Before I begin delving into today's biblical and historical lesson, I just want to provide a little background on the reason for my study on this topic initially.
I was raised most of my childhood as a Southern Baptist. By the time I hit twenty, I had become an enthusiastic Reformed Presbyterian. For many of those early years, I was a part of smaller, country style churches, and absorbed teachings as much as I could.
It wasn't until about eleven years ago that I became a part of a larger Presbyterian congregation, and it did not take long to find that some of what I have been formerly taught or come to understand, was not necessarily held as truth in all Reformed circles — this being one of those topics. So, I began looking into it a bit more deeply — even to the point of starting to write a book on the topic.
The topic this morning is centered on a single phrase in The Apostles Creed. This creed is recited frequently in many mainstream Reformed churches, and many people today say it without much real thought as to what is being said or meant on some points.
Those who do think on it tend to have an issue with one line in particular — the one we're looking at today - "He descended into hell." In our church it was common place to explain away this line prior to reciting the creed, saying it just meant that Christ suffered greatly on the cross. With my prior understanding, I started asking - What is the big deal? What is all of the fuss about?
Well, the fuss is at least two-fold. First, it lies in most people's misunderstanding of the language of the creed translation, which stems from a faulty biblical translation for the past few hundred years. Secondly, it tends to come from a lack of belief or understanding of the realm of the dead, referred to throughout the Hebrew Scriptures as Sheol, and in the NT as Hades. Both pieces go hand in hand, and so when both are misunderstood, it is not hard to see why there is this fuss over the creed.
In his Systematic Theology, Wayne Grudem writes:
...unlike every other phrase in the Creed, it represents not some major doctrine on which all Christians agree, but rather a statement about which most Christians seem to disagree. It is at best confusing and in most cases misleading for modern Christians. My own judgment is that there would be all gain and no loss if it were dropped from the Creed once for all (Systematic Theology, Zondervan, 1994, pp. 583-594)
So, I set out today to hopefully help clear up some of the confusion and misleading that this clause brings, as well as attempt to show that there would be much loss and no gain in dropping the clause — but in fact would be much gain at restoring a proper understanding of its intent.
Descended into the Lake of Fire?
First, let's start by looking and understanding what the clause in the creed is actually saying. When it says he descended into hell, are we to understand that Yeshua went to what we would understand as the lake of fire, that place believed to consist of everlasting fire and that is said to be the ultimate and final judgment? Unfortunately, this is how many view this clause.
The KJV Bible has been one of the main culprits for this misunderstanding, with it being one of the most predominant English Bible for centuries. It used the term "hell" in most all cases for the original terms Sheol, Hades and Gehenna, equating them all with the misunderstanding of the lake of fire in the minds of most people. However, that was not the traditional Jewish thought on the matter, and many Greek thinking modern pew warmers as well as teachers, have lost a lot of the understanding of these terms.
Sheol is the Hebrew word for the place of the dead, and Hades is the Greek equivalent to it. Both describe a place in Hebrew understanding, and that place is not equivalent to the lake of fire. Likewise, Gehenna is the name of a literal place of burning, but was most often used by Christ as a term of coming judgment upon Jerusalem, not afterlife judgment to be equated with the lake of fire spiritual judgment.
The idea which most Christians have attached to the word hell, is a place of eternal punishment for all the wicked. Wherever they meet with this word in reading their Bibles, it calls up the idea of such a place of punishment… There is one fact, which deserves attention at the outset, of which many readers of the Bible are ignorant. The fact I allude to is, that the word hell does not occur once in all of the Old Testament, where it means a place of eternal misery for the wicked. The fact is indisputable; no man can doubt it who will take the trouble to examine the matter for himself. (Walter Balfour, An Inquiry into the Scriptural Import of the Words Sheol, Hades, Tartarus, and Gehenna: All Translated Hell, in the Common English Version. 2nd ed.)
So, if hell (i.e. lake of fire) is not found in the Old Testament, then what do we make of all of the uses of Sheol that have been translated as hell? Let us look at the definition of the Hebrew term Sheol from the Strong's Concordance:
1a) the underworld
1b) Sheol-the OT designation for the abode of the dead
1b1) place of no return
1b2) without praise of God
1b3) wicked sent there for punishment
1b4) righteous not abandoned to it
1b5) of the place of exile (fig)
1b6) of extreme degradation in sin
So, as we can see, it is not necessarily to be considered as the lake of fire, but we see many aspects of what it means. It is a place, the abode of all the dead, righteous and unrighteous, where there is no return (that they seem to know of). Of course, there are many scholarly articles these days that will say it is just another word for the grave, or death in general. However, in most cases, this view comes about when all terms and texts relating to death are studied together without close attention being paid to possible different meanings.
When it comes to understanding this place, the most common term used by the Hebrews is the word Sheol. It appears sixty-five times, is always used without the definite article "the" which would imply it is a proper name, and it always refers to a realm of the dead located deep in the earth, which makes it different from other terms which can mean both "pit" and "underworld."
So, with just that little bit of information in mind, let's look back at the creed for a moment. With a better understanding of the misuse of the term hell, we can see if does not mean the lake of fire — but if we look Greek translation that some churches do use, it states it this way: "he descended into Hades." THAT gets us closer to the understanding of what is being said in this clause. He did not descend to the lake of fire; he descended to the realm of the dead — the Sheol/Hadean realm. Some other translations actually say "he descended to the dead," which is applicable too.
Let's take a quick look at another definition of Sheol - from the Easton's Revised Bible Dictionary (slightly edited for pertinence):
Derived from the Saxon helan, to cover; hence the covered or the invisible place. In Scripture there are three words so rendered:
1. Sheol, occurring in the Old Testament sixty-five times. It is rendered "grave" thirty-one times (Gen. 37:35; 42:38; 44:29, 31; 1 Sam. 2:6 etc.). The Revisers have retained this rendering in the historical books with the original word in the margin, while in the poetical books they have reversed this rule. In thirty-one cases in the Authorized Version this word is rendered "hell," the place of disembodied spirits. The inhabitants of sheol are "the congregation of the dead" (Prov. 21:16)
Sheol is described as:
2. The Greek word hades of the New Testament has the same scope of signification as Sheol of the Old Testament. It is a prison (1Pet. 3:19) with gates and bars and locks (Matt. 16:18; Rev. 1:18) and it is downward (Matt 11:23; Luke 10:15). The righteous and the wicked are separated. The blessed dead are in that part of hades called paradise (Luke 23:43). They are also said to be in Abraham's bosom (Luke 16:22).
Some writers speculate that many people dismiss the idea of such a place because the scriptures speak of both righteous and unrighteous people ending up there. And since the place is described as not very pleasant, they cannot imagine it to be a suitable place for the faithful. Nor will their sense of justice allow them to think all people ended up in the same underworld destiny. Therefore, it is useful to instead state that this term simply means the grave — because everyone dies — and has nothing to do with any kind of afterlife existence.
Let us move on now to lie out some background to the Jewish thought of death, the grave, Sheol, etc. Though this part, I will be focusing mainly on extra-biblical texts that are of Jewish origin, in order to show the mindset and teachings around the time of Christ, and their potential influence on the Creed's clause.
Before moving to those sources, let me first share this quote from a more modern author. This is directly connected to what I just read from Easton's Revised Bible Dictionary:
Let me throw this out there early on, as this is one of the key objections people have to the view I am giving this morning. Jesus told the thief on the cross that he would be with him that day in paradise. Most often this is explained as being a promise of the thief being with Christ in heaven that very day, however, we shall see that is not the required understanding of the term paradise or of their destination that day at all. John Piper actually rejects the idea of Christ descending anywhere based heavily on this notion of paradise:
So my conclusion is that there is no textual basis for believing that Christ descended into hell. In fact, he said to the thief on the cross, "Today you will be with me in paradise." That's the only clue we have as to what Jesus was doing between death and resurrection. He said, "Today-this Friday afternoon, after we're both dead-you and I will be in paradise together." I don't think the thief went to hell and that hell is called paradise. I think he went to heaven and that Jesus was there with him.
Just like hell and Sheol are not the same, paradise and heaven are not necessarily the same, and unfortunately, Piper wrongly equates "paradise" with heaven and therefore is confused here. James Cooper puts it this way:
The fact that Jesus uses the term "paradise" is highly significant. In intertestamental Judiasm we have seen that it denotes the Edenic abode of the Lord's saints, both the final kingdom and the intermediate resting place of the dead. Often it is located in heaven. In can also be in Hades… All of this must be taken seriously in understanding what Jesus said to the thief. He promised this repentant sinner the fellowship of paradise, the dwelling place of the faithful dead even before the resurrection, that very day.
Jesus could have been in paradise and "hell" at the same time. With respects to "hell," Acts 2:27 and 31 refer to Psalm 16:10 and actually say that Jesus went to Sheol or Hades, the realm of the dead. Nowhere does it say that he went to Gehenna, the "hell" of final punishment. Great confusion has been caused by the King James translation of both Hades and Gehenna as "hell." We have seen that intertestamental Judaism pictures Sheol/Hades as containing different locations or compartments in which the dead of different eternal destinies are quartered. Both believers and unbelievers populate the general realm of the dead. Further, we know that the Rabbis thought of paradise as located in Hades. (Cooper, James W. Body, Soul & Life Everlasting. 1st ed. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Company, 1989. 141, 143.)
It is very unfortunate that what Cooper says here is so alien to most in the church today. He of course speaks of things he had already covered about the intertestamental Judaism, and we'll look at some of that in a moment. Now, for a bit more in-depth look at this word, let us turn to the Jewish Encyclopedia:
It connotes the place where those that had died were believed to be congregated. Jacob, refusing to be comforted at the supposed death of Joseph, exclaims: "I shall go down to my son a mourner unto Sheol" (Gen. 37:36, Hebr.; comp. ib. 42:38; 44:29, 31). Sheol is underneath the earth (Isa. 7:11, 57:9; Ezek. 31:14; Ps. 86:13; Ecclus. [Sirach] 51:6; comp. Enoch, 17:6, "toward the setting of the sun"). It is very deep (Prov. 9:18; Isa. 57:9); and it marks the point at the greatest possible distance from heaven (Job 11:8; Amos 9:2; Ps. 139:8). The dead descend or are made to go down into it; the revived ascend or are brought and lifted up from it (I Sam. 2:6; Job 7:9; Ps. 30:4; Isa. 14: 11, 15). Sometimes the living are hurled into Sheol before they would naturally have been claimed by it (Prov. 1:12; Num. 16:33; Ps. 55:16, 63:10), in which cases the earth is described as "opening her mouth" (Num. 16:30). Sheol is spoken of as a land (Job 10:21, 22); but ordinarily it is a place with gates (ib. 17:16, 38:17; Isa. 38:10; Ps. 9:14), and seems to have been viewed as divided into compartments (Prov. 7:27), with "farthest corners" (Isa. 14:15; Ezek. 32:23, Hebr.; R. V. "uttermost parts of the pit"), one beneath the other (see Jew. Encyc. v. 217, s. v. Eschatology).
Here the dead meet (Ezek. 32; Isa. 14; Job 30:23) without distinction of rank or condition — the rich and the poor, the pious and the wicked, the old and the young, the master and the slave — if the description in Job 3 refers, as most likely it does, to Sheol. The dead continue after a fashion their earthly life. Jacob would mourn there (Gen. 37:35, 42:38); David abides there in peace (I Kings 2:6); the warriors have their weapons with them (Ezek. 32:27), yet they are mere shadows ("rephaim"; Isa. 14:9, 26:14; Ps. 88:5, A. V. "a man that hath no strength"). The dead merely exist without knowledge or feeling (Job 14:13; Eccl. 9:5). Silence reigns supreme; and oblivion is the lot of them that enter therein (Ps. 88:13, 94:17; Eccl. ix. 10). Hence it is known also as "Dumah," the abode of silence (Ps. 6:6, 30:10, 94:17, 115:17); and there God is not praised (ib. 115:17; Isa. 38:15). Still, on certain extraordinary occasions the dwellers in Sheol are credited with the gift of making known their feelings of rejoicing at the downfall of the enemy (Isa. 14:9, 10).
Sleep is their usual lot (Jer. 51:39; Isa. 26:14; Job 14:12). Sheol is a horrible, dreary, dark, disorderly land (Job 10:21, 22); yet it is the appointed house for all the living (ib. 30:23). Return from Sheol is not expected (II Sam. 12:23; Job 7:9, 10; 10:21; 14:7 et seq.; 16:22; Ecclus. [Sirach] 38:21); it is described as man's eternal house (Eccl. 12:5). It is "dust" (Ps. 30:10; hence in the Shemoneh 'Esreh, in benediction No. 2, the dead are described as "sleepers in the dust"). (emphasis mine)
So that was a lot to cover, and a lot of Scripture references have been made. Time does not permit for me to even begin to read these verses, so hopefully, you will get my notes afterwards and take the time to look up the references to see the language Scripture uses directly.
Let me move on to begin looking at some historic writings on the subject. These give a more visual picture to the thought of this place of the dead. I will start first with a more commonly known figure in church history, the first century Jewish historian Josephus. He wrote on the Hadean realm to the Greeks for their understanding. It would be so nice if today's "Greeks" understood this:
Now as to Hades, wherein the souls of the righteous and unrighteous are detained, it is necessary to speak of it. Hades is a place in the world not regularly finished; a subterraneous region, where the light of the world does not shine; from which circumstance, that in this region the light does not shine, it cannot be but there must be in it perpetual darkness. This region is allotted as a place of custody for souls, in which angels are appointed as guardians to them, who distribute to them temporary punishments agreeable to everyone's behavior and manners.
In this region there is a certain place set apart, as a lake of unquenchable fire, whereinto we suppose no one hath hitherto been cast; but it is prepared for a day aforedetermined by God, in which one righteous sentence shall deservedly be passed upon all men; when the unjust and those that have been disobedient to God, and have given honor to such idols as have been the vain operations of the hands of men, as to God himself, shall be adjudged to this everlasting punishment, as having been the cause of defilement; while the just shall obtain an incorruptible and never-fading kingdom. These are now indeed confined to Hades, but not in the same place wherein the unjust are confined.
For there is one descent into this region, at whose gate we believe there stands an archangel with an host.; whose gate when those pass through that are conducted down by the angels appointed over souls, they do not go the same way; but the just are guided to the right hand, and are led with hymns, sung by the angels appointed over that place, unto a region of light, in which the just have dwelt from the beginning of the world; not constrained by necessity, but ever enjoying the prospect of the good things they see, and rejoice in the expectation of those new enjoyments, which will be peculiar to every one of them, and esteeming those things beyond what we have here. With whom there is no place of toil, no burning heat, no piercing cold, nor are any briers there; but the countenance of the fathers and of the just, which they see always smiles upon them, while they wait for that rest and eternal life in heaven, which is to succeed this region. This place we call The Bosom of Abraham.
But as for the unjust, they are dragged by force to the left hand by the angels allotted for punishment, no longer going with the good will, but as prisoners driven by violence; to whom are sent the angels appointed over them to reproach them and threaten them with terrible looks, and to thrust them still downwards. Now these angels that are set over these souls, drag them into the neighborhood of hell itself; who, when they are hard by it, continually hear the noise of it, and do not stand clear of the hot vapor itself; but when they have a nearer view of this spectacle, as of a terrible and exceeding great prospect of fire, they are struck with a fearful expectation of a future judgment, and in effect punished thereby; and not only so, but where they see the place [or choir] of the fathers and of the just, even hereby are they punished; for a chaos deep and large is fixed between them; insomuch that a just man that hath compassion upon them cannot be admitted, nor can one that is unjust if he were bold enough to attempt it, pass over it.
And while this may sound strange to you, it was not so strange during that time. Here is what we find in Book of Enoch, which is another extra-biblical book that was excluded from canon for various reasons, even though most scholars admit that it was widely read and used during New Testament era, and is even quoted from a few times in the canon of Scripture. Another lengthy passage, though not as long as the last - here is what we find this book explaining about the realm of the dead:
And thence I went to another place, and the mountain [and] of hard rock. And there was in it four hollow places, deep and wide and very smooth; three of them were dark and one bright; and there was a fountain of water in its midst. How smooth are the hollow places and deep and dark to look at. Then Raphael answered, one of the holy angels who was with me, and said unto me: 'These hollow places have been created for this very purpose, that the spirits of the souls of the dead should assemble therein, yea that all the souls of the children of men should assemble here. And these places have been made to receive them till the day of their judgment and till their appointed period [till the period appointed], till the great judgment (comes) upon them.'
Then I asked regarding it, and regarding all the hollow places: 'Why is one separated from the other?' And he answered me and said unto me: 'These three (dark ones) have been made that the spirits of the dead might be separated. And this division (bright one) has been made for the spirits of the righteous, in which there is the bright spring of water. And such has been made for sinners when they die and are buried in the earth and judgment has not been executed on them in their lifetime. Here their spirits shall be set apart in this great pain till the great day of judgment and punishment and torment of those who curse for ever and retribution for their spirits. There He shall bind them for ever. And such a division has been made for the spirits of those who make their suit, who make disclosures concerning their destruction, when they were slain in the days of the sinners. Such has been made for the spirits of men who were not righteous but sinners, who were complete in transgression, and of the transgressors they shall be companions: but their spirits shall not be slain in the day of judgment nor shall they be raised from thence.' Then I blessed the Lord of glory and said: 'Blessed be my Lord, the Lord of righteousness, who ruleth for ever.' (1 Enoch 22:1-4, 8-13)
Note that both the Josephus account and the Enoch story speak of this being a holding place until the great day of judgment, meaning it was not to be understood as a final heaven and hell scenario. Of course it is not coincidental that the vision of this place in Enoch and parts of Josephus almost match exactly to the story Jesus gave of the Rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16. In that section of Scripture you have:
1. The separation of the two men - yet within sight of each other
2. The Rich man being tormented/in pain
3. A fountain that Lazarus had access to, but the Rich man does not
Now, many have uses the rich man and Lazarus story to teach a doctrine of heaven and hell sadly. Even if this verse is proven to be dealing with some aspect of the afterlife, note that it is not at all about heaven and hell, but indeed about the Hadean realm that the Hebrews understood.
Another ancient Hebrew writing, The Apocalypse of Zephaniah tells the story of a man who found himself walking in a sea of flames whose waves burn with sulfur. Then the Lord Almighty came to him, and he fell down to worship. Upon arising he found he was in the presence now of an angel, the one who saved Israel from Pharaoh, as well as saving Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. So he asked him for help to leave this fiery sea. When he asked him who he was, he said:
I am the great angel, Eremiel, who is over the abyss and Hades, the one in which all of the souls are imprisoned from the end of the Flood, which came upon the earth, until this day. (Apocalypse of Zephaniah 6; emphasis mine)
The Odes of Solomon are said to have been written sometime around the end of the first century after Christ. This section was written from a first-person perspective, as if it were Christ speaking, describing the happenings during his three days in the earth:
I was not rejected although I was considered to be so
And I did not perish although they thought it of me
Sheol saw me and was scattered
And Death ejected me and many with me
I have been vinegar and bitterness to it
And I went down with it as far as its depth
Then the feet and the head it released
Because it was not able to endure my face
And I made a congregation of living among his dead;
And I spoke with them by living lips;
In order that my word may not fail.
And those who died ran toward me;
And they cried out and said "Son of God, have pity on us.
"And deal with us according to your kindness,
And bring us out from the chains of darkness.
"And open for us the door
By which we may go forth to you,
For we perceive that our death does not approach you.
"May we also be saved with you,
Because you are our savior."
Then I heard their voice,
And placed their faith in my heart.
And I placed my name upon their head
Because they are free and they are mine.
(Odes of Solomon 42:10-20)
This thought pattern ties in very neatly with what Peter said happened during the three days - that after Christ died in the flesh he was made alive in the spirit, and he went and preached to those in prison (Hades) (1 Peter 3:18-19). As well as his conquering of death (the place) and having the keys to death and Hades (Rev. 1:18). It also helps us to understand that just like promised in Ps. 16:8-10, that God did not leave the soul of Jesus (or David) in Sheol (Ps. 16:8-10 and Ps. 49:15).
Well, that is enough of a backdrop to make the point for a somewhat general understanding of the realm of the dead for the Hebrews, and hopefully you are starting to see the story line here. While these extra-biblical writings are not canononized Scripture, they can provide us with general ideas of the understandings on these subjects.
Death was understood in some ways as more of a place that just the state of being physically without life in the body. Death was the place all mankind went after physical death. It was a prison that held all mankind separate from God. It was considered "down below," under the earth," "in the dust," etc. It was a place that was ruled by the "strongman" that Jesus came to bind, plunder and overthrow so He could take the keys to death and Hades to restore fellowship with God.
Sheol: Final Destination?
Now, I want to insert an ever so brief understanding here before moving on. A good majority of scholars in the realm of ancient Hebrew understanding will tell you that, based on the Scripture alone, the understanding was that death was final. Sheol was the ultimate destiny, and there was no hope beyond that for the person. While I believe Hebrew scripture does give evidence of a future hope for the dead, I do see that there is still this sorrowful view of Sheol existence throughout. Sheol was not a desirable existence, and so it was not spoken of in good light. But there are a few verses like this:
The LORD kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up. (1 Sam. 2:6 ESV)
There is this hope, though it appears only occasionally. I like how Jon Levenson puts it:
Nothing in the nature of death, however, guarantees this happy reversal. No one moves naturally up from Sheol. When such a movement occurs, it does so because of God's surprising grace in defiance of the way of all flesh, in defiance of death, in defiance of Sheol. Indeed, were rescue from the netherworld the norm — were it, that is, a likely event — Sheol would lose its sting, and the grave of the God-forsaken (the "Pit") would never know victory. (Jon D. Levenson, Resurrection and the Restoration of Israel, pg 39)
Likewise, there is much debate over whether the Hebrews had any understanding of a dual nature of man, of a possible separation of body and spirit. Did they believe that Sheol was just the laying of the body — which contained the whole man — into the grave? Many would say yes, and proclaim that the idea of the spirit leaving the flesh to exist in some way outside of it is foreign to Hebrew understanding. I admit, I have done little study on this topic, but believe the idea is somewhat evident in the Scriptures. I wish to give just a couple quick examples before moving on. First the story of Elijah from 1 Kings, where the woman of the house's son got sick and died. So she inquired of Elijah as to why this would happen, and he in turn inquired of the Lord. Then he took the son:
And he stretched himself upon the child three times, and cried unto the LORD, and said, O LORD my God, I pray thee, let this child's soul come into him again. And the LORD heard the voice of Elijah; and the soul of the child came into him again, and he revived. (1 Kings 17:17-21 KJV)
I know a whole lot can be said about the word for soul here, which is the Hebrew term nephesh, but from the text it does appear that it is something that is outside of the flesh and that is being asked to be turned back into it. Matthew Henry states "plainly supposes the existence of the soul in a state of separation from the body," which I would agree with.
Then there is the story of Samuel, Saul, and the witch at Endor. Hopefully you know this story from 1 Sam 28, where Saul is dead, and Samuel is not sure what to do, so he seeks out a witch to help him contact Saul.
Then the woman said, "Whom shall I bring up for you?" He said, "Bring up Samuel for me." When the woman saw Samuel, she cried out with a loud voice. And the woman said to Saul, "Why have you deceived me? You are Saul."
The king said to her, "Do not be afraid. What do you see?" And the woman said to Saul, "I see a god coming up out of the earth." He said to her, "What is his appearance?" And she said, "An old man is coming up, and he is wrapped in a robe." And Saul knew that it was Samuel, and he bowed with his face to the ground and paid homage.
Then Samuel said to Saul, "Why have you disturbed me by bringing me up?" (1 Sam 28: 13-15 ESV)
Unless we are to assume that she actually brought Samuel's fleshly body back from the grave, then this is obvious a bringing him — his spiritual self however you wish to define it - up from the place of Sheol, meaning they understood there to be an existence, in some spiritual manner, of people after physical death.
Moving on, I'd like to turn now to looking at some of what other people have said in support of this view. While it may not be the most common understanding in today's churches, there are many who have, after much study, continued with or returned to this somewhat historical understanding once again.
First up, I would like to look at some comments regarding the Jewish understanding of life after death (life in Sheol), and this comes from the 2003 magnum opus on resurrection by N.T. Wright. As he is about to begin expounding on verses that show a future resurrection of the dead, he prefixes the section by saying:
It is important once more to be clear on the key topic before we go any further. The texts we shall consider, however we understand their detailed nuances, are not speaking about a new construal of life after death, but about something that will happen after whatever 'life after death' may involve. Resurrection is not just another way of talking about Sheol, or about what happens, as in Psalm 73, 'afterwards,' that is, after the event of bodily death. It speaks of something that will happen, if it does, after that again. Resurrection means bodily life after 'life after death,' or if you prefer, bodily life after the state of 'death.' That is why it is very misleading - and foreign to all relevant texts - to speak, as does one recent writer, of 'resurrection to heaven.' Resurrection is what did not happen to Enoch or Elijah. According to the texts, it is what will happen to people who are at present dead, not what has already happened to them. If this point is grasped, a good deal becomes clear; if forgotten, confusion is bound to follow. (Wright, N.T., The Resurrection of the Son of God, 2003, 108-109)
That is quite a mouthful, but hopefully you can understand what he is saying. He speaks of resurrection as being life after life after death — or life after the "state" of death. In other words, he believes that after death there is a state of life, if it can be really called that — in Sheol. He states that resurrection is true bodily life after that life in Sheol. Wright continues in a later chapter referring to Jewish beliefs in future life for the dead, saying:
Those who believed in resurrection believed also that the dead, who would be raised in the future but had not been yet, were alive somewhere, somehow, in an interim state. (pg. 130)
So, while it may be common belief in our churches today to believe that Old Testament saints died and were immediately lifted to heaven, that was not the historical Hebrew or early church doctrine, nor does it really even logically fit with Scripture teaching in general; but that is a topic for another day.
Now, let's take a look at a portion of the ever popular set "The Creeds of Christendom" by historian Philip Schaff. While he gives a wealth of information on the history and stories behind the creed, I will focus strictly on some of the notes mentioned about the clause in question here. The first notable thing, is right in the actual text of the creed, he has inserted a parenthetical thought after the descended clause, which says "Hades, spirit-world" and has a footnote marking for additional comments. The footnote continues clarifying by stating:
Descendit ad inferna (other Latin copies: ad inferos, to the inhabitants of the spirit-world; so also in the Athanasian Symbol)...other Eastern Creeds...he descended into Hades... The words katoteros and inferna, taken from Eph 4:9, correspond here to the Greek Hades, which occurs eleven times in the Greek New Testament, viz. Matt. 11:23; 16:18; Luke 10:15; 16:23; Acts 2:27,31; 1 Cor. 15:55; Rev. 1:18; 6:8; 20:13,14, and is always incorrectly translated hell in the English Version, except in 1 Cor. 15:55.
Hades signifies, like the word Sheol, the unseen spirit-world, the abode of all the departed, both the righteous and the wicked; while hell (probably from the Saxon word helan, to cover, to conceal), at least in modern usage, is a much narrower conception, and signifies the state and place of eternal damnation, like the Hebrew gehenna, which occurs twelve times in the Greek Testament, and is so translated in the English Bible...
He goes on to describe how this descended into hell clause has been explained in three different ways:
1. It is identical with sepultus (Rufinus), or means 'continued in the state of death and under the power of death' till the resurrection ( Westminster divines). This makes it a useless repetition in figurative language.
2. It signifies the intensity of Christ's sufferings on the cross, where he tasted the pain of hell for sinners (Calvin and the Heidelberg Catechism). This is inconsistent with the order of the clause between death and resurrection.
At this point, note his dismissal of the common misunderstanding and the inconsistency of this clause by Calvin and most modern Reformed churches. Looking at the order of the clauses in the Creed, it says he "was crucified, died, and was buried" and then he descended. So logically it makes no sense to say this means he suffered great suffering on the cross, since its placement describes something that happened after the cross, after physical death, and after actual burial. The composers of the Creed were trying to say something else, and we seek to remove or reinterpret, to the point of requiring illogical interpretive gymnastics.
And finally, Schaff's point three, which is the one we have been propagating here, that the clause means:
3. An actual self-manifestation of Christ after the crucifixion to all departed spirits, Luke 23:43; Acts 2:27,31; 1 Pet. 3:18-19; 4:6; compare Eph. 4:8-9; Col. 2:15; Phil. 2:10; Rev. 1:18. As such the descent is a part of the universality of the scheme of redemption, and forms the transition from the state of humiliation to the state of exaltation. This is the historical explanation, according to the belief of the ancient Church, but leaves much room for speculation concerning the object and effect of the descent.
So, as he mentions, to remove this clause from the Creed as some would suggest, does lose an important step in the redemptive process, and is suggested only because the modern church fails to understand what is being said by the early Church in this clause. Also note, he says the literal descent idea is the "historical explanation, according to the belief of the ancient church."
I would now like to turn to some sections from the 2003 book on Covenant Renewal worship by Rev. Jeffrey J. Meyers, pastor of Providence Reformed Presbyterian Church in St. Louis, entitled The Lord's Service. In chapter thirteen, which deals with the use of the Apostle and Nicene Creeds, he deals with the question "What does "he descended into hell" mean in the Apostles' Creed? While his reply is quite a few pages, here is an overview of some of his comments. He starts by giving six possible meaning for the phrase, one of which is the view we have been discussing here which he lists as point five:
The phrase would be better rendered as "He descended into hades." It means that Jesus actually died, and His human soul and body were separated, His spirit leaving His body to inhabit for a time the place of the departed dead (Sheol/Hades).
Some of the other points included various wordings or ways of saying He actually descending into the abode of the damned, what we normally would call the lake of fire. Of course he lists the common understanding in most Reformed circles , that it just mean he suffered hell on the cross. He then begins his explanation of the points in saying:
Clearly the creed intends for the descent clause to add something to the affirmation that Jesus was "buried." More than that, it follows in a historic sequence of events: born, suffered, crucified, dead, buried, descended, rose again, ascended, and sits. The descent happened before the resurrection. The descent comes after his burial and before his resurrection. This carefully constructed historical sequence rules out the symbolic interpretation that is so common in Reformed circles...
So, like Schaff, he is noting the inconsistency of some of the other explanations. Meyers continues:
Furthermore, we know from history that this symbolic interpretation was not the view of the early Church, which was responsible for composing the creed.
Meyers goes on to discuss why some of the other views can be ruled out, then returns to further look at this view, saying:
The questions therefore are: Did Jesus descend into hell or into hades? And what did he do there? Let us begin with what we do know. First we know that Jesus suffered as a human — that is, His body and soul were torn apart. That is what the Bible calls physical death. The biblical record says that when he died "He gave up his spirit" (John 19:30). Luke 23:46 tells us that Jesus Himself prayed, "Father, into your hands I commit my spirit." Now, if Jesus' human "spirit" or "soul" departed the cross, where did it go? If Jesus' body was subsequently buried, then His soul must have gone somewhere. In other words, where was Jesus between Good Friday and Easter Sunday morning? And what we he doing? The descent clause has an answer.
(SEE PSALM 31)
So, hopefully you are starting to see just what is being declared in the descent clause, and just how important it is to keep and understand it.
In continuing to look at the early Jewish understanding of the intermediate state that leads to this clause of the Apostles' Creed, I share with you this interesting reference from the writings of John Lightfoot in reference to the meaning of "In Abraham's bosom" as understood historically by the Hebrews of Jesus' time:
...if you would know what it is, you need seek no further than the Rhemists, our countrymen...for they upon this place have this passage: "The bosom of Abraham is the resting place of all them that died in perfect state of grace before Christ's time; heaven, before, being shut from men. It is called in Zachary a lake without water, and sometimes a prison, but most commonly of the divines Limbus patrum; for that it is thought to have been the higher part or brim of hell." If our Saviour had been the first author of this phrase, then might it have been tolerable to have looked for the meaning of it amongst Christian expositors; but seeing it is a scheme of speech so familiar amongst the Jews, and our Saviour spoke no other than in the known and vulgar dialect of that nation, the meaning must be fetched thence, not from any Greek or Roman lexicon. That which we are to inquire after is, how it was understood by the auditory then present: and I may lay any wager that the Jews, when they heard Abraham's bosom mentioned, did think of nothing less than that kind of limbo which we have here described. (Lightfoot, John - Commentary on the New Testament from the Talmud and Hebraica, Vol. 3, Pgs. 168-169, 2003, Hendrickson Publishers)
While Lightfoot might not agree with this understanding of the term, the point is that he correctly points out that this was the common understanding of the Jewish people during the days of Yeshua, and Yeshua neither corrects the thought, nor condemns them for it, but in fact uses the very same terminology - in the parable of Lazarus and the rich man for example - as well as to the thief on the cross, appearing to give further proof for the truth behind the belief.
Now, I jump over to another more modern author — this being a quote from the recent commentary on Daniel by James B. Jordan entitled The Handwriting on the Wall. In dealing with the resurrection passage in Daniel 12:2 which states:
And the multitude of those sleeping in the dust of the ground do awake, some to life age-during, and some to reproaches—to abhorrence age-during. (Dan. 12:2 YLT)
Jordan discusses six possibilities for what type of resurrection this verse could be speaking of. For point five he states:
A fifth possibility is that this refers to the emptying of Sheol into heaven when Christ ascended there. This is a concept less familiar to us today, and will be explained below. (Pg 617)
He has it right, in saying it is less familiar to us; it appears many have totally forgotten the whole concept. He then continues a little later to explain the position:
Looking first at the fifth possibility, ascension to heaven: Until Jesus went into heaven, nobody went into heaven. Those who died from Adam to Christ went to Sheol, which the New Testament calls hades. The righteous went into Abraham's bosom, also called in theology Limbus Patrum, while the wicked went to an uncomfortable place. After Jesus' death He descended to Sheol and sorted the dead. When Jesus ascended into heaven, He emptied Abraham's bosom and brought all the righteous dead to heaven with him. The wicked in Sheol, however, are not brought up to heaven until the end of time, when they are cast into the lake of fire that is before the throne of God.
So, here we have another modern Reformed example that has come around to remember the idea of death as portrayed in the Hebrew Scriptures. Again, if we assume this to be the proper understanding, then you should hopefully see the importance of Christ first descending into hades, and how removing this step in the process causes an issue - and leaves those who died prior to Christ still in bondage to death.
Now, let's take a look at some parts from A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs. While the book has nearly six pages loaded with quotations from early writers regarding the intermediate state of Hades, I will only touch on a couple of them. Hopefully, these will provide more evidence of what the early church believed and taught on this topic, and why it was important enough to have in the creed.
But first, a foundation must be laid since a couple of the comments are dealing with Ephesians 4:9, which states:
Therefore it says, "When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men." (In saying, "He ascended," what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.) (Ephesians 4:8-10 ESV)
Now it appears from many commentators and Bible study notes I have read on this section of Ephesians, the common position is that the when it says "he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth" it is only referring to his original descent from heaven to earth, and his low estate while on earth.
So the lower parts of the earth is life above ground as we know every day, some modern writers would say. For instance, the well-known commentary set by Albert Barnes says regarding the clause descended into the lower parts of the earth:
To the lowest state of humiliation. This seems to be the fair meaning of the words. Heaven stands opposed to earth. One is above; the other is beneath. From the one, Christ descended to the other; and he came not only to the earth, but he stooped to the most humble condition of humanity here. Some have understood this of the grave; others of the region of departed spirits; but these interpretations do not seem to be necessary. It is the earth itself that stands in contrast with the heavens; and the idea is, that the Redeemer descended from his lofty eminence in heaven, and became a man of humble rank and condition. (Barnes NT Notes)
John Calvin gets a bit more agitated when dealing with this passage in his commentaries:
These words mean nothing more than the condition of the present life. To torture them so as to make them mean purgatory or hell, is exceedingly foolish. The argument taken from the comparative degree, "the lower parts," is quite untenable. A comparison is drawn, not between one part of the earth and another, but between the whole earth and heaven; as if he had said, that from that lofty habitation Christ descended into our deep gulf.
So, rather than looking at this verse as speaking of two places as it relates to the hearers standing on earth, they seek to make it a reference to two acts that when taken that way, make less sense. Christ stood on earth and is said to have ascended, but that before he ascended from earth to heaven that he had descended from earth to the lower parts of the earth. If earth is the center point — then the ascending and descending are in relation to that point. Plus, as we have seen in the earlier parts of this series, "lower parts," "beneath the earth" and such terms as that have always been used to refer to the hadaen realm, and not to the above ground earthly living. Some prime examples of this:
"But those that seek my soul, to destroy it, shall go into the lower parts of the earth." (Ps 63:9)
This obviously speaks of his enemies going to the place of the dead, and not just to life above ground. The same can be understood from many verses in Ezekiel
"When I shall bring thee down with them that descend into the pit, with the people of old time, and shall set thee in the low parts of the earth, in places desolate of old, with them that go down to the pit, that thou be not inhabited; and I shall set glory in the land of the living" (26:20)
"...for they are all delivered unto death, to the nether parts of the earth (same Hebrew word), in the midst of the children of men, with them that go down to the pit." (31:14)
Now let us turn to the early church fathers for their comments:
The Lord observed the law of the dead so that He might become the First-Begotten from the dead. And He waited until the third day "in the lower parts of the earth." ... [Accordingly,] these men [the Gnostics] must be put to confusion, who say that "the lower parts" refer to this world of ours...The Lord "went away in the midst of the shadow of death," where the souls of the dead were. However, afterwards, He arose in the body. And after the resurrection, he was taken up [into heaven]. Irenaeus (c. 180, E/W), 1.560.
So to Irenaeus, it was the Gnostic's who believed the "lower parts of the earth" referred to earth — the view held by many Reformers. Irenaeus also stated:
For their benefit, "He also descended into the lower parts of the earth," to behold with His eyes the state of those who were resting from their labors. (c.180, E/W), 1.494
It was for this reason, too, that the Lord descended into the regions beneath the earth, preaching His advent there also. And he [declared] the remission of sins received by those who believe in Him. (c. 180, E/W), 1.499
And similarly we find Tertullian stating:
For we read that Christ in His death spent three days in the heart of the earth... He did not ascend into the heights of heaven before descending into the lower parts of the earth. This was so that He might there [in Hades] make the patriarchs and prophets partakers of Himself. (c.210, W), 9.316
There are many other quotes that reference the belief in the intermediate state after death, more than enough to show that it was a common belief for the first couple hundred years. I won't go through anymore, as time is speeding by for me, but hopefully you can see that it was common place for the church to have believed and taught of the hadean realm, and that Christ did indeed "descend into hades" after his death on the cross.
Let's briefly look at the story with and without the idea of the intermediate state of the dead. Here, in a nutshell, are the major stages of the typical position:
1) Death — soul in Hades awaiting return of Christ
2) At return of Christ, there is a resurrection of the original body
3) A restoring of the soul with the body
4) Judgment day
5) Entering heaven
This being the case, then prior to Christ's return, no one enters heaven. After all Christ said in John 14, that he goes to prepare a place and would return to take us to be with him — so until he returns, no one has been taken to be with him. It makes me wonder - is this why the idea of Sheol was cast aside, so that prior to his coming — people could be said to have immediately ascended into heaven at death? At least the early church father Tertullian and others are more consistent than today's teachers:
How indeed, will the soul mount up to heaven, where Christ is already sitting at the Father's right hand? For the archangel's trumpet has not yet been heard by the command of God...To no one is heaven opened...When the world indeed, will pass away, then the kingdom of heaven will be opened. (c. 210, W), 3.231.
Justin Martyr has some interesting things to say about those who deny the intermediate state, and claim that people are immediately taken to heaven upon death:
You may have fallen in with some [Gnostics] who are called Christians. However, they do not admit this [intermediate state], and they venture to blaspheme the God of Abraham...They say there is no resurrection of the dead. Rather, they say that when they die, their souls are taken to heaven. Do not imagine they are Christians. (emphasis mine) (Justin Martyr, c. 160, E, 1.239)
So, according to Justin, it is the Gnostics who believe that upon death people go directly to heaven without first being resurrected at the return of Christ. Hmmmm.
Here is the common understanding of the plan for many today while excluding the intermediate state:
1) Death — soul goes to heaven now in a naked (2 Cor. 5) state
2) At the return of Christ — there is a resurrection of the physical body
3) Spirit gets yanked from heaven (or hell) and fused back with that body
4) Judgment day
5) Return to heaven where we've been for millennia
This view, void of the intermediate state, kind of bypasses a judgment day before people acquire their final destination, and then jumbles the rest in to just make it kind of work in the end, yet being very illogical biblically.
Looking briefly to more from the church fathers that I have been using, they give four main "proof texts" for the understanding of Jesus' descent into Hades, one of which being Ephesians 4:9 as discussed earlier, and the others are:
For David says concerning him, "‘I saw the Lord always before me, for he is at my right hand that I may not be shaken; therefore my heart was glad, and my tongue rejoiced; my flesh also will dwell in hope. For you will not abandon my soul to Hades, or let your Holy One see corruption. (Acts 2:25-27)
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 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. (1 Peter 3:18-20)
For this is why the gospel was preached even to those who are dead, that though judged in the flesh the way people are, they might live in the spirit the way God does. (1 Peter 4:6)
In response to this view, Melito states:
Christ rose from the place of the dead, and raised up the race of Adam from the grave below. Melito (c.170).
They fully believed and understood the Scriptures to teach that when Jesus rose, he rose from somewhere. He had not simply ceased to exist for three days, nor had he been asleep, and neither has he gone to the heavenly realm, but he had been busy and had returned from his work. Irenaus states:
For their benefit, "He also descended into the lower parts of the earth," to behold with His eyes the state of those who were resting from their labors...For Christ did not come merely for those who believed on Him in the time of Tiberius Caesar. Nor did the Father exercise His providence only for the men who are presently alive. Rather, He exercised it for all men altogether, who from the beginning...have both feared and loved God.
It was for this reason, too, that the Lord descended into the regions beneath the earth, preaching His advent there also. And he [declared] the remission of sins received by those who believe in Him.
He gathered from the ends of the earth into His Father's fold the children who were scattered abroad. And He remembered His own dead ones, who had previously fallen asleep. He came down to them so that He might deliver them.
For three days He dwelt in the place where the dead were, as the prophet said concerning Him. "And the Lord remembered His dead saints who slept formerly in the land of the dead. And he descended to them to rescue and save them." The Lord Himself said, "As Jonah remained three days and three nights in the whale's belly, so will the Son of man be in the heart of the earth." Irenaeus (c.180) - four separate quotes
I will end this section with one more quote from Tertullian:
Hades is not supposed by us to be a bare cavity, nor some subterranean sewer of the world. Rather it is a vast deep space in the interior of the earth...For we read that Christ in His death spent three days in the heart of the earth...He did not ascend into the heights of heaven before descending into the lower parts of the earth. This was so that He might there [in Hades] make the patriarchs and prophets partakers of Himself. Tertullian (c.210)
As high of an importance as most Reformed churches place on adherence to the Apostle's Creed as a general test of orthodoxy, I find it odd that they would reinterpret parts of it to their liking in the face of such overwhelming historic and biblical information against them. This understanding was the more commonly held view for those instrumental in forming the early creeds and were considered pertinent to the whole plan of redemption.
If Christ did not descend into Sheol, then all of mankind are still there — not in heaven. If you totally deny and wish away the whole realm of the dead idea, then you are faced with so many other verses that have to be twisted into different meanings, and an end result that is very illogical in light of Scripture.
But the most amazing thing is the illogical view of the Apostle's Creed that goes on without concern. In essence the modern church leaders assume the creed is in error on this point and so it needs reinterpreted. Yet, it is as if they do they ever stop to ask - if there is an error on the proper understanding of this phrase, does that not shed at least some level of doubt on our strict understanding of other points? If not, why? And if so, then how can they hold their understanding of any of the other parts of the creed as basically an irrefutable, beyond discussion, test of orthodoxy with which they can kick people out of church over?
But that is a whole other topic for another day.