He did not descend into hell… and what really did happen at Easter

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.

Andrew — I guess you’d be ok with the phrase, “descended into hades” in the Apostle’s Creed?

Not sure. Peter says of Jesus, “he was not abandoned to Hades”, quoting Psalm 16:8-11 (Acts 2:31). Does he mean that Jesus was not left in Sheol/Hades, or that he did not even go to Sheol/Hades? I rather suspect Jesus’ followers only thought of him having been in the tomb—perhaps like Lazarus.

The Greek and Latin versions of the Apostles’ Creed both refer to the “lower regions (of the earth)”: κατελθόντα εἰς τὰ κατώτατα, descendit ad infernos.

I am surprised that you say “the church has treated Jesus’ death and resurrection largely as a matter of theology and metaphysics” in relation to this passage, as I would interpret the descent into hades, or “harrowing of hell” as an attempt to fill a narrative void. It seems that this is specifically important to the Orthodox liturgy of Holy Week in that it accounts for what Jesus did between his death and resurrection (not a pressing issue to my mind), but also how Jesus’ death and resurrection marks an inflection point in salvation as universally available (much more important, but not as obviously necessary to instantiate). For the Orthodox, it is significant to associate the “gap” in the narrative between Christ’s death and resurrection with the kerygmatic act of Christ “preaching to the spirits in prison” which otherwise lacks a clear/satisfying narrative place. As you stated in your 2011 post on 1 Pe 3:18-22, the sequence “death, resurrection, ascension, proclamation to the spirits in prison” makes sense of binary metaphysical states (dead/not-dead) and sequential temporality, but it doesn’t match the salvific momentousness of the resurrection with the extension of salvation to those in the OT. While the iconographic tradition of the harrowing of hades and spatial associations of descending into hell feel too literal and anthropomorphic, they are compelling as narrative insofar as they draw attention to this key salvific moment (not the non-moment of “post-ascension”) and they answer the questions “what did Jesus do while dead?” and “When did Jesus extend salvation to those already dead?”

I could suggest the alternative sequence of 1) death, 2)moment of resurrection and harrowing of hell at once 3) encounter of resurrected Christ by Mary and the disciples, 4) Ascension.

This splits hairs about the timing of the resurrection (was it when he got up from the plinth, when he rolled away the stone, when he appeared?) and suggests that as Christ’s body rose, his spirit “descended” (cf Eph 4:9?) to liberate the righteous dead. This sequence also adresses the “if a tree falls in an empty forest…” question of “If Christ rises but no one sees him, does the resurrection have meaning.”

On the other hand I am also equally happy with the interpretation that it doesn’t matter whether Christ was physically alive when he harrowed hell (did he not have to “taste death” at the same time?), and that this phrase is simply a physical description of something that was really going on in the nature of God’s forgiveness (metaphysically if you will?), which is not hugely important to locate temporally.

Hi Joel. There’s a lot in this, more than I can respond to at the moment.

The comment about “theology and metaphysics” wasn’t directed at the passage specifically. It had to do with my general opposition of “theology” and “history”. The theological paradigm tends to abstract the death and resurrection of Jesus from the narrative of history, and I suppose theologians might ask the theoretical question about what happened between the two events. Historical exegesis will ask about the most plausible reading of the text, untroubled by metaphysical curiosity.

As far as I’m aware, there’s nothing in first century Jewish thought that would raise the question of what Jesus did between his death and resurrection. The assumption would be that he was dead. In that case, if good sense can be made of the passage without that premise, backed up in this case by Isaiah 42, why not be satisfied with that?

Perhaps a further reason for thinking that Peter is speaking about Jesus’ mission to Israel lies in the description of the “spirits in prison” as those who “formerly did not obey (apeithēsasin)”. Peter earlier quotes, as Jesus did, the saying from Psalm 118 about a stone of stumbling, and says that “They stumble because they disobey (apeithountes) the word, as they were destined to do” (2 Pet. 2:8). Jesus quoted the verse after telling a story about the son who was sent to the vineyard of Israel to get the fruit.

I’ve always assumed hades was just the Greek term for the grave and was synonymous with sheol. If that’s the case, then it would seem Luke was just saying he wasn’t left in the grave to rot. (A little different from David’s usage, which it seems like was that God would keep him alive and out of the grave.)

I’m not sure how confident we can be about how ancient Jews conceived these things, but there is perhaps a distinction to be made between the physical grave or tomb and Sheol/Hades as a gloomy and lifeless place inhabited—literally? figuratively?—by the shades of the dead. But I agree, it’s unlikely that Luke meant anything more than that Jesus’ body was not in the tomb long enough to see corruption.

peter wilkinson | Thu, 04/20/2017 - 08:48 | Permalink

Andrew — there’s still a problem with the argument which follows your interpretation of 1 Peter 3:18-20 under “and what really happened at Easter?”

You have said here and elsewhere that the death of Jesus on the cross anticipated the appalling suffering of the Jews a generation later, that the language of penal substitutionary atonement “has some relevance”, and that it was “an ‘atoning death’ for Israel”. If that was the case, why then did the Jews still suffer as they did?

If you then argue, which you would have to, that the atoning suffering of Jesus was only effective for those who believed in him, it’s difficult, if not impossible, to see historically or theologically any connection at all between Jesus’s death and Christians fleeing Jerusalem in or before its siege and destruction (except perhaps as a warning?).

You then argue that the resurrection of Jesus “embodied or entailed” the resurrection of Israel from punishment (a metaphorical resurrection?). The problem with this is that Israel was not metaphorically or otherwise resurrected, at least, not as Israel, which is the main breakdown of continuity with the OT verses you cite. The church which survived AD 70 and spread worldwide was not Israel. In the NT, Israel was part of a covenant system which was temporary and passing. The new covenant supersedes the old — according to the NT.

A more joined up interpretation of Jesus’s death and resurrection is needed, and it is to be found in connecting his resurrection role as judge of the nations with his crucifixion role as bearer of salvation to the nations. It’s arbitrary to say they are disconnected in the scope of their application. To say that “many Gentiles found this believable” isn’t a ringing endorsement of this limited belief. Maybe they found it believable that he also died for their sins. If the one, why not the other — Romans 3:21-24, 29? In a joined up world, the gift of the Spirit would seem to be the confirmation of this possibility — Acts 10:44-48, 15:7-11.