PASTOR DON'S CHRISTIAN ED NOTES
Jesus Christ - He Descended into Hades
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Sunday, January 18, 2009 -

“We believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth: And in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord; who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, Suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried; He descended into hades; the third day He rose again from the dead; He ascended into heaven, and sits at the right hand of God, the Father Almighty; from thence He shall come to judge the quick and the dead. We believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church, the communion of the saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen”

Today we come to the most difficult phrase in the whole creed. The idea that Jesus Christ descended into hades has received so many different interpretations it has left Christians feeling everything from excitement to total confusion. It’s a theological head-spinner. The main texts used to reference this phrase - “He descended into hades” - are as follows:

1 Peter 3:18-20 - “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.”

2 Peter 2:4-6, 9 - “For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell and committed them to chains of gloomy darkness to be kept until the judgment; [5] 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; [6] if by turning the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to ashes he condemned them to extinction, making them an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly....9....then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials, and to keep the unrighteous under punishment until the day of judgment....”

Jude 5-6 - “Now I want to remind you, although you once fully knew it, that Jesus, who saved a people out of the land of Egypt, afterward destroyed those who did not believe. [6] And the angels who did not stay within their own position of authority, but left their proper dwelling, he has kept in eternal chains under gloomy darkness until the judgment of the great day....”

While the exact phrase, “descended into hades,” is never used in the Scriptures regarding Jesus, the idea of spirits being held in prison and chains, and Jesus making some kind of proclamation to them, comes from these texts (and a few others like them). While there is much we don’t know with certainty, there are at least a few starting points:

1) SOME KIND OF MESSAGE WAS PROCLAIMED TO THESE FALLEN, WICKED SPIRITS AND IT IS TIED IN WITH THE DEATH AND RESURRECTION OF JESUS - While different opinions abound, the common factor in all these texts is that these spirits appear to be unrighteous spirits. These are not devout spiritual beings or the departed spirits of Old Testament saints.

The Bible does give a few brief words dealing with the departed spirits of righteous or pardoned people and how they are affected by the death of Jesus on the cross. The thief on the cross is told he will be with Jesus in Paradise the very same day he died. There is also a fascinating little detail included in Matthew’s gospel: Matthew 27:50-53 - “And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice and yielded up his spirit.[51] And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. And the earth shook, and the rocks were split. [52] The tombs also were opened. And many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, [53] and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many.”

So, something happened on the cross that, in a way we can’t fully explain, had an effect on the spirits of long deceased Old Testament saints. Since the death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ, saints go to be with Jesus immediately upon their death.

But that is not the subject of our three opening texts. Our opening three texts all deal, not with righteous spirits, but with disobedient spirits - 1 Peter 3:19-20 - “....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.”

Now, some people feel that these aren’t fallen angelic spirits, but rather the departed spirits of those people who were alive and disobedient at the time of Noah. I think there are some reasons for preferring the former rather than the latter, but it makes no difference to the main point. These texts all deal with wicked spirits rather than righteous spirits. This point is even clearer in the last two texts I read: 2 Peter 2:4 - “For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell and committed them to chains of gloomy darkness to be kept until the judgment....” Also, Jude 5-6 - “Now I want to remind you, although you once fully knew it, that Jesus, who saved a people out of the land of Egypt, afterward destroyed those who did not believe. [6] And the angels who did not stay within their own position of authority, but left their proper dwelling, he has kept in eternal chains under gloomy darkness until the judgment of the great day....”

So, while we certainly don’t know very much, we know that these spirits are wicked spirits. The Bible says they have been kept in bonds or chains awaiting judgement.

2) WHILE PETER SAYS JESUS MADE PROCLAMATION TO THESE SPIRITS IN PRISON, IT’S UNLIKELY HE DID THIS BETWEEN HIS DEATH AND RESURRECTION - The reason many people have traditionally thought Jesus descended into hades between His death and Resurrection is the way the formers of the creed put these phrases into sequence - “He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried; He descended into hades; the third day He rose again from the dead...” The reason people think Jesus went down into hades between His death and Resurrection is that’s where the creed puts the event. But does that mean this sequence of events an exact description of timing of the events listed? For certain, the creed, for all its importance, is still a human document. And I think there are some serious problems with the theory that Jesus’ proclamation to these spirits in prison was made while He was in some disembodied state, before His Resurrection from the dead:

First, Jesus clearly told the repentant thief on the cross that they would both be together in paradise immediately upon Jesus’ death. In other words, while the body dies and is placed in the grave, the spirit goes into the presence of God.

Second, Jesus’ final words on the cross make it clear that in His own mind, His spirit would be with Father God immediately upon His physical death - “Then Jesus, calling out with a loud voice, said, ‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!’ And having said this he breathed his last”(Luke 23:46).

And finally, Peter’s text makes quite clear that Jesus’ proclamation was made after His Resurrection from the dead. It’s just that you have to read his words very carefully to catch it: 1 Peter 3:18-19 - “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....” If Peter meant to teach that Jesus went and made proclamation after His physical death on the cross but before His body came out of the grave he would have said that Jesus was put to death in the flesh but continued to live in the spirit. After all, Peter certainly knew that the spirit doesn’t die when the body dies. He himself teaches this in his own letters.

No. Peter means that Jesus died in the flesh on the cross. Then he was raised from the dead, made alive in the spirit (remember, Paul also calls the resurrection body - all our resurrection bodies - a “spiritual body” - 1 Corinthians 15:44). Then Jesus went and proclaimed this message of triumph to the spirits in prison.