Tuesday, May 4, 2010

He Descended Into Hell

I am going to break down the scheduled reading into two parts for a couple of reasons: it is men's breakfast morning at church so my time is short, and this is a hard doctrine for me so I do not want to be too brief in handling it.  I will tell you up front that for several years I have omitted this line from the Apostles' Creed.  Several people whose theological opinion I greatly respect have tried to get me to change my belief about this.  Maybe Calvin can do what others cannot.  If after tomorrow I am still not convinced, I may post my objections in a comment in order that they may be addressed.

I love the fact that Calvin recognizes that this is a difficult doctrine to accept.  In the first paragraph of these sections he writes, "If any persons have scruples about admitting this article into the Creed, it will soon be made plain how important it is to the sum of our redemption: if it is left out, much of the benefit of Christ's death will be lost."  Calvin also admits that this phrase was not found in the earlier versions of the Apostles' Creed nor was the creed itself of apostolic authorship.  He dismisses the idea of some Christians who want to make "buried" and "descended into hell" synonymous.  "Hell" sometimes in Scripture can be interpreted as "grave," but this does not make logical sense in the Creed.  Because "descended into hell" would not further define or explain "buried," having it repeated would be superfluous.  The Creed attempts to be a brief summary of faith, so this would be an unnecessary phrase if it meant the same thing.

Calvin questioned the idea of Christ going into the nether world.  He believed the people who used Psalm 107:16 and Zechariah 9:11 to defend this idea were mistaken.  These two passages were referring to freeing the Israelites who were in captivity in far off countries, not souls trapped in "Limbo" or some other place for the deceased besides heaven.  1 Peter 3:18-19 has been used to defend the idea of Christ descending into hell during the time period following his death.  This passage reads, "by whom also He went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly were disobedient, when once the Divine longsuffering waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight souls, were saved through water."  Calvin corrected those who use this passage as defense.  Calvin states that this passage "means to teach that both groups [the godly and the ungodly] have a common awareness of Christ's death."  The wicked become more aware that they are excluded from salvation through this passage.

Calvin begins to teach here that a "surer explanation" of this phrase has to deal with the spiritual torment that Christ suffered.  He writes, "If Christ had died only a bodily death, it would have been ineffectual."  He had to suffer the "severity of God's vengeance, to appease his wrath and satisfy his just judgment."  Isaiah 53:5 reads, "But He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; The chastisement for our peace was upon Him, And by His stripes we are healed."  Calvin says about this passage, "...Christ was put in place of evildoers as surety and pledge - submitting himself even as the accused - to bear and suffer all the punishments that they ought to have sustained.  All - with this one exception: 'He could not be held by the pangs of death' [Acts 2:24 p].  No wonder, then, if he is said to have descended into hell, for he suffered the death that God in his wrath had inflicted upon the wicked!"  It is interesting to me that Calvin follows this with an objection of mine: "Those who - on the ground that it is absurd to put after his burial what preceded it - say that the order is reversed in this way are making a very trifling and ridiculous objection."  At least he didn't use one of his great insults on me here, he just said one of my objections is "trifling and ridiculous."  I think that we are to understand here that "hell" was experienced upon the cross, not after.  The death that Christ suffered upon the cross was hell because it was the cursed death of the wicked.

I truly look forward to what Calvin follows this up with tomorrow.  I do know that he uses Scripture references to defend this position and defends this doctrine against errors.

Tomorrow's reading: 2.16.11-2.16.12

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