Did Jesus Descend to Hell: Interacting With Grudem and Bird - Part 2
In part 1, we introduced the question of where Jesus went following his death on the cross. Did he descend into Hell or did he immediately, as he promised the thief, he spend his three days in paradise? We warned of the tendency among the prosperity heretics to turn Jesus's descent into the primary means of our redemption. That is heretical to say the least.
Yet there are those who defend, on biblical, theological, and historical grounds Jesus's descent into the abyss. One prominent modern theologian is Michael Bird who, in his books Evangelical Theology and What Christians Ought to Believe, defends this traditional proposition. It is no accident that though the former textbook is a one-volume systematic theology, the latter volume explores this question more fully since it is a study of the Apostle's Creed.
But let us begin with his systematic theology. In Evangelical Theology, Bird argues the following:
The problem is that this whole debate is misguided. The Latin creed does not say that Christ descended into hell. this wrong "tradition" is based on a mistranslation of the Latin. The Latin ad inferos found in the creed means "to the grave, the place of the dead" (i.e., [Hades]). It does not say ad infernum, meaning "to hell," the place of punishment after death (i.e., Gehenna). The biblical background for this line in the creed is not 1 Peter 3:18-21 ("he went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits - to those who were disobedient long ago"), but Acts 2:31 ("Seeing what was to come, he spoke of the resurrection o the Messiah, that he was not abandoned to the realm of the dead"). A better English translation of the creed, which is used in the Church of England, is this: "He descended to the dead." In other words, the wrong "tradition" about a descent into hell is really a wrong translation of the Latin perpetuated by the Reformers, who did not differentiate "hell" from "Hades." They then worked out a needless correction to make ad inferos the experience of Jesus on the cross (now Jesus did experience separation from the Father and undergo judgment on the cross, but that is not what this line from the Creed says!). So the Reformed reinterpretation of the Apostles' Creed needs to be reformed in order to recover the proper meaning of the descedit ad inferos (GK. katelthonta eis ta kato tata). (433-434)In this paragraph, Bird is responding more to the Reformed tradition than anything. Bird believes we should go back to the tradition of the Patristics, distorted by the Reformers of the 16th Century and still being distorted today, by clarifying the terms Hades and Hell.
This is explored in more detail in What Christians Ought to Believe which receives an entire chapter. He begins by lamenting that for most Christians "Holy Saturday seems to be a down day in between church serves." Nevertheless, he argues "there is definitely something in between the cross and the empty tomb that is very important: the descent of Jesus to the underworld." (143)
In order to defend this thesis, Bird must defend the line "He descended to the dead" in the Apostle's Creed while at the same time show how it reflects the biblical record. Bird believes that Jesus, between Friday and Sunday was neither in Hell nor in Heaven. He writes,
To begin with, Jesus was not in heaven during this time. When Mary Magdalene met the risen Jesus, he told her, 'Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brother and tell them, 'I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God'" (John 20:17). The ascension marks the formal return of the Son to heaven, not any time before. However, Jesus could not have been in hell either because, well, hell did not yet exist. In the book of Revelation we learn that at the end of all things, "Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire," that is, thrown into hell (Rev. 20:14). So Jesus could not descend to a habitation that had not yet been made or at least had not yet been populated with anyone. So where was Jesus? He was in the place called Hades (in Greek) or Sheol (In Hebrew), the waiting place of the dead. (144)Key to Bird's argument here is the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31 where Hades possesses both the righteous and the wicked who are divided by an apparent invisible line where only the wicked can see the righteous but neither can reach the other. This, to Bird, explains Luke 23:43 where Jesus promises the thief he would see him in Paradise. By "Paradise," Jesus meant "the blessed sanctuary within Hades"
Thus in Bird's theology "Jesus's body was buried, and his soul joined the company of the dead." (144) Therefore, the Creed should be translated Jesus "descended to the place of the dead" rather than just "to the dead." (145)
This leads to 3 basic conclusions from the New Testament witness in Bird's assessment. "First, Jesus preached the good news of his victory to the wicked in Hades." (145) This "is implied by some enigmatic verses written by Peter," namely 1 Peter 3:19-20:
19 in which also He went and made proclamation to the spirits now in prison, 20 who once were disobedient, when the patience of God kept waiting in the days of Noah, during the construction of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through the water.Bird interprets this passage as meaning that Jesus going to the place of the dead and declaring "his victory over the disobedient angels imprisoned there and" reminding "the wicked of the judgment to come." (145)
Secondly, Jesus took the saints of old up to heaven. This suggestion is taken from Ephesians 4:8-10 which also quotes Psalm 68:18.
8 Therefore it says,Bird's point is that at the ascension Jesus victoriously led the Old Testament saints into heaven. Therefore, when believers die, they immediately join Jesus in Heaven (see Acts 7:59; 2 Cor. 5:1-4; Phil 1:23; Rev. 6:9-11).
“When He ascended on high,
He led captive a host of captives,
And He gave gifts to men.”9 (Now this expression, “He ascended,” what does it mean except that He also had descended into the lower parts of the earth? 10 He who descended is Himself also He who ascended far above all the heavens, so that He might fill all things.)
Thirdly, "Jesus achieved a victory over death and Hades itself." (146) The descent, in Bird's theology, is key to this victory. Bird references and directly quotes Revelation 1:17-18; 6:8; 20:13-14 as well as Acts 2:24, 27, 31. Thus:
Because Jesus descended and rose, the doors of death and the gates of Hades cannot prevail over the church. Because Jesus descended and rose death could not hold him and Hades could not keep him. Because Jesus descended and rose, he owns the keys to death and Hades. In brief, the descent means that death is defeated an Hades has been subjugated to the will of the risen One. (146)From here, Bird interacts with Grudem and others who reject his interpretation and at the same time defends the traditional reading of the Creed. We'll look at that next.