Jesus in Hell!

At the end of Good Friday, we’d like to commemorate Christ’s descent into hell. Christ’s descensus ad inferno has a long history in Christian tradition. In Mormon terms, this is related to Christ’s “visit” to Spirit Prison. This tradition, and particularly the Mormon version, have an important theological message about Christ’s nature.

The most important scriptural text in this tradition is 1 Peter 3:18-21:

For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, in which he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water. And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you (3:18-21; NRSV).

Many early Christian texts from the first half of the second century and beyond speak of Christ descending into Hades. These stories existed early and independently of 1 Peter and expand upon this moment in Jesus’ mission. These texts invoke the story for different reasons and the details of the narrative are not always the same, but the basic structure of the story is shared. These three versions of the story are not mutually exclusive and frequently overlap with each other. One version of the story emphasizes Jesus’ humanity. He had to die and descend into Hades just as all human beings must do. A second version of the story speaks about Christ descending into Hades in order to storm Satan’s stronghold and rescue the souls from death. A third, more prominent version of the story, emphasizes Christ “preaching” to the dead. The dead are given the opportunity to hear the gospel and accept it. The Gospel of Peter, a text that could be read intertextually as another example of Peter’s writings, speaks of Christ’s proclamation to the dead in the underworld between his death and resurrection. The Mormon version of this story, expounded in the vision in D&C 138, adds a new detail. In this version, Christ does not descend into hell at all. Rather, he instructs his righteous followers and they enter Spirit Prison.

What is interesting in these different accounts is the role that Christology plays in the details of the story, especially with regard to soteriology. In the first version, Christ must descend to hell as a condition of his human nature. Salvation is effected by Christ going through the experiences of humanity. The second story is also informed by a Christological theme, though a different one. This emphasizes Jesus’ personal confrontation with the devil to rescue souls from his grasp. The third version which emphasizes Christ’s preaching in order to offer redemption to the spirits in prison. The Mormon version picks up on this Christological theme, but adds a Christological emphasis on Christ’s distance from wickedness by emphasizing that Christ cannot actually be in the presence of the wicked.

One of the interesting features of Mormonism is its strong anthropotheism, envisioning God as a divinized human, but a tendency to deemphasize Christ’s humanity, when humanity is understand as a state of difference from divine perfection. This tendency is likely the result of the same underlying assumption, that righteousness rather than ontology is they key to Christ’s divinity. The result, however, is that Christ, who is not yet resurrected and fully exalted, occupies a radically different space in relationship to sinners after his suffering on their behalf. Rather than being closer to them, the division between him and sinners is solidified. In this way, Christ’s distance offers its own message of salvation as conditional upon righteousness.

Yet, at the same time that Christ’s inability to enter into spirit prison underscores his divinity and distance from sinners, his sending of messengers in his stead also raises the status of his followers. In this act, the ability for human beings to replace Christ is likely the most important feature of the LDS version. The price of Christ’s distance is the raising of the status of human beings to relate to other human beings, especially those in need. I quite like that message.

  • Kevin Barney

    I think it’s fascinating that we LDS take this bit from the Apostle’s Creed very seriously, at a time when many Christians are embarrassed by it and seem to want to ignore it.

    Just a minor terminological note. I think the descensus is either ad inferos (“to those below”) or ad inferno (“to the underworld”). Ad infernos would appear to be a cross between those two expressions.

  • http://bycommonconsent.com/cynthia/ sister blah 2

    In Mormon terms, this is related to Christ’s “visit” to Spirit Prison.

    Like this?

    I had an evangelical friend once tell me about his belief in a particularly colorful version of #2, where Jesus goes down and kicks some trash in hell and springs everyone out of there. It was a very literal and very violent kind of scenario. I never understood, under this scenario, what the role of the atonement is. It doesn’t seem that there is one. Jesus dies, then conquers by physical might. Thoughts?

  • http://www.faithpromotingrumor.com TT

    kevin,
    Thanks for catching that. I’ve fixed it.

    SB2,
    I can think of two things to say. In one version of Christ’s defeat of Satan, Christ tricks Satan by bargaining his soul for all souls. The catch is that Jesus conquers death and then Satan loses Jesus too. In another version, Christ battles Satan. I think for both Jesus’s death gets him in to hades, which is where all souls go. Remember, the NT doesn’t really have a robust theory of atonement so we at all making it up!

  • Floyd the Wonderdog

    An Evangelical asked me once if I knew where my dead son was. I told him that my son was in hell… preaching the gospel. I shared the scripture from 1 Peter and explained our views.

    My son is a missionary in Hell.

  • Raedyohed

    Wonderdog –

    “My son is a missionary in Hell.”

    What other religion are you going to get that in? Mormons rock. Thanks for sharing that. How did your friend respond, if I may ask?

    TT –

    Very cool post. A few questions:

    How do you go from “many early Christian texts” to “these three versions”? Could you point to some comparative analysis that shows this distillation and/or some examples of the three “versions”?

    I thought that in ancient Jewish and early Christian theology, there was little or no distinction made between a spirit prison and spirit paradise, (Hades/Sheol). Is this accurate? How does an understanding of the early Christian concept of Hades affect how we view these three scenarios?

    You’ve asserted that the crucified Christ could not “actually be in the presence of the wicked” and that therefore He “occupies a radically different space in relationship to sinners after his suffering on their behalf.” My sense is that this is true, since we know Christ has occupied a variety of positions in respect to the rest of humanity – co-eternal spirit, pre-mortal leader, pre-Christian God, mortal ministrant, and divine intermediary. On the other hand I don’t see how you have arrived at “could not” versus “would not” from your reading of D&C 138. Does the difference make a difference in your argument?

  • http://www.faithpromotingrumor.com TT

    Raedyohed,

    How do you go from “many early Christian texts” to “these three versions”? Could you point to some comparative analysis that shows this distillation and/or some examples of the three “versions”?

    My language was unclear here. By versions, I meant “types” of this story. I note that these are overlapping and somewhat indistinguishable in ancient texts, so the adoption of one type doesn’t preclude the adoption of another type in a competetive sense.

    For the first type, see Sib. Or. 1.377-78; 8:312; Ir. AH 5.31.2; Tert. An. 55.2.

    For the second type, see T. Dan 5:10; Odes Sol. 42:11-20; Melito, Pascha, 102; Orig. Comm. Rom 5.10.9-12; Teach. Silv. 110:19-29; Cyril Jerus. Cat 4:11; 14:17-19; Act Pilat 17-27; Ep Apos 26-28.

    For the third type, see Gos Pet 10:41-42; Just Mart Dial, 72.4; Ir AH 4.22.1; 1.27.3; 4.27.2; 5.31.1; Dem 78; T. Dan 5:10-11; Odes Sol. 42:11-20; Sib. Or. 8:312; Tert. An. 55.2; Orig. Cels 2:43; Orig. Princ 2.5.3; Ep Apos 26-28; Act Pilat 17-27; Ign. Magn 9:2; Clem. Strom 6.6; Acts Thom 10; Cyril Jerus. Cat 4:11; 14:17-19; Herm. Sim 9.16.1-7.

    This was from a paper I did a number of years ago. The most important secondary stories at the time are: Dalton, William J. Christ’s Proclamation to the Spirits : A Study of 1 Peter 3:18-4:6. 2nd, fully rev. ed, Analecta Biblica ; 23. Roma: Editrice Pontifico Istituto Biblico, 1989; and Reicke, Bo Ivar. The Disobedient Spirits and Christian Baptism; a Study of 1 Pet. Iii. 19 and Its Context. København,: E. Munksgaard, 1946.

    I thought that in ancient Jewish and early Christian theology, there was little or no distinction made between a spirit prison and spirit paradise, (Hades/Sheol). Is this accurate? How does an understanding of the early Christian concept of Hades affect how we view these three scenarios?

    In general, I would say that this is right. Our concept of spirit prison/paradise is much more developed and programatic than we can find in antiquity. However, the concept of what we would call “heaven” and “hell” existed quite commonly too. In essence, our concept mirrors that.

    I don’t see how you have arrived at “could not” versus “would not” from your reading of D&C 138. Does the difference make a difference in your argument?

    I am not sure that it does make a difference, though I’d be interested to hear more about what you think. My sense is that the notion that wickedness cannot be in the presence of righteousness is a structural, rather than voluntary separation.

  • Blake

    TT: I’d say that the Odes of Solomon are probably the earliest and most important of the sources cited because it is likely the earliest — probably written before 1 Peter in Syria by a priestly author of Jewish background. I favor a date of about 85-90 because of the nature of the community addressed and the rather clear contacts with the community that gave us the gospel of Joh . Some have dated Ode 42 later than the other odes merely because it contains a teaching also found in later sources — but that is hardly a good argument.

    What is interesting is that the souls in “sheol” in the Odes have the name of Christ written on their foreheads and they are branded as Christians as the basis for their release from the “prison of Sheol.” The distinction between a spirit prison and paradise seems fairly clear in connection with what is said in the odes.

    Here is Charlesworth’s entire translation of Ode 42:

    I extended my hands and approached my Lord, for the expansion of my hands is His sign.
    And my extension is the upright cross, that was lifted up on the way of the Righteous One.
    And I became useless to those who knew me not, because I shall hide myself from those who possessed me not.
    And I will be with those who love me.
    All my persecutors have died, and they sought me, they who declared against me, because I am living.
    Then I arose and am with them, and will speak by their mouths.
    For they have rejected those who persecute them; and I threw over them the yoke of my love.
    Like the arm of the bridegroom over the bride, so is my yoke over those who know me.
    And as the bridal chamber is spread out by the bridal pair’s home, so is my love by those who believe in me.
    I was not rejected although I was considered to be so, and I did not perish although they thought it of me.
    Sheol saw me and was shattered, and Death ejected me and many with me.
    I have been vinegar and bitterness to it, and I went down with it as far as its depth.
    Then the feet and the head it released, because it was not able to endure my face.
    And I made a congregation of living among his dead; and I spoke with them by living lips; in order that my word may not be unprofitable.
    And those who had died ran towards me; and they cried out and said, Son of God, have pity on us.
    And deal with us according to Your kindness, and bring us out from the bonds of darkness.
    And open for us the door by which we may come out to You; for we perceive that our death does not touch You.
    May we also be saved with You, because You are our Savior.
    Then I heard their voice, and placed their faith in my heart.
    And I placed my name upon their head, because they are free and they are mine.
    Hallelujah.

    The nature of some rite where a sign of recognition given by extending the hand is also interesting in this Ode. The theme of Christ organizing a yahad or community of saints among the dead is also interesting to me in light of D&C 138.

  • http://www.faithpromotingrumor.com TT

    Blake,
    What is interesting is that the souls in “sheol” in the Odes have the name of Christ written on their foreheads and they are branded as Christians as the basis for their release from the “prison of Sheol.” The distinction between a spirit prison and paradise seems fairly clear in connection with what is said in the odes.

    This is indeed interesting, but I don’t see it in Ode 42 as you give it here. Is there another passage that you are referring to? In this passage, I don’t see a paradise/prison conception as we know it in Mormonism, but rather a death-no death conception, in light of the resurrection.

  • Raedyohed

    TT –

    “I don’t see a paradise/prison conception as we know it in Mormonism, but rather a death-no death conception, in light of the resurrection.”

    “And I made a congregation of living among his dead… [who said] bring us out from the bonds of darkness. And open for us the door by which we may come out to You; for we perceive that our death does not touch You.”

    Since Jesus is literally dead in this moment then the death that “does not touch you”, as they said to Jesus, must be that of spiritual darkness. In establishing a “congregation” among them (i.e. the Church?), the literally and figuratively dead, are made living in the sense of becoming spiritually free; “…they are free and they are mine.”

    Isn’t this essentially the Mormon concept of prison/paradise – spiritual freedom? I think it’s fair to say that the Mormon concept of prison versus paradise also includes association – association with Christ in person, as well as with other faithful believers. We might come to the same conclusion (albeit tenuously) by negative inference of your original post. I think it is reasonable to say that the above excerpt from Ode 42 reasonably depicts this theme.

    You have favored a literal death-versus-life theme here, and I don’t disagree. In fact I would say it is best to see both in certain writings. Alma alludes to this himself in saying, “…I admit it may be termed a resurrection, the raising of the spirit or the soul and their consignation to happiness…”. Ode 42 seems to conflate the dichotomies life and death, free and bond, darkness and saved. Maybe that’s on purpose.

  • Raedyohed

    TT –

    Per your post #6: Thanks for the refs! I’ll have to file those away for future perusal.

    “I am not sure that it does make a difference…”

    In hindsight I don’t think it really makes a difference to your conclusions here. I raised the issue though, because your notion of “Christ’s distance” is echoed in other ways throughout the New Testament, namely in his declining to teach the Samaritans or the Gentiles, and his admonition against physical familiarity to Mary at the garden tomb. Parallels here are pretty loose, but could be lumped into a larger category of hierarchical and personal relationships with the Savior.

    You get into this in your last paragraph (is that a recent update or did I miss it the first time through?) where you say that in Christ’s distance we can find “the raising of the status of human beings to relate to other human beings.” I quite like that too – Saviors on Mount Zion in deed.

  • http://www.faithpromotingrumor.com TT

    Raedyohed,
    I must say that I have quite enjoyed your comments and participation here in recent days. You’ve been a fantastic conversation partner.

    Since Jesus is literally dead in this moment then the death that “does not touch you”, as they said to Jesus, must be that of spiritual darkness.

    This is where I disagree and I think that a reading that slides back and forth between actual death and spiritual death is playing too loosely with what is being said. As I read this Ode, Christ dies and goes down to the depths of Sheol to rescue the dead by preaching to them. Some listen to him and ask: “bring us out from the bonds of darkness. And open for us the door by which we may come out to You; for we perceive that our death does not touch You.”

    Now, if Christ is speaking to those who are actually dead, why would we suddenly assume that they are requesting salvation from a spiritual death, instead of actual death? The request that the door be opened that they may come out fits perfectly well with the expectation that they would be saved from death in the resurrection. I see no reason to posit a two-part afterlife (paradise/prison) that precedes the resurrection to make perfect sense of this passage. The only way to come to that conclusion is to “spiritualize” death in this passage, in my view, without any warrant.

  • http://www.faithpromotingrumor.com TT

    Blake,
    Going back over this passage again, I wanted to address a comment that you made:

    “The nature of some rite where a sign of recognition given by extending the hand is also interesting in this Ode. ”

    Just to be clear on this, the “sign” that is discussed in this ode is not the extending the “hand”, but rather extending the “hands” in the orans position of prayer. It involved standing with arms stretched out to the sides to form the shape of a “T”. This is basically the way that everyone prayed in antiquity, and the Christian view that this position symbolized the cross was widely discussed in ancient Christian literature. I personally don’t see any temple symbolism here.

  • g.wesley

    great post tt,

    some of my favorite versions of the descensus are of the triple descents of the mother/savior in apocryphon of john and trimorphic protennoia. oh, and i shouldn’t forget plato’s allegory of the cave. but of course these are all descents into the land of the ‘living.’


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X