20 August 2008

Descended into hell? (Pt 5): Jeff Meyers' The Lord's Service

The Lord's Service - Jeffrey Meyers

I know I have given quite a bit of witnesses to the historical point I have been making, but as I find more and more, some are worth mentioning, so I will continue to give them as additional support for this historic view that is much too often forgotten by the modern church.

Today's resources will be some sections from the 2003 book on Covenant Renewal worship by Rev. Jeffrey J. Meyers, pastor of Providence Reformed Presbyterian Church in St. Louis, entitled The Lord's Service. In chapter thirteen, which deals with the use of the Apostle and Nicene Creeds, he deals with the question "What does "he descended into hell" mean in the Apostles' Creed? While his reply is quite a few pages, here is an overview of some of his comments.

He starts by giving six possible meaning for the phrase, one of which is the view we have been discussing here (be sure to read the first four parts to catch up if you haven't already), which he lists as point five:
The phrase would be better rendered as "He descended into hades." It means that Jesus actually died, and His human soul and body were separated, His spirit leaving His body to inhabit for a time the place of the departed dead (sheol, hades).
Other points included various wordings or ways of saying He actually descending into the abode of the damned, what we normally would call hell or the lake of fire. One point is the common view in most Reformed circles these days:
It does not mean that Jesus literally "descended" to hell; rather, he symbolically descended into hell, that is, He literally suffered hell for us as our substitute on the cross.
He then begins his explanation of the points in saying:
Clearly the creed intends for the descent clause to add something to the affirmation that Jesus was "buried." More than that, it follows in a historic sequence of events: born, suffered, crucified, dead, buried, descended, rose again, ascended, and sits. The descent happened before the resurrection. The descent comes after his burial and before his resurrection. This carefully constructed historical sequence rules out the symbolic interpretation that is so common in Reformed circles... Furthermore, we know from history that this symbolic interpretation was not the view of the early Church, which was responsible for composing the creed.
Meyers goes on to discuss why some of the other views can be ruled out, then returns to further look at this view.
The questions therefore are: Did Jesus descend into hell or into hades? And what did he do there? Let us begin with what we do know. First we know that Jesus suffered as a human — that is, His body and soul were torn apart. That is what the Bible calls physical death. The biblical record says that when he died "He gave up his spirit" (John 19:30). Luke 23:46 tells us that Jesus Himself prayed, "Father, into your hands I commit my spirit." Now, if Jesus' human "spirit" or "soul" (the two words are used interchangeably in Scripture) departed the cross, where did it go? If Jesus' body was subsequently buried, then His soul must have gone somewhere. In other words, where was Jesus between Good Friday and Easter Sunday morning? And what we he doing? The descent clause has an answer.
He then proceeds to give an overview of the historical and Scriptural definitions and understandings of the sheol/hadaen realm; all of this and more has been explained in previous sections of this blog series. Following that, Meyers goes on to examine some of the views explaining what Jesus was doing, and the purpose for his preaching to the spirits in prison as we are told in Peter. At the end, he comes to the conclusion as to why he was there preaching, by referring to Luther's interpretation.
Luther understands the descent clause to refer to Christ's triumph over Satan and all of his hellish hosts. When Christ descended into hell it was an opportunity to proclaim His comprehensive victory over sin, death, and the devil himself. The soul of Christ descended to hell in order to destroy it for believers, thus "redeeming them from the power of death, or the devil, and eternal damnation of hellish jaws." (Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration 9.4) Christ appears before Satan victorious to announce His victory on Satan's own turf. The very kingdom of Satan has been spoiled. Jesus appears in hell as Conqueror. As Christus Victor Jesus descended into hell: "Having disarmed principalities and powers, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them in it" (Col. 2:15).

Jesus' descent into hades to herald His own victory seems to be the most biblical option. Since the differentiation between hades/sheol (the Greek and Hebrew terms for the undifferentiated place of the departed dead, without reference to to blessedness or damnation) and hell (gehenna) is not always carefully distinguished in the Scriptures, this interpretation fits well with statements in the New Testament that clearly state that Jesus' soul departed for the place of the dead (hades) after his death. In Acts 2:27 Peter puts the words of Psalm 16:10 into the mouth of the resurrected Christ: "You will not abandon me to the place of the departed dead (hades)." The NIV mistranslates hades as "the grave." The soul of the man Jesus Christ was clearly separated from his body during the three days when His body rested in the tomb. His spirit/soul went to the place of the departed dead. he truly died and the evidence is that His body was buried and His soul departed for haded/sheol for three days until the reuniting of His soul and body at the resurrection.

Therefore the best way to understand the biblical data about hades/sheol before Jesus transformed it is to think of it as the place where departed souls went after death, either to experience blessing and peace from the Lord (the paradise side of sheol) or to experience the Lord's wrath (the damnation side of sheol)...

When we recite the creed saying "He descended into hell," we are confessing that Jesus truly died and that He proclaimed victory in the place of the departed dead, delighting the righteous and confounding Satan and the damned.
So, hopefully you have been following each part of this discussion, and are starting to see just what is being declared in the descent clause, and just how important it is to keep it and understand it.

Yes, there is more...

View the other parts of the topic

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 10