Recently the head of the Jesuits has cast doubt on the existence of satan, which is perhaps as unsurprising as it is sad, as there was, and is, a fashion to pretend that hell does not exist. The Nicene Creed is clear, that Christ died and ‘descended into hell’. What He did there is referred to in St Peter’s first epistle:
For this is the reason the gospel was preached even to those who are now dead, so that they might be judged according to human standards in regard to the body, but live according to God in regard to the spirit. (1 Peter 4:6)
No less an authority than John Calvin himself wrote of this:
“But we ought not to omit his descent into hell, a matter of no small moment in bringing about redemption…. This much is certain: that it reflected the common belief of all the godly; for there is no one of the fathers who does not mention in his writings Christ’s descent into hell, though their interpretations vary. But it matters little by whom or at what time this clause was inserted.”
One of the earliest Creeds to contain this reference was the one promulgated at Sirmium in AD 359 (Sirmium is in modern-day Serbia) which stated, inter alia:
We know that He, the only-begotten Son of God, at the Father’s bidding came from the heavens for the abolishment of sin, and was born of the virgin Mary, and conversed with the disciples, and fulfilled the Economy according to the Father’s will, and was crucified, and died and descended into the parts beneath the earth, and regulated the things there, whom the gate-keepers of hell saw (Job 38:17) and shuddered; and He rose from the dead the third day, and conversed with the disciples, and fulfilled all the Economy….
The belief that Jesus spent the interval between his death and resurrection in hades is a common feature of Christian teaching from the Apostolic Fathers onwards. This hades never means the place of the wicked but the dwelling of the righteous dead, although at times the region of the blessed is thought of as a spatial division of the netherworld. [Tertullian, Against Marcion 4:34.] It was common belief that the Old Testament saints were located at the time of the ‘descent’ in hades,[Origen, Commentary on the Psalms 9:18; Tertullian, Against Marcion 4:34; Chrysostom, Homilies on Dives and Lazarus; Augustine, Exposition of Genesis, 12:33-34.] It seems to have been almost universally accepted by orthodox Christians that Christ’s descent in some way related to their redemption. At this point two broad streams of interpretation can be discerned.
First, there is an emphasis on Christ’s preaching salvation to the Old Testament worthies. Justin Martyr and Irenaeus both cite an apocryphal Old Testament passage as proof of this doctrine. ‘The Lord God remembered His dead people of Israel who lay in the graves; and descended to preach to them his own salvation’. [Justin, Dialogue with Trypho 72; Irenaeus, Against all Heresies 3:22]. Irenaeus quotes a ‘certain presbyter’ ‘who had heard it from those who had seen the apostles that Christ ‘descended . . . below the ground, preaching His advent there also and declaring remission of sins received by those who believe in Him, … who foretold His advent … just men and prophets and patriarchs.[Irenaeus, Against all Heresies, 4:42. Cf. Gospel of Peter, vv.4lf; Origen, Against Celsus, 2:43.]
The problem with this view was that it seemed that there was little that Christ’s visit could have achieved, for it was usually combined with a belief that, with the exception of martyrs, neither the Old Testament believers nor Christians pass into the immediate presence of God until after the general resurrection. [Irenaeus, Against all Heresies, 5:31., Tertullian, On the Resurrection of the Flesh, 43; On the Soul, 55.]
It is hardly surprising that another view of the ‘descent’ came to predominate; this dramatically pictured Christ as the liberator of the Old Testament saints from the powers of darkness. The Odes of Solomon [J.W. Charlesworth. ‘Odes of Solomon’, in Interpreters’ Dictionary of the Bible (Nashville, Abingdon, supp. vol. 1976, pp.637-38). are explicit about this: ‘sheol saw me and was made miserable . . . and I made a congregation of living men among his dead men … and they cried, and said, Son of God have pity on us … and my name I sealed upon their heads: for they are free men and they are mine.[Odes of Solomon, 42:15ff; cf. 17:9; 311:1.]
Melito of Sardis’s Paschal Homily 68; 10 (c. AD 180)has traces of this idea where it speaks of the descent in terms of the defeat of evil. The fourth century Gospel of Nicodemus couples in dramatic fashion Christ’s descent into hades and transportation of the Old Testament saints to heaven with the defeat and casting of Satan into the torture of Tartarus. Examples could be multiplied, but by the time of the entry of our clause into the Apostles’ Creed the Western Church understood by the ‘descent into hell’ Christ’s triumph over Satan and the power of death on behalf of lost mankind.
Christ would hardly have descended into ‘Hell’ as we know of it, as its inhabitants can never move to heaven, so what would have been the point. Surely his descent to the righteous dead is what we believe? They would have included the greatest of saints, St Joseph, Christ’s own foster-father.
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Indeed. It is interesting though that the early Fathers were in some doubt – suggests that they had not thought much about Purgatory.
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The “Apostles Creed” is a little late with where Jesus was in hell, because that was when He was on the cross. He “descended into hell” after this, and that particular reference is to the grave.
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Great piece, C. St Peter mentions both aspects of the descent. The verse you quoted at the beginning has the verb form of Evangelion (Gospel), which means it was good news He was preaching. Only the righteous would have received it as good news (e,g. King David). 1 Pet. 3:19 describes His preaching to disobedient spirits in prison. Here a different, neutral word (ekeruxe) is used, which simply means announced. This was when He told the fallen Watchers in Tartarus that they had been judged by the Cross. Being in prison, they did not know what was going on outside. Now they know that the next event is their day of sentencing, what we call the Last Judgement.
I can’t believe there are Jesuits who don’t believe in Satan – well, actually, I can. Dangerous times indeed.
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Very helpful explication, Nicholas – I tread into these areas with great care ..!
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There’s an old sermon on this that was once attributed to Josephus but is now attributed to Hippolytus of Rome. It can be found at the back of the old Whiston translation. I have spent a fair bit of time looking at this sort of thing recently. There’s a lot of crossover between this and Greek mythology where Zeus thrusts the Titans and Giants into Tartarus. Virgil’s Aeneid also mentions it in Aeneas’ descent into the Underworld in Book 6.
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It’s also worth noting that there is a lot of underworld/afterlife terminology in Scripture, much of it overlapping as in Venn diagrams.
-Lake of fire
We need to think of the spiritual world in concrete terms, otherwise it’s extremely difficult to conceptualise it, but we need to remember that much of this is symbolic imagery pointing to a greater reality behind it. Are the fallen Watchers bound with physical chains? Probably not…but that does not mean they aren’t restrained by the power of God.
Bosco the Heretic said:
Theres a few things in scripture that we wont understand til we are with Him. But these things are put there for us to realize that there is a spirit world and we cant access it or understand it. knowing Jesus personally, I still cant vouch for what he did to the souls in hell. The scripture says He ministered to them. My first thought was that they are to remain in hell but they got a reprieve while He was there. Jesus was in hell and most likely felt the loneliness and cold of being there. He suffered for our sins.