Did Christ Descend into Hell?

The confession that Christ “descended into hell” in the Apostle’s and Athanasian Creed has always made me uncomfortable. Why would anyone believe that Christ descended into hell after he died when Jesus said to the thief on the cross in Luke 23:43: “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise”? The last time I checked, paradise is not the same as hell. Hell in English is a place of torment, not where saints and angels dwell. The Bible teaches that Christ did not go to hell upon his death, but “to the Father” (John 13:1, 3; 16:5, 28; 17:11, 13). To say that Christ descended into hell communicates something that is untrue and at best misleading.

This statement reflects a belief that was common in the early church known as the “harrowing of hell” where Christ went to Sheol to preach the gospel to Old Testament saints between his death and resurrection. The logic behind this belief is that since a person cannot be saved without believing the gospel, Old Testament saints were in need of postmortem evangelism since they died without knowing about the resurrection of Christ. But the false assumption behind this argument is that the amount of content in the gospel cannot change over time. Old Testament saints did believe in the gospel about the coming of the Messiah. That is why Paul can say that God “preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham” (Gal 3:8) and Jesus can say that Abraham looked forward to his day (John 8:56). It also misunderstands the Hebrew concept of Sheol as hell rather than the realm of death or the dead in general until progressive revelation made the teaching on the intermediate state more clear.

The passage that is cited most often to argue for a descent of Christ into hell is 1 Peter 3:19 which speaks of Christ proclaiming to the spirits in prison. But this proclamation did not take place after Christ died, but during the time of Noah when Christ in his immortal state preached the gospel through Noah to the unbelieving world when the ark was being built. Now that they are dead, they exist as spirits in hell without physical bodies until the resurrection of the dead (John 5:28-29; 2 Pet 2:9).

It should also be noted that this language was not present in the earliest versions of the Apostle’s Creed. In addition, it was originally understood as a reference to the burial of Christ or to the Old Testament concept of Sheol or the abode of the dead in general (Ps 16:10). To even call it the “Apostle’s Creed” is misleading because they had nothing to do with it. The creed of 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 is the true Apostle’s Creed and there is nothing in it about a descent of Christ into hell.

Many Christians, such as John Calvin, have reinterpreted the phrase to refer to Christ’s suffering on the cross where he bore the punishment for our sins. Rather than being honest and saying that the phrase is not true, they try to fit it into Scripture by redefining it. But this is historically dishonest and a novel interpretation of the phrase. They feel like they have to believe in it in order to be Christians because they are afraid of the Athanasian threat that unless they believe everything it says, they cannot be saved. When it says, “This is the catholic faith; which except a man believe truly and firmly, he cannot be saved,” it is making belief in an unbiblical human tradition a necessary requirement for salvation. By saying that people must believe Christ descended into hell in order to be saved, the Athanasian Creed is adding to the gospel and assuming an authority that only belongs to Scripture.

If we are going to accept as true the descent of Christ into hell because the Athanasian Creed says so and anyone who opposes anything the Athanasian Creed teaches can’t be saved, then we had might as well convert to Roman Catholicism because at least it is consistent in believing in the infallibility of the ecumenical creeds of the church. It might be argued that I am engaging in “chronological snobbery” by placing my own private interpretation of the Bible (that for some reason Christ went to paradise instead of hell after he died) above the creeds of the church. But the ones who are engaging in chronological snobbery are not those who oppose the descent of Christ into hell, but those who are adding to the old gospel of Scripture as if only believing in it is not good enough to be saved. Having to believe in the descent of Christ into hell in order to be saved is simply one more thing that obscures the simplicity of the gospel (Rom 10:9-10). Not to mention that the Athanasian Creed has nothing to do with Athanasius, is a product of the Western Latin church rather than being an ecumenical document, advocates the filioque which the Eastern church rejects, and did not exist until the sixth century. If I have to choose between believing in the words of my savior on the cross versus a human document that did not exist until the sixth century, I’m going to go with Jesus every time. For more on this topic, I recommend the articles on 1 Peter 3 and the descent of Christ into hell by Wayne Grudem.

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Sunday Meditation – Happiness in God

“Unbelievers seek their happiness in the things of the world. Believers find their happiness in God. It is contrary to the nature of faith for a believer to seek peace in his earthly enjoyments. Our present pilgrimage is a prison, yet alas, we too commonly do this. By this we kill our comforts and then complain they are missing. It is folly to expect any stable peace or solid joy that does not com from Christ as the fountain. O that Christians would learn to live with one eye on Christ crucified and the other on his coming in glory! If everlasting joys were more in your thoughts, spiritual joys would abound more in your hearts. No wonder you are comfortless when heaven is forgotten. When Christians let fall their heavenly expectations but heighten their earthly desires, they are preparing themselves for fear and trouble. Who has met with a distressed, complaining soul, where either a low expectation of heavenly blessings, or too high a hope for joy on earth is not present? What keeps us under trouble is either we do not expect what God has promised, or we expect what he did not promise. We are grieved at crosses, losses, wrongs of our enemies, unkind dealings of our friends, sickness, or for contempt and scorn in the world. But who encouraged you to expect any better? Was it prosperity, riches, credit, and friends that God called for you to believe? Do you have any promises for these things in his Word? If you make a promise for yourself, and then your own promise deceives you, whom should you blame for that? We have less comfort in earthly things because we have too high an expectation from them. Alas, when will we learn from Scripture and providence to seek far more from God, and far less from the earth?”

Richard Baxter

What Is Binitarianism?

Binitarianism is the rare belief that the Holy Spirit is not God while the Father and the Son are God. It differs from Arianism in that it affirms that the Son is God while disagreeing with trinitarianism by denying that the Holy Spirit shares equally with the Father and the Son the one divine nature. It reduces the Holy Spirit to God’s active force and makes him a created being. This viewpoint was common among the semi-Arians of the fourth century who were known as the pneumatomachi or those who fight against the Spirit. The leading spokesman for this group was Macedonius I, bishop of Constantinople. Eusebius of Caesarea and Origen could be classified as binitarians since they held that the Spirit is a created being though they often subordinated the Son to the Father (Khaled Anatolios, Retrieving Nicaea, 67; Eusebius, Ecclesiastical Theology 3.6.3; Origen, Commentary on John 2.6). Binitarianism was seen most recently in the beliefs of Herbert W. Armstrong and the Worldwide Church of God.

The reason why there are so few binitarians is because while they deny the deity of the Holy Spirit, they also deny the chief argument used against trinitarianism: the divine nature cannot be shared by more than one person or else this would lead to polytheism. While they are not trinitarians, they have no problem with God existing as more than one person. But very few of those we might classify as binitarians are true binitarians. They cannot consistently argue against trinitarianism while at the same time affirming that the divine nature can be shared by more than one person. This is why binitarians almost always hold to some form of subordinationism in their understanding of the relationship between the Father and the Son. They are not actually true binitarians, but we call them this because they refer to the Son as God even though there is almost always some qualification in their assertion that the Son is God.

While some scholars assert that the apostolic church fathers were binitarians and trinitarianism only developed later, there is ample evidence to indicate this is incorrect. One of the most common titles for the Holy Spirit in the writings of the early church is “Divine Spirit” which affirms that the Spirit is divine or God (Justin Martyr, First Apology 32; Dialogue with Trypho 7; Athenagoras, A Plea for the Christians 9; Irenaeus, Against Heresies 5.8.2). The trinitarian formula of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is common throughout their writings and the Spirit is always closely associated with God. An example of this can be seen in Athenagoras: “Who, then, would not be astonished to hear men who speak of God the Father, and of God the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and who declare both their power in union and their distinction in order, called atheists?” (A Plea for the Christians 10). The Spirit is viewed as the one who created all things (Shepherd of Hermas, Similitude 5.6.5). And only God created all things (Isa 44:24).

Sunday Meditation – God Our Father

“If the heart of an earthly parent, whose tender mercies are cruelties in comparison with God, does not allow his children to be defeated in their requests, how much more will God who is love and goodness itself. Our heavenly Father has inspired all parental affections. If God does not give us what we ask, it is not for our good, and we have no reason to complain that we are not heard lest he should turn our prayers into curses. He will not allow his children to return ashamed when they beg of him those things which are most agreeable to his will and to their wants. O Christian, are you sighing under your burdens? Is not God your Father? Go and boldly lay your case before him. His heart will certainly roll and yearn towards you. Is it spiritual blessings you want? Spread your requests before him; as he is your Father, so he is the God of all grace, and will give you of his fullness; for God loves that his children should be like him. Is it temporal mercies that you need? Why, he is the Father of mercies and the God of all comfort. Why go about so dejected and destitute, when you have a Father so able and so willing to relieve you? Only beware that you do not ask for stones instead of bread. Ask for your good, and you will receive it. You can be well content in your present state and condition, for God is your Father equally to you as with the greatest in the world.”

Ezekiel Hopkins

What is Adoptionism?

Adoptionism or dynamic monarchianism is the belief that Jesus has not existed as God’s Son from all eternity, but became God’s Son at his baptism, resurrection, or ascension. Adoptionism is even more unbiblical than Arianism which at least affirms the pre-existence of Christ. Adoptionists normally reject the virgin birth of Christ and assert that Jesus was merely a man who became God’s Son. Many adoptionists reject the authority of the Gospel of John and any New Testament writings which they believe reflect a later more fully developed Christology. The Ebionites of the second century were an early adoptionist group who rejected the writings of Paul and believed that Jesus was only a prophet of God and not God himself. Paul of Samosata and Theodotus of Byzantium were two of the leading adoptionists condemned as heretics by the early church. The Socinians attempted to revitalize adoptionism and were followed by a large portion of liberal scholarship. The New Testament scholar James D. G. Dunn is a modern example of an adoptionist who rejects the pre-existence of Christ.

Adoptionism errs by denying the authority of all of Scripture and misunderstanding those passages which teach on Christ’s baptism, resurrection, and ascension. Because they do not believe Jesus is both fully God and fully man, they are unable to understand those passages which teach on the exaltation of Christ. For example, some adoptionists argue that because Paul says the Father has bestowed on Jesus “the name that is above every name,” he became God’s Son when he was exalted to his right hand and has not been his Son from all eternity (Phil 2:9). But the bestowing of the name Yahweh on the Son is the declaration and vindication by the Father of what has been eternally true of the Son in contrast to his rejection by man. It is not the beginning of his sonship or deity, but the declaration of it. As God, the Son has authority over all things. But as a man, he must be given the authority to rule all things by the Father (Matt 28:18). And that is what happened at his exaltation. For the first time ever, a man enters into God’s presence on the basis of his own righteousness (Ps 24:3-10). It is a man who sits on the throne of God. Both adoptionism and Arianism are unable to distinguish between the deity and humanity of Christ and are unwilling to believe that both could be present at the same time in the person of Christ (Col 2:9).

Epiphanius reports that the Ebionites, an early adoptionist sect, rejected the virgin birth of Christ (Panarion 30.2.2). They continued the traditions of the Judaizers and practiced all of the laws of Moses. Like the Judaizers Paul fought against in Galatians, they separated themselves from Gentiles and viewed them as unclean (30.2.3). Some of them believed that Christ was a spirit who appeared in the form of Adam or was Adam himself (30.3.3-4). They made a distinction between the man Jesus and the spirit who is Christ: “The Spirit – that is, the Christ – came to him and put on the man called Jesus” (30.3.6). They believed that Jesus became the Christ when the Spirit anointed him (30.29.6). The Ebionites were divided as to whether Jesus was merely a man who became God’s Son or a pre-existent spirit: “Ebion himself did at one time, by saying that he originated as a mere man from sexual intercourse. But at other times the Ebionites who derive from him say that Christ has a heavenly power from God, ‘the Son,’ and that the Son puts Adam on and takes him off when convenient” (30.34.6). They rejected the writings of Paul and appear to be the first group of people to try to drive a wedge between Jesus and Paul:

“Nor are they ashamed to accuse Paul here with certain fabrications of their false apostles’ villainy and imposture. They say that he was Tarsean – which he admits himself and does not deny. And they suppose that he was of Greek parentage, taking the occasion for this from the (same) passage because of his frank statement, ‘I am a man of Tarsus, a citizen of no mean city.’ They then claim that he was Greek and the son of a Greek mother and Greek father, but that he had gone up to Jerusalem, stayed there for a while, desired to marry a daughter of the high priest, and had therefore become a proselyte and been circumcised. But since he still could not marry that sort of girl he became angry and wrote against circumcision, and against the Sabbath and the legislation” (30.16.8-9).

Of course, this is a hilarious narrative that has no basis in history or Paul’s writings. It is a fictional story created to justify their rejection of Paul’s writings which the early church always considered to be Scripture (2 Pet 3:16; 1 Clem 47:3). For a refutation of those who try to drive a wedge between Jesus and Paul, I recommend this documentary.

Sunday Meditation – Justice Satisfied

“Since God is just, he cannot condemn the believer, since Christ has satisfied his debts. Does Satan or conscience set forth your sin in all of its discouraging circumstances? God has set forth Christ as a propitiation. O how comfortable a text is this! It is real, proper, and full. His blood is the blood of assurance. The father with great severity exacted satisfaction for our sins upon his soul and body. With the obedience of his Son he was fully pleased and satisfied. Our faith in the satisfaction of Christ is built on the everlasting sealed truth of God. We should humbly adore the grace of God in providing such an assurance for us.”

John Flavel

What Is Modalism?

Modalism or modalistic monarchianism is the belief that God exists as only one person through successive stages as Father, Son, and Spirit. In ancient modalism, the Father became the Son at the incarnation and then became the Spirit at Pentecost. In modern modalism, the primary focus is on Jesus who is the Father and the Spirit. Modalism is primarily expressed today in Oneness Pentecostalism which also teaches that a person must speak in tongues as a necessary evidence of salvation. In modalism, the Son does not exist eternally as a distinct person from the Father. Rather, they adopt a Nestorian understanding of Jesus that divides him into two persons. They argue that when Jesus was praying in John 17, it was his human nature communicating with his divine nature.

The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit in modalism are like three masks God wears instead of three distinct persons in eternal relationship with one another (John 17:5). Modalism is a serious error because it misrepresents the gospel and who God is. The gospel is the message that God sent his only Son into the world, not that the Father became the Son (John 3:16-17; Rom 8:32). The Father and the Son must be distinct from each other for the Father to impute the sins of his people to Christ on the cross (2 Cor 5:21). The Son intercedes for us before the Father, not before himself (Rom 8:34; 1 Tim 2:5; Heb 7:25). The Holy Spirit intercedes for us in our prayers as well before the Father (Rom 8:26-27; Gal 4:6). Jesus’ words in John 16:32: “Yet I am not alone, for the Father is with me” make no sense if Jesus and the Father are the same person. Jesus would have been alone if he is the same person as the Father. But the relationship between the Father and the Son is not like the relationship between Bruce Wayne and Batman. They are distinct persons in eternal fellowship with each other together with the Holy Spirit. Modalism is the most common theological error concerning the doctrine of God in the church today.

In the early church, modalism was argued for by Sabellius, Noetus, and Praxeas. The doctrine was called patripassianism which is the belief that the Father was the one who suffered and died on the cross rather than the Son. Unfortunately, we only have a few fragments from their writings which makes constructing the beliefs of early modalism difficult. Hippolytus quotes from Noetus in his work against heresies:

“When indeed, then, the Father had not been born, He yet was justly styled Father; and when it pleased Him to undergo generation, having been begotten, He Himself became His own Son, not another’s” (Hippolytus, Refutation of All Heresies 9.5).

Tertullian and Hippolytus explain the beliefs of early modalism this way:

“He maintains that there is one only Lord, the Almighty Creator of the world, in order that out of this doctrine of the unity he may fabricate a heresy. He says that the Father Himself came down into the Virgin, was Himself born of her, Himself suffered, indeed was Himself Jesus Christ” (Tertullian, Against Praxeas 1).

“He alleged that Christ was the Father Himself, and that the Father Himself was born, and suffered, and died” (Hippolytus, Against Noetus 1).

Hippolytus summarizes their main argument:

“Thus they say they prove that God is one. And then they answer in this manner: ‘If therefore I acknowledge Christ to be God, He is the Father Himself, if He is indeed God; and Christ suffered, being Himself God; and consequently the Father suffered, for He was the Father Himself’” (Against Noetus 2).

The argument goes like this:

  1. The Father is God
  2. The Son is God
  3. The Father is the Son

But this is the logical fallacy of the undistributed middle. Compare it with these counter-examples to see how it is invalid:

  1. Cats are mammals
  2. Dogs are mammals
  3. Dogs are cats
  1. Mike is human
  2. Bill is human
  3. Mike is Bill

The argument needs another premise in order to be valid that is assumed but not proven:

  1. The Father is God
  2. The Son is God
  3. To be God is to be the Father
  4. The Father is the Son
  1. Cats are mammals
  2. Dogs are mammals
  3. To be a mammal is to be a cat
  4. Dogs are cats
  1. Mike is human
  2. Bill is human
  3. To be human is to be Mike
  4. Mike is Bill

But these arguments are incorrect because the third premise is untrue.

Modalists, like Arians, assume unitarianism is true and are unwilling to consider the possibility of trinitarianism because it seems illogical to them. They make the same fatal assumption that Arians make: the divine nature cannot be shared by more than one person or else this would result in polytheism. They ask, “How can God be one and three at the same time?” The answer is that God is one and three in different senses. He is one in nature or being and three in person. Trinitarians distinguish between person and nature because this is the pattern of Scripture (Heb 1:2-3). There is one God who exists eternally as three distinct persons sharing equally and indivisibly the one divine nature.