Sunday, October 3, 2010

1 Peter 4:6 The Harrowing of Hell?

“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 ESV)

This verse has generated a lot of interesting interpretations through the years. Many people believe that this verse, in its immediate context, simply means that the Gospel was previously preached to people who are now dead and translations such as the NIV, the NLT, Holman and some others render it that way. Some others take this verse to mean that there is an additional opportunity for people to hear the gospel after they die. This is one solution proposed by theologians such as Donald Bloesch for what happens to people who die without ever hearing the gospel. Some early writers such as Origen and Clement of Alexandria also seem to have held similar views. The most common view historically, however, has been that this verse is a reference to what is known as the harrowing of Hell. This is the teaching that Jesus Christ, after His crucifixion, descended into Hell prior to His resurrection and in one sense or another conquered it.

The Apostles Creed which is recognized by not only Roman Catholics but also by Anglicans, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Methodists, as well as many other denominations explicitly teaches this doctrine:

“I believe in God, the Father Almighty, the Maker of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord: Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried; He descended into hell and the third day arose again from the dead; He ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead. I believe in the Holy Ghost; the holy catholic church; the communion of saints; the forgiveness of sins; the resurrection of the body; and the life everlasting. Amen."                                                           (Apostles Creed)

Based upon the antiquity of the creed and the ubiquity of its acceptance one is tempted to simply accept the doctrine of the harrowing of Hell at face value and move on. But, what is meant by the words “He descended into Hell” is open to debate and some early versions of the creed do not contain that line.

Although the term “Hell” is usually associated these days with the place of eternal torment this is not necessarily what is referred to in the creed. The terms translated as Hell can also simply mean the underworld, the place of the dead etc. The most common teaching among Catholics is that Hell here refers to the place of the dead. The harrowing of Hell, allegedly alluded to in passages like 1 Peter 4:6 is said to be a reference to Christ going into Abraham’s bosom to those who had believed prior to the gospel ministry of Christ and loosing the bonds of death that held them. This means that Christ made it possible for those in that place to overcome death and enter Heaven at the appointed time. Other Catholic’s have taught that in addition to this work the descent into Hell involves suffering on the part of Christ or that rather than a place Hell should be understood as a state of being.

In the Protestant church the two main traditions have held to slightly different views. Martin Luther taught a version of the harrowing of hell doctrine somewhat similar to the Roman Catholic view although he characteristically combined the suffering of Christ in this event with His triumph over the power of Hell. The ninth article of the formula of Concord, an early Lutheran Confession, says:

…we confess: I believe in the Lord Christ, God's Son, our Lord, dead, buried, and descended into hell. For in this [Confession] the burial and descent of Christ to hell are distinguished as different articles; and we simply believe that the entire person, God and man, after the burial descended into hell, conquered the devil, destroyed the power of hell, and took from the devil all his might. (Formula of Concord, Article IX)

The Reformed churches have mostly followed Calvin in teaching that Christ experienced Hell on the cross and that this was a necessary suffering as a substitution for us in order to atone for our sins. The descent into Hell is seen not to be a physical journey but rather the bearing of the curse and being cut off during the imputation to Christ by the Father the sins of the world. Upon His death, Christ ascended into heaven having experienced Hell in His suffering. In his Institutes Calvin explains it this way:

”If Christ had died only a bodily death, it would have been ineffectual. No — it was expedient at the same time for him to undergo the severity of God’s vengeance, to appease his wrath and satisfy his just judgment. For this reason, he must also grapple hand to hand with the armies of hell and the dread of everlasting death. A little while ago we referred to the prophet’s statement that "the chastisement of our peace was laid upon him," "he was wounded for our transgressions" by the Father, "he was bruised for our infirmities" [Isaiah 53:5 p.]. By these words he means that Christ was put in place of evildoers as surety and pledge — submitting himself even as the accused — to bear and suffer all the punishments that they ought to have sustained. All — with this one exception: "He could not be held by the pangs of death" [Acts 2:24 p.]. No wonder, then, if he is said to have descended into hell, for he suffered the death that, God in his wrath had inflicted upon the wicked! Those who — on the ground that it is absurd to put after his burial what preceded it — say that the order is reversed in this way are making a very trifling and ridiculous objection. The point is that the Creed sets forth what Christ suffered in the sight of men, and then appositely speaks of that invisible and incomprehensible judgment which he underwent in the sight of God in order that we might know not only that Christ’s body was given as the price of our redemption, but that he paid a greater and more excellent price in suffering in his soul the terrible torments of a condemned and forsaken man. (Calvin, Institutes)

Virtually nobody argues that Christ entered the place of eternal torment. Satan, himself has not yet been cast into the lake of fire and obviously the harrowing of Hell could have no benefit to anyone who is not going to be saved. The references are either to the release of those imprisoned in some kind of underworld awaiting the victory of Christ or the suffering of the curse by Jesus upon the cross. Which of these seems more likely and if it is the second option then what is Peter talking about?

There are other verses in addition to 1 Peter 4:6 used to support the doctrine. In each case, however, there are also other plausible interpretations for the verses used. Let’s look at the major examples in addition to 1 Peter 4:6.

1 Peter 3:18-19

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, …

Some teach that this is a reference to Christ ministering to and releasing the spirits of people who were in prison (perhaps waiting in Abraham’s bosom) waiting for Christ to defeat the forces of Hell. It is also possible, however, that this is a reference to Christ’s work through Noah in his day (look at the context) or that the “message” proclaimed is a message of triumph by Christ to those disobedient fallen spirits upon His victory.

Ephesians 4:8-10

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 regions, the earth? He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.)

Some see this descending into the lower regions as a picture of his going down to the place of the dead and the leading out a host of captives as a reference to the freeing of those whom Satan had held. The context in Ephesians, however, just as easily supports this as a reference to Christ’s incarnation, His coming to earth and the salvation of the Church, who were formerly in bondage to sin.

John 5:25

“Truly, truly, I say to you, an hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.”

Some teach this as a reference to Christ having a ministry to those righteous who had passed prior to his victory on the cross. The context in John, however, seems to support the idea that the “dead” in this verse is a reference to spiritual deadness (see the previous verse).

Acts 2:27,31

For you will not abandon my soul to Hades, or let your Holy One see corruption. …       He foresaw and spoke about the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh see corruption.”

The implication is that Christ was in Hades although He could not be kept there. Of course this could simply be pointing out that Christ would not stay dead and doesn’t necessarily imply any additional work journey on His part.

The concept that the gospel will be preached to people after they die runs counter to so much of the other biblical teaching that we can safely reject that as a possibility. Sorting through the other views, however, requires a bit more work. Certainly Christ cannot be said to have entered into the place of eternal torment as some today misunderstand the teaching to be. It is reasonable that Christ went to the place of the dead since He experienced death, but whether He went there to do battle for two or three days is not clear. He tells the thief on the cross next to Him that He would see Him that evening in Paradise. If we assume that Christ was in Paradise that very evening then it seems to limit the timeline in the place of the dead. I didn’t have room here to give exegetical details regarding each of the verses used to support the harrowing of Hell doctrine but in each case I believe there is enough grammatical and contextual evidence for coming to the alternative interpretations I allude to above.

1 Peter 4:6 seems to me to simply be stating that God is the judge of both the living and the dead and that although some who heard the gospel died in the flesh they can live in the spirit just as God does. Because of what Christ told the thief on the cross I am inclined to a view closer to what Calvin held than to the Lutheran or Catholic view but I am open to change my mind on this issue should I be instructed more adequately from the Word of God. What I know for sure is that I have heard the gospel and because of the power of Christ I am set free from Satan even now. I pray that in His power I may put off the old self and live a life that is pleasing and glorifying to Him.

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