Note from CM: In conjunction with this post, you might want to go back and read our post from April 23, 2011, “He Descended into Hell,” in which we quoted representatives from many traditions and what they say about this article of the Creed.
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It seems that N.T. Wright is not the only one concerned about the Creeds of the Church and what they contain (or don’t contain).
Last week, Daniel Burke wrote an article in the Washington Post called “What did Jesus do on Holy Saturday?” in which he examines the line from the Apostles Creed: “He descended to hell”. Though Burke admits that what Jesus did after his death and before the resurrection has been a matter of disagreement and debate throughout the history of the Church, he also affirms that “Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and most mainline Protestant churches teach that Jesus descended to the realm of the dead on Holy Saturday to save righteous souls, such as the Hebrew patriarchs, who died before his crucifixion.”
However, Burke reports that some prominent evangelical spokesmen are calling for the removal of this article from the Creed, asserting that there is no biblical evidence for Christ’s descent or the “harrowing of hell”.
On Good Friday, Jesus told the Good Thief crucified alongside him that “today you will be with me in paradise,” according to Luke’s Gospel. “That’s the only clue we have as to what Jesus was doing between death and resurrection,” John Piper, a prominent evangelical author and pastor from Minnesota, has said. “I don’t think the thief went to hell and that hell is called paradise.”
…Wayne Grudem, a former president of the Evangelical Theological Society, says the confusion and arguments could be ended by correcting the Apostles’ Creed “once and for all” and excising the line about the descent.
“The single argument in its favor seems to be that it has been around so long,” Grudem, a professor at Phoenix Seminary in Arizona, writes in his “Systematic Theology,” a popular textbook in evangelical colleges. “But an old mistake is still a mistake.”
Grudem, like Piper, has said that he skips the phrase about Jesus’ descent when reciting the Apostles’ Creed.
Roman Catholic Taylor Marshall thinks this attempt to “correct” the Creed is improper, and says so in his article at Called to Communion. In fact, he states that it is “the fruit of heretical Christology.” Among the errors feeding rejection of this creedal affirmation are an insufficient doctrine of Christ’s humanity, an opposite error that Christ actually completed his suffering in hell, and an insufficient appreciation for the Beatific Vision and how it applies to Christ. In Marshall’s article, he gives eight verses from the Bible on the descent into hell and concludes by challenging evangelicals who want to excise this point from the Creed:
How then do we respond to John Piper? He’s simply not biblical. He fundamentally does not understand what Christ means by “paradise” and its relationship in the Jewish mind to Sheol or the Underworld. In my book The Crucified Rabbi – Judaism and the Origins of Catholic Christianity, I dedicate an entire chapter to this topic. Chapter 13 is titled Jewish Afterlife and Catholic Afterlife. It focuses on the Jewish traditions of the afterlife and how Catholicism incorporated these ancient and correct doctrines. The reader learns why Orthodox Jews still pray for the dead. Why do Catholics and Jews pray for the dead? They share the same worldview! This is all news to Protestants who lack knowledge of Second Temple Judaism and Church History.
If I were able to dialogue directly with John Piper, I would challenge him directly on this point. Why does a first century book like Enoch (quoted in the New Testament) depict Sheol or Hades in a way that conforms to Catholic theology, but is in open contradiction to Piper’s Baptist theology? Why is it that Catholicism has continuity with the Judaism of Jesus Christ, but Anabaptistic theology has no continuity whatsoever — either theologically or chronologically?
Daniel Burke’s article in the Washington Post also reminds us of the importance of this doctrine in Eastern Orthodox Christianity. He cites Peter Bouteneff, a theology professor at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary in Crestwood, N.Y., who says, “The icon that represents Easter for us is not the empty cross or tomb, it’s Christ’s descent into Hades.”
In the Orthodox liturgy for Holy Saturday, these powerful words are spoken:
Today, Hades tearfully sighs: “Would that I had not received him who was born of Mary, for he came to me and destroyed my power; he broke my bronze gates, and being God, delivered the souls I had been holding captive.” O Lord, glory to your cross and to your holy resurrection!
Today Hades groans: “My power has vanished. I received one who died as mortals die, but I could not hold him: with him and through him, I lost those over which I had ruled. I had held control over the dead since the world began, and lo, he raises them all up with him!” O Lord, glory to your cross and to your holy resurrection.
When we say the Apostles Creed in our Lutheran congregation, we say “He descended to the dead.” This is a more literal and precise translation of the original article. There is a distinction in Christian theology between Sheol, the realm of all the dead, just and unjust, and the place of final condemnation after the Judgment. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it:
“Scripture calls the abode of the dead, to which the dead Christ went down, “hell” – Sheol in Hebrew or Hades in Greek – because those who are there are deprived of the vision of God. Such is the case for all the dead, whether evil or righteous, while they await the Redeemer: which does not mean that their lot is identical, as Jesus shows through the parable of the poor man Lazarus who was received into “Abraham’s bosom”:”It is precisely these holy souls, who awaited their Savior in Abraham’s bosom, whom Christ the Lord delivered when he descended into hell.” Jesus did not descend into hell to deliver the damned, nor to destroy the hell of damnation, but to free the just who had gone before him.
The Catechism has perhaps the best summary of the doctrine when it says: “Christ went down into the depths of death so that “the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.” Jesus, “the Author of life”, by dying destroyed “him who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and [delivered] all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage.” Henceforth the risen Christ holds “the keys of Death and Hades”, so that “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth.”
Or, more succinctly, hear Luther: “Through Christ, hell has been torn to pieces and the devil’s kingdom and power utterly destroyed…”
Now Luther was completely honest in saying he could not conceive how this actually occurred. However, he encouraged this: “It is appropriate and right that we view it literally, just as it is painted, that He descends with the banner, shattering and destroying the gates of hell; and we should put aside thoughts that are too deep and incomprehensible for us.”
In my opinion, the “evangelicals” who are advocating removal of this article from the Creed would remove a powerful part of the true story of Christ, and shrink our imaginative capacity to revel in the great drama of our Lord’s triumph.