Is It OK to Confess That Jesus Descended into Hell? (What if it really means “descended to the dead”?)

"Thus one effect of Emerson’s book, I hope, will be for more churches to remove a needless stumbling block by changing the wording to something like “he descended to the dead” (as many churches already have). Anyone who can confess that Christ rose from the dead should be able to confess that he descended to the dead (cf. 42, 58)." - TGC

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Ed Vasicek's picture

Not impressed.

I personally think Jesus descended to announce his victory to the place where bound demons are kept in judgment -- those who did the Nephilim thing in Genesis 6.  (cf. I Peter 3:18-20).

The phrase should be extracted from the Apostle's Creed.

"The Midrash Detective"

TylerR's picture

Editor

1 Pet 3 reference, don't agree He descended into hell, exactly. I think He descended into hell's waiting room (for lack of a better term; nobody goes into hell until Rev 20) and proclaimed His victory to the people who were alive in Noah's day who didn't repent. These sinners are representative of all who refuse Christ.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Dan Miller's picture

Ephesians 4:8 Therefore it says, “When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men.” 9 (In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower regions, the earth? 10 He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.) 11 And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds [2] and teachers, [3] 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ,

 In this passage, Jesus descended into "lower of the earth," then he ascended and "gave gifts to men." The gifts he gave were men - the spoils of war he took to Himself when he descended into battle. Those gifts were (are) living men.

Therefore, Jesus did not descend into hell. He descended to EARTH and there won a victory and now has rescued men, whom he gives as gifts of service to His church.

1 Peter 3:18 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, 19 in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, 20 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 4:1 Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves with the same way of thinking, for whoever has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, 2 so as to live for the rest of the time in the flesh no longer for human passions but for the will of God. 3 For the time that is past suffices for doing what the Gentiles want to do, living in sensuality, passions, drunkenness, orgies, drinking parties, and lawless idolatry. 4 With respect to this they are surprised when you do not join them in the same flood of debauchery, and they malign you; 5 but they will give account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead. 6 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.

Longer, and I will write it up... But - I do not believe that this is Jesus preaching in Hell to condemned humans or to spirits. I believe it refers to Jesus (through Noah) preaching in the days of Noah to Noah's family, who came to believe and were rescued through the flood waters.

TylerR's picture

Editor

That passage from Peter (1 Pet 3:18-21) is probably the hardest passage in the NT to interpret. The three positions staked out in this thread represent the three major views out there. It's a tough one, no doubt. I think I'm right, of course! 

I spent a great deal of time on the passage about two years ago. After I saw this thread topic today, I had to look back at my notes to remember what I believed about it and why, and I find myself still agreeing with my younger self, so I guess that's good ...

These are my adult bible class notes from the passage, and they explain my own reasoning (for what its worth). Again, this is a very hard passage. 

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

G. N. Barkman's picture

a comment I heard from John Mac Arthur many years ago.  He was asked what he believed about some text.  He said something like, "I don't know.  I'll have to review my sermon notes on that passage to find out what I believe."

Tyler, your comment resonates with me because I have done the same more than once.

G. N. Barkman

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

The author of the book referenced in the OP seems to take the view that "hell" as we think of it was not the intent of the creed.

It would be interesting to see the full argument on that.

It seems much simpler (too convenient?) to just acknowledge that creeds aren't perfect and this is an example.

AndyE's picture

G. N. Barkman wrote:
a comment I heard from John Mac Arthur many years ago.  He was asked what he believed about some text.  He said something like, "I don't know.  I'll have to review my sermon notes on that passage to find out what I believe."

Tyler, your comment resonates with me because I have done the same more than once.

I'm glad I"m not the only one!

Creeds should be statements of fundamental truths that all in the church can affirm without reservation.  Taking one of the most controversial and difficult passages in the NT and forcing everyone to take a certain position on it works against the very purpose of a creed, and that is to confirm the Biblical truths that unite us and form the basis for our faith. My vote would be to do away with that line completely.

Dan Miller's picture

Aaron Blumer wrote:

The author of the book referenced in the OP seems to take the view that "hell" as we think of it was not the intent of the creed.

It would be interesting to see the full argument on that.

It seems much simpler (too convenient?) to just acknowledge that creeds aren't perfect and this is an example.

Grudem, ST, pg. 586: “...until A.D.650 no version of the [Apostle’s] Creed included this phrase with the intention of saying that Christ “descended into Hell.” 

Grudem’s 1986 paper: Jesus preaching through Noah to the disobedient people, who God was (in some sense) hoping for repentance, but who at the time of Peter’s writing were “in prison” (hell).

I should write up my view....

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Would like to see that

Ed Vasicek's picture

Your point is well taken about the author's intent.

In my view, this parallels the KJV only thing.

Do we translate the Scriptures into modern, understandable English, or waste time teaching our people antiquated English?  The literature teachers always prefer the latter, but, unless you have those agendas, it makes more sense to translate to current terms.  If the word hell in the creed does not mean hell as we use it, that why not simply update it?

"The Midrash Detective"

TylerR's picture

Editor

Ed, you make a good point. The tension between translation and interpretation is always tricky. At what point do you cross the line? Of course, with syntax you "interpret" all the time! But, how far do you go? For example, should you translate Paul's "in Christ" as something like "in union with Christ," instead? It certainly communicates better, doesn't it? But, is that what Paul is saying (for example) in Rom 6?

Back to 1 Pet, I translated it as "the spirits [now] in prison." Is the prison "hell?" That's an interpretative decision, but whatever this "prison" is and however you understand the phrase, it's hard to say anyone is literally in hell right now (cf. Rev 20).

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Dan Miller's picture

TylerR wrote:
...

These are my adult bible class notes from the passage, and they explain my own reasoning (for what its worth). Again, this is a very hard passage. 

Thanks for posting your notes! I agree it's a hard passage. Here's my view:

1 Peter 3:19 in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison,

Did Jesus go and announce His victory to spirits in hell? Here's Augustine's answer:

To My Lord Evodius Most Blessed, My Brother and Partner in the Episcopal Office, 

The question which you have proposed to me from the epistle of the Apostle Peter is one which, as I think you are aware, is wont to perplex me most seriously, namely, how the words which you have quoted are to be understood on the supposition that they were spoken concerning hell? I therefore refer this question back to yourself, that if either you yourself be able, or can find any other person who is able to do so, you may remove and terminate my perplexities on the subject. If the Lord grant to me ability to understand the words before you do, and it be in my power to impart what I receive from Him to you, I will not withhold it from a friend so truly loved.

-Augustin

Similarly, Calvin said about this passage, “the obscurity of this passage has produced, as usual, various explanations.”

I will give my view:

The whole of 1 Peter 3:8-4:6 is about suffering and the gospel. 1 Peter 4:1 begins, “Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh.” This is a reference back to 3:18 (and preceding). This means that the story of Jesus and Noah and baptism are an aside, an illustration for the main point, which is in 3:8-18 and 4:1-6. It is that the good news of Christ’s suffering and resurrection calls us to death and living for Him(self-evangelism) and to answer giving (others-evangelism). Therefore, the illustrations should be seen as illustrating that call for self-directed and others-directed evangelism. This is seen in 3:18, where we see that Christ died so that (ἵνα) He could bring us to God. And 4:6, “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.” 

A key, then for the meaning of the Jesus-Noah-baptism illustration is that we should find it illustrates the call for sharing the live-giving gospel. Consider: I want to encourage fishing, and I say, “Go fishing and catch fish so that you can feed your family. Like a time when my friend went fishing and he spent the day on the lake and all he saw was dead fish under the water and he put in his line, but the fish were dead. So do that! That’s the point of fishing - to catch them and feed your family!” You’d think I was nuts. No, since the point in 3:18 and in ch.4 is successful evangelism, the illustration should be about successful evangelism.

On to the illustrations:

1 Peter 3:19 in which he [Christ] went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, 20 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. 21 Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, 22 who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him.

Baptism “saves us.” Not in that it cleans dirt from the body, but in that it is the answer of a good conscience. Clearly Peter is talking about water baptism, because he has to clarify that the physical cleaning part isn’t the saving part. The saving part is the way in which baptism is the choice of faith. It expresses (James would say completes) our faith. It saves because it "is" faith (thus, credo-baptism).

That’s why it’s a picture of Noah, who trusted in God’s promises when he built and entered the Ark and who taught that promise to his family, who joined him in steps of faith. Therefore, based on what this illustration should be doing, the preaching that occurred in the days of Noah should be successful gospel preaching. And yet there are questions that arise if that is so:

1. How can it be Noah who was preaching to his family when the text says Christ preached?

It is a common thing for gospel preaching to be referenced as the speaking of Jesus or God, even though it wasn't them speaking directly.

  • 2 Cor 5:20 Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.
  • Ephesians 2:13-17 - ESV: “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.... And he [Jesus] came and preached peace to you [Ephesians] who were far off and peace to those who were near.” Jesus didn’t go to Ephesus. Missionaries did. And through them, Jesus preached. 
  • Romans 10:14-17 v.14 - ESV: “And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard?” Murray: ~not “of whom” or “in whom,” but “whom.” The verb “heard” takes genitive direct object: “Him whom they have never heard.” - Meaning, “How can they believe in Him whom they have not heard?”

The Gospel belongs to Jesus and every time it is given, it is (in a sense) Jesus speaking, including back in the days of Noah.

2. How is it that “spirits in prison” refers to Noah’s family?

The word for “prison,” φυλακή, means “watch” or “keep” or “prison.” Other than here, which is uncertain, it is never used for hell as a place for human souls. A “keep” is a central lockable place in which people are kept, either for protection or punishment. The word is used for “kept in prison” and “kept safe.” Well, I ask, could Peter have been referring to the ark? I first looked at the Septuagint to see if φυλακή was ever used for the ark. It isn’t. Next, I asked if the verb form ( φυλάσσω ) is used in Scripture for Noah’s term in the ark. Indeed, it is, and by Peter about Noah!  2 Peter 2:5 “if he did not spare the ancient world, but preserved (φυλάσσω) Noah, a herald of righteousness, with seven others, when he brought a flood upon the world of the ungodly;”

So 3:19-22 would go like this:

ESV19 in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, 

DSM19 in which sense he preached to the people of the keep;

ESV20 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. 

DSM20 because they formerly did not obey, while the ark was built, in which a few were saved through water

ESV21 Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, 

DSM21 Baptism, which pictures this, now saves you, not because it washes your body, but as a way for you to respond in faith through the saving power of Jesus

In this way, the preaching of Jesus through Noah to his family (the people of the keep) is an example how preaching brings about salvation.

TylerR's picture

Editor

I think you're the one who I had extensive interaction with about what the "baptism" is, from that passage. It must have been about two years ago, now.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Dan Miller's picture

that these same once “ disobedient " persons were “the spirits in prison," or under protection in the Ark. In short, "the spirits in prison ” and “souls in the Ark"-seven of them at least -are not only analogous but epexegetical expressions, the latter being explanatory of the former.

The Scripture view of Christ preaching to the spirits in prison by Archibald Currie, 1871

Bert Perry's picture

I'm no expert in Greek, but as far as I can tell, the Greek rendition of the Creed follows the wording of Ephesians 4:9, and there is a parallel there to the 1 Peter 3 passage.  Worth noting as well is that the "Hell" mistranslation might be said to go all the way back to the Latin translation, which uses the word "inferos" (infernos?) to describe those lower regions.  The ancients may have chosen the word from Ephesians 4:9 simply because of poetic devices as a mnemonic tool.

Should it be there?   Probably hinges on 1 Peter 3:20, and who precisely the spirits in prison are, and whether the reference to Noah indicates just those who drowned in the Flood, or whether it's all who died before Christ.  One thing I can say is that just being a hard concept doesn't automatically exclude it, because you've also got the concept of the Trinity--which we all affirm, but we simultaneously have trouble communicating it without using modalistic analogies.

And for that matter, how many of us....actually use the Apostles' Creed in any form with any regularity.  :^)

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.