HE DESCENDED INTO HELL AND ASCENDED INTO HEAVEN

From Jesus, Keep Me Near the Cross, Nancy Guthrie, Ed. Excerpted from Growing In Christ by J. I. Packer.

“He descended into hell; the third day he rose again from the dead; he ascended into heaven…” -from the Apostles’ Creed

….The English is misleading, for “hell” has changed its sense since the English form of the Creed was fixed. Originally, “hell” meant the place of the departed as such, corresponding to the Greek Hades and the Hebrew Sheol. That is what it means here, where the Creed echoes Peter’s statement that Psalm 16:10, “thou wilt not abandon my soul to Hades” (so RSV: AV has “hell”), was a prophecy fulfilled when Jesus rose (see Acts 2:27-31). But since the seventeenth century, “hell” has been used to signify only the state of final retribution for the godless for which the New Testament name is Gehenna.

What the Creed means, however, is that Jesus entered, not Gehenna, but Hades-that is, that he really died, and that it was a genuine death, not a simulated one, that he rose.

Perhaps it should be said (though one shrinks from laboring something so obvious) that “descended” does not imply that the way from Palestine to Hades is down into the ground, any more than “rose” implies that Jesus returned to surface level up the equivalent of a mine shaft! The language of descent is used because Hades, being the place of the disembodied, is lower in worth and dignity than is life on earth, where body and soul are together and humanity is in that sense whole.

“Being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit” (1 Peter 3:18), Jesus entered Hades, and Scripture tells us briefly what he did there.

First, by his presence he made Hades into Paradise (a place of pleasure) for the penitent thief (cf. Luke 23:43), and presumably for all others who die trusting him during his earthly ministry, just as he does now for the faithful departed (see Philippians 1:21-23; 2 Corinthians 5:6-8).

Second, he perfected the spirits of the Old Testament believers (Hebrews 12:23; cf. 11:40), bringing them out of the gloom which Sheol, the “pit,” had hitherto been for them (cf. Psalm 88:3-6; 10-12), into this same Paradise experience. This is the core of truth in Medieval fantasies of the “harrowing of hell.”

Third, 1 Peter 3:19 tells us that he “made proclamation” (presumably, of his kingdom and appointment as the world’s judge) to the imprisoned “spirits” who had rebelled in antediluvian times (presumably, the fallen angels of 2 Peter 2:4ff., who are also the “sons of God” of Genesis 6:1-4).

What makes Jesus’ entry into Hades important for us is not, however, any of this, but simply the fact that now we can face death knowing that when it comes we shall not find ourselves alone. He has been there before us, and he will see us through….

“He ascended” echoes Jesus’ “I ascend” (John 20:17). “Into heaven” echoes “taken up from you into heaven,” the angels’ words in the ascension story (Acts 1:10). But what is “heaven”? Is it the sky, or outer space? Does the Creed mean that Jesus was the first astronaut? No, both it and the Bible are making a different point.

“Heaven” in the Bible means three things: (1) The endless, self-sustaining life of God.  In this sense, God always dwelt “in  heaven,” even when there was no earth. (2) The state of angels or men as they share the life of God, whether in foretaste now or in fullness hereafter. In this sense, the Christian’s reward, treasure, and inheritance are all “in  heaven” and heaven is shorthand for the Christian’s final hope. (3) The sky, which being above us and more like infinity than anything else we know, is an emblem in space and time of God’s eternal life, just as the rainbow is an emblem of his everlasting covenant (see Genesis 9:8-17).

Bible and Creed proclaim that in the ascension, forty days after his rising, Jesus entered heaven in sense 2-in a new and momentous way: thenceforth he “sitteth on the right hand of God the Father almighty,” ruling all things in his Father’s name and with his Father’s almightiness for the long-term good of his people. “On the right hand of God” signifies not a palatial location but a regal function: see Acts 2:23ff.; Romans 8:34; Ephesians 1:20ff.; Hebrews 1:3, 13; 10:12ff.; 12:2. He “ascended far above the heavens” (that is, reentered his pre-incarnate life, a life unrestricted by anything created) “that he might fill all things” (that is, make his kingly power effective everywhere; see Ephesians 4:10). “Ascended” is, of course, a picture-word implying exaltation (“going up!”) to a condition of supreme dignity and power.

What happened at the ascension, then, was not that Jesus became a spaceman, but that his disciples were shown a sign, just as at the transfiguration. As C. S. Lewis put it, “they saw first a short vertical movement and then a vague luminosity (that is what ‘cloud’ presumably means…) and then nothing.”[1] In other words, Jesus’ final withdrawal from human sight, to rule till he returns to judgment, was presented to the disciples’ outward eye as going up into heaven in sense 3. This should not puzzle us. Withdrawal had to take place somehow, and going up, down, or sideways, failing to appear or suddenly vanishing were the only possible ways. Which would signify most clearly that Jesus would henceforth be reigning in glory? That answers itself. So the message of the ascension story is: Jesus the Savior reigns!

 


[1] C. S. Lewis, Miracles: A Preliminary Study (New York: MacMillan, 1947), 186.

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