgment. Another verse to ponder is John 19:30 – “It is finished.” Christ accomplished all He needed to at Golgotha. He had no need to go to hell to do anything.  “It IS finished.” Finally, look at Luke 23:46: “into your hands I commit my spirit.” Christ’s intentions were to go and be in the immediate presence of the Father – see also Stephen’s confirmation of his faith of being in God’s presence in Acts 7:59. 

(The only sense I believe that Christ would have to be in the sense of the "Harrowing of Hell" in which He descended to proclaim his victory over sin and death, and rescue out those dead Saints. But I would say that today I believe that Christ's atoning work was completed on the Cross for His Church. If he did go into Hell on Saturday it would not be to receive any further punishment - he was going to be in Paradise with the thief who was beside him - that much we DO know for certain. But this is all speculation, and our true hope lies with His resurrection on Sunday!!)

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