Monday, March 26, 2018

Christ Descended Into Hell? How Do We Understand This Doctrine?

            When the second person of the blessed Trinity, Jesus Christ, added humanity to HIS being, the highest prince became a pauper for you and me. HE who had no sin, became sin so that you and I may become the righteousness of God (2 Corinthians 5:21). This is what Good Friday is all about.

            Good Friday is good because Christ died for us so that we may live forever if we believe in Christ. Having said this, complicated doctrines that are associated with Christ’s death deserve our attention for a better comprehension.

            One such doctrine is that of Christ descending to hell (hades). If you are accustomed to reading the Apostles’ Creed during your worship service, you would have affirmed your belief in Christ as the one who descended into hell, “I believe 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…” (Emphasis Mine).

            This doctrine is connected to certain biblical texts (Ephesians 4:8-10; 1 Timothy 3:16; 1 Peter 3:18-19 & 4:4-6). But this is a controversial doctrine since the Bible does not offer a clear or an unambiguous explanation. Moreover, as Millard J. Erickson asserts in his work, Christian Theology (Second Edition), this doctrine was not found in the earliest versions of the Apostles’ Creed rather it made its entry into the Creed in 390 A.D.

            The first controversy that requires clarity is whether Christ descended into Hades or whether HE descended into hell. Hades and hell need not be construed as synonyms.

            Some versions of the Apostles’ Creed state this doctrine as, “He descended into Hades.” Other versions of the Apostles’ Creed will read as, “He descended into hell.”

             William Lane Craig, while referring to the parable of Lazarus and the rich man, offers an explanation for this distinction between hades and hell, “Hades is the Greek word for the Hebrew word Sheol. In the Old Testament Sheol is the realm of the departed dead. It’s the underworld of departed spirits. The Greek word for this is Hades. This is a different word than hell. This rich man is not in hell; he’s in Hades, which is the intermediate state that precedes the final resurrection. When people die, the righteous go to be with Christ, where they will await their resurrection from the dead. The damned go to Hades, where they are in a disembodied state where they await their resurrection to final judgment. Only then are people ushered in to their final state, which is heaven or hell.”1

            Regarding the controversial doctrine of Christ descending into Hades or hell, Dr. Millard J. Erickson, in an article in 'Christianity Today' entitled 'Did Jesus Really Descend to Hell?', advises that it is wiser to not be dogmatic about doctrines that are not clearly explained by the biblical texts:2

…a few years back at one Christian college, a series of chapel messages on the Apostles' Creed had to omit this item, because none of the 12 professors of Bible and theology believed it. Actually the statement is not found in the earliest form of the Apostles' Creed. It echoes Acts 2:31, and seems to be there simply to make the point that Jesus' death was real and complete. Jesus went to hades, which in the Greek signifies the world of the departed—paradise for some, pain for others. When the Apostles' Creed took its English form in the sixteenth century, "hell" meant hades as such, rather than the final state of the lost (which Jesus called gehenna), as it always is today. So, should those who accept the Bible as their supreme authority for belief hold to the Creed's doctrine on this point?
Scripture tells us very little about Jesus' state between his death and resurrection. The most commonly cited biblical passages are Acts 2:31 ; Ephesians 4:8-10 ; 1 Peter 4:6; and, most importantly, 1 Peter 3:18-20. Ephesians 4 is likely a reference to the Incarnation, and 1 Peter 4:6 could apply to any preaching of the gospel. But numerous interpretations of 1 Peter 3:18-20 exist. Some say the 1 Peter 3 passage should not be taken literally—that it is symbolic, conveying in graphic form the idea that redemption is universal in its extent. This, however, involves a more spiritualized hermeneutic than usually practiced by evangelicals.
Others contend that this refers to a descent by Jesus into the realm of the dead between his death and resurrection, and an actual preaching to its occupants, either offering salvation to them or declaring his own triumph over death and judgment upon those who in their earthly life did not respond to God. This interpretation, however, seems in conflict with the rest of Jesus' life and ministry—and with the context of the passage, which emphasizes a faithful, gentle witness, giving a reason for one's faith, even in the face of opposition. At the same time, the non-literal interpretation has difficulty accounting adequately for the reference to Noah, unless the preaching was restricted only to people from Noah's time, which seems strange. It also appears to conflict with the theological context, or how our interpretation fits with other, more clearly established doctrines. Here we encounter biblical references teaching the finality of death over and against any opportunity for salvation, at least since the time of Christ.
Many consider the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) pertinent to the question, as are much of Psalm 49 and Revelation 20:11-15. Hebrews 9:27 indicates a close linkage between death and judgment, with nothing mentioned as intervening. And Jesus' statement to the thief on the cross—"today you will be with me in paradise" (Luke 23:42,43)—also is relevant.
One other interpretation, held by Augustine and defended strongly by several evangelicals, seems more promising. In this view, Christ preached "in spirit" through Noah as Noah built the ark. This was a message of repentance and righteousness, given to unbelieving people who were then on earth but now are "spirits in prison" (i.e., in hell).
While this reference to spirits in prison is not completely natural, this view fits better with the other considerations. It also is supported by 1 Peter 1:10-12, which speaks of the Spirit of Christ in the prophets who spoke. While none of the interpretations is totally without difficulty, one might conclude that this is the most adequate reading of the relevant data.
Robert Mounce, in his commentary Living Hope, says that the 1 Peter 3:18-20 passage is "widely recognized as perhaps the most difficult to understand in all of the New Testament." Even if one holds that Jesus did descend into hell to offer salvation to those who had lived on earth before him, this special effort does not apply to those who lived and died later.
There is one thing of which we can be certain: Jesus' death was a literal event, not some temporary state of unconsciousness. Hence, in his resurrection, Christ did indeed conquer death—both in its spiritual and physical forms.
Bible-believing Christians can allow themselves to differ on the nature of Jesus' descent into hell. Some will be able to recite this part of the Apostles' Creed with conviction, while others may choose to remain silent.
         There are essential and non-essential doctrines. The doctrine of Christ descending into Hades is a non-essential doctrine for a simple reason that it does not affect our salvation. Moreover, any discussion or debate about this doctrine is germane to the Christian community and not the non-Christian. Furthermore, this non-essential doctrine cannot impede honest seekers from believing in Christ.

           Hence, the saying, “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity” applies perfectly to this situation. In other words, this is a doctrine that Christians can agree to disagree, and still maintain perfect harmony with Christ and with each other.




1 comment:


I have always wondered what is the real meaning “Jesus descended into hades” Some preachers do talk about it but as you said ot is a non-essential doctrine. Thank you for your valuable input brother Raj.