THE DANGEROUS DOCTRINE OF CHRIST’S PURPORTED DESCENT INTO HELL

Issue

For more than a thousand years, the Apostles’ Creed has stood as an integral profession of Christianity. Across a broad spectrum of orthodox denominations and churches, the creed has been universally accepted, minus four words: He [Christ] descended into hell. In an article for The Confessional Presbyterian Journal, Daniel Hyde lists at least six major interpretations for Christ’s alleged descent to hell which include: He suffered further after the cross; He went to give a second chance to the dead; He went and pronounced His victory to those that already believed in Him before their deaths; He went to pronounce His victory to Satan; it was a synonym of His burial; and that it means He suffered His whole life—especially on the cross.[1] Each interpretation of this brief phrase brings with it a host of exegetical challenges for interpreting corresponding Scripture passages that stand in support or opposition to one’s conclusion on this creedal conundrum. Millard Erickson calculates 180 different exegetical combinations, in theory.[2]

The preeminent passage at the center of this doctrine is 1 Peter 3:18-20.[3] Martin Luther describes this passage as a wonderful text, “and a more obscure passage perhaps than any other in the New Testament, so that I do not know for a certainty just what Peter means.”[4] This post will focus primarily on the legitimacy of the views hereby referred to as the second-chance view, that Christ purportedly descended to hell and proclaimed the gospel to imprisoned spirits, and the Augustinian view, that Christ did not descend, but ‘in the spirit’ preached through Noah to those whom were on earth as he built the ark. These two positions will stand as archetypes of the descent into hell interpretations and the descent into the grave interpretations respectively. The Augustinian view’s interpretive paradigm is not only correct, but pivotal in the case against any view which affirms a doctrine of descent into hell, thereby rendering them exegetically untenable, theologically problematic, and historically inaccurate.

Positions

The word spirits (pnuema) in 1 Peter 3 could be understood as the spirit of angels[5] or humans.[6] Both views, however, recognize Christ’s proclamation was to spirits so that they might be saved from a final judgment (1 Pet 4:6), thereby ruling out angels.[7] One blaring difference between the two positions on this, however, is that the second-chance view is predicated on Christ descending into hell after His crucifixion, which would mean that the spirits are deceased at the time of preaching.

Proponents of the second-chance view understand 1 Peter 3:18-20 to connote a progression of events: Christ suffered and died, was made alive in the Spirit (Rom 8:11), through whom He went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison. Additionally, in his sermon on the day of Pentecost, Peter quotes from Psalm 16:10 and applies this text directly to Christ: "Because thou wilt not leave my soul in hell, neither wilt thou suffer thine Holy One to see corruption” (Acts 2:27, KJV 1900). Later, as if to clarify any confusion as to the state of these spirits, Peter writes, "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 Pet 4:6, emphasis mine). Advocates of this view affirm the temporality of this narrative, rejecting the understanding of Christ leaving one spatial realm for another as proposed by dissenters.

These three arguments put in the context of Christ’s headship (Rom 5:1-12) led the German Lutheran theologian, Wolfhart Pannenberg, to argue that on the basis of Jesus being the second Adam, he suffered Adam’s sentence, which was hell for all humanity. Pannenberg defended the later addition of the phrase describing Christ’s descent into hell in the Apostles’ Creed: “The intention was no doubt to give a more detailed description of what happened to Jesus at his death: he did not only endure death in its physical aspect, but also experienced what death, as the fate brought about by sin, means for a man as person–namely, exclusion from God and his salvation.”[8] It should be said that it is not Pannenberg’s allegiance to the Creed that drives his argument but his concern for the fidelity of the full testimony of Scripture as attested to by others such as Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and Cyril.

Pannenberg understood that uncleanliness is not possible in the presence of God and those who are unclean must be cast out (Num 5:1-4). When God made Christ to be sin (2 Cor 5:21) He became sin for all who would believe in Him. Hence, Christ took on not only the transgressions of sinners but also their reproach. In the same way that the unclean were driven outside the camp according to the law, a picture of being cut off from the presence of God, the author of Hebrews writes that Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify His people (Heb 13.12). Although Pannenberg makes no reference to these verses explicitly, he does write that Jesus died as “one cast out” and was “excluded from the nearness of God”. For Pannenberg, then, being cut off from the nearness of God, especially with a prior knowledge of what constitutes true nearness, “would be real hell.”[9]

While commenting on the line he descended into hell, C.E.B. Cranfield unwittingly gives away his position by asking: “Should we perhaps see particularly in 1 Peter 3 a hint that the period between the first Good Friday afternoon and early on Easter Sunday was not void of redemptive significance?”[10] Pannenberg indirectly offers a response to Cranfield’s question when he writes, “the descent into hell was not so much an expression of Jesus’ suffering as a demonstration of his triumph.”[11] Based on the two passages in 1 Peter, Pannenberg minces no words to say when Christ was cast out from communion with the Father, He went to hell to preach the message of repentance to those who were already dead, proving that “Salvation from future judgment is still made available in the realm of the dead to those who during their lifetime encountered neither Jesus nor the Christian message.”[12] The reality of Christ’s expulsion from His nearness to God, according to Pannenberg, proves that He had to descend into hell to take on Adam’s sentence.

Support

This issue of whether or not Christ descended into hell is a situation where one’s systematic framework heavily influences one’s interpretation. Erickson elaborates: “There is no single biblical text that treats the doctrine of descent into hell completely, or states the issue clearly and unambiguously.”[13] Because of this, a vast majority of descent interpretations are constructed almost entirely on dogmatics without taking into account the context of their proof texts. On 1 Peter 3:19, Lloyd-Jones warns the exegete to mind the thematic purpose of these passages in their context: “I feel that all these other expositions have gone astray because they do not remember that context.”[14] Therefore, in order to avoid repeating this very same error, it is important to start with the context before proceeding to hypothetical doctrinal conclusions.

Unequivocally, Peter’s intention in writing his letter was to encourage persecuted believers to stand fast while they endured suffering in this evil age.[15] Any subsequent conclusion of a possible interpretation to this passage, then, must have this context at the forefront of its explanation. This alone would disqualify the second-chance view as being a biblically tenable interpretation. Lloyd-Jones writes, “What was the use of being told that those who had died impenitent at the time of the deluge were going to have another opportunity of salvation? How did it help those suffering Christians to be told that after death there would be a second chance for the unbeliever? It is utterly irrelevant!”[16] On the same point, Schreiner explains, “It makes no sense contextually for Peter to be teaching that the wicked have a second chance in a letter in which he exhorted the righteous to preserver and to endure suffering.”[17] He goes on to say, “All motivation to endure would vanish if Peter now offered a second chance opportunity after death.”[18]

In his commentary on 1 Peter, Wayne Grudem offers an alternative explanation, referred to here as the Augustinian view, for Christ’s proclamation to the formerly disobedient spirits in prison (1 Pet 3:19). The interpretation proposed by Grudem states that, as Noah built the ark, Christ ‘in the spirit’ was in him preaching repentance to unbelievers who were on earth then but are now ‘spirits in prison’ (people in hell).[19] This view did not originate with Grudem, as many throughout the history of the church, including Thomas Aquinas and even contemporary theologians such as John Piper, have adopted it. Augustine originally proposed this view to contend with teachings of postmortem conversion that began to circulate.[20] This interpretation is far less phantasmal than others that entail Christ descending into hell, fallen angels having sexual relations with women, or Christ going into the bosom of Abraham to free Old Testament saints. Instead, Peter here seeks to encourage the church by reminding them that no temptation has overtaken them that is not common to man (1 Cor 10:13).

Peter begins his letter by reminding the reader that the “Spirit of Christ” was at work in the prophets of old (1 Pet 1:10-11). Even though Jobes does not prescribe to the Augustinian view, she concedes that this passage “speaks of the Spirit of the pre-incarnate Christ preaching in times past through the prophets.”[21] This agrees with Peter’s declarative statement in his second letter: “For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Pet 1:21). Combining these two verses, it can be said that prophets spoke from God through the Spirit, and the Spirit of the pre-incarnate Christ was preaching through the prophets of old.

In his second epistle, Peter again makes mention of Noah in the ancient world: “if he did not spare the ancient world, but preserved Noah, a herald of righteousness, with seven others, when he brought a flood upon the world of the ungodly” (2 Pet 2:5). Though Peter here does not specifically refer to Noah as a prophet, he terms him a ‘herald of righteousness’, which describes the functional role of a prophet. Since the Spirit of Christ was preaching through the prophets of the Old Testament and now Peter makes mention of Noah being a ‘herald of righteousness,’ it is right to conclude that the mystery of 1 Peter 3:19 is just as Grudem suggests. Christ never descended to hell, but ‘in the spirit’ preached through Noah to those who were on earth as he built the ark.

What bearing does this have on the overarching purpose of Peter’s letter which was to encourage the persecuted believer to endure? It appears that Peter is using a type/anti-type construct to demonstrate the parallel between Noah’s situation and that of Peter’s readers. Both are minorities surrounded by hostile unbelievers called to warn those persecuting them that God’s judgment is at hand and will fall upon all who are not reconciled to God in Christ. In the same way that Christ preached in the unseen ‘spiritual’ realm during the ancient days of Noah, so now He is at work in Peter’s readers “powering their witness and making it spiritually effective (cf. 1:8, 11,12, 25; 2:4).”[22]  Lloyd-Jones summarizes:

Now you see why the apostle refers to the time of Noah and why he tells us about the preparing of the ark? It has no sense or meaning apart from that context of suffering. ‘Go back,’ says Peter, ‘and look at that old time—what do you find? You find that Christ was then preaching to people, even as He did in the days of His flesh and as He is doing now.[23]

Peter’s intention is to encourage his readers by reminding them that they are not alone; Christ is at work in them in the same way He worked in Noah. Also, he reminds them that because their situation is analogous to Noah’s, they should, like him, warn those around them of the oncoming flood of God’s wrath on the Day of Judgment (Rom 2:5). Erickson, another proponent of this view, writes, “They were as inattentive to the message as the sinners in the days of Noah had been, and as unheedful as others will be just before the second coming (Matt 24:37-39).”[24] This nuance gives further credence to the fact that the Augustinian view best explains Peter’s temporal referent “while the ark was being prepared” (1 Pet 3:20).

Objections

One objection often lodged against the Augustinian view is the objection from antiquity. This argument asserts that the Apostles’ Creed has been confessed universally since A.D. 200 by the catholic church. Though they would concede to liquidity on the addition of the phrase in question, a descension clause can be documented in the early years of the creed. One such example is Rufinus (A.D. 390), who was one of the first to include the phrase “he descended into hell.”

Using the same source cited for support, however, quickly dismisses the objection for descent from antiquity. It is true that Rufinus made use of the phrase, but he was the only person to do so before A.D. 650. Additionally, his writing on the issue shows clearly that he understood the phrase simply to mean that Christ was “buried.”[25] Though he was a defender of a descent view, Philip Schaff in his prominent Creeds of Christendom admits: “Rufinus himself, however, misunderstood it by making it to mean the same as buried.”[26] The irony abounds that the man cited to show precedent for usage disagrees with its biblically ambiguous interpretation and never intended such a meaning.

Furthermore, Grudem rightly notes that the Apostles’ Creed, unlike the Nicene Creed and the Chalcedonian Definition, was “not written or approved by a single church council at one specific time. Rather, it gradually took shape from about A.D. 200 to 750.”[27] It could be said that Augustine (354–430), hearing such a perverse abuse of the creed, posited his view to keep such a misconstrual from propagating. These things aside, the antiquarian objection is predicated on the presupposition that antiquity necessitates legitimacy. This logic is not only false but also dangerous, for creedal orthodoxy was ordinarily formulated as a rebuttal to the heresy that predates it. Must one adopt Arius’ claims over the Athanasian Creed simply because one is older than the other?

Another objection charged against the Augustinian view is the supposed biblical contradiction. Choice passages are used in an attempt to discredit this as a viable interpretation. For example, as argued by proponents of the second-chance view, Peter quotes from Psalm 16:10 and applies this text directly to Christ: "Because thou wilt not leave my soul in hell, neither wilt thou suffer thine Holy One to see corruption” (Acts 2:27, KJV 1900). The question, then, is whether David meant hell as the KJV 1900 renders it or Hades/grave as virtually all other translations have it. The NIV translates: “Because you will not abandon me to the grave, nor will you let your Holy One see decay” (Acts 2:27, NIV 1984). Myers recognizes, "The crux of the problem is in the interpretation of the word “grave”—whether it means merely a place of burial, a symbol of God’s ultimate judgment over sin, or Jesus’ final identification with human sinners.”[28] It seems implausible that Peter’s understanding of David’s intention was to teach that Jesus would descend into and then be delivered from some place called Hades: “the psalmist was stating that death would have no permanent power over Jesus.”[29]

Here, the argument transitions from Peter’s words to Paul’s writing in Ephesians where he pens, “he had also descended into the lower regions, the earth?” (Eph 4:9). By descending into the lower regions, it is said that Paul was arguing for Christ’s descension into hell. In contrast, Bietenhard proposes that what Paul means here is that Christ entered into the realm of the dead.[30] The other prominent and preferable interpretation of this passage is that Paul was describing Christ entering into humanity by becoming incarnate.[31] Contextually this understanding that Paul was making the case for a descent into hell in Ephesians makes no sense. This, too, must be rejected and seen as an attempted proof text to bolster a faulty biblical foundation.

The last and most convincing attempt to corroborate a biblical understanding for a descent into hell is the argument that the audience to whom Christ preached was “in prison” (1 Pet 3:19) and “dead” (1 Pet 4:6). About the spirits in prison, John Piper rejoinders, "Peter does not say that Christ preached to them while they were in prison. He says he preached to them once, during the days of Noah, and now they are in prison.”[32] Regarding them being dead at the time of hearing, the “dead” to whom the gospel was said to be preached could not have been dead since the purpose of this preaching was “that though judged in the flesh the way people are, they might live in the spirit the way God does” (1 Pet 4:6).[33] This is only a viable interpretation if one accepts the plausibility of postmortem salvation.

Finally, the second-chance view seems to ping between the authority of the Scriptures and the antiquity of the creed. The two create a sort of interpretive echo-chamber, where they continually corroborate each other despite the theological ramifications of the conclusion. After considering the support, objections, and the plethora of texts used to defend a descent view, it becomes clear that the Augustinian view better fits the theological narrative of Scripture. Therefore, it is not only right to dismiss even the viability of a doctrine of descent into hell but theologically necessary, since alternatives like the second-chance view have been known to lead to dangerous conclusions. To suggest otherwise is to challenge the words of Christ on the cross saying to the thief beside Him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43).

 


 

[1] Daniel Hyde, “In Defense of the Descent: A Confessional Response to Contemporary Critics of Christ’s Descent into Hell,” The Confessional Presbyterian Journal 3 (2007): 106.

[2] As cited in Karen H. Jobes, 1 Peter (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2005), 237.

[3] All biblical references are quoted from the English Standard Version unless otherwise noted.

[4] Martin Luther, Commentary on Peter & Jude, trans. John Nicholas Lenker (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Kregel Publications, 1990), 166.

[5] Biblical usage of spirit referring to an angel or demon’s spirit: Mat 8:16; 10:1; 12:43, 45; Mark 1:23; Luke 10:20; Acts 23:8.

[6] Biblical usage of spirit referring to a human spirit: Eccles 12:7; Mat 27:50; Luke 23:46; John 19:30; Acts 7:59; 1 Cor 5:5; 7:34; 14:14; Heb 12:23; James 2:26)

[7] The overwhelming testimony of Scripture decisively dismisses any notion of salvations for fallen angels. Some will argue that these spirits in prison have to be angels since Peter (2 Pet 2:4) and Jude (1:6) speak of sinful angels as imprisoned or punished. This, however, does not take into account that both Luke (Luke 16:23-24) and Peter (2 Pet 2:9) describe unbelievers who are in a similar place of punishment.

[8] Wolfhart Pannenberg, The Apostles’ Creed in the Light of Today’s Questions (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1972), 92.

[9] Ibid., 91.

[10] C.E.B. Cranfield, The Apostles’ Creed: A Faith to Live By (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1993), 35.

[11] Pannenberg, The Apostles’ Creed, 92.

[12] Ibid., 93.

[13] Millard J Erickson, Christian Theology, 3rd ed (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2013), 707.

[14] David Martyn Lloyd-Jones, The Church and the Last Things (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1998), 77.

[15] Thomas Schreiner, 1, 2 Peter, Jude (Nashville, Tenn.: Broadman & Holman, 2003), 45.

[16] Lloyd-Jones, The Church and the Last Things, 78.

[17] Schreiner, 1, 2 Peter, Jude, 188.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Wayne Grudem, 1 Peter: An Introduction and Commentary (Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1999), 157.

[20] Jobes, 1 Peter, 239.

[21] Ibid., 239.

[22] Grudem, 1 Peter, 160.

[23] Lloyd-Jones, The Church and the Last Things, 78–79.

[24] Erickson, Christian Theology, 708.

[25] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine, Kindle edition (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan Pub. House, 1994), 607.

[26] Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom, 3 vols. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1983), 1:21.

[27] Grudem, Systematic Theology, 586.

[28] Allen C. Myers, ‘Descent Into Hell’ In The Eerdmans Bible Dictionary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1987), 279.

[29] Erickson, Christian Theology, 707.

[30] Hans Bietenhard, "κατώτερος,” in The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, ed. Colin Brown (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1976), 2:210.

[31] In Erickson, Christian Theology, 707 he argues that "The descent, therefore, was from heaven to earth, not to somewhere beneath the earth.”

[32] John Piper, “Did Jesus Spend Saturday in Hell?,” Desiring God, accessed April 11, 2014, http://www.desiringgod.org/blog/posts/did-jesus-spend-saturday-in-hell--2.

[33] For more on this see Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Edinburgh; Carlisle, Pa.: Banner of Truth Trust, 1998), 341.