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Monday, February 25, 2013

Did Christ Descend Into Hell?




In this article we discuss the long debated and controversial idea, founded in the Apostles Creed, which says that Christ descended into hell upon death. Like many of you, I grew up reciting this creed and never gave it a second thought and haven’t heard it recited in years, mainly because I haven’t sat through anything that even resembles a ritualistic, liturgical service (thank you God for setting me free!). A recent conversation with church leaders on the subject sparked an interest in me to do some research, get some scriptural answers and publish them here. My findings are based strictly on what the Word of God has to say on the subject, so by examining scripture the question of whether or not Christ visited hell upon His death will be definitively answered.

There are passages in the New Testament that, if interpreted a certain way, would seem to indicate that Christ descended into hell upon His death. One is in 1 Peter 3:18-20 where it says “Because Christ also suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, to bring you to God, by being put to death in the flesh but by being made alive in the spirit. (19) In it he went and preached to the spirits in prison, (20) after they were disobedient long ago when God patiently waited in the days of Noah as an ark was being constructed. In the ark a few, that is eight souls, were delivered through water.”

Some take this to say that Christ went to speak to the spirits who are now in bondage, in other words into hell. That is, they have died—having lived in the days of Noah—and they are now in bondage; and Christ went to speak to them between Good Friday and Resurrection Day to offer them a ‘second chance’ at salvation. There is absolutely nothing in scripture to support this belief at all. The fact is that scripture says exactly the opposite. Hebrews 9:27 tells us that we have but one life, followed by judgment. That is, one lifetime to come to Christ…period. There are no ‘do-overs’ and no second chances – and certainly no prayer for the dead will have any affect at all on their salvation! This is the very heart of free will. God gave us the choice to accept Him or not and we must come to God willingly and of our own free will. So, the idea that Christ went to hell to offer sinners there a second chance is non-scriptural and anti-Christian.

Some take 1 Peter 3:18-20 to mean that this was simply a declaration to the souls in Hades of Christ’s victory over sin, without offering any second chance. My question then is why? What would be the reason for this? What purpose would it serve for Jesus go to hell to visit these souls, to ridicule them? It just doesn’t make any sense at all and again, there is zero scriptural evidence to support this belief.

I believe, quite simply, as stated quite plainly in the scripture, that verse 18 refers to the death of Christ in the physical and the life of Christ, via the Holy Spirit driven resurrection, in Spirit. I also hold to an interpretation among Bible scholars that verses 19 & 20 both refers to a pre-incarnate Christ in Spirit, preaching through Noah to those who refused the Word at the time and that are now imprisoned spirits – not that He revisited them in hell at the time of His death, but that this refers to the past. This seems pretty evident since the scripture clearly reads “disobedient long ago” and “in the days of Noah”. The scriptural basis of this interpretation is that Christ has existed for all time, not just in the flesh for the 33 years that He walked the earth as man, but all time, as a part of the Godhead, the second person of the Tri-unity or Trinity of God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. The scriptural proof of this comes from John 1:1 “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Here John defines Jesus as the living Word of God – the personification of God’s Word.

Another often misquoted text is Ephesians 4:9-10 where it says “(Now this expression, “He ascended,” what does it mean except that He also had descended into the lower parts of the earth?” Some folks take the line “descended into the lower parts of the earth to mean that Christ descended into hell accepting, mistakenly, that hell is somewhere below or inside the earth. The second mistake in reading this scripture this way is the total lack of consideration of Christ’s oneness with God, his existence is the same as God because He is God - absolute infinity.  

First, let’s do away with the fallacy that heaven is above the earth and hell is somewhere below and that when we die we either go up or down. I have no idea when or how this nonsense got started but it is entirely incorrect – and non-scriptural. The truth is that scripture tells us that heaven and hell are both above us, in “the heavenlies”. As if that weren’t enough of a shock for some of you, scripture also tells us that there are three heavens. Yes, three heavens. This is evidenced first in Ephesians 6:12our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places.” In other words, the principal arena of spiritual warfare isn’t on earth (or below it) at all – but above it, somewhere in the ‘heavenly places’. As proof of multiple ‘heavens’, let’s look at 2 Corinthians 12:2. Here Paul describes a rapture experience (maybe his own, maybe not) the following way “I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago—whether in the body I do not know, or out of the body I do not know, God knows—such a man was caught up to the third heaven.” Yes, you read correctly -  third heaven! And since the Bile is the breathed word of God, and God is very organized and logical, it is therefore an organized and logical conclusion that if there is a third heaven, there must also be a first and second heaven. The spiritual realm ruled by Satan’s minions is not on or below earth, but on another level somewhere above the earth in the ‘heavenly places’. This is not to say that these forces don’t come to earth and wreak havoc or that spiritual warfare doesn’t take place here, because obviously, they do and it does – otherwise there would be no sin and no need for deliverance and healing. The bottom line is that we have to change our thinking and get away from the incorrect teaching that we grew up with and see things for how they really are according to God’s Word – not some fairy tale. For a true Christian, anything other than God’s Word is someone’s opinion…and when it comes to God I want the facts – and the facts are in His Word. This is not to say that we never need interpretation of God’s word because, from time to time, we do. But when it comes to clear cut issues such as those being discussed here, the Word is the Word, straight up.

This information brings the understanding of Ephesians 4:9-10 to another level. If we understand that Christ has always been in existence, with God the Father in the third heaven, then simply by being incarnate on earth, Christ had already ‘descended’ from heaven. Since Christ has been in existence since the beginning of time, not just as man for the 33 years that He walked the earth, in order to come to earth as man He ‘descended into the lower parts’ from heaven to earth to be born of the virgin Mary.

There is another prominent scripture that is often misinterpreted in support of the idea that Christ descended into hell upon His death, and that is Revelation 1:18. The scripture reads this way: “and the living One; and I was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of death and of Hades.” Some folks argue that Christ went to hell to take the keys of death and Hades from Satan. How they get this idea is beyond me, since the scripture in no way implies this. Besides the fact that the scripture doesn’t say or even imply that Christ had to go to hell to steal the keys of death from Satan. The folks that use this scripture talk about the ‘keys’ as if they were actual physical keys. That somehow Christ would be so limited that He would actually need a set of keys to open an actual physical door to victory over death is just incredible. Since when does God have any limitations? And since when is Spiritual warfare fought in the natural? What this scripture refers to is the fact that, by rising from the dead, Christ automatically defeated death in the process, that He (God) has total authority and dominion over physical death – that He ‘holds the keys to death and Hades’. The ‘keys’ are symbolic! If we simply replace the words ‘the keys’ in the scripture with the words ‘total authority', we get a clearer picture of what is being said here: “and behold, I am alive forevermore, and I have total authority over death and Hades”


So, based on scripture alone, there is no evidence for believing that Christ ever descended into hell. In fact, I believe that if we look at another scripture, we’ll find that He ascended directly to the right hand of the Father upon death. The evidence for this is a direct quote from Christ himself. While hanging on the cross He said to the thief on the cross next to Him, "Today you will be with me in paradise." In this scripture, found in Luke 23:43, Christ tells the man next to Him that "Today, this Friday afternoon, when we both are dead, you and I will be together in paradise." So, where is Paradise? Some think that Paradise is ‘God’s garden’ or the Garden of Eden or some holding area -  the bottom line is that it doesn’t really matter as part of this discussion – even though, according to 2 Corinthians 12:4, the continuation of the previously quoted scripture where Paul is describing God being in the third heaven, it clearly states that “was caught up into Paradise and heard inexpressible words, which a man is not permitted to speak.” If the man was ‘caught up into’ the third heaven, or as it is referred to here as Paradise, then Paradise is the same as the third heaven – and as we’ve already established, the third heaven is the dwelling place of God. Therefore, when Christ died, He ascended directly to heaven.

Again, the bottom line is that Jesus told this man that they would be together in paradise and nowhere in scripture is hell referred to as paradise. I believe the thief went straight to heaven and that Jesus was there with him as He promised. To believe that Christ went to hell, would be a direct contradiction to Christ’s own words, uttered shortly before His own physical death, as a promise to this dying man next to Him. That is what scripture tells us.

So, if this settles the argument that there is no scriptural evidence to support the belief that Christ descended to hell sometime between Good Friday and His resurrection, what about the Apostles Creed, you say? First, let’s look at the modern version of the creed:

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
.

Historically speaking, the Apostles Creed first appeared in a letter from Ambrose, Archbishop of Milan, to Pope Siricius, Bishop of Rome, in 390 AD, and, even though it is not the breathed Word of God but an invention of the Catholic church, in the original creed the controversial line that is at the center of this entire issue, “He descended into hellwasn’t included at all. In fact, it wasn’t until Rufinus of Aquileia included it in his baptismal creed about ten years later, around 400, that these words first appear. Gradually, this version of the creed was wrongly accepted, as a part of  replacement theology, into the Latin version, officially becoming a part of the creed in 750. St. Augustine, who believed that Christ literally descended into hell, furthered the use of the line -  but even Augustine admitted several uncertainties over the meaning of 1 Peter 3:19, mainly the point that the verse talks about the past, as previously pointed out. Augustine further questioned who, if anyone, did Christ save with his preaching in hell? Jesus could not have come only to take the "righteous men" from hell, for they were already separated from the condemned, as demonstrated in the story of the beggar Lazarus and the rich man in Luke 16. Augustine does not publicly attempt to resolve the matter but, in his writings, openly admits his perplexity with the issue - and so the use of the line continued.

Hundreds of years later, Thomas Aquinas tried to resolve Augustine's issue by saying that Christ descended to two places—hell and purgatory—and that his purpose in each was different. In Aquinas’ explanation, when He went to hell, Christ put unbelievers to shame, while in purgatory, He gave sinners hope for glory and the righteous deliverance. But this explanation did not come close to satisfying the church due to a total lack of scriptural evidence and, as I asked before what would be the purpose for Christ to go to hell? To shame (make fun of) the unbelievers? That seems ridiculous to me. Martin Luther, the anti-Semite, also believed Christ descended to hell, but could never offer a clear cut explanation for the event. John Calvin went so far as to describe the descent as symbolic, pointing to Christ's suffering at Gethsemane and the cross was like hell.

As you can see, even though this belief, and the use of the line in the Apostles Creed, has been furthered throughout church history – and even adopted by religions other than Catholicism, such as Lutherans, Presbyterians, Methodists and Congregationalists – there has always been doubt regarding its authenticity and relevance – not to mention the scriptural evidence supporting its use. To this day there is such a division in beliefs over this statement that many churches do not include the line “He descended into hell” in their rituals at all. That should speak volumes as to the legitimacy of the statement – where there’s smoke, there’s usually a fire.

For me the answer is simple and so is the process for arriving at the answer: if it’s not in the Bible, it is not the word of God. Therefore, based purely on scriptural evidence, one can only come to one conclusion in this matter, that Christ never descended into hell but went directly to heaven upon His physical death and is to this day seated at the right hand of God the Father.

May The Blood of Jesus cover, bless & protect you!
~Mark 

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