Saturday, April 19, 2014

Jesus' Descent to Hell
USA Today has an interesting article about the death of Jesus and whether he ascended or descended; that is, where did Jesus spend his time on Holy Saturday?

It doesn’t seem to be as simple as one would think.  The first significant scriptural references are Jesus’ statement to the penitent thief, traditionally known as St. Dismas, found in Luke 23:40-43

But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”

The second relevant passage is 1 Peter 3:18-20;

For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight people, were saved through water.

Although I don’t usually look to USA Today to learn something new, I was in fact introduced to a few new ideas. First, I was not aware that Jesus' descent into Hell was particularly significant for the Eastern Orthodox. Second, there is apparently some sort of evangelical movement to change the apostles’ creed, led by folks such as John Piper. 

I had a few thoughts on this article. The evangelical call to change the Apostles' Creed seems odd to me; since evangelicals are really only bound by local or regional administration, Just as one can skip the line in the creed about Jesus' descent into hell (as Piper does), so a pastor can lead everyone to skip it. In addition to this, there does also seem to be a growing liberal evangelical rejection of the belief in hell. I expect this to continue and will of course influence the reading of 1 Peter. Growing up in the Wesleyan tradition, I knew the Apostles' Creed, but I don't at all remember any sermons about what Jesus' descent into hell is all about. 

The article also briefly mentions of the length of time between Jesus' execution and resurrection. No mention of it being Shabbat, though. I think the fact that Jesus' time between Friday evening and Sunday morning is the time to rest is meaningful. 

My last thought is about Jesus' statement to the penitent thief. Using that statement to make some assertion that Jesus was in heaven after his death is problematic, and not just because we cannot know if Jesus actually said it or not. I think it is problematic because it assumes that Jesus would have known what to expect. My students often struggle with some of the actions and statements of Jesus because they assume he was omniscient, but I don't think this belief comes from the text.

Isaac M. Alderman

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