11 November 2008

Descended into hell? (Pt 9): Testimony from the Church Fathers

In this part, I pick up sort of where I left off in the previous part, looking again at what the early church fathers had to say on the topic of Jesus descending into Hades, as we have been examining this often misunderstood phrase from the Apostle's Creed.

The book on the church fathers that I have been using gives four main "proof texts" for the understanding of Jesus' descent into Hades, one of which being Ephesians 4:9 as discussed in the last part, and the others are:

For David says concerning him, “‘I saw the Lord always before me, for he is at my right hand that I may not be shaken; therefore my heart was glad, and my tongue rejoiced; my flesh also will dwell in hope. For you will not abandon my soul to Hades, or let your Holy One see corruption. (Acts 2:25-27)

For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, because they formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water. (1 Peter 3:18-20)

For this is why the gospel was preached even to those who are dead, that though judged in the flesh the way people are, they might live in the spirit the way God does. (1 Peter 4:6)
Again, the purpose of my quoting of the early church fathers is not so much because they have more authority, but because of the light they shed on the reason and purpose and teaching surrounding the phrase in the Apostle's Creed. So many churches seek to explain it away, and have all but ignored the original intent, and have caused much confusion. Here is what the historic church has believed concerning the subject:
Christ rose from the place of the dead, and raised up the race of Adam from the grave below. Melito (c.170).
They fully believed and understood the Scriptures to teach that when Jesus rose, he rose from somewhere. He had not simply ceased to exist for three days, nor had he been asleep, and he had not yet gone to the heavenly realm, but he had been busy and had returned from his work.
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...For Christ did not come merely for those who believed on Him in the time of Tiberius Caesar. Nor did the Father exercise His providence only for the men who are presently alive. Rather, He exercised it for all men altogether, who from the beginning...have both feared and loved God.

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.

He gathered from the ends of the earth into His Father's fold the children who were scattered abroad. And He remembered His own dead ones, who had previously fallen asleep. He came down to them so that He might deliver them.

For three days He dwelt in the place where the dead were, as the prophet said concerning Him. "And the Lord remembered His dead saints who slept formerly in the land of the dead. And he descended to them to rescue and save them." The Lord Himself said, "As Jonah remained three days and three nights in the whale's belly, so will the Son of man be in the heart of the earth." Irenaeus (c.180) - four separate quotes
I could go on with multiple other quotes, but I think after all the previous parts of this series, that ending the topic with a few additional quotes would be sufficient to show that we as a modern church have strayed far from the original and historical understanding of this (among other) doctrines. I will end with just one more:
Hades is not supposed by us to be a bare cavity, nor some subterranean sewer of the world. Rather it is a vast deep space in the interior of the earth...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. Tertullian (c.210)
As high of an importance as most Reformed churches place on adherence to the Apostle's Creed as a test of orthodoxy, I find it odd that they would reinterpret parts of it to their liking in the face of such overwhelming information against the view. This understanding of these verses was the common doctrine of those instrumental in forming the early creeds. Most modern churches strike out at and/or reinterpret this very doctrine of Christ's descent into Hades as taught in the Creed and history; are we to assume they feel the framers of the creed were in error on this point; and if they were in error on this phrase, how can we hold any of the other parts of the creed as a irrefutable, beyond discussion, test or orthodoxy?

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