Friday, 29 March 2013

The Descent into Hell - Holy Saturday

For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit. After being made alive, he went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits to those who were disobedient long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built. 1 Peter 3:18-20a NIV

Traditionally, Holy Saturday has been associated with Christ's descent into hell (descensus Christi ad Inferos). While we wouldn't push the temporal link too strongly, since Scripture only says that Christ visited the imprisoned spirits "after being made alive", yet Holy Saturday seems a good time to ponder this article of faith which has often been argued against by contemporary theologians.

"Before Christ arose and ascended into heaven, and while yet lying in the grave, He also descended into hell in order to deliver also us from it, who were to be held in it as prisoners ... However I shall not discuss this article in a profound and subtle manner, as to how it was done or what it means to 'descend into hell', but adhere to the simplest meaning conveyed by these words, as we must represent it to children and uneducated people...since we cannot but conceive thoughts and images of what is presented to us in words, and unable to think of or understand anything without such images, it is appropriate and right that we view it literally, just as it is painted, that He descends with the banner, shattering and destroying the gates of hell...we ought ... simply to fix and fasten our hearts and thoughts on the words of the Creed,which says: I believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God,dead, buried, and descended into hell,' that is, in the entire person,God and man, with body and soul, undivided,'born of the Virgin, suffered died, and buried'; in like manner I must not divide it here either, but believe and say that the same Christ, God and man in one person, descended into hell..."
From Martin Luther's Torgau sermon on Christ's Descent Into Hell

"...we believe simply that the entire person, God and human being, descended to Hell after his burial, conquered the devil, destroyed the power of Hell, and took from the devil all his power."
Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration, Art. IX

Pic: From an altar reredos at All Souls College Chapel in Oxford, England

Note that the reredos depicts Adam and Eve alongside what appear to be other OT figures, reflecting the common but erroneous folk belief that Christ preached to OT believers in hell. This is not consistent with the Biblical sedes doctrinae (seat of the doctrine), 1 Peter 3:18f, which specifically mentions Christ proclaiming his victory to those who were disobedient "in the days of Noah". 
In the history of interpretation of this passage, Augustine took the view that Christ preached through Noah to the unbelievers who later became "the spirits in prison" while Aquinas interpreted the passage allegorically, asserting that it was intended to teach simply the victory of Christ over the devil.
Other medieval interpreters thought hell was the mythological underworld, divided into various compartments for the just and unjust, the former becoming known as "the limbo of the fathers", which was liberated by Christ.
The Roman Catholic apologist Robert Bellarmine thought the spirits in prison were the souls in purgatory - an outstanding example of eisegesis or the reading into the text of information which is not there.
Lutheran interpreters through the centuries have consistently followed Luther's lead in the Torgau sermon (which also proves he did not believe in "soul sleep") and interpreted the text literally (see Bo Reicke, The Disobedient Spirits and Christian Baptism, 1946), regarding Christ's preaching as a proclamation not of forgiveness but of his victory over sin, death and the devil, a victory which meant that the condemned state of the souls in prison was confirmed.
One must be alert in our time to interpretations which favour an apocatastasis or restoration of the souls in hell - a "second chance" to hear the Gospel and repent after death which finally results in an empty hell, save for the devil and the evil angels. This view is present not only among liberal Protestants but in the Roman Catholic and Easter Orthodox churches (see here). We dare not go against the clear word of God, which tells us that people "are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment" (Hebrews 9:27).


Martin Yee said...

Pastor Henderson,

Thanks for this helpful post. For some reason there is no proper teaching of Christ's descent into hell in the Lutheran churches in Singapore. Does the LCA has a fuller write up on this that you can recommend? Some of our members do ask their pastors what this meant in the Apostle's Creed but no proper answer was given as each pastor just explain it in his own way and understanding.


Mark Henderson said...

Hi Martin,

My understanding - and correct me if I am wrong - is that the SE Asian Lutheran churches are still finding their "confessional feet". They were often founded by Pietists missionaries who didn't stress doctrine and are presently growing into their confessional heritage. I think if you asked several LCA pastors you might get different answers too! No church body has a perfect grasp even of the basic articles of faith - as long as the structure of the faith (both fides qua & fides quae) is not toppled we can live with that but always work for improvement in understanding.

The best I can suggest on this subject is that you read Luther's Torgau sermon in full and the Confessional references (including the Apostles' and Athanasian Creeds), plus a good conservative dogmatics text like Francis Pieper, who devotes a whole chapter to the subject - probably because it was already under attack in his time by liberal theologians (Pieper is so conservative as to seem to us to come from another time period - indeed, being pre-WWI he does - but do not let that blind you to the solid teaching he provides on most of the dogmatic 'loci', along with the many Luther references he includes.

I certainly haven't said everything there is to say - I just wanted to focus on that main passage from Peter's letter, which is verty clear and thus forms a basis for the doctrine.

Every blessing to you from your Easter worship tomorrow!

Martin Yee said...

Dear Pastor Henderson,

Greetings in the Risen Lord too. Thanks for the kind advice. I will do that. Yes, many of us are now "growing up" asking who are we? We are in an identity crisis of sorts. The Lutheran missionaries who laboured in South East Asia in the past here are of diverse backgrounds,Swedes,Finns,Norwegians, Germans, Swiss and Americans. Some are liberals, some Confessional and some are Pietists. So you can imagine what happens. On top of that, many of us here are first generation Christians, I was a fomer Taoist/Buddhist/Confucianist. Yes, we are trying to understand and live out the Lutheran Confessions here but it is an uphill task. Our pedigree did not really help as other Confessional Lutherans do not recognise us. Without the LCA we will be pretty lost I guess. Do pray for us. Thanks.


Mark Henderson said...

Patience and persistence in good teaching will lead to fruitful results under the Lord's blessing in uch a context, Martin. That is why I think your blogis interesting and important. I have a Singaporean Chinese lady in one of my congregations - she is a very fine Christian.

Martin Yee said...

Read Pieper's Christian Dogmatics Vol III p314-320 on Christ's Descent Into Hell. It is really good. He even discussed the Greek text and quoted besides Luther and Quenstedt even Erlangen theologians, Thomasius and Hofmann! I like his attention to Peter's exhortation in context for Christians to persevere in faith despite sufferings. Christ has set an example in his humiliation and sufferings and finally gained victory and glory. The set of Pieper's Christian Dogmatics was a gift from LCA to our church library, a great gift indeed. Thanks.

Mark Henderson said...

Yes, you'll find Pieper interacts often with Hofmann and what he calls the "Ich-theology" that originates with Schleiermacher (or should that be the devil?) and subtly moves the locus of authority from scripture to the religious consciousness of the individual. Pieper originally wrote in German and was v. familiar with developments in the homelan dof the Reformation.