Wednesday, June 11, 2008

What should we do with Christ's descent & preaching to the dead?

The following is my Christology essay for this semester on the idea of Christ's descent and preaching to the dead:

In 1 Peter 3:19-20, 4:6 Peter makes a statement, that is pretty amazing, that Christ went to the dead and preached to the imprisoned spirits. These statements have formed the basis of much speculation in the absence of more exhaustive scriptural evidence. Over the centuries since Peter wrote these words, many theories have developed to account for these verses. The image of the dead Christ descending to hell and leading forth a triumphal procession of saved souls formed the basis of much non-canonical Christian writings and art over the centuries.

This essay will investigate how this tradition developed; with reference to the theological questions that are raised and/or answered by the descensus theory (being the idea that Christ literally descended to hell, and preached the gospel to the spirits of the dead, giving them a post-mortem opportunity for salvation). Further discussion will be had around some of the current theories. The paper will conclude by discussing the Christological and soteriological implications of the descent.

Development of the Descensus View
The story of Christ’s descent to the dead was very common in the early Church. The early church fathers preached the idea continuously from the writing of First Peter for the first few centuries (Connell, 2001:264). Although the only explicit statement of the descent was to be found in 1 Peter, the tradition came to find allusions in many passages in the bible, (Connell, 2001:263).
Oakes cites other scripture in support of the descent; Ps 68:16 “he led captives in his train”; Eph 4:7-9 “in order to fill the whole universe”; Phil 2:9-11 “every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth”; Rom 14:8-9 “that he might be the Lord both of the dead and of the living” (2007:188-9). However, the key scriptural support for the descensus view comes from 1 Pet 3:19 “…he went and preached to the spirits in prison” and 1 Pet 4:6 “…the gospel was preached even to those who are now dead…”

In the first three centuries the term used to describe Christ’s descent was “descensus ad inferos”, which meant "descent to lower places" (Connell, 2001:264). A change in terminology arose out of Rufinus’ work, he adopted the term “descensus ad inferna” which meant “descent to hell”. This lead to a shift both in terminology, but also more importantly in theology
[1]. The earlier use of the word inferos showed the extent of God’s grace, that it went beyond human limitations, even the limit of death. “...Rufinus's word inferna, ‘hell,’ would start to change the result of the descent from one of God's presence with the dead to a belief in Christ's reconciliation of sinners” (Connell, 2001:266-7).

Augustine found this view problematic. If God’s grace extends that far, then who would not be saved? Writing to Evodius he sought to dispel the idea that it would open up the possibility of an “empty hell”. He could not conceive that “…the grace of God could be so… prorsus indebitum, ‘completely undeserved’ and universal.” (Connell, 2001:270-1).

In seeking to understand how people before Christ could be saved (Jobes, 2005:241), Origen saw this doctrine as showing that Christ’s victory over death was so powerful and embracing that “nothing was excluded, that Hades itself was transformed into a paradise and that even the demons were saved” (Ryan, 1997:18). Due to the soteriological issues that the idea of God’s grace being so expansive brought up, and how happily universalists took up the descensus, the view began to decline in the Western church in the fourth century (Connell, 2001:270-1).
After this time theologians were careful in their discussion of the descent, but at the same time a number of apocryphal sources latched onto the idea and spoke of it without restraint (McNamara, 1994:n.p.). The Gospel of Nicodemus (also known as the Acts of Pilate) contains a long and involved section describing the experiences of two of the souls that Christ purportedly delivered from Hell. Of particular interest is Acts of Pilate V(XXI):3:

…And as David spake thus unto Hell, the Lord of majesty appeared in the form of a man and lightened the eternal darkness and brake the bonds that could not be loosed: and the succour of his everlasting might visited us that sat in the deep darkness of our transgressions and in the shadow of death of our sins. (James, 1924:17)

The apocryphal accounts were engaging and stimulating. It is not hard to see how people became enamoured of the literal interpretation of the descent, as the imagery alone is extremely powerful in elaborating the immensity of what Christ has done for humanity. The story of the descent until the fourth century was “…simply part of the narrative of Christ's saving work for humanity and of God's generosity in rescuing the lost” (Connell, 2001:264).

The view began to decline, and whilst it still remained a part of the catechesis, it was no longer unanimously supported. Eventually it virtually disappeared from the Western tradition (Connell, 2001:265). Within the Eastern church however, the idea kept currency. As late as 787 at the Seventh Ecumenical Council, a statement was made that Christ “‘spoiled Hell and delivered the captives who were kept there from all ages’” (Cross, Arendarcikas, Cooke & Leach, 2006:n.p.)

In the writings of Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century, there is somewhat of a return to the descensus view. He wrote that as the sacraments mediate God’s grace to the living, so the descent mediated God’s grace to the dead. He saw that “Both sacraments and the descent are expressions of God's generosity and love in the present aspects and conditions of human life in community.” (Connell, 2001:273)

Real difficulty for the descensus view arose out of the Reformation. The Reformers challenged theologians to base their theology on the canonical scriptures. Out of this change in emphasis from the authority of tradition to the authority of scripture, the descensus view largely died, for its paucity of scriptural support (Connell, 2001:274). So while the return to Scripture strengthened many other parts of the Christian tradition, the descent was largely lost since there is no evidence for it in the gospel accounts of Jesus’ death and resurrection.

Contemporary Views
The Descensus View in the Orthodox Church
The Orthodox Church is the primary part of the church that still embraces the descent of Christ. It forms a central part of their Easter liturgy. Chrysostom’s Paschal Homily from the fourth century is still used for Easter services, “He that was taken by death has annihilated it! He descended into hades and took hades captive!” (Chrysostom, n.d., n.p.) Much orthodox artwork and iconography also reflects on the descent to Hades as its theme.

The Orthodox Church sees the descent played out not only in history but in our lives today. Their emphasis on the descent is a theological one, about what it means for our lives (Ryan, 1997:18). For the Orthodox Church the descent to hell “…is the image of our present age. The Resurrection of Christ is the sign and guarantee of the final victory” (Ryan, 1997:18).

Exegetical Issues in 1 Peter 3:19-20, 4:6
The early church interpreted 1 Peter 3:19-20 and 4:6 as teaching a doctrine of Christ’s literal descent to the dead. In contemporary theology these verses are more commonly understood to be symbolic, communicating the extent of the redemption. This however, “involves a more spiritualised hermeneutic that usually practiced by evangelicals” (Erickson, 2000:74).

Putting aside the issue of a spiritualised hermeneutic, there are valid exegetical issues in the text that need resolution if this text is to form the basis of a theology that is nowhere else explicitly stated in scripture!

In Koine Greek there are two verbs that are translated as ‘preach’. In 1 Pet 3:19 the verb used is kēryssō which can also be translated as ‘proclaim’. The term that is more broadly used to speak of preaching the good news is euangelizomai (Jobes, 2005:250). So this means that the preaching/proclamation may not have been for the purpose of bringing the spirits in 1 Pet 3:19 to repentance. Some see the verb here to be a proclamation of victory, where Jesus went and just told the spirits what he had accomplished on the cross, thus pronouncing their condemnation. However, there are instances of kēryssō being used in the context of gospel proclamation, so this is not entirely conclusive.

Another view that is taken on the preaching, is that the spirit of Christ preached to the unrepentant people of Noah’s generation through Noah’s lips (Grudem, 1988:158-9). This view is somewhat problematic, because it does not account for the ‘prison’ reference, and as we will also shortly see, is problematic due to the understanding of the word ‘spirit’.

Just as there are issues with the verb, ‘preach’ there are similar difficulties with those to whom Jesus preached, the ‘spirits’ (1 Pet 3:19). In the Greek, the term used in this verse is pneuma. Usually this word is not used in an unqualified way to refer to the spirits of people, psyche is the usual word for speaking of the spirits of the dead (Jobes, 2005:250-1). It is also worth noting that no where in scripture is the place of the dead (Sheol, Hades, Tartarus) described as ‘prison’ (Jobes, 2005:243).

Another interpretation that has been offered are that these pneumata are fallen angels, or the offspring of the angels who slept with human women before the flood (Jobes, 2005:251). In this context, ‘prison’ is understood to represent “in spatial terms God’s restraining power over [the spirits]” (Jobes, 2005:244).

A further problem exists; many people who support the descensus view connect 1 Pet 3:19 with 1 Pet 4:6. In the English translation the verb “preach” appears, and in both there is a reference to “spirits” or to “the dead” which to English speaking ears sounds connected. As discussed earlier, there are two verbs in Greek for preach, kēryssō and euangelizomai. In 1 Pet 3:19, the verb kēryssō is used, and in 4:6 euangelizomai is used. Thus the link is not as strong as it appears in the English (Jobes, 2005:271-2). To compound this, the words “spirits” (pneumata) 3:19 and “the dead” (nekrois) are not synonymous in Greek (Jobes, 2005:272).

The 1 Enoch Parallel
This leaves us with the question of what to do with these verses! Jobes suggests that a more appropriate interpretation can be made by referring to the tradition of Enoch preaching to the imprisoned spirits from the time of Noah (2005:244). The book of 1 Enoch describes a scenario where after Enoch went to be with God, he was talking to the fallen angels who requested that he intercede with God for them, and the children they had had with human women. Enoch does this, and descends to them again with a response from God, “You will have no peace”.
Jobes argues that Peter uses this story, which is well known amongst his readers from Asia Minor
[2], to encourage them of

…the sweeping scope of the efficacy of Christ’s victory in his resurrection and ascension, …that Christ’s resurrection and ascension have dealt with even the primordial evil of fallen angels in uncountable prior centuries of human history, then Christ is victorious over all evil-even the most depraved-for all time (Jobes, 2005:258).

Despite all of this, the major themes of 1 Pet 3:19 and 4:6 remain that of the efficacy of Jesus’ victory. In 1 Pet 3:19 this is over the fallen angels, in 4:6 this is over death itself. It should be understood as “the expression of the universal significance of Jesus’ vicarious death under the curse” (Pannenberg, 2002:306).

Christological Implications
Christological Heresy

Leaving aside the exegetical problems with the 1 Peter passages in sustaining this view of the descensus view, there are some Christological issues that come out. As was identified in the fourth century, it presents an interesting question on the separation of the divine/human in the process of the descent. The question arises, where was Jesus’ soul/spirit during this period? If his body was dead in the tomb, where was “the rest” of him? Added to this the difficulty of “God dying”, it contributed to the view that Jesus’ soul/spirit was divine, and so that it was just his body (the “human part”) that died (Connell, 2001:268).

As Aquinas points out though, “although when Christ died, his soul was separated from his body, neither soul nor body was separated from the person of the Son of God” (quoted in Connell, 2001:273). So this does not present too much of a problem. Just as we maintain that in life Jesus was at once human and divine, so in his death he would remain both human and divine, and the “parts” of his nature would be as any other human’s would in death. “Christ had to remain, with his soul, in Hades for as long as his body lay in the tomb” (von Balthasar, 1990:164).

Soteriological Implications
One of the most captivating implications of the descensus view is the picture it paints of the expansiveness of Christ’s saving work. From our human perspective it can be hard to understand what God does with people who lived before Christ, or have not heard the gospel before they died. After all God says that it is his will that none should perish (2 Pet 3:9). But he also says that if people do not hear the gospel, they cannot believe, and cannot be saved (Rom 10:14). If we take the descensus as giving people a post-mortem opportunity to hear the gospel, it tells us that people can be saved even if they did not live after Christ, and have an opportunity to hear the gospel.

The scripture is clear that no one was declared righteous before God by obeying the Law (Rom 3:20), and that salvation comes through the gospel (Rom 1:16). Yet there were people who lived before Christ that we see in Revelation are with God. The historical problem answered by the descensus was while the Law and the prophets testify to Jesus, did they provide enough of the gospel for salvation? The descensus tells us that yes, Christ did all that was necessary for everyone, in all times and places to be saved.

While we may dismiss the descensus interpretation of 1 Pet 3:19; 4:6 as mythological, as with all myths it teaches us something important. That Christ’s death and resurrection affects “…the whole created world and our stewardship for the earth. …the Easter transformation includes the whole world.” (O’Collins, 2004:12) The Eastern Orthodox icons that depict Adam and Eve being delivered from the dead by Christ shows vividly “…that the resurrection is not only an individual victory for Christ but also the saving event for all the world.” (O’Collins, 2004:12)

Von Balthasar puts it eloquently, “Whereas the Western images of Easter always show the risen Christ alone, the East makes us see the soteriological and social aspect of the redemptive work.” (1990:180) Christ’s descent to the dead places an emphasis on the effects of Easter, it is not limited by time or space, “For through Jesus, life enters into the kingdom of death and overcomes its terrible darkness” (Ryan, 1997: 18).

Incarnational Implications
We speak of the importance of Christ’s incarnation, of the Son of God coming to be one of us. To live as we live, and to redeem us almost by having solidarity with us. It seems though that in a spiritualised understanding of the descent, we lose something of Christ’s solidarity with us, that his shared experience with us, was not only in life but also in death.

It is a scary thing for us to contemplate death. Even in Christian circles, we do not seem to know quite what to do with death. Death is closed to us, and we do not know what awaits us. It is comforting to know that we will go to be with the Lord, but still that leaves the actual process of dying.

However, we need not fear, as in Christ’s descent to the dead he “fill[ed] that realm too with the light of his resurrection into eternal life. With that, the night of death becomes the stillness heralding the dawn of the resurrection” (Moltmann, 2005:154). God is present with the dead in Christ, God is present with us through death. This is the ultimate reassurance. Without the descent, we know that He awaits us “on the other side”, but that leaves us with the journey in between (Connell, 2001:262-3). The descent gives voice to the love of God for the dead, in an expressive metaphor (Connell, 2001:267).

Community Implications
One perhaps odd implication is that the dead are no longer “dead” in the way they were before. If they have been led forth from death in the way described in the descent narrative, then we have community with them as much as with our living Christian brothers and sisters. “In effect, the distance separating the two realms is being shortened and a powerful bond being solidified between the living and the dead” (Stotnicki, 2006:94).

Perhaps this is what the writer of Hebrews was referring to when he spoke of the “cloud of witnesses” (12:1) after speaking at length of the Old Testament saints in Hebrews 11. It might also make some preliminary sense of Paul’s comments in 1 Cor. 15:29-30 about being “baptised for the dead”. Although it is an exceedingly uncomfortable idea for many Protestants, maybe this gives some credence to the Catholic practise of asking Saints to pray for us.

Perhaps this is what von Balthasar is getting at when he says, “…that a heavenly shimmer of light, of faith, love, hope, has ever illuminated the ‘abyss’- …[Christ] took, by substitution, that whole experience upon himself” (von Balthasar, 1990:168). If that is so, life and indeed death will never be the same again.

It is difficult to divorce from the descensus view its beautiful theological implications. Due to this, despite the scarcity of direct scriptural support, it is desperately difficult, heartbreaking even, to tear oneself away from its stunning imagery of the “universal offer and scope of salvation” (Jobes, 2005:250). Even if it is a myth, behind it is a truth of breathtaking beauty, that of all the powers of evil being vanquished and yielding to Christ (von Balthasar, 1990:151). Yet these are themes that also come out in the Enoch parallel interpretation. What the descent teaches us, without perhaps giving us a purely historical account, is the truth of the magnitude of Christ’s victory.

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[1] It should be noted that there is a distinct difference between the Hebraic view of “Sheol” which is where everyone went after death. There was no understanding of a separate destiny after death for the righteous as opposed to the wicked. This view of Sheol was altered in Christian thinking by later Persian and Hellenistic views on the afterlife (von Balthasar, 1990:161). However it is important to understand that Hebrew thinking on Sheol was more concerned with the condition of the dead rather than their location (von Balthasar, 1990:162-3). This is important as many theologians see Hell as the state of being ‘forsaken by God’ or ‘separated from God’ (Barth, 1936:93-4).
[2] There is archaeological evidence from the Asia Minor area that shows that Peter’s readers would have been aware of the content of the stories about Noah and Enoch. There are coins showing the flood, and there are four extant versions of the flood story indigenous to the Asia Minor area (Jobes, 2005:251).

1 comment:

Louise New said...

Well thought out, well written essay! I think you've discussed the topic really well, in great depth and in smart language.