Monday, April 12, 2010

Did Christ Descend Into Hell? Part 1

In this series we are going to seek to ask and answer the question: upon His death, did Christ descend body and soul into hell? We will examine the relevant text, and exegete them in context to see what they teach.

Part 1: Ephesians 4:7-10,
Part 2: 1 Peter 3:18-22,
Part 3: 1 Peter 4:4-6
Part 4: Romans 10:7 & Acts 2:24-28
Part 5: Theological Conclusion

Ephesians 4:7-10
Since the passage that you started with was Ephesians 4:7-10, I believe this is the best place to start. Of course, there are numerous issues with this passage including (1) when/and to where was the descent; and (2) who are the captives led is procession?

When and where was the descent? While we will not answer all these questions, verse 9 should be looked at very carefully. The question needs to be asked when and where he descended. Verse makes it clear that “he descended to the lower parts of the earth.”
Ephesians 4:9 (Now this expression, "He ascended," what does it mean except that He also had descended into the lower parts of the earth?
The phrase is “εἰς τὰ κατώτερα [μέρη] τῆς γῆς” (eis ta kayōtera merē ēs gēs). Part of the issue that arises is what is the lower part of the earth? What region are we talking about here? If one uses this passage as a defense of Christ’s descent into hades/hell, I do not believe that one grammatically answers this question but assumes that it is hades, the grave, or hell itself. This certainly is a possible understanding of the passage but is this what Paul has in mind?

There are essentially two options for translating this passage: either “of the earth” is a partative genitive. This means the phrase “of the earth” (which is Greek grammar is in the genitive form) should be taken as describing the whole (the earth) of which the lower regions is a part of. Thus, we might think of the lower regions as under the earth if this is the correct grammatical relationship.

The second way to translate this phrase is as a genitive of simple apposition (the so called epexegetical genitive). This means the phrase “of the earth” is explanatory and definitional of the preceding “the lower regions”. Thus we could translate this as “the lower regions, namely the earth”. In this interpretation the lower regions then refers not to sheol/hades or something below the earth but as his descent to the earth itself in his incarnation. (This use of the genitive is common in Ephesians: 2;2; 2:14, 15, 20; 3:4, 7; 4:3; 6:14, 16, 17 [Hoehner, Ephesians, 535;])

When describing places, the genitive of apposition is used regularly. As expert Greek grammarian Dan Wallace notes, when merē is used in the plural [which is in Eph. 4:9] and the region is used in the singular [which ‘earth’ it is in Eph. 4:9] it is commonly a genitive of apposition. Wallace notes similar constructions is the Greek translation of Isa. 9:1; Matt. 2:22; 15:21; 16:13; Mark 8:10; Acts 2:10.

What this basically means is that we are not to understand “earth” as the whole and “lower regions” as some part of the earth—under it—as sheol/hades is described. Rather we are to understand the lower regions to which Christ descends as the earth itself.

It is possible that this ‘descent’ includes his body going into the grave.
(a) we do have a similar phrase in Psalm 63:9 and Isaiah 43:23
ESV Psalm 63:9 But those who seek to destroy my life shall go down into the depths of the earth;
NAU Isaiah 44:23 Shout for joy, O heavens, for the LORD has done it! Shout joyfully, you lower parts of the earth; Break forth into a shout of joy, you mountains, O forest, and every tree in it; For the LORD has redeemed Jacob And in Israel He shows forth His glory.
In the Greek translation of the OT, Psalm 63:9 is closer to the NT. Whereas the Greek for Isaiah translates “lower parts” as ‘foundations’. The Hebrew in both passages is tachi. It is possible that Paul has this background in mind, then he may have a descent that is deeper.

It is true that Philippians 2:10 seems to suggest three levels: 'heaven, earth and under the earth." In Philippians 2:6-7 the humiliation of Christ includes both his coming to earth and his death on the cross. So while Philippians 2:11 mention the knees of "of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth," bowing--it never mentions a descent to a physical location under the earth--beyond His body being in the grave.

When it comes to Ephesians 4:(, I think it is best grammatically to see “regions” as an important indicator and Psalm 63:9 just says depth. There may be a difference in the Greek translation of Psalm 63:9 katōtata (lowest) and Ephesians 4:9 katatepos (‘lower’). It is unwarranted to suggest there is a lowest region under the earth just above a lower region. Such thinking assumes Paul, Psalm 63 and Isaiah 43 all have the same things in mind. It is safer grammatically to see Paul describing the lower region as the earth itself in Eph. 4:9 while he clearly holds to a region under the earth in Phil. 2:11.

Grammatically I favor then that the descent is the incarnation. Of course, Paul everywhere understands that the incarnation itself is not a triumph apart from Christ’s death. Yet like John’s Gospel, Paul is telling us that Jesus could not ascend into heaven unless he had first descended from heaven. Yet grammar along does not solve all the issues here. We might make a few other points.

(i) Hades and sheol is not explicitly mentioned in this passage. This is of course a possible interpretation but the passage must be understood in context. Which means we must avoid interpreting it as sheol/hades unless we have clear warrant to do so. While grammar alone will not solve the problem, if it is indeed a ‘partative’ use of the genitive (of the earth), then we would have warrant. However, we have argued that this is not the best view and thus maintain there is not warrant.

(ii) The main context of the passage is that Christ has ascended into heaven and in ascending he has (a) ‘led captive a host of captives’ and (b) gave spiritual gifts to men. The latter is particularly important because Paul is explaining the unity of the church and the measure of Christ’s gifts that are given out in great diversity according to Christ’s free grace.

(iii) Paul’s argument then is that Christ could not have ascended unless he also descended. Now it is possible that as an interpretation if the captives led captive are human souls we could possible suggest that he first must descend to hades/sheol to get them. That is one possible interpretation. However, to reach this conclusion we have to assume things and even read things into the context that are not there.

(a) Who are the host of captives led captive? You rightly noted that there are two possible interpretation (1) saints being led to heaven in the ascension and (2) a triumphal victory over Satan and demons in His ascension.

It is clear that this is a military victory. The passage says “he led captive a host of captives.” This then is not a liberation. But those being led out are not freed or transferred rather they are led as those in captivity much in the same way Roman soldiers would triumphant enter into cities with captives trailing behind them. Therefore, this passage at a minimum does not tell us anything about leading righteous souls out of hades/paradise into heaven.

Furthermore, in Ephesians, Christ clearly triumphs over the forces of darkness as He is established in His ascension as reigning Lord.
Ephesians 1:20-23 20 which He brought about in Christ, when He raised Him from the dead and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly places, 21 far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. 22 And He put all things in subjection under His feet, and gave Him as head over all things to the church, 23 which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all.
Paul uses this same triumph motif in Colossians:
Colossians 2:15 When He had disarmed the rulers and authorities, He made a public display of them, having triumphed over them through Him.
(b) Paul’s use of heaven and earth in Ephesians is to contrast two realms. Paul clearly contrasts the heavenlies and earth in the book of Ephesians.
Ephesians 1:10 with a view to an administration suitable to the fullness of the times, that is, the summing up of all things in Christ, things in the heavens and things on the earth. In Him
Ephesians 3:15 from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name,
In Ephesians if “lower parts of the earth” refers to a region below the earth, it would be the only place where we have a clear three tiered cosmology. I would not deny this for other Biblical passages, however, what I am saying is that Ephesians gives us a clear contrast between heaven and earth.

(c) In Ephesians the spiritual war, of which Christ conquerors in first so that the believers might also participate, is not fought in Hades but actually in the heavenlies (Harold Hoehner, Ephesians, 534).
Ephesians 1:20-21 20 which He brought about in Christ, when He raised Him from the dead and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly places, 21 far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come.
Ephesians 2:2 in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience.
Ephesians 6:12 For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places.

It is best then to see that Jesus’ descent in Ephesians is not to Hades but to the earth. This would clearly follow John’s gospel (John 3:13; 6:62; 16:28). The victory is on the cross (Col. 2:14; Eph. 2:14-16) and then Christ ascends bodily into heaven where He is exalted over all things. It is in this ascension that Christ’s Lordship is established whereby He rules as the Second Adam over all creation including angels, spiritual forces and demons.

The point is this: Ephesians 4:7-10 does not properly give us a description of Christ descending to hell. Rather Christ descends to earth. He humbles Himself, being made a little lower than angels (Phil 2; Heb. 2) and then ascends into heaven.

If we are going to believe in a descent into hades, we are not going to find it in this passage if we are going to be faithful to what Paul is actually describing in Ephesians 4:7-10.

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