Saturday, May 8, 2010

More on the Descent Into Hell

I know it has been a few days since we hit the first sections about the phrase "He descended into hell."  I have been distracted since then with the birth of my grandson.  It is time to get focused and continue this journey.

When I was young (under 11), I had a discussion with my best friend about this very line in the Apostles' Creed.  He told me that he didn't believe it, and I assured him that it was true.  I remember him telling me that this wasn't in the Bible.  I told him it must be since we say it every Sunday in church.  Many years later and several times through the Bible, I must admit I never found passages which proved my case to him.  This is a big reason why I struggle with this part of the Apostles' Creed.  If a gospel writer had quoted Christ saying that He must descend into hell or some other similar proof, I would jump right on board.

Section 11's title is "Defense of this explanation from Scriptural passages."  I cannot tell you how much I have anticipated reading this section.  The first passage Calvin cites is Acts 2:24, "whom God raised up, having loosed the pains of death, because it was not possible that He should be held by it."  This was Peter speaking to the crowds on the day of Pentecost.  Calvin explains that Peter shows in this passage that Christ truly dreaded death.  Calvin also comments on Hebrews 5:7 where he says that Christ "does not pray to be spared death, but he prays not to be swallowed up by it as a sinner because he there bore our nature."  He moves on from there to discuss Matthew 27:46 where Christ is quoting Psalm 22:1, "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?"  Calvin writes, "And surely no more terrible abyss can be conceived than to feel yourself forsaken and estranged from God; and when you call upon him, not to be heard."  Most of the rest of this section is quoting Hilary and his reasoning for Christ's descent into hell.  To me, the most helpful insight I found in this section was not from the words of Calvin, Hilary, or even Scripture; but the most helpful sentence came from the editor's footnotes.  He wrote, "Calvin's explanation of the descent into hell as consisting of Christ's redemptive agony on the cross had been ridiculed be Sebastian Castellio..."  If we are calling the agony on the cross "hell," I can agree with that.  No doubt that it must have been hellish on the cross.  He was in true agony. 

Calvin deals with some of the misunderstandings of this doctrine.  There are some who claimed that Christ could have never feared for the salvation of His own soul.  We are told again and again how Christ was fearful of the cross.  For instance in Luke 22:44, Christ was in such agony that drops of blood flowed from his face.  Some argue that he was pretending to be afraid, but that would not be reasonable if Scripture is examined.  Christ experienced our weakness, but without sin.  Hebrews 4:15 reads, "For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin."  This indicates that He would have felt our same fear.  If He were not fearful, why would He have prayed the prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane: "O My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as You will,"  (Matthew 26:39)? 

This section ends with a brief argument against the Monothelites.  These were people who believed that even though Christ had both human and divine natures, He had an eternal spirit instead of a soul.  They believed that even though He had two natures, He only had a single will.  This was declared a heresy at the Third Council of Constantinople in 680-681.

Calvin really stresses in this section that Christ's descent into hell was the agony He experienced on the cross.  He truly felt fear in His human nature just as we experience it.  He felt a separation between himself and the Father while on the cross. 

Tomorrow's reading: 12.16.13-12.16.16

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