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.