Did Jesus Descend Into Hell?

dantes infernoIn my first response to Mark Sandlin’s post questioning whether Jesus descended into Hell, I focused on the dubious motives that led to his conclusion. Now I’m going to address the theological merits of his post.

To begin with, I’ll repeat what I said to him: I don’t really have a dog in this fight. The existence of Hell makes scripture more theologically coherent, but the scholarly analysis regarding potentially misinterpreted verses is strong enough to be warrant consideration.

But to me, removing the doctrine of Hell raises a lot of problems liberal Christians haven’t satisfactorily answered. Not only does it render a number of key verses nonsensical, it also creates a slippery slope of theological problems: if Hell doesn’t exist, does Satan? If Satan doesn’t exist, do demons? If demons don’t exist, then what exactly was Jesus doing when He exorcised a legion of demons from a possessed man, leading them to seek refuge into a pasture full of 2,000 pigs that respond by hurdling themselves to their death?

Removing the existence of demonic spirits in these verses makes Jesus either a con man (which raises the possibility that his entire ministry was based on deception) or a fool (Jesus really thought He was exorcising demons, but he was too ignorant to know better). If one concedes the existence of these demons, then one must explain how they came to be and where they normally reside.

Liberal theology makes no genuine attempt to answer to these questions because by design, answers would rule out dissenting views. The need to accommodate all possible views trumps the desire to determine the truth.

But let’s get back to Hell. One of the straw men Sandlin trots out is mocking belief in Hell as belief in “Dante’s Hell.” It’s a straw mab because Sandlin doesn’t consider the existence of Hell in any form, and writing orthodox faith off as a misreading of a 14th Century poem makes it easy to avoid addressing the doctrine itself. But Dante’s vision of hell didn’t create the fire and brimstone imagery we are familiar with. Consider this passage:

And I saw on the north a place of various and diverse punishments full of men and women, and a river of fire ran down into it. Moreover I observed and I saw pits great in depth, and in them several souls together, and the depth of that place was as it were three thousand cubits, and I saw them groaning and weeping and saying: Have pity on us, O Lord! and none had pity on them. And I asked the angel and said: Who are these, Sir? And the angel answered and said unto me: These are they who did not hope in the Lord, that they would be able to have him as their helper.

This excerpt doesn’t come from Dante. It comes from the Apocalypse of Paul, a 3rd Century Coptic text that some Christian sects used as holy scripture. It’s startling just how graphic and specific the text (as well as the Apocalypse of Peter, a companion text that covers similar territory) is regarding the punishment awaiting the condemned:

 I further observed the fiery river and saw there a man being tortured by Tartaruchian angels having in their hands an iron with three hooks with which they pierced the bowels of that old man: and I asked the angel, and said: Sir, who is that old man on whom such torments are imposed? And the angel answered and said to me: He whom you see was a presbyter who did not perform well his ministry: when he had been eating and drinking and committing fornication he offered the host to the Lord at his holy altar.

 

And I saw another multitude of pits in the same place, and in the midst of it a river full of a multitude of men and women, and worms consumed them. But I lamented and sighing asked the angel and said: Sir, who are these? And he said to me: These are those who exacted interest on interest and trusted in their riches and did not hope in God that He was their helper.

To my knowledge, these texts are the earlIest indication that the story of Sodom and Gomorrah had been recast as a condemnation of homosexuality:

And I saw other men and women covered with dust, and their countenance was like blood, and they were in a pit of pitch and sulphur and running down into a fiery river, and I asked: Sir, who are these? And he said to me: These are they who committed the iniquity of Sodom and Gomorrah, the male with the male, for which reason they unceasingly pay the penalties.

Even though the Council of Nicaea dismissed the validity of these apocryphal texts, their influence has reached far beyond our memory of them. Clearly the belief in “Dante’s Hell” was already in place in many sects soon after Christ’s crucifixion. You can also find a thorough explanation of guardian angels in them, as well as condemnations of abortion and homosexuality that are far more explicit than any officially canonized text:

And near that place I saw another strait place into which the gore and the filth of those who were being punished ran down and became there as it were a lake: and there sat women having the gore up to their necks, and over against them sat many children who were born to them out of due time, crying; and there came forth from them sparks of fire and smote the women in the eyes: and these were the accursed who conceived and caused abortion.

(As an aside, these apocryphal texts also do a nice job debunking the myth that pre-Council Christianity was a more liberal faith.)

Sandlin spends the bulk of his post focused on the claim that Jesus descended into Hell. Along the way he provides some good information explaining why this part of the Apostles’ Creed is problematic:

The word used in the Acts verse is actually the Greek word hadēs and it just doesn’t mean Hell the way we think of it.

It simply couldn’t have.

 

Hadēs is a place of the dead – all the dead. It is not a place of damnation. It’s just where you go when you are dead. It’s the equivalent of the Hebrew word sheol: the abode of the dead.

 

The word used in the Acts verse is actually the Greek word hadēs and it just doesn’t mean Hell the way we think of it.

All of that is true, but guess what? The majority of Christian traditions (including evangelicals) don’t believe Jesus descended into Hell, either. In fact, you can find the exact same proofs against the Creed on John Piper’s website, and evangelical websites. None if them deny that Hell in these verses is better understood as Hades. The teaching comes from Catholicism,  and even Catholic websites acknowledge the merits of counterarguments, and state that it is better to say that Jesus ventured into the Land of the Dead. So disbelieving the claim that Jesus went jnto Hell is only a heresy if you’re Catholic, and even then the church is willing to acknowledge that it’s a very complex teaching.  Even the Catechism acknowledges that this is better understood as Hades.

The debates among these faith traditions isn’t over Hell; it’s what Jesus did while in Hades. So Sandlin isn’t breaking new ground here. If refuting Acts 2:31 led him to doubt Hell’s existence, then he wasn’t paying attention in seminary.

Mark Sandlin’s God

tumblr_lx0ndigYDi1r4u11so2_1280Somehow it’s appropriate that a few days after commenting about how touchy liberal Christians are about contrarian viewpoints on their blogs, I got a post of mine marked as “spam” on one of their blogs.

Blogger Mark Sandlin, who’s written a series outlining his beliefs called “Heresies From A Southern Minister,” apparently doesn’t like it when people challenge his heresies.

I’ll try to recreate the points I made to him here on my blog because they dovetail nicely with my last post. Many of Sandlin’s arguments in his series fit the equation for liberal arguments I proposed here last week:

A  A society that believes Y will be a more moral one.

B. Therefore, God must believe Y.

In his post about Hell, Sandlin starts with a belief and presents arguments in favor of his predetermined outcome, which is a God that didn’t create hell. He openly states that his primary motive is personal rather than theological:

I don’t believe in Hell, and any confession that requires me to believe that Dante’s Hell is not only real but that Jesus went there…is not a confession that I care to confess.

From there Sandlin reverse-engineers his scriptural analysis so it falls in line with his goal Again, we see the liberal logic: conclusion first, scripture second:

A  A theology that believes Hell does not exist will be a more moral one.

B. Therefore, God must not have created Hell.

Despite his lack of objectivity, my second point was that Sandlin’s flawed approach does not necessarily lead to incorrect conclusions.

I remember an old episode of Cheers that illustrates this nicely. One of the main characters was Diane, a cerebral woman with zero understanding of football. In spite of her ignorance, she kept winning the bar’s football pool. Sometimes she based her choices on how a real-life confrontation between the team animals would play out ( “A bear against a dolphin?” she scoffed without realizing she had picked a major upset), while other times she picked them based which team color scheme she preferred.

Diane ‘s whimiscal approach echoes Sandlin’s approach to “heresy”. Sometimes he stumbles onto legit theological debate (there are good arguments that hell as we understand it might not exist) but other times he’s just plain off-target (like when he argues that you can be a Christian and not believe in Christ’s divinity.)

And while I didn’t compare his approach to a sitcom character in my post, I suspect that what irked Sandlin the most was my claim that he was arguing that God must endorse his beliefs because he’s really sincere about them. Sandlin has a vested interest in worshipping a God that didn’t create Hell, so he created one. Now maybe he’s right and God didn’t really create Hell. In that case his God is closer to the truth than the God I believe in that did create Hell. But the end result is due to Sandlin’s personal preferences rather than an attempt to try to understand God. HIs series is using the same shallow approach as tea partiers who comb the Bible for evidence that God loves the free market.

Ultimately,  Sandlin was making the case for a God who makes no demands upon him. Whatever he believes, God must be fine with it precisely because Sandlin would not worship a God who expected more of him. If your faith doesn’t move you out of your comfort zone or force you to consider the possibility that God might disagree with you or demand that you do things you don’t really want to do, then I would argue that you don’t really have faith. You just have an ego that you like to talk about in the third person.