Areas of Interest: Theology

Did Jesus Go to Hell?

5 - minutes to engage

Dr. Anna Robbins offers a Easter reflection and asked the question: Where was Jesus on Holy Saturday? In some ways it’s a ridiculous question from those bound by time and space. Yet it raises important theological questions, even though we would want to avoid the awkwardness of the day.

Holy Saturday is awkward.

We can only imagine what it was like for Jesus’ friends to awaken that day empty and bereft. For us, we feel a tension (or if we don’t, perhaps we should) between following Jesus to the cross on Friday, and celebrating life on Sunday.

Where was Jesus, anyway?

Often our first response is, ‘he descended into hell.’ That’s what the Apostle’s Creed tells us. Even as Baptists, enough of us have escaped our non-cree=dal foundations occasionally to have encountered and recited this line.

But what it means is not universally agreed. Some believe he descended into hell to embrace the fullness of the wrath of God; some that he went to preach the gospel to those who hadn’t a chance to hear it, particularly the Old Testament saints. Some believe he went to hell to stand in the middle of Satan’s turf and declare his victory. Some think it simply means he actually died, suffering either separation of body and soul, or that he suffered a genuine death, of the sort that human beings experience. He embraced all that it means for a person to die.

Amongst those who argue for a descent into hell, the reason they give depends on whether they see the descent as a continuation of Good Friday, or an anticipation of Easter Sunday. Hans Urs von Balthasar argues that nothing can be redeemed that hasn’t been suffered. But his fellow Catholic scholar Alyssa Pitstick suggests rather that the descent must be instead a proclamation of a glorious victory.[1]

Those who think Jesus went to hell to experience the wrath of God inadvertently suggest that the experience of the cross, with Jesus’ cry that ‘it is finished’ was in some way insufficient; that Jesus would need to suffer further. Of course, if the suffering was separation from the Father, we have a problem with the Trinity and the Godhead. So this is not theologically acceptable. If Jesus went to hell to declare victory before the resurrection had occurred, this too seems problematic. It makes sense, then, to say that it simply means that Jesus died.

He died.

Then of course, there’s the question of whether we should believe that he descended into hell because it’s in the creed. Baptists are people of the book, and as people of the book, we need biblical warrant for our theology. There is little evidence here, that even the most conservative scholars like Wayne Grudem reject as sufficient for believing in a descent into hell.[2]

There are few remotely relevant passages, including Acts 2:27, whose relevance on this question is marginal but indicates that Jesus could not be in Hades; Romans 10:6-7, where the abyss is referred to as death; Ephesians 4:8-9, a discussion of ascension that presupposes descension; and 1 Peter 4:6, a suggestion that the gospel was proclaimed to the dead (though it does not necessarily refer to people after their death).

1 Peter 3: 18-20 is perhaps the most significant passage on this topic. At first glance, it seems to suggest some sort of preaching to captives in hell, perhaps from Old Testament times, though the meaning of this passage is contested and unclear. Most scholars agree that ‘being made alive in Christ’ is a post-resurrection reality that cannot cohere with a preaching of the gospel on Good Friday.

Theologian Wolfhart Panneberg suggested that Jesus did go to preach to the dead, echoing the thought of 3rdcentury thinkers, Clement, Origin and Hippolytus. But Michael Williams points out that this preaching would not be needed for two reasons: First, the Old Testament saints ‘had already believed the gospel and were thus saved (Rom 4:3; Gal 3:6-9). Secondly, ‘preaching to the impenitent dead would be against the entire tenor of Scripture, which pronounces irreversible judgment after death (Heb 9:27; Lk 16:19-31)’.[3]

So if we agree with scholars like Bucer, Beza, Calvin, Packer, and McGrath who reject the idea of Jesus descending into hell, where was he? Well we don’t have a lot to go on. In Luke 23:43 we know Jesus tells the believing thief that he will be in paradise with him that day. A theological unity in the Godhead would support the view that wherever Jesus was, there could be no brokenness of relationship between Father, Son and Spirit, nor separation in the divine will.

If the reality is mystery, then what relevance does Holy Saturday have for us?

Alan Lewis’ Between Cross and Resurrection: A Theology of Holy Saturday offers some help. As a work in narrative theology, Lewis encourages us to see Holy Saturday as the middle of a three-day story. While it reveals much about God, it also challenges us to live faithfully in the world, as we encounter it. On the second of three days, we look back and see the cross, the failure of Jesus, the futility of a disappointed world, lost to evil and death. The end of the world. But as Christians, we also look forward, to Easter Sunday, where all that is wrong gives way to hope. ‘…[W]e see another end of the world, the end of its darkness, death, and tears and the arrival-in-advance of heaven.’ Lewis experienced this reality himself, as he faced, and later lost, a battle with cancer while writing the book.

This theology of Holy Saturday gives a foothold on how to live in this world, where death seems to hold sway, but victory is won. In this ‘boundary’ place, we can embrace our call to live justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.

In this ‘in between place’ we can live every day as though it is Holy Saturday, confronting the stench of death with the aroma of life.

And we know where Jesus is. ‘I am with you always, to the end of the age.’

[1]Alyssa Lyra Pitstick, Light in Darkness: Hans Urs von Balthasar and the Catholic Doctrine of Christ’s Descent Into Hell, Eerdmans, 2007.
[2]Wayne Grudem, ‘He Did Not Descend Into Hell: A Plea for Following Scripture intead of the Apostles’ Creed,’ JETS34/1, 1991, 103-4.
[3]Michael Williams, ‘He Descended Into Hell? An Issue of Confessional Integrity,’ Presbyterion 25/2, 1999, 80-90.”

This theology of Holy Saturday gives a foothold on how to live in this world, where death seems to hold sway, but victory is won. In this ‘boundary’ place, we can embrace our call to live justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.

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