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Christ's Descent into Hades?

Francis Turretin (1623-1687) - The Most Precise Theologian of the Reformation Era

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“Every decree of God is eternal; therefore it cannot depend upon a condition which takes place only in time. (2) God’s decrees depend on his good pleasure (eudokia) (Mt. 11:26; Eph. 1:5; Rom. 9:11). Therefore they are not suspended upon any condition outside of God. (3) Every decree of God is immutable (Is. 46:10; Rom. 9:11).”

The Scholastic Reformer explains what the Creed means when Christ descended into hell – its not what you might expect it to mean!

Extract from Institutes of Elenctic Theology,
Topic 13, “The Person and State of Christ”

Question 15

Was the soul of Christ, after its separation from the body, translated to paradise immediately? Or did it descend locally to hell?

The former we affirm; the latter we deny against the Papists and Lutherans.
The Statement of the Question

I. The question concerning Christ’s descent into hell is twofold: the one with the Papists and some Lutherans, who hold a local descent of Christ; the other among the orthodox themselves concerning the true sense of the article – whether it is to be referred to the spiritual anguish of Christ or to his burial and his most abject state under the dominion of death. We are now to examine the first and will speak of the last immediately afterwards

Il. The Papists maintain that the soul of Christ from the time of its separation from the body straightway descended locally to hell until the resurrection.

In the Catechism of Trent, it is proposed to be believed: “Christ being now dead, his soul descended into hell, and remained there just as long as his body was in the sepulchre” (Catechism of the Council of Trent, Art. 5 [trans. J. A. McHugh, 1923], pp. 62 and 64).

And that no one might think this was only done by virtue and power and not by essence (as Durandus held, cf. Sententias theologicas Petri Lombardi Commentariorum, Bk. 3, Dist. 22, Q. 3, 4 [1556], p. 215), it is added in the same place, “It is to be entirely believed that the soul itself really and by presence descended into hell.” However they wish him to have descended thither for the purpose of freeing the souls of the fathers of the Old Testament detained in limbo and of carrying them with him to heaven.

Ill. The Lutherans agree with them in asserting the substantial descent of Christ into hell; not only into limbo, but into the very place of the damned, to show his victory there and exhibit his triumph.

On this account, they wish it to be referred to the state of exaltation and not to that of humiliation (as Brochmann determines, ‘De Servatoris Nostri Jesu Christi,’ Sect. 14, Q. 6, 7 in Universae theologicae systema [1638], 1:920-23).

IV. Hence the question took this form: Whether Christ descended locally into hell or only to the limbo of the fathers and to purgatory for the purpose of leading out the souls of the pious or to the very place of the damned to openly exhibit his victory. This our opponents hold; we deny.

V. First, the soul of Christ immediately after its release from the body mounted up into paradise, according to the promise made to the thief, “Today shalt thou be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43).

(1) In vain do our opponents wish the words to be understood of the deity only, with which the soul of the thief was to be in paradise.

They involve the futurition in paradise or the translation not only of the soul of the thief, but also of Christ; that as Christ and the thief truly suffered, so they were to be carried together also into heaven, that both conditions might be common to both. And thus they were consolatory not only in order to the thief, but also to the Lord himself that in a short time they would both emerge from their distresses. Thus in the same manner, they might be in heaven as to their souls as they were on the cross together as to their bodies.

Hence Cyprian: “The thief was made a partaker of the kingdom, who had been made by his confession a colleague in martyrdom” (‘De Passione Christi’ [attributed to Cyprian] in Amold Camotensis, Opera, p. 50 in Cyprian, Opera led. John Oxoniensem, 1682]). The words themselves prove this. Christ does not say, “I will be with you” (which designated the presence of the deity in paradise), but “thou shalt be with me,” in order to promise him the fellowship of his humanity. Fellowship with Christ in his kingdom is promised. Now this cannot be understood of the deity (which concedes to no one such a privilege), but of Christ, the God-man (theanthropo), who calls believers into a share of his kingdom.

(2) No better do others wish the word “today” to be referred to the words of Christ, not to the introduction into paradise. Thus the sense is, “Today I say to you,” that thou shalt be with me in paradise.

As Suarez well remarks, this is an elusion, not an interpretation. For there was no need for Christ to indicate this, which the verb of the present tense and the expression of Christ itself sufficiently indicated. Rather he wishes to encourage the thief (constituted in agony and breathing after the grace of Christ) by this consolation that his petition would be fulfilled on that very day.

(3) Thomas Aquinas also gratuitously feigns, “Paradise here denotes generally the place of happiness, wherever it may be, in which they are said to be who enjoy the divine glory; whence the thief as to place was in hell with Christ, as to reward in paradise; so that paradise is wherever Christ is and wherever God is seen” (ST, Ill, Q. 52, Art. 4, p. 2305).

But what is this except to mingle heaven not only with earth but also with hell? Thus the thief on the cross would have been already in paradise because he was there with Christ. Christ, however, speaks of that paradise, where he was not then.

Finally, in no other way is paradise to be understood than as Scripture elsewhere speaks of it: as the seat of the blessed (2 Cor. 12:4; Rev. 2:7), which Bellarmine (‘De Sanctorum Beatitudine,’ 3 Opera 2:426) and Suarez (‘Commentaria … in tertiam partem D. Thomae,’ Q. 52, Dist. 42 in Opera Omnia [1856-78J, 19:697-743) acknowledge.

The thing itself proves this because the promise of Christ ought to answer to the petition of the thief, “Remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom.” To which Christ answers, “Today shalt thou be with me in paradise” (i.e. in my kingdom).

VI. Second, the soul of Christ was in the hand of the Father: “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit” (Luke 23:46). Therefore it was not in hell because according to the style of Scripture the hand of the Father is not to be understood with respect to power (according to which the hand of God is everywhere, Psa. 139: 7 -10) or as it is the terrible hand of God, the Judge; but as the consoling hand of the Father of mercy with respect to glory and grace; or the condition of the blessed usually described by being in the hand of God.

It is confirmed by this – that Christ by this phrase wished to proclaim that nothing more remained to be done by him, both as to freeing others and as to undergoing new torments. But as the body was about to enjoy its repose in the sepulchre, so the soul also was about to rest from all its labours and be bathed in the greatest joys. For to commit or commend the soul has a relation to foregoing labours. Christ, however, could not have said, “I commend my spirit,” if after death he was yet to descend into hell and suffer the most grievous burdens.

He commends his spirit to the hand of his Father in the same manner as David and Stephen commended their souls because these were the very words of David before (Psa. 31:5), from whom Christ took them, and of Stephen afterwards (Acts 7:59), who imitated Christ himself; yea, as Peter recommends all believers to commit their souls to the faithful Creator (1 Pet. 4:19); not assuredly that they may descend into hell, but be received into heaven (as the ordinary gloss has it, “Into thy hands I commend my spirit that you may receive it, leaving the body”).

Hence among the fathers the hand of the Father and hell are opposed. Cyril of Alexandria says, “The innocent above, the guilty below; the innocent in heaven, the guilty in the abyss; the innocent in the hand of God, the guilty in the hand of the devil” (De exitu animi [PG 77.1082 J).

VII. Third, if according to the soul Christ truly and locally descended into hell, either that was done to suffer something there or to free the fathers or to preach the gospel to the dead, or to show his victory to the devils.

But the first cannot be said because he finished all things on the cross (John 19:30) and by one offering he perfected forever them that are sanctified (Heb. 10:14).

Not the second because they were already admitted into heaven; nor were they ever in a fictitious limbo, as was proved before.

Not the third because preaching the gospel belongs only to the state of this life, not to the condition of death. If Peter says, “The gospel was preached to the dead” (1 Pet. 4:6), this is not to be understood in the compound sense (as if he had preached to the dead as such because since they are not in the state of the way, they need no more any preaching), but in the divided sense (i.e. to them who are now dead, but who formerly lived when the gospel was preached to them).

Not the fourth because that descent ought to be penal, not triumphal and belongs to the state of humiliation, not of exaltation.

VIII. Now that such was the descent of Christ various arguments prove:

(1) According to the style of Scripture, a descent into hell signifies the most terrible adversities and most exquisite pains (Gen. 37:35; Job 14:13; Psa. 6:5; 86:13; 130:1).

(2) The passages which speak of the descent into hell denote his extreme misery, not a triumph (to wit, in which he was not on that account to be left, but to be freed by the Father, Acts 2:30, 31).

(3) The descent into the lowest parts of the earth is opposed to his ascension above all the heavens, which is a part of the exaltation (Eph. 4:9). Therefore it ought to be a part of his humiliation.

IX. The “heart of the earth” in the style of the Hebrews means nothing else than what is within the earth, for lb is put for thvdh (which is the middle) and what is internal is often called the middle, whether it is in the middle or not. The borders of Tyre are said to have been “in the midst of the seas” (Ezek. 27:4) because washed on all sides by the sea; the mountain is said to have “burned unto the midst of heaven” (Deut. 4:11), i.e. up to the middle region of the air.

Thus “to be in the heart of the earth” (Matt. 12:40) means nothing else than to be within the earth whether that be nearer or more remote from its surface. In this way is intimated the state of Christ’s body in the sepulchre (which was in the earth, in which it rested until the third day).

X. When Christ is said to have “descended into the lower parts of the earth” (eis ta katotera mere tes ges, Eph. 4:9), a local descent is not implied, but his humiliation and manifestation in the flesh which he assumed on earth, so that it is nothing else than to descend to the earth (which is the lowest part of the universe) by a construction sufficiently known to the Hebrews, in which the governing word stands for the apposition – “in the lowest parts of the earth” (Psa. 139:15), i.e. in the earth, which is the lower part with respect to heaven.

Thus not the parts of the earth are compared with each other, but the heaven and the earth, parts of the universe. Nor do the words of the text admit of any other meaning. There is an opposition between the ascent from earth to heaven and the descent from heaven. However, as the ascent has the earth as the point from which and heaven as the point to which, so in turn the descent has heaven as the point from which and the earth as the point to which. This Cajetan saw, who by the lower parts of the earth wishes to be understood “the earth which is the lowest part of the world as distinguished from the lower parts of the heaven which are in the air. And thus he would more clearly have expressed it, because he descended first to the lower part of the earth.”
Sources of Explanation

XI. When Peter says “the soul of Christ was not to be left in hell” (Acts 2:27 from Psa. 16:10), a local descent cannot be understood, but the detention in the sepulchre because this is referred by Peter to the resurrection.

This is gathered:

(1) From the connection “my flesh,” says he, “shall rest” (i.e. in the sepulchre) “in hope, because thou wilt not leave.”

(2) From the phrase added for explanation, “Neither wilt thou suffer thine Holy One” (i.e., me) “to see corruption” (to wit, in the body), which otherwise it would undergo if left in the sepulchre.

(3) From a comparison with Acts 13:34,35, where God is said to have raised up Christ from the dead that he might not see corruption.

Nor is this opposed either by the word psyches [“soul”] which as Emanuel Sa (de phrasibus Scriptura) remarks, is put by a synecdoche of a part for the whole, for the whole person itself frequently elsewhere (Psa. 3:2; 17:13; Acts 7:14) or of a part for a part, for the body itself (Lev. 19:28; 21:1, 11; Num. 5:1; Luke 6:9) as Virgil (“We bury the soul in the tomb,” Aeneid 3.68 [Loeb, 1:352-53]), or by the word “Hades”, which evidently is often put for the sepulchre, as will be proved hereafter.

XII. The passage in Peter, when “Christ quickened by the Spirit” is said “to have preached unto the spirits in prison” (tois en phylake, 1 Pet. 3:19), does not favour the local descent into hell.

(1) Peter does not speak of “the soul,” but of “the Spirit.” Therefore it cannot be understood of any descent of the soul. For that Spirit cannot here be taken for the soul but for the Deity is gathered from the preceding verse. No other Spirit is meant than he by whom he was quickened. This cannot be said of the soul, neither subjectively because that only is quickened which can die (which cannot apply to the soul), nor efficiently because quickening is a work of infinite power. On this account, the Deity itself must necessarily be understood.

This is often thus designated elsewhere (Rom. 1:4; Heb. 9:14; 1 Tim. 3:16) where he is said to have been “justified by the Spirit,” which Cajetan, Gagnaeus, Thomas Aquinas, Lyranus and others understand of the deity and the Holy Spirit.

(2) It treats of the apeithesasi (i.e., rebellious spirits) who did not obey those giving them good advice (such as the fathers cannot be called, whom they wish Christ to have led out of limbo [in which they were detained] to heaven). Nor can it be said that they indeed were unbelieving at first but afterwards repented because this is not in the text, but is rather opposed to it. For eight only are said to have been saved, the rest to have perished. Yet if some had repented, Peter would not have called them apeitheis.

(3) There is no mention here of liberation, but only of preaching.

(4) The “prison” (phylake) treated of here is taken only in two ways in Scripture, either for a nightly guard, or for a prison in which the guilty are detained (Luke 3:20). Since, in truth, it cannot be used here in the first sense, it ought necessarily to be taken for a prison (as the interlinear Gloss says, “the prison of darkness and unbelief”). Nowhere in Scripture is any place called a prison where happy spirits are contained.

(5) The preaching is not said to have been made to the spirits being in prison, as if they were in prison at the time of the preaching. For to what purpose would it have been made since there is granted no exit from it?

But it is said to have been made formerly in the time of Noah (in which God’s patience waited for men) to them who (at the time in which Peter writes) are in prison. Hence Peter does not say ekeryxe tois pneumasi en phylake, but tois en phylake pneumasi ekeryxe. Thus the substantive verb must be supplied, not as the Vulgate has it iis qui in carcere erant as if they were in prison at the time of the preaching, but tois ousi (“who are,” to wit, at the time of the apostle’s writing). For that pote Peter does not join with the words en phylake, but with apeithesasi in this manner, tois en phylake pneumasi apeithesasi pote, clearly distinguishing the times in which they were rebellious in the days of Noah and in which they were thrust into prison on account of their rebellion.

Thus the meaning of the passage is plain, as our Beza has most happily explained it. “Christ,” says he, “whom I said was quickened by the Spirit, having gone, not by a change of place, but by a certain special manifestation of his presence, by revelation and operation, as God is often said to come in Scripture, not literally but figuratively and metaphorically; not in the body, which he had not yet assumed, but by that very Spirit or divine power by which he rose again and was quickened, and inspired (by which the prophets spoke, 1 Pet. 1:11) preached to those spirits, which are now in the prison of hell, where they suffer the punishment of their rebellion to his preaching in the time of Noah.”

This Andradius saw, saying that this is the meaning of the passage – “in which Spirit (coming long before) he preached to those spirits who now in prison pay the deserved penalty of their former unbelief, since they never wished to believe Noah telling them of their duty and building an ark by God’s command” (Defensio tridentinae fidei catholicae 2 [1580], p. 294).

XIII. If Christ is said by the resurrection “to have been loosed from the pains of death” (Acts 2:24), it does not follow that he endured pains up to the moment of his resurrection and that his soul departed into hell, where he could be affected by such pains. The passage can be understood in two ways:

(1) That “the pains of death” by a grammatical figure (hen dia dyoin) are put for a painful death. Christ, it is said, “will baptise with the Holy Ghost and with fire” (as Matt. 3:11), i.e. with spiritual fire, as Virgil, “I sing of arms and men,” i.e. the armed man (Aeneid 1.1 [Loeb, 1:240-41]). It is certain that the death of Christ was connected with the most exquisite pains, nor was that death resolved except in the moment of the resurrection.

(2) The passage to which Peter alludes (Psa. 18:5) employs the expression chbly mvth, which properly denotes cables and chains by which the man is detained as a captive in death, from which he is released by the resurrection. Thus there is no need to invent in addition any suffering of the soul after death. However, Peter, following the Septuagint, retains the word odinas, which can connote both the torments he suffered in death and the chains of death, by which in a measure he was bound in the sepulchre. Thus the meaning may be “whom” (namely, Christ) “God hath raised up, having loosed the chains of death because it was impossible that he should be always holden [krateisthai] like a captive by it.”

XlV. The triumphal song which Paul sings (after Hosea, 1 Cor. 15:54,55) is rightly referred to the resurrection of Christ, by which he began to triumph over sin, death and hell. But it cannot pertain to a descent into hell, which was the lowest degree of his humiliation, in which he seemed to be only not swallowed up by death.

Question 16

May the descent into hell [Editor: Hades] be rightly referred to infernal torments and to a most abject state under the dominion of death in the sepulchre? We affirm.
The Statement of the Question

I. By the preceding question, the false opinion of the papists concerning the local descent of Christ into hell was refuted. Now its true and genuine sense must be given. About this again the orthodox do not altogether agree among themselves, some referring it to the spiritual anguish and hellish torments which he suffered (as Calvin, Beza, Danaeus, Ursinus and others, even various confessions of the churches), others maintaining that it pertains to his burial and three days’ detention in the sepulchre (as Zanchius, Piscator, Pierius and others).

Il. However, we must observe before all things that we do not inquire concerning the origin of this article – whether it was contained from the beginning in the Apostles’ Creed and constantly acknowledged and received by the churches. For it is evident that no mention is made of it in the Nicene Creed and in the Roman, according to Ruffinus (A Commentary on the Apostles’ Creed 28 [NPNF2, 3:553-54 D. The ancients who published confessions and set forth the rule of faith (such as Irenaeus, Origen, Tertullian, Augustine and others) say nothing about it. Also it is referred by Ruflinus only to the end of the fourth century.

This article does indeed occur in the Athanasian Creed, but the article of burial being omitted is a clear proof that they were considered as one and the same thing. So it is very probable that this article was transferred from the Athanasian to the Apostles’ Creed and at first perhaps was placed in the margin for the purpose of explication; then from the margin into the text itself where it was afterwards retained and incorporated with it. But this question being now dismissed, we treat here only concerning its true sense (about which all do not agree).

Ill. However, since there is no other cause for this discrepancy than the ambiguity of the word sh’vl [Editor: Sheol] and hades and the manifold sense of the phrase “to descend into hell,” these must be briefly discussed.

The word sh’vl [Editor: Sheol] is spoken in Scripture in four ways:

(1) For a sepulchre (Psa. 16:10; 49:15);

(2) For the place of the damned (Luke 16:23);

(3) For the greatest torments (Psa. 18:5; 116:3);

(4) For extreme humiliation (Isa. 14:15).

Hence to descend into hell [Editor: Hades] is used in four ways:

(a) It denotes to be buried (Gen. 37:35; 42:38);

(b) To descend into the place of the damned (Num. 16:33);

(c) To feel infernal pains (1 Sam. 2:6);

(d) To be extremely humbled (Matt. 11:23).

According to this fourfold signification, there can be a fourfold meaning of this article. So that it may be referred either to:

A local descent into the place of the damned (as the papists and Lutherans hold and refuted by us already);

Or to the burial of Christ,

Or to his infernal sufferings,

Or to the extreme degree of his humiliation.
The Reasons for the Burial and the State of the Dead

IV. They who hold that this article does not differ from his burial rest especially upon these reasons:

(1) That Peter (from Psa. 16:10 in Acts 2:31) seems clearly to refer to the burial of Christ, “David seeing this before, spake of the resurrection of Christ, that his soul was not left in hell.”

(2) Everywhere in Scripture sh’vl [Editor: Sheol] is put for the sepulchre and to descend into hell for to descend into the sepulchre (as Arias Montanus, Emanuel Sa and other papists and lexicographers teach).

(3) In various creeds mention is made of a descent into hell, no mention being made of the sepulchre (as in the Athanasian Creed, which evinces that they were taken by him for one and the same thing). And here can be referred the fact that Paul mentions Christ’s death, burial and resurrection according to the Scriptures (1 Cor. 15:3, 4), but says nothing of his descent into hell. However he would have spoken of it if he had believed that such an article meant anything else than his burial.

V. Still it is not probable that this article is the same as the burial.

(1) It would be a tautology (tautologia) scarcely to be endured in so succinct and brief a creed.

(2) It cannot be said that this article was appended to the former concerning the burial to explain it, since it is more obscure than the former.

Thus it is not to be referred precisely to the burial, but to the state of death or his detention in the sepulchre under the dominion of death (as this phrase is often used to describe the state of the dead; cf. Gen. 37:35 where Jacob, bewailing his son Joseph whom he believed to have been tom in pieces by wild beasts, says, “I will go down” lsh’vl “unto my son mourning”; not indeed into a sepulchre because he supposed he had been tom in pieces by wild beasts and not buried, but simply to death or the state of the dead). Thus “in death there is no remembrance of thee, in sh’vl who shall give thee thanks?” (Psa. 6:5; cf. Job 17:13-15; Psa. 30:3; 49:15; Isa. 14:11,19,20).

VI. Also, the passage of Peter (Acts 2:27) drawn from the oracle (Psa. 16:10) seems necessarily to demand this: “Thou wilt not leave my soul eis hadou” (supply oikon, employed by him to prove the resurrection). He says this prophecy was fulfilled by the resurrection of Christ, so that the meaning is: “Thou wilt not leave my soul” (i.e. my life) or “me in death, but wilt raise me up from death by the resurrection.” Here belongs what is said in v. 24 concerning “the pains” or “chains of death” by which he was holden as a captive by death (from which he was released by the resurrection). It was impossible (both on account of the glory of his divinity and on account of the holiness of his humanity) to be held any longer by it.
Reasons for the Torments

VII. But neither is the other opinion to be repudiated which understands this descent of the extreme sufferings of Christ endured both in the garden and on the cross. It agrees:

(1) With the style of Scripture which usually designates the most grievous torments by “hell” and the “pains of hell,” as we have already said;

(2) With the creed, that the most weighty and special sufferings of Christ be not passed over in silence (which would be the case, unless the descent of Christ into hell be understood of the internal sufferings of his soul). For the preceding articles speak only of the external sufferings of the body.
Reconciliation of the Two Opinions

VIII. If it is asked which of these two opinions ought to be retained, we answer both can be admitted and be made to agree perfectly with each other.

Thus by the descent into hell may be understood the extreme degree of Christ’s suffering and humiliation, both as to soul and body; and as the lowest degree of humiliation as to the body was its detention in the sepulchre, so as to the soul were those dreadful torments he felt. And thus this last article will be apposite for expressing the last degree of Christ’s humiliation, whether as to disgrace of body or as to anguish of soul.

Nor should it seem wonderful if these two parts (mutually diverse from each other) should be joined together in one and the same article. It is not unusual in Scripture for a single sense to put on various relations (schesin) and for many things to be embraced together, especially when the things are mutually subordinated and connected with each other. Since this phrase may be referred now to abjection of the body, then to griefs of the soul (and Christ should have undergone both conditions), it was not without reason that the ancients added this article to the preceding in order to set forth more distinctly this state of Christ.
Sources of Explanation

IX. The constant and indissoluble union of the human nature with the divine in Christ does not hinder him from being able to suffer both in soul and in body the punishment due to us. The union with the Word causes him indeed to be always holy and free from all sin; but not that he should be always happy and glorious (since he came that he might suffer). Christ always had the glory of person as God-man (theanthropos); but he ought not to always have the glory of human nature (which he was to obtain only after his resurrection) because he was to be tempted in all things equally with us and be made a curse for our salvation.

X. As he is properly said to be damned who in hell endures the punishment due to his own sins, this term cannot be applied to Christ, who never suffered for his own but for our sins; nor did he suffer in hell, but on earth. Still there is no objection to saying that the Son of God was condemned for us by God, just as elsewhere he is said to have been made a curse (katara) and malediction for us. Nor is it more absurd to say that Christ was condemned than that the Lord of glory suffered and was crucified and for our sake was crucified and chastened (as is so often said).

XI. The vision of God belonging to the saints in heaven by glory differs from that of believers on earth by grace. They who see God in the former manner can be subjected to no further punishments and pains because they are in their native country, constituted in a state of happiness. But it is not the same with believers who, although they see God by faith, do not cease to be exposed to various afflictions. Christ on earth (as man) saw God in the latter sense, and far more perfectly than believers; but this vision did not hinder him from suffering and complaining that he was forsaken of God.

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