I visited the excellent Michelangelo & Sebastiano exhibition at London’s National Gallery yesterday as a personal Good Friday ritual. One of the works on display is Sebastiano del Piombo’s Christ Descends into Limbo, which depicts the crucified Jesus reaching out to Adam and Eve in a highly architectural underworld.
Limbo is not hell itself but the border or “hem” (Latin limbus) of hell, where the church fathers imagined the Old Testament saints were waiting for redemption. These lines from the 4th century Gospel of Nicodemus point to the background for Sebastiano’s painting:
Then did the King of glory in his majesty trample upon death, and laid hold on Satan the prince and delivered him unto the power of Hell, and drew Adam to him unto his own brightness…. And the Lord stretched forth his hand and made the sign of the cross over Adam and over all his saints, and he took the right hand of Adam and went up out of hell, and all the saints followed him. (Gospel of Nicodemus 22.2; 24.2)
The clause “he descended into hell” (descendit ad infernos) is in the Apostles’ Creed. How it got there is not entirely clear, but it’s certainly not a biblical idea.
He did not descend into hell…
Wayne Grudem has a good account of the doctrine on the Zondervan Academic blog. He gives some historical background, looks at how the church has understood it, and briefly examines five biblical passages that have been used in the support of the belief that Jesus descended into “hell” between his death and resurrection.
The most significant passage is 1 Peter 3:18-20, which seems to attribute an active “kerygmatic” mission to Jesus after his death and before his resurrection (1 Pet. 3:21-22):
For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, in which he went and proclaimed (ekēryxen) to the spirits in prison, because they formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water.
Grudem gives his reasons for rejecting the view that this passage refers to Christ’s preaching to spirits in hell or to fallen angels, or to the proclamation of release to the Old Testament saints. He thinks, instead, that Peter is speaking of something that was done “in the spiritual realm of existence” at the time of Noah. ‘When Noah was building the ark, Christ “in spirit” was preaching through Noah to the hostile unbelievers around him.’
That strikes me as fanciful and quite out of keeping with the New Testament witness about Jesus.
I’ve discussed the passage elsewhere and won’t repeat the details, but I suggest that the proclamation to the spirits in prison is an allusion to Isaiah 42:1-7 LXX. Jesus is the servant of YHWH, who received the Spirit and went to “bring out from bonds those who are bound and from the prison house (ex oikou phylakēs) those who sit in darkness” (42:7). The Spirit which raised Jesus from the dead is the same Spirit by which he was anointed at his baptism to go and proclaim the coming of the kingdom of God to imprisoned Israel. As in Jesus’ own teaching (cf. Matt. 24:37-38; Lk. 17:26-27), the story of the ark is a metaphor for the salvation of a small number of Jews from divine judgment.
…and what really did happen at Easter
The church has treated Jesus’ death and resurrection largely as a matter of theology and metaphysics. I think that paradigm is becoming unsustainable.
Jesus’ death was part of the story of Israel—the culmination of a long narrative of violence done against the prophets by the leadership of Israel and against the righteous by pagan oppressors. So he is both the son sent to the vineyard, whose death provokes the owner to punish the wicked tenants, and the “one like a son of man” against whom the beast of pagan empire makes war. This is not just incidental background detail. It’s what it’s all about.
Jesus died, in the first place, for the sins of Israel, and in this regard the language of “penal substitutionary atonement” has some relevance. His brutal treatment and crucifixion by Rome anticipated the appalling suffering that the Jews would endure during the siege and destruction of Jerusalem a generation later (cf. Matt. 24:34).
But this “atoning” death for Israel had the further pragmatic effect of abolishing the Law as the boundary marker of the people of God (cf. Eph. 2:11-22). What defined the new movement was the belief that God had raised his Son from the dead and made him judge of and ruler over both Israel and the nations. Many Gentiles found this believable and received the same Spirit that had been poured out on Jewish believers, which meant that the Law had simply become redundant (cf. Gal. 3:1-6).
Between his death and resurrection Jesus was in the tomb. He was simply dead. He didn’t go anywhere.
On the third day he was raised from the dead, which must also be interpreted as part of the story of Israel.
On the one hand, his resurrection embodied or entailed the resurrection of punished Israel “on the third day” (cf. Hos. 6:1-3; Ezek. 37:11-14; Dan. 12:1-3). The peculiar resurrection of “many of the bodies of the saints” at the time of the crucifixion looks like Matthew’s way of saying that Jesus’ death and resurrection signalled the death and resurrection of Israel at a time of eschatological crisis (Matt. 27:52-53).
On the other, during the period of eschatological transition envisaged in the New Testament—through the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple to the victory of the church over pagan Rome—he was the first of those who would be martyred to be raised from the dead.
This is all history from our point of view, but it is a history that makes the church what it is. The death and resurrection of Jesus fundamentally changed the terms and conditions for participation in the life and work of the people of God. But there remains for us the direct relevance of the resurrection of Jesus as the beginning of new creation—the guarantee that in the end the creator God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, will make all things new.