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Bible Dictionaries

Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Descent Into Hades

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1. By the Hebrews, Sheol or Hades was regarded as the under world, a subterranean region of abysses and mysterious waters upon which the earth rested (Psalms 24:2; Psalms 136:6). It was the region to which all souls passed after death, there to live a shadow-like existence, incapable of the higher forms of spiritual activity, such as the praise of Jahweh (Psalms 6:5). In NT times, a distinction has been drawn between the departments of Sheol inhabited by the good and the bad: ‘Paradise’ is the resting-place of the righteous and penitent (Luke 23:43), while the ‘abyss’ (q.v. [Note: quod vide, which see.] ) is spoken of as the abode of demons (Luke 8:31; cf. Revelation 9:1; Revelation 11:7; Revelation 17:8; Revelation 20:1).

2. Those who accepted the Jewish cosmogony believed that, at death, every soul passed to this hidden region. The death of Christ involved for Him, as for every son of man, the same journey. To the first disciples, that He ‘descended into Hades’ would not present itself as an article of faith, or as a matter of revelation; it was implied in the fact of His death. That He went into ‘the abyss’ does not need argument for St. Paul (Romans 10:7; cf. Ephesians 4:9 κατέβη εἰς τὰ κατώτερα μέρη τῆς γῆς); that His soul was in Hades after the Crucifixion is assumed as a matter of course in Acts 2:31. No one in the Apostolic or sub-Apostolic Age would have been impelled by dogmatic considerations to insert the article of the Descent into Hades in the baptismal creed, for it was only another way of saying that Christ died. In the NT, accordingly (with the exception of 1 Peter 3:19; 1 Peter 4:6), the references to Christ’s Descent into the under world are incidental only, introduced to illustrate special points; e.g. Acts 2:31, that Christ did not remain in Hades; Matthew 12:40, that the period of His sojourn ‘in the heart of the earth’ was ‘three days and three nights’; Ephesians 4:9, that the Crucified who descended is the Ascended Lord; and Luke 23:43, that the penitent thief would be in security with Christ in the unseen life after death. (It is to be observed, however, that Luke 23:43 is not quoted by the Fathers as illustrating the Descensus, some of them-e.g. Tertullian-holding that Paradise was not a department of Hades, but distinct from it.)

3. But the question was inevitable: when Christ descended to the under world, what office did He perform there? And in attempting to find an answer to the question as to the consequences and the purpose of Christ’s Descent into Sheol, the early Christians naturally betook themselves to the OT and to the forecasts of Messiah’s mission which they found therein. Even before speculation began on these points, it had been natural to use OT language when the fact of the Descensus was mentioned: thus Romans 10:7 goes back to Deuteronomy 30:13, and Acts 2:31 to Psalms 16:10. Now the OT suggested a deliverance of the righteous from Sheol, and this thought was destined to be prominent in the development of Christian eschatology.

Sheol, as we have seen, is the abode of the spirits of the departed (Psalms 49:14), and it is from Sheol, personified as the ruler of this gloomy region, that the righteous Hebrew looked for deliverance. ‘God will redeem my soul from the power of Sheol’ was his hope (Psalms 49:15; cf. Psalms 30:3). The Divine promise was, ‘I will ransom them from the power of Sheol’ (Hosea 13:14). ‘Because of the blood of the covenant I have brought forth thy prisoners out of the pit wherein is no water’ (Zechariah 9:11) is a prophetic forecast.* [Note: So it is interpreted by Cyril of Jerusalem (Cat. xiii. 34).] To St. Paul’s thought, the climax of Christ’s victory was the conquest of death (1 Corinthians 15:26); and it was part of the purpose of His humiliation that in His triumph the powers of the under world should own His sway (Philippians 2:10 ἵνα πᾶν γόνυ κάμψῃκαταχθονίων). When it was asked how this subjugation was exhibited, the answer was ready to hand. It was in the deliverance from Satan’s bondage of the dead whom he had in thrall in Sheol. Christ has the keys of death and of Hades (Revelation 1:18).

It is possible that some such conception of Messiah’s mission to the departed was prevalent in pre-Christian days. Two passages from the Bereshith Rabba* [Note: Quoted from Weber by Bigg on 1 Peter 3:19 (ICC, 1901, p. 163).] are cited as testifying to Jewish belief: ‘When they that are bound, they that are in Gehinnom, saw the light of the Messiah, they rejoiced to receive him’; and ‘This is that which stands written, We shall rejoice and exult in thee. When? When the captives climb out of hell, and the Shechinah at their head.’ But the date of this literature is uncertain, and it may be affected by Christian ideas. At any rate, this conception of the purpose of Christ’s Descensus is prominent in the earliest Christian documents. Thus in a section of the Ascension of Isaiah (ix. 16f.) assigned by Charles to the close of the 1st cent. we have: ‘when he hath plundered the angel of death, he will ascend [sc. from Hades] on the third day … and many of the righteous will ascend with him’ (cf. also x. 8, 14 and xi. 19, ‘They crucified him, and he descended to the angel of Sheol’). With this should be compared Matthew 27:52-53, perhaps the earliest suggestion of the thought that the saints were freed from the bondage of Hades by the Descent of Christ.† [Note: So Origen interprets Matthew 27:52 as a fulfilment of Psalms 68:18 (Lommatzsch, vi. 344).] In a 2nd cent. section of the Sibylline Oracles (i. 377) we have: ὁπότʼ ἄν Αἰδωνέος οἷκον | βήσεται ἀγγέλλων ἐπαναστασίην τεθνεῶσιν; and again (viii. 310): ἥξει δʼ εἰς Ἀίδην ἀγγέλλων ἐλπίδα πᾶσιν. The date of the (Christian) interpolation in the Latin version of Sir 24:45 is not certain, but the words interpolated are significant: ‘Penetrabo omnes inferiors partes terrae et inspiciam omnes dormientes, et illuminabo omnes sperantes in Domino.’ We have an explicit statement in Origen, who, commenting on Romans 5:14, says: ‘Christum vero idcirco in infernum descendisse, non solum ut ipse non teneretur a morte, sed ut et eos, qui inibi non tam praevaricationis crimine, quam moriendi conditione habebantur, abstraheret.’‡ [Note: Lommatzsch, vi. 344.] Origen elsewhere interprets the binding of the ‘strong man’ of Matthew 12:29 as a binding of Satan in the under world, and Irenaeus gives the same exegesis.§ [Note: Haer. v. xxi. 3.] This is the general view: the express purpose of Christ’s Descent to Hades was to liberate the souls who were there in thrall. The apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus works out, in picturesque detail, the story of the ‘Harrowing of Hell,’ a legend which deeply impressed the consciousness of Christendom. So wide-spread was this belief in the early Christian period that a controversy arose as to whether the souls of Jews or of Gentiles or of both were included in the deliverance wrought by Christ in Hades. Marcion-if Irenaeus|| [Note: | ib. I. xxvii.] is to be trusted-held that it was only for the redemption of the wicked heathen of olden time, but Justin¶ [Note: 72.] and Irenaeus** [Note: * adv. Haer. IV. xxvii. 2.] restricted it to the righteous of Israel; while Clement of Alexandria†† [Note: † Strom. ii. 9.] and his school included both Jew and Gentile in its grace. We find, then, that, while the NT gives no explicit sanction to this idea of the conquest of the powers of the under world and the deliverance of imprisoned souls by Christ’s Descent into Hades, it was firmly established in the 2nd and 3rd cent., and that it grew out of OT phrases about the redemption from Sheol.

5. The idea that Christ preached in Hades to the souls who were in bondage there has a somewhat different history. It is found in Ignatius‡‡ [Note: ‡ ad Magn. ix.] : ‘even the prophets, being His disciples in the spirit, were expecting Him as their teacher, and for this cause, He, whom they rightly awaited, when He came, raised them from the dead.’ More explicit is an oracle quoted both by Justin* [Note: 72.] and by lrenaeus† [Note: Haer. III. xx. 4.] as from Isaiah or Jeremiah, although it is not in the OT, and its source has not been traced: ‘The Lord God remembered His dead people of Israel who lay in the graves, and descended to preach to them His own salvation.’‡ [Note: In other passages of Irenaeus where this oracle is quoted. (IV. xxxiii. 12, v. xxxi. 1) it ends, ‘descended to rescue and deliver them,’ no mention being made or the preaching of Christ in Hades.] In like manner, the apocryphal Gospel of Peter (2nd cent.) tells of a voice from heaven which said, ‘Thou didst preach to them that sleep’ (ἐκήρυξας τοῖς κοιμωμένοις). This, according to Clement of Alexandria, who does not countenance the legendary developments of the idea of liberation, was the sole purpose of Christ’s Descent into Hades, viz. that He should preach the gospel there.§ [Note: vi. 6.]

Of Christ’s preaching in Hades there is no foreshadowing in the OT, although Clement of Alexandria|| [Note: | ib.] will have it that Job 28:22 predicts it. But it is plainly stated in 1 Peter 3:19; 1 Peter 4:6, and the efforts to explain these passages of a preaching of the pre-existent Christ to the patriarchs, or of His mission to the spiritually dead, can only be regarded as after-thoughts of Christology, although they have the authority of Augustine and Aquinas. The words are explicit: τοῖς ἐν φυλακῇ πνεύμασιν πορευθεὶς ἐκήρυξεννεκροῖς εὐηγγελίσθη. It is noteworthy, however, that early Christian belief on this point was not founded on these texts. They are not cited in connexion with the Descensus by the earliest writers, such as Ignatius, Justin, or Irenaeus. Cyprian¶ [Note: ii. 27.] quotes 1 Peter 4:6, but he offers no comment upon it; and Clement of Alexandria** [Note: * Strom. vi. 6.] is the first to use 1 Peter 3:19 to illustrate the proclamation of the gospel in Hades. Nothing is said in either passage as to the effect of the preaching; there is no suggestion of that triumphant deliverance of souls from Hades, on which the next age loved to dwell. Indeed, 1 Peter 3:19 does not speak of a preaching to all the spirits of the departed, but only to those of the antediluvian patriarchs; and this limitation, whatever be its precise significance, needs to be kept in mind. It was, perhaps, because of this limitation that the passage was not quoted by the early Christian writers when debating the meaning of the Descensus; the doctrine was developing itself in quite a different way.

6. A curious passage in the Shepherd of Hermas (Sim. ix. 16) throws some light on the primitive Christian conception of the under world. A parable is told of the building of a tower which represents the Church at rest. All the stones which are built into the tower are taken from ‘a certain deep place’ (ἐκ βυθοῦ τινός), i.e. the under world. The first tier represents the first generation of men, i.e. from Adam to Abraham; the second, those from Abraham to Moses; the third, the prophets and ministers (sc. of the Old Covenant); while the fourth tier represents the apostles and teachers of the New Covenant. All alike had ‘to rise up through water’ that they might be made alive, so that the seal of baptism is needed for all. Now the ‘apostles and teachers’ differed from the rest in that they had been baptized before they passed into the under world; but when there, ‘after they had fallen asleep in the power and faith of the Son of God, they preached also to them that had fallen asleep before them, and themselves gave unto them the seal of the preaching,’ sc. baptism. Thus Hermas does not speak of a Descent of Christ into Hades, but he finds a mission there for the apostles and teachers of the Christian dispensation, viz. that they might evangelize and baptize the pre-Christian saints, so that they too might become members of the Church. Clement of Alexandria* [Note: Strom ii. 9.] quotes this passage from Hernias, and add† [Note: vi. 6.] that the apostles preached in Hades, following the Lard. Probably neither writer had formulated a quite consistent scheme of Christ’s mission to the under world. As Clement held that the apostles were followers of Christ in Hades, be Origen taught that Christ had forerunners there. He held that as the prophets, both those of the OT and John Baptist, were His heralds on earth, so they were His heralds in the under world:‡ [Note: in 1 Samuel 28:3-25 (Lommatzsch. xi. 326).] Ἰησοῦς εἰς ᾄδου γέγονε, καὶ οἱ προφῆται πρὸ αὐτοῦ, καὶ προκηρύσσουσι τοῦ Χριστοῦ τὴν ἐπιδημίαν.

7. The primitive view, so far as it can be collected from Hernias and Ignatius, seems to be correctly expounded by Loofs.§ [Note: ERE iv. 661.] Christians, since the Redemption wrought by their Master, were not subject to the bondage of Hades after death; from the power of death they had been freed once for all. And what Christ did for the patriarchs in Hades was to place them in a like position to those who had been favoured by His presence on earth. Those who welcomed Him there were delivered from thrall, as all His disciples had already been delivered. This was not held by Tertullian|| [Note: | de Anima, 58.] or by Irenaeus,¶ [Note: Haer. v. xxxi. 2.] but it is definitely stated by Origen** [Note: * Hom. in 1 Samuel 28:3-25 (Lommatzsch, xi. 332).] : ἐὰν ἀπαλλαγῶμεν γενόμενοι καλοὶ καὶ ἀγαθοὶοὐ κατελευσόμεθα εἰς τὴν χώραν ὅπου περιέμενον τὸν Χριστὸν οἱ πρὸ τῆς παρουσίας αὐτοῦ κοιμώμενοι.

This may have been the significance of the preaching in Hades, mentioned in 1 Peter 3:19; 1 Peter 4:6; but it remains obscure why it is limited (at least in the first passage) to the antediluvian sinners, for there is no hint that they are to be taken as typical of all men who lived before Christ’s Advent.

8. The Descent into Hades is the topic in several of the recently discovered Odes of Solomon, which date from the 2nd century.

These remarkable hymns were first published from the Syriac by Rendel Harris in 1909, and several editions have appeared since in German, French, and English. Opinion is divided as to their date and doctrinal standpoint; but it is not doubtful that the passages here cited are Christian. They may be dated, provisionally, between a.d. 150 and 180.

In Ode xxxi. 1ff. we have a Song of the Victory of Christ in the under world: ‘The abysses were dissolved before the Lord: and darkness was destroyed by His appearance: error went astray and perished at His hand: and folly found no path to walk in … He opened His mouth and spake grace and joy … His face was justified, for thus His holy Father had given to Him. Come forth, ye that have been afflicted and receive joy, and possess your souls by His grace, and take to you immortal life.’ And in xlii. 15ff.: ‘Sheol saw me, and was made miserable: Death cast me up and many along with me … I made a congregation of living men amongst his dead men, and I spake with them by living lips … and those who had died … said, Son of God, have pity on us … and bring us out from the bonds of darkness; and open to us the door by which we shall come out to thee.’

Here we have the redemption of souls in Hades, and also a preaching by Christ there after His Passion. In these Odes there is the earliest appearance of the detailed doctrine of the Descensus which is found in the Gospel of Nicodemus, and was afterwards universally prevalent in Christian circles. The Odes do not appeal directly to Scripture; and the manner in which they allude to the fact and the purpose of the Descensus shows that it must have been a familiar Christian idea at the date of their composition.

9. The apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus tells (ii. 10) that John Baptist announced to the patriarchs in Hades that be had baptized the Christ, who would soon come to bring them deliverance. We have already (§ 6) found in Origen the conception of John as the precursor of Christ in the under world; but we have now to notice the remarkable similarity between the language used about the Descensus and that used about baptism. Four points in particular may be noted:

(a) The Descent was a going down into ‘the abyss’ (Romans 10:7). A text of the OT quoted by Cyril of Jerusalem* [Note: xiv. 20.] as pre-figuring this is Jonah 2:6-7, which is in the Septuagint :

ἄβυσσος ἐκύκλωσέν με ἐσχάτη,

ἕδυ ἡ κεφαλή μου εἰς σχισμὰς ὀρέων,

κατέβην εἰς γῆν ἧς οἱ μοχλοὶ αὐτῆς κάτοχοι αἰώνιοι.

Now in baptism we are ‘buried with him’ and ‘united with him by the likeness of his death’ (Romans 6:4-5). The Fathers, e.g. Basil,† [Note: de Spiritu Sancto, xv. 35.] speak explicitly of our baptism as a reflexion or imitation of Christ’s Descensus; as a Western Council‡ [Note: 4th Council of Toledo (633), cap. 6.] has it, ‘in aquis mersio, quasi in infernum descensio est.’

(b) When Christ descended, the keepers of the gates of Hades were scared (cf. Job 38:17 πυλωροὶ δὲ ᾅδου ἰδόντες σε ἔπτηξαν), and the Gospel of Nicodemus ii. 8) speaks of the brazen gates and iron bars being broken (cf. Psalms 107:16, Isaiah 45:2). The powers of the under world were terrified. Now the Epistle of Barnabas (§ 11) quotes as predictive of baptism Isaiah 45:2 ‘I will crush gates of brass and break in pieces bolts of iron’; and the same test is alluded to in Odes of Solomon, xvii. 9, where again the reference is to baptism. Further, all the Eastern baptismal rites bring in the idea of the waters (the mysterious region where evil spirits dwell) being terrified at the coming of Christ for baptism, quoting Psalms 77:16; Psalms 114:3; Psalms 29:3 as forecasting this. We have the same thing in Odes of Solomon, xxiv. 1 and xxxi. 1f. In some pictorial representations of the Baptism of Christ, Jordan is depicted allegorically as starting away in astonished fear. That is, the terror of the powers of evil is described in the same language, whether the Descent to Hades or Christian baptism is the topic.§ [Note: See Bernard, Odes of Salomon (TS viii. 3 [1912]), p. 33 f., for a fuller statement and for references in regard to the matter of this section generally.]

(c) The main purpose, as we have seen (§ 3) of the Descensus was the release of captive souls. But that baptism is a release from bondage, the bondage of sin, is a commonplace in early Christian literature. Baptism, says Cyril of Jerusalem,|| [Note: | Procat. 16.] is αἰχμαλώτοις λύτρον (cf. Odes of Solomon, xxvii. 11, xxi. 1, xxv. 1, and Ephraim Syrus, Hymns on the Nativity, xv. 9: ‘Blessed be He who has annulled the bonds’).

(d) The Gospel of Nicodemus describes the passage to Paradise of the saints redeemed from Hades by Christ. It was, again, a familiar thought in early Christian speculation that in baptism we are restored to Paradise, to the state from which Adam fell, the guilt of original sin being annulled (cf. Origen,¶ [Note: in Genesis 2:8.] Cyril of Jerusalem,** [Note: * Cat. i. 4.] Basil,†† [Note: † Hom. xiii. 2.] and Ephraim,‡‡ [Note: ‡ Epiphany Hymns, xiii. 17.] who says of the baptized: ‘the fruit which Adam tasted not in Paradise, this day in your mouths has been placed,’ See also Odes of Solomon, xi. 14).

Other illustrations might be given, but these are sufficient to show that what may be called the folklore of the Descent into Hades is closely connected with the folklore of baptism. The juxtaposition of the two thoughts-the ministry of Christ in Hades and the efficacy of baptism-in 1 Peter 3:19 f. is remarkable, and deserves a closer examination than it has yet received from commentators.

10. The article ‘He descended into Hell’ does not appear in any Creed until the 4th cent., the Arian Symbol of Sirmium (359) being the first to include it; and it is not included in the baptismal Creed of the Eastern Church to this day. The motive with which it was inserted in the Creeds of the West is not clear; but, whatever the motive was originally, the clause now is useful as testifying to the perfect humanity of Christ, His spirit having passed into the unseen world after death, as the spirits of the departed do. Nor are we just to early Christian tradition, or mindful of the implications of 1 Peter 3:19; 1 Peter 4:6, if we do not recognize that this Descensus must have affected in some way the condition of souls in the unseen world.

Literature.-This is very copious. The articles ‘Descent to Hades (Christ’s)’ by Loofs in Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics and ‘Hell (Descent into)’ by Burn in Dict. of Christ and the Gospels with the literature there cited are most valuable. A large number of Patristic references will be found in F. Huidekoper, Christ’s Mission to the Underworld2, New York, 1876. H. B. Swete, The Apostles’ Creed, London, 1894; E. C. S. Gibson, The Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England, do. 1896-97; and J. Turmel, La Descente du Christ aux enfers, Paris, 1905, give useful summaries. C. Bigg. Epp. of St. Peter and St. Jude (International Critical Commentary , 1901), is the fullest English Commentary on the Petrine texts.

J. H. Bernard.

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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Descent Into Hades'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. 1906-1918.

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