Dialogue with Lutherans on Jesus’ Descent Into Hell

Dialogue with Lutherans on Jesus’ Descent Into Hell March 24, 2016

I.e., Hades or Sheol . . . Also Discussion of Nestorianism

Christ’s Descent Into Limbo (1470-1475), by Andrea Mantegna (1431-1506) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]


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 This dialogue took place on the Lutheran blog Three Hierarchies, underneath the post, Reformed and Roman Catholic doctrine as compromise platforms. CPA’s words will be in blue; Eric Phillips’ words in green, Tom R’s in purple, and [anonymous] in orange. Sometimes I omit some portions to keep the flow going, and for the sake of thematic unity.
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In other words, does infusion apply to us but imputation applies to Christ, or is there a symmetry between how God punished the sinless while pardoning the ungodly?

It’s a disanalogy from the outset because Jesus, being God and therefore intrinsically without sin, and even incapable of possible sin, is innocent of sin in any case. But we are all sinners. I wouldn’t expect there to be a parallel. I simply follow the biblical teaching on all this where it leads me. This is, of course, the Nestorian heresy, on Luther’s part, when he utters blasphemies such as those.

[B]y the way, your quote [from Luther] doesn’t say what you think it’s saying. You didn’t engage the question. You didn’t give an explanation of your own views. No one was asking you what you thought of Luther. Tom was asking you what you thought about how Christ bore sin upon the Cross.

A triple-post of Luther quotations that are supposed to make us recoil in shock and horror, ending with calling Luther a blasphemer and a heretic, doesn’t even answer the original question.

I see. Well, Paul Althaus, author of the standard work, The Theology of Martin Luther (translated by Robert C. Schultz, Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1966, agrees with me:

Christ does not stop loving God above all things even though he fully experiences being forsaken by God, being under God’s wrath, and the hell of being far from God . . . Certainly he feels as the damned feel. He trembles before God and would like to flee from him; but at the same time is able to love him . . .

Christ suffers hell and the wrath of God and overcomes them with the power of his love of God. This is how Luther understands the Article of Christ’s descent into hell. It is part of Christ’s death agony. Through it Christ gains the victory over hell . . . Luther also teaches a descent of Christ into hell after his death. This two-sidedness brings him into difficulty. In spite of this, there is no doubt that luther’s own personal understanding of Christ’s descent into hell relates it to the passion, Gethsemane, and Golgotha. Calvin adopted this understanding and it was accepted in some confessions of faith of the Reformed Church. In distinction from Luther, Melanchthon understood the descent into hell as Christ’s triumphal victory march into hell. Christ terrifies the devils and the damned by showing them his power. Lutheran orthodoxy developed this idea. The descent into hell is the first stage of Christ’s exaltation. Thus Luther’s deep understanding is abandoned. Lutherans, for the most part, opposed the Reformed understanding of the descent into hell as part of the humiliation without realizing that they were also polemicizing against Luther.

Luther’s doctrine of the cross transcends all earlier theology through the radical seriousness with which he allows Christ to suffer both hell and being totally forsaken by God . . . He who wills to be our Savior must also have suffered our own hell. This hell is not a future condition or place but a present reality which a terrified conscience experiences under the wrath of God. Christ who has experienced both hell and being forsaken by God is directly involved in the distress of all men under the wrath of God and their distress is directly involved in his passion.

(pp. 206-208 )

Thankfully, as in the question of free will, Melanchthon and the Lutheran Confessions reverted back to Catholic tradition, over against Luther. Josh seems to have not known this. Now he does.

According to Calvin, who followed Luther’s Nestorian cue, Jesus even feared that He could lose His “salvation” (as if it makes any sense for God to require “salvation” in the first place):

Here certain untutored wretches, impelled more by malice than by ignorance, cry out that I am doing a frightful injustice to Christ. For they hold it incongruous for him to fear for the salvation of his soul . . .

Our opponents, refuted, jump to another misrepresentation: although Christ feared death, he did not fear God’s curse and wrath, from which he knew himself to be safe.

(Institutes of the Christian Religion, edited by John T. McNeill and translated and indexed by Ford Lewis Battles, Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960, II, XVI, 12, vol. 1, pp. 517, 519; emphases added)

The Lutheran Confessions rightly rejected Luther’s bizarre, blasphemous views on this question:

Article IX of the Formula of Concord may be helpful when considering Christ’s descent into hell:

Because among the teachers of the ancient church as well as among some of us different explanations of the article on Christ’s descent into hell may be found, we remain with the simple explanation of the Christian creed, to which Dr. Luther directs us in his sermon held in 1533 at the castle in Torgau on Christ’s descent into hell. Therefore, we confess, ‘I believe in Jesus Christ, our Lord, God’s Son, who died, was buried, and descended into hell.’ In this Creed the burial and Christ’s descent into hell are distinguished as two different articles, and we believe simply that the entire person, God and human being, descended into hell after his burial, conquered the devil, destroyed the power of hell, and took from the devil all his power.

We should ‘not bother ourselves with lofty, sophistical ideas about how this occurred,’ for this article can be grasped ‘with reason and the five senses’ as little as can the previous article (i.e., the Person of Christ), on how Christ was placed at the right hand of God’s almighty power and majesty. This article can only be believed; we can only hold to the Word. Thus we retain the heart of this article and derive comfort from it, so that ‘neither hell nor the devil can capture or harm us’ and all who believe in Christ

(Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration, Article IX, par. 1-3).

(WELS Lutheran source)

See also: The Descent into Hell: Exinanition or Exaltation?, by Brett Naumann.

Of course, I believe that Jesus went after His death to Hades, or Sheol, or the Limbo of the Fathers, as it is sometimes called, based on cross-referencing of several passages (Eph 4:8-10; 1 Peter 3:19-20; 4:6; Lk 16:19-31). He can’t lead “a host of captives” (Eph 4:8 ) out of hell, because they are irretrievably damned. But He can lead people from Hades to heaven.

Might I say I always find Dave [Armstrong] courteous and reasonable. Which is not to say he’s right on his Romish merits. But he’s not out of order.

Thanks for your Augsburgerish compliment! You have lots of evangelicalish merits yourself!

The pitfall most RC e-apologists fall into (even many who are ex-Evs) is to think Luther is the Lutheran Pope, and Calvin is the Calvinist Pope, so if you can play “gotcha!” and bring up an isolated quote (or even a string of quotes) from Martin Luther / John Calvin that’s out of synch with the Bible, or with their successors’ beliefs, or with 21st-century sensitivities, you’ve refuted the entire Reformation in one hit.

I must be an exception to the rule then. If I were that ignorant as to the differences, I would have no business being an apologist in the first place (particularly not one who has written a lot about Luther and the so-called “Reformation”). Mine was strictly a point of historical theology.

They are probably drawing a false analogy with the Catholic set-up where every single statement by every single Pope for 1,700 years is accorded absolute and inerrant authority by RCs,

Really? Where did you discover this notion in Catholic teaching? I’m curious. Please provide a reputable source. Maybe I can learn something about my church too!

“Irony”. Most Catholics have their own list of which Papal pronouncements are infallible and which are to be “withstood to the face”.

It is true, however, as Josh pointed out, that I don’t see how Luther’s views on Christ as sin for us are really relevant to what we were talking about. But then I think it was Tom who first got us on this tangent.

Strictly as a point of historical theology. I’m curious: were you aware that Luther taught this before I brought it up?

I was aware of Luther’s teaching on the imputation of man’s sin to Christ on the cross. I was aware of Calvin’s interpretation of “He descended into Hell”. I wasn’t aware that Luther also interpreted “He descended into Hell” the same way.


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As for what Paul meant by saying Jesus became sin and a curse for us: it is interesting that the Patristic quotes you cited are clearly uncomfortable with these Scriptures and hope to give them some more comfortable meaning. As for what they mean exactly – let me ask what does it mean when God says “My God, why have You forgotten Me?”

Some think He was basically citing Psalm 22.

In some sense the answer must be something we cannot really understand.

I think it is somewhat mysterious but God cannot cease being God, and Jesus was God. God the son cannot be totally separated form God the Father. It’s impossible. But there is no doubt that the horrors our Lord suffered are incomprehensible to us.

But the worst thing to do is tone down the Scripture to fit our sense of what is more appropriate and fitting – because God purchasing His people with His own blood is not fitting in the first place.

I wouldn’t look at it that way. My view proceeds from what we know about the nature of the Holy Trinity and from all of Scripture considered together, and the Fathers, as well as what the Catholic Church teaches authoritatively on the matter.

The descent into Hell is a separate issue form the interpretation of what Paul meant by Christ being a “curse” and “sin”.

Luther and Calvin put them together.

You can reject the idea that “suffering the pains of hell” is actually what the Creed means by “he descended into Hell” (as I do) and still think (as I do) that concepts of propitiation, of wrath-bearer, of substitutionary atonement, must involve in some way bearing for sinners the worst that they can feel, which is the feeling that I deserve what I’m getting, and that I have no hope of rescue because I do not deserve rescue. In other words, Christ did not just physically bear sin but his relation with His Father was the same as a guilty sinner has with the Father. Can you get to the bottom of that?

No, because I consider it Nestorian heresy, of the sort that was explored by the movie The Last Temptation of Christ. The atonement and redemption and sacrifice on the cross for us by our Lord do not require this. It’s a substitution.

If so you’re a deeper man than I am. And if that’s a bad egg, blame Anselm for laying it, because the whole logic of penal substitutionary atonement demands that whatever sinners suffer from God in hell, Jesus must suffer from God on the cross.*Jesus does not have to take on sinful, fallen nature in order to be fully man, but only human nature, which was originally sinless and without concupiscence. This is part of the Lutheran confusion: introduced into it by Luther, who was in turn influenced by corrupt nominalistic medieval soteriology. Human nature is not intrinsically evil.

And he’s in good company: Hans Urs Balthasar thought the same, as seen in this debate here .

I’d have to take a look at that to see what he is arguing.

I think in dealing with the mysteries of the atonement we can all do with a little less throwing around of terms like “Nestorian” (after all Luther insisted GOD is on the cross, so GOD is suffering hell for us, not just Jesus as a man),

This is the point. God is not capable of sinning. He is impeccable. So the sort of equation with sin that you are positing is simply not possible, by God’s very nature. That’s why it is Nestorian heresy, because the human nature of Christ is distorted and made into almost a fallen human nature. That is not only heretical; it is blasphemous.

and “blasphemy” (after all, Jesus was on the cross because the high priests and Pharisees thought a man saying he was God was blasphemy).

The heresy here is not denial of Jesus’ deity, but false notions concerning His human nature. It also involves the question: “can Jesus truly succumb to temptation?” The Catholic Church says no, He can’t, as a function of His impeccability. He has no concupiscence because He never fell, and never sinned; nor can He sin, being God. God can’t contradict Himself in that way; He’s perfectly holy. Fernand Prat, S.J. wrote:

Jesus is neither a sinner nor sin, personally, but as a member of a sinful family, with which he identifies himself. It is in the same sense that he is made a “curse,” like the branch of an accursed tree. Similarly, on account of our union with him who is justice itself, we participate in his “justice.” Jesus, being by his nature impeccable, cannot be made a sinner by his contact with sinners, while our moral union with the Just One par excellence renders us really just ourselves. And this justice, because it comes from grace and not from us, is rightly called the “justice of God.”

(The Theology of St. Paul, Westminster, Maryland: Newman Bookshop, 1952, Vol. II, 205)

I read the article about Balthasar that you directed me to. Very interesting. I would have to agree with the first part (Alyssa Lyra Pitstick) that he appears to depart from received Catholic tradition on this matter. I don’t think Fr. Oakes’ argument overcame that fact. Since she wrote her doctoral dissertation on this very topic, I think – all things being equal – that she probably knows more of the ins and outs of this debate than Fr. Oakes does.

By the way, when I say that I think certain assertions about Christ are blasphemous, I don’t mean in any way to imply that the one holding them (including Luther and Calvin) is necessarily trying to cast aspersions on Christ in a way akin to unbelievers.

Rather, I mean that I think the view thus critiqued is contrary to received theology proper, and in its consequences leads to heretical implications that get into territory whereby God would be (in this instance) brought too close to sin, so that He “internalizes” it in a way that I believe is radically contrary to His holiness. In other words, to me it is far too close to a belief that God could or did sin, which in turn I consider to be blasphemous.

But I’m not trying to make a value judgment on people. I view it in this instance far more as a sincere error of speculative theology, not intended to denigrate Jesus Christ.

The same holds for my use of the word “Nestorian.” I don’t see that my use should be any more offensive to Protestants than CPA’s description:

So apparently, Catholic teaching explicit[ly] states that those are justified who merely believe, as a set of facts that has nothing essentially to do with their lives, the church’s creed, as long as they sincerely try to be a good person (as defined by Christian moral teachings) and avoid mortal sin.

– which strikes me as equal parts bald assent [which is not our teaching, and condemned by Trent] and semi-Pelagianism [which is not our teaching and condemned by 2nd Orange and Trent].

Why should an implication of semi-Nestorianism be any more offensive than CPA’s charge of supposed Catholic semi-Pelagianism (which occurs in the Lutheran Confessions as well)? One’s as bad as the other. But I wanted to make sure my intent and specific application of the supercharged term “blasphemy” was clearly understood.

 About charges of “blasphemous” and “Nestorianism” – OK the first one might have riled me, but I kind of figured, as you said, you didn’t mean it quite the way it sounded. But about “Nestorianism” it doesn’t bother me, I just think it is very inaccurate. 

Great discussion, too. I’ve missed getting into some good juicy theological discussions for some time now, having been with atheists for a while and various other not particularly “heavy theology” topics.
I think Lutherans are now my favorite Protestants to dialogue with. It’s a consistent position that is able to be fought for (and Lutherans are willing to do so, which I respect); and it maintains some semblance of tradition and sacramentalism.Well, for the most part. I think it ultimately breaks down in its initial premises, as I have argued (which I think is true of all Protestants). But if one grants those, it is fairly self-consistent.

Come on in, Dave, the water’s fine. Avoid the errors of both Rome and Geneva (and also of Constantinople, Canterbury and Nashville).

What errors? I am avoiding the errors by being where I am!

[See CPA’s comment starting here, and the one below it]

RE: Nestorianism

In the first quotation Dave Armstrong gives, Luther does speak in a Nestorian fashion when he says, “His human nature did not behave differently from that of a man who is to be condemned eternally to hell.” Any time one of Christ’s natures is said to do something – and not Christ Himself – that’s intrinsically Nestorian language. It is, however, a very easy mistake to make, and many are guilty of such language who are innocent of actual Nestorianism. For the rest of the quotations, I concur with CPA’s read. I don’t think Luther is Nestorianizing.

RE: Imputation

“If God says you’re a car, you’re a car.” But what does that mean? Does it mean you poof turn into a car? Does it mean you are a car in Eternity? Or does it mean that He has determined to treat you as if you were a car? When Christ’s righteousness is imputed to us, it looks like #3 here in this life, but in reality it is #2. When our sin was imputed to Christ, it was only #3. The one imputation is predicated on the other, but they are not the same kind of imputation.

concepts of propitiation, of wrath-bearer, of substitutionary atonement, must involve in some way bearing for sinners the worst that they can feel, which is the feeling that I deserve what I’m getting, and that I have no hope of rescue because I do not deserve rescue. In other words, Christ did not just physically bear sin but his relation with His Father was the same as a guilty sinner has with the Father.

[bolded emphasis added for highlight purposes]

I shall call the above statement “A”, and the following “B”:

You miss the point here – it’s imputation again, “legal fiction” and all that. Christ’s human nature is sinless — that’s as fundamental as anything in Luther’s theology. But the Father imputed to Him (the whole Christ, God and man in personal union) our sins.

Now, this is even more of a legal fiction than it is when He imputes us righteous, because the Father does not “infuse” even the slightest smidgeon of unrighteousness into Christ (but us sinners are reborn in the Holy Spirit and changed – even though that is not the grounds of our justification). He remained totally pure, holy, and sinless in His nature, but was imputed a sinner.

A contradicts B insofar as the subjective elements in it are contrary to the notion of mere imputation, and would seem to involve more of an “infusion.” It is, I think, at least semi-Nestorian, in a sense akin to how Eric Phillips above described a similar utterance of Luther that I brought up

My gripe is with the subjective feeling attributed to Jesus: “the worst that they can feel, which is the feeling that I deserve what I’m getting, and that I have no hope of rescue because I do not deserve rescue.”

I contend that this is impossible for Jesus to enter into, because it would involve “feeling” as an actual sinner does, and for Jesus to fully do that would involve a self-contradiction. God is not a fallen human being; He is not a sinner. He can’t “feel” what we do when we sin and when we struggle with concupiscence, etc. How can He “feel” what is intrinsically impossible for Him, being God? This would involve the pretense that Jesus “felt” like He was a rotten sinner. It simply cannot be.

And you contradict yourself, because you express things like that in that place, but then today you write: “it’s imputation again, ‘legal fiction’ and all that. . . . Now, this is even more of a legal fiction than it is when He imputes us righteous because the Father does not ‘infuse’ even the slightest smidgeon of unrighteousness into Christ.”

One can see how the disanalogy applies here: if God can impute to us righteousness, even when we aren’t righteous, as in standard Protestant (false and unbiblical) soteriology, then we aren’t “really” righteous at that point!! Your “legal fiction.”

Likewise, since this is the analogy you yourself make: if God the Father can impute to God the Son sinfulness, even though He is not the slightest bit sinful, then He isn’t “really” sinful (and with God, it is impossible to be so, because He is impeccable). In turn, being not the slightest bit sinful, makes it impossible for Jesus to have a “feeling” “that I deserve what I’m getting, and that I have no hope of rescue because I do not deserve rescue.”

God doesn’t play games like Protestant theology does. He is what He is. And I am arguing that Jesus can feel no such thing. He participates in a substitutionary atonement by His sacrificial death on the cross. He was the lamb of God, remember. What sense does it make to say that a lamb “feels like a forsaken sinner” and all the rest? No; the lamb feels nothing of the sort. It is completely innocent of the crime. Jesus, even more so.

The lamb can’t sin (let alone “feel” the agony of sin’s fruits) because its nature is too low for such a category to apply. Jesus can’t sin (let alone “feel” the agony of sin’s fruits) because His Divine Nature is too high for such a category to apply. But the characteristic of “complete innocence” applies to both the sacrificial lambs and Jesus the lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.

I agree with you that Christ didn’t feel the despair of the damned. He knew He would rise again. I also agree that He didn’t have the psychological experience of guilt. If He had, He would not have asked “Why have You forsaken Me?” However, as D. Pfar recently point out, it won’t work for you to argue that He COULD not have done these things, since God cannot despair or feel guilty. The only reason we are saved is that Christ did a number of things that God in His own nature CANNOT do. You can accuse Luther of excessive speculation here (try it; it’s fun to shoot him with his own guns), but not Nestorianism.

By the way, I wasn’t trying to imply that I understand all the ins and outs of the heresy of Nestorianism. I do not. But I think I do know when I see something that either violates or likely violates the doctrine of the impeccability of God when I see it. Whether that is technically Nestorianism or not is a separate issue. Whatever it is, and whatever it is labeled, I think it is false and heretical, and ultimately a denigration of the nature of God.

But I’m no scholarly expert on Christology, either. I’m always quite happy to be corrected on any points I might make, by someone who knows more about that particular area. I’m just here giving my opinion based on my current knowledge of theology, and the history of doctrine, like everyone else is.

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