16 September 2008

Descended into hell? (Pt 8): Church Fathers on Sheol and Ephesians 4:9

OK, shifting gears ever so slightly in this conversation. After writing part seven yesterday, I started kind of flipping through other books on my shelf that might contain related material on this topic, and I found quite a few interesting comments in this early church fathers reference guide A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs (not sure why I never went to this book before now). This book has nearly six pages loaded with quotations from these men regarding the intermediate state of Hades; I will only touch on a couple of them.

I do not quote the church fathers because I hold that they have a more correct understanding like some, and I do not hold them up on a pedestal of orthodoxy as some are known to do. I just share these quotes to show what some of the common teachings were in the days when the "descended into hades" clause was supposedly written/added to the Apostle's Creed. But more astonishing to me, was the quotes dealing with Ephesians 4:9, and just how totally opposite the view was from that which is normally held since the Reformation. So I wish to deal specifically with those surrounding verses, which state:
Therefore it says, “When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men.” (In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.) Ephesians 4:8-10 (ESV)
Now it appears from the commentators and Bible study notes I have read on this section of Ephesians, the modern, common position in the Reformed world, is that the "he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth" refers to his original descent from heaven to earth, and his low estate while on earth. So it is assumed to mean the lower parts of the earth is life above ground as we know every day. A few examples should hopefully suffice for this point regarding the clause Into the lower parts of the earth. of verse 9:
To the lowest state of humiliation. This seems to be the fair meaning of the words. Heaven stands opposed to earth. One is above; the other is beneath. From the one, Christ descended to the other; and he came not only to the earth, but he stooped to the most humble condition of humanity here. Some have understood this of the grave; others of the region of departed spirits; but these interpretations do not seem to be necessary. It is the earth itself that stands in contrast with the heavens; and the idea is, that the Redeemer descended from his lofty eminence in heaven, and became a man of humble rank and condition. (Barnes NT Notes)
The point that I seem to see so clearly that seems missed here, is the ascending and descending are being spoken to in reference to Christ's work (and the relation to the hearer should not be discounted) on the earth. From earth he ascended, but before he ascended from earth, he descended below the earth. The other view is seeking to jump backwards in time to show that before he could have ascended from earth to heaven, he had to first have come down from heaven to earth. Well, that is an obvious point, and does not seem to be what Paul is getting across here, that I can see. John Calvin get a bit more agitated when dealing with this passage in his commentaries:
These words mean nothing more than the condition of the present life. To torture them so as to make them mean purgatory or hell, is exceedingly foolish. The argument taken from the comparative degree, "the lower parts," is quite untenable. A comparison is drawn, not between one part of the earth and another, but between the whole earth and heaven; as if he had said, that from that lofty habitation Christ descended into our deep gulf.
Again, it seems Calvin misses the timing of the issue. Christ stood on earth and is said to have ascended, but that before he ascended from earth to heaven, he descended from earth to the lower parts of the earth. Why would Paul be telling the Ephesians something so obvious - that Christ came to earth long before? Plus, as we have seen in the earlier parts of this series, "lower parts," "beneath the earth" and such terms as that have always been used to refer to the hadaen realm, and not to the above ground earthly living.

Some prime examples of this: "But those that seek my soul, to destroy it, shall go into the lower parts of the earth." (Ps 63:9) which obviously speaks of his enemies going to the place of the dead. The same can be understood from many verses in Ezekiel

"When I shall bring thee down with them that descend into the pit, with the people of old time, and shall set thee in the low parts of the earth, in places desolate of old, with them that go down to the pit, that thou be not inhabited; and I shall set glory in the land of the living" (26:20)

"...for they are all delivered unto death, to the nether parts of the earth (same Hebrew word), in the midst of the children of men, with them that go down to the pit." (31:14)
See also Ezekiel 31:16, 18, 32:18, 24 if you need more similar examples, they all portray the same concept.

Some will put more weight on the one verse of Ps 139:15 to imply that the term simply refers to being given life through birth, and says "lowest parts of the earth" refers to the womb. But in light of the overwhelming amount of other scriptures for this term, I don't see how that single verse in Psalms cannot be made the measuring rod for the meaning here.

Now for the final example of the understanding of the phrase, this time from Baptist preacher John Gill, who gets even more defensive when dealing with this phrase, and practically strikes out at every point made through this entire series so far:
This the Papists understand of his decent into a place they call Limbus Patrum, which they make to be contiguous to hell; and where they say the patriarchs were detained till Christ’s coming; and that he went thither to deliver them out of it; and that these are the captivity he led captive; all which is fictitious and fabulous: for certain it is, that the place where Abraham was with Lazarus in his bosom was not near to hell, but afar off, and that there was a great gulf between them, and the spirits or souls of the patriarchs returned to God that gave them, when separated from their bodies, as the souls of men do now, nor did Christ enter any such feigned place at his death, but went to paradise, where the penitent thief was that day with him; nor were the patriarchs, but the principalities and powers Christ spoiled, the captivity he led captive and triumphed over: some interpret this of Christ’s descent into hell, which must be understood not locally, but of his enduring the wrath of God for sin, which was equivalent to the torments of hell, and of his being in the state of the dead; but it may rather design the whole of his humiliation, as his descent from heaven and incarnation in the virgin’s womb, where his human nature was curiously wrought in the lowest parts of the earth; and his humbling himself and becoming obedient unto death, even the death of the cross, when he was made sin and a curse for his people, and bore all the punishment due to their transgressions; and his being in Hades, in the state of the dead, in the grave, in the heart of the earth, as Jonah in the whale’s belly. (John Gill's Expositor)
So, this view point was the basic understanding that most in the Reformed faith have believed in the past and the present in most cases. But let us turn now to the early church fathers for support for or against such a view. One reference directly deals with many of the issues we just discussed:
The Lord observed the law of the dead so that He might become the First-Begotten from the dead. And He waited until the third day "in the lower parts of the earth." ... [Accordingly,] these men [the Gnostics] must be put to confusion, who say that "the lower parts" refer to this world of ours...The Lord "went away in the midst of the shadow of death," where the souls of the dead were. However, afterwards, He arose in the body. And after the resurrection, he was taken up [into heaven]. Irenaeus (c. 180, E/W), 1.560.
So to Irenaeus, it was the Gnostic's who believed the "lower parts of the earth" referred to earth. Irenaeus also stated:
For their benefit, "He also descended into the lower parts of the earth," to behold with His eyes the state of those who were resting from their labors. (c.180, E/W), 1.494

It was for this reason, too, that the Lord descended into the regions beneath the earth, preaching His advent there also. And he [declared] the remission of sins received by those who believe in Him. (c. 180, E/W), 1.499
And similarly we find Tertullian stating:
For we read that Christ in His death spent three days in the heart of the earth... He did not ascend into the heights of heaven before descending into the lower parts of the earth. This was so that He might there [in Hades] make the patriarchs and prophets partakers of Himself. (c.210, W), 9.316
There are many other quotes that reference the belief in the intermediate state after death, more than enough to show that common belief not only during the time of Jesus, but for the first couple hundred years, the church believed and taught of the hadean realm, and the belief that Christ did indeed "descend into hades" after his death on the cross.

According to church history, and logic itself, I have always been kind of perplexed by all of this as it fits the current belief system. Maybe such a confusion as mine is why the later church counsels and preachers began to explain the whole system away, and began teaching an immediate ascension to heaven of Christ and all mankind. My confusion goes like this:

If all mankind goes to the hadean realm awaiting the return of Christ, a physical resurrection in our future; then logically, no one has yet to ascend to the heavenly realm at all. As further back-up for this, Christ said in John 14, that he goes to prepare a place for us and would return to take us to be with him; and again, since he has not returned, then logically he has not taken anyone to be with him yet, and so heaven has yet to be open. Tertullian and others would agree:
How indeed, will the soul mount up to heaven, where Christ is already sitting at the Father's right hand? For the archangel's trumpet has not yet been heard by the command of God...To no one is heaven opened...When the world indeed, will pass away, then the kingdom of heaven will be opened. (c. 210, W), 3.231.
Justin Martyr states it was the Gnostic belief that stated there is no intermediate state, and that mankind upon death are immediately taken to heaven:
You may have fallen in with some [Gnostics] who are called Christians. However, they do not admit this [intermediate state], and they venture to blaspheme the God of Abraham...They say there is no resurrection of the dead. Rather, they say that when they die, their souls are taken to heaven. Do not imagine they are Christians. (emphasis mine) (Justin Martyr, c. 160, E, 1.239)
So which is it? Do we die and go to heaven now, in a "naked" (2 Cor 5) state, awaiting a time of being fused back with our dead body, changed, and then to re-enter heaven? Do we die today and continue in the resting place of hades, awaiting the resurrection and judgment in the future, while heaven stands empty for centuries? Maybe I'll get more into that in a future study...who knows?!?

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