The Descent Of Christ Into Hades (Seventeen)

It is written:

But to each one of us grace was given according to the measure of Christ’s gift. 8  Therefore He says: “WHEN HE ASCENDED ON HIGH, HE LED CAPTIVITY CAPTIVE, AND GAVE GIFTS TO MEN.” 9  (Now this, “HE ASCENDED”—what does it mean but that He also first descended into the lower parts of the earth? 10  He who descended is also the One who ascended far above all the heavens, that He might fill all things.). (Ephesians 4:7-10).

Paul says that Christ descended to “the lower parts of the Earth” between His death and ascension.

What are “the lower parts of the Earth?”

Through the years, there have been three theories put forth about where these “lower parts” are.

One theory states that the lower parts of the Earth is a reference to Sheol/Hades.

Other suggest that the lower parts of the Earth is simply a reference to the Earth itself, i.e., to the world of men.

Still others think that this is a reference to the Day of Pentecost in Acts 2.

There are actually several reasons to believe that “the lower parts of the Earth”is a reference to Hades.

The Greek Old Testament Uses The Phrase “Lower Parts Of The Earth” To Refer To Hades

The Old Testament was written in Hebrew and was translated into Greek around 250 B.C. Quite often, Jesus and the Apostles quote from this Greek translation of the Old Testament (known as the Septuagint).

With that in mind, notice the following passages:

Genesis 44:29-But if you take this one also from me, and calamity befalls him, you shall bring down my gray hair with sorrow to THE GRAVE.’ (In the Greek Old Testament, this is the same phrase used in Ephesians 4:9).

Psalm 63:9-But those who seek my life, to destroy it, Shall go into the lower parts of the earth.

Psalm 139:15-My frame was not hidden from You, When I was made in secret, And skillfully wrought in the lowest parts of the earth.

Indeed, there is strong evidence that Paul is also alluding to the passage in Isaiah regarding the downfall of Lucifer:

Isaiah 14:12-15-“How you are fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning! How you are cut down to the ground, You who weakened the nations! 13  For you have said in your heart: ‘I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God; I will also sit on the mount of the congregation On the farthest sides of the north; 14  I will ascend above the heights of the clouds, I will be like the Most High.’ 15  Yet you shall be brought down to Sheol, To the lowest depths of the Pit.

As Emerson has pointed out:

“Finally, in this class of texts, Bales mentions Isaiah 14: 11,76 which refers to the Babylonian tyrant’s glory and happiness descending to Hades. Again, this is crucial for our understanding of Ephesians 4: 9. The OT texts with the most similar structure and verb usage are ones that refer to death, the underworld, and/ or afflictions that are portrayed metaphorically using the language of death and the underworld (see previous note, Bales’ list of texts that use καταβαίνω). To summarize Bales’s thoroughly persuasive case, the most likely LXX texts to which Paul alludes in Eph 4: 9, i.e., the texts with the clearest lexical, conceptual, verbal, and structural parallels, are those which refer to a descent to the underworld, the place of the dead. For this reason I believe it is most likely that Paul is referring to Christ descending to the “lower regions of the earth,” that is the underworld, Hades, the place of the dead.” (Matthew Y. Emerson, “He Descended to the Dead”: An Evangelical Theology of Holy Saturday, 43 (Kindle Edition); Downers Grove, Illinois; IVP Academic)

The Phrase “Lower Parts Of The Earth” Was Used In Second Temple Jewish Literature Between The Testaments As Reference To Hades

It is also important to realize that not only does “lower parts of the Earth” have reference in the Greek Old Testament to the realm of Hades, but it also does among the many Hebrew documents which were studied between the close of the Old Testament and the opening of the New Testament.

Arnold has noted:

“The superlative adjective (), however, does appear a handful of times in the LXX, and its usage there does provide some helpful perspective for this passage. On three of the seven occasions of its use in the LXX, the genitive expression “of the earth” () modifies it. For instance, Ps 63: 9 [62: 10] reads, “those who seek my life … will go down to the depths of the earth ()” (see also Ps 139: 15 [138: 15]; Odes 12: 13 [= Prayer of Mannaseh 1: 13]). In none of these passages can the genitive be taken in apposition to “the lowest parts” as in views (1) and (3), “the lower parts, that is, the earth”; it can be viewed only as possessive or partitive, “the lower parts of the earth. The only place in Jewish literature where the comparative adjective () does appear is in the Greek Apocalypse of Ezra, a document that may be a Christian composition incorporating earlier Jewish apocalyptic traditions. In this document, Ezra asks God to see “the lower parts of Tartarus” (, 4: 5). 28 A retinue of angels then leads Ezra into lower and lower parts of the Abyss. There is no sign that this document has been influenced by the words of Ephesians. The document suggests that the language of “lower parts” would be readily understood in Jewish circles familiar with an apocalyptic worldview as referring to Hades, Tartarus, or the Abyss….The “lower parts of the earth” makes the most sense in its first-century religious context if it is interpreted as an expression for the underworld or Hades.” (Clinton E. Arnold, Exegetical Commentary On The New Testament: Ephesians, 6714-6739 (Kindle Edition); Grand Rapids, Michigan; Zondervan)

Paul-a scholar not only of the Hebrew Old Testament but also of the literature written between the Testaments-used a commonly known phrase of his day and age to reference the fact that Jesus went to Sheol between His death and resurrection.

The “Lower Parts Of The Earth” Was The Common Greek Expression For The Underworld

While the New Testament has a decisively Hebrew background, it is written in koine Greek.

Interestingly enough, the Greeks used the phrase “lower parts of the Earth” to refer to Sheol/Hades.

“Greco-Roman culture, moreover, was awash with stories of descent to the underworld: Dionysus, Aeneas, Orpheus, and Pythagoras, among others, visited the underworld and lived to tell the tale (Bauckham 1992: 149–54).[13] Relatively ordinary visionaries could sometimes do the same, at least by means of trances and dreams (Bauckham 1992: 151).[14] The myth of Hades carrying Persephone down to the underworld was widely depicted on the coinage of Asia Minor in the first century (Kreitzer 1998b: 388), and locals in Hierapolis pointed a steady stream of tourists to a nearby gas-emitting cave where, they said, the famous abduction had taken place (Casson 1994: 232; Kreitzer 1998b: 388–90). Other “springs, rivers, lakes, caves, chasms, and volcanoes” could also provide access to the chambers of the underworld (Bauckham 1992: 150; cf. Arnold 1989: 57; Kreitzer 1998b: 385–87).[15] Thus everyone knew that one went “down” to get to the underworld, and various words beginning with the preposition κατά (kata, down) were frequently associated with the realm of the dead. One was brought “down” (κατάγω, katagō; e.g., Gen. 37:35; 42:38; 44:29, 31; 1 Sam. 2:6; 1 Kings 2:6, 9; 1 Clem. 4.12; Lucian, Men. 1, 6) or simply “went down” (καταβαίνω, katabainō; Gen. 37:35 LXX; Num. 16:30, 33 LXX; Aristides of Athens, Apol. 11.3; Diodorus Siculus, Biblio. hist. 4.25.4; Artemidorus Daldianus, Oneir. 2.55; cf. BDAG 514) to hades (cf. Rom. 10:6–7), and the path to hades went “downward” (κάτω, katō), below the earth’s surface (e.g., Aristophanes, Ran. 70; Plato, Resp. 10.614c; Deut. 32:22 LXX). Not surprisingly, then, the place of the dead could be referred to simply as τὰ κάτω (ta katō, the [parts] below; Lucian, Men. 2).[16] It seems extremely unlikely that Paul would use the phrase κατέβη εἰς τὰ κατώτερα τῆς γῆς in such a cultural environment and expect his readers to understand by it anything other than a descent to the realm of the dead (cf. Arnold 1989: 57; Schwindt 2002: 395–96). According to Paul, then, the ascent of Christ inevitably implies his descent to the earth’s lower reaches, the place of the dead.” (Frank Thielman, Ephesians (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament) 270-271 (Kindle Edition); Grand Rapids, Michigan; Baker Academic)

The Early Christians Clearly Understood The “Lower Parts Of The Earth” To Be A Reference To Sheol

The early Christians had a great deal to say about this matter!

David Bercot has provided ample testimony from the church fathers regarding this passage (and this topic):

“For their benefit, “He also descended into the lower parts of the earth,” to behold with His eyes the state of those who were resting from their labors. . . . For Christ did not come merely for those who believed on Him in the time of Tiberius Caesar. Nor did the Father exercise His providence only for the men who are presently alive. Rather, He exercised it for all men altogether, who from the beginning . . . have both feared and loved God. Irenaeus (c. 180, E/ W), 1.494. It was for this reason, too, that the Lord descended into the regions beneath the earth, preaching His advent there also. And He [declared] the remission of sins received by those who believe in Him. Irenaeus (c. 180, E/ W), 1.499. He gathered from the ends of the earth into His Father’s fold the children who were scattered abroad. And He remembered His own dead ones, who had previously fallen asleep. He came down to them so that He might deliver them. Irenaeus (c. 180, E/ W), 1.506. For three days He dwelt in the place where the dead were, as the prophet said concerning Him. “And the Lord remembered His dead saints who slept formerly in the land of the dead. And He descended to them to rescue and save them.” The Lord Himself said, “As Jonah remained three days and three nights in the whale’s belly, so will the Son of man be in the heart of the earth.” Irenaeus (c. 180, E/ W), 1.560. The Lord preached the Gospel to those in Hades. . . . Do not [the Scriptures] show that the Lord preached the Gospel to those who perished in the flood, or rather had been chained, as to those kept in ward and guard? And it has been shown also . . . that the apostles, following the Lord, preached the Gospel to those in Hades. . . . If, then, the Lord descended to Hades for no other reason but to preach the Gospel (as He did descend), it was either to preach the Gospel to all, or else to the Hebrews only. If, accordingly, He preached to all, then all who believe will be saved on making their profession there—even though they may be Gentiles. For God’s punishments are saving and disciplinary, leading to conversion. He desires the repentance, rather than the death, of a sinner. This is especially so since souls, although darkened by passions, when released from their bodies, are able to perceive more clearly. For they are no longer obstructed by the paltry flesh. . . . Did not the same dispensation obtain in Hades? For even there, all the souls, on hearing the proclamation, could either exhibit repentance, or confess that their punishment was just, because they did not believe. And it was not arbitrary that they could obtain either salvation or punishment. For those who had departed before the coming of the Lord had not had the Gospel preached to them. So they had been given no opportunity to either believe or not believe. Clement of Alexandria (c. 195, E), 2.490, 491. He preached the Gospel to those in the flesh so that they would not be condemned unjustly. So how is it conceivable that He did not for the same reason preach the Gospel to those who had departed this life before His coming? Clement of Alexandria (c. 195, E), 2.492….“[Christ is Lord of] things under the earth, because He was also reckoned among the dead. For He preached the Gospel to the souls of the saints. Through death, He overcame death. Hippolytus (c. 200, W), 5.209. [John the Baptist] also first preached to those in Hades, becoming a forerunner there when he was put to death by Herod. So even there, too, John revealed that the Savior would descend to ransom the souls of the saints from the hand of death. Hippolytus (c. 200, W), 5.213. Christ delivered the first man of earth from the lowest Hades, when he was lost and bound by the chains of death. . . . This is He who was to become the preacher of the gospel to the dead. Hippolytus (c. 205, W), 5.170….“Hades is not supposed by us to be a bare cavity, nor some subterranean sewer of the world. Rather it is a vast deep space in the interior of the earth. . . . For we read that Christ in His death spent three days in the heart of the earth. . . . He did not ascend into the heights of heaven before descending into the lower parts of the earth. This was so that He might there [in Hades] make the patriarchs and prophets partakers of Himself. Tertullian (c. 210, W), 3.231….“When Christ became a soul, without the covering of the body, He dwelled among those souls who were also without bodily covering. And He converted those of them who were willing. Origen (c. 248, E), 4.448…Meanwhile, Hades was resplendent with light. For the Star had descended to there. Actually, the Lord did not descend into Hades in His body, but in His spirit. In short, He is working every where. For while He raised the dead by His body, by His spirit He was liberating souls. . . . For the Lord had conquered Hades, had trodden down death. Alexander of Alexandria (c. 324, E), 6.301; see also 1.510.” (David Bercot, Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs: A Reference Guide To More Than 700 Topics Discussed By The Early Church Fathers, 7913-7957 (Kindle Edition, emphasis added); Peabody, Massachusetts; Hendrickson Publishers)

When we consider these facts, we may easily see that Pauli is teaching us that between His death and resurrection on the third day, Jesus’ Spirit descended into Sheol.

The evidence also demonstrates that the phrase “the lower parts of the Earth” is not a reference to the Incarnation.

For example, the Greek construction “lower parts of the Earth” implies that the phrase has reference to Hades, and not to the Earth itself. In fact, if Paul had intended to suggest that Christ had descended from Heaven to Earth itself (through His birth into the world, or through the Spirit on the Day of Pentecost), He would have used a completely different Greek construction.

“The expression τὰ κατώτερα τῆς γῆς is an odd way of referring to the surface of the earth. If Paul had intended to refer to Christ’s (or the Spirit’s) descent merely to the earth, he would have simply written εἰς τὰ κατώτερα (eis ta katōtera, to the lower parts), which would have been ambiguous enough, or εἰς τὴν γῆν (eis tēn gēn, to the earth). The most natural way to take the Greek as it stands is as a reference to subterranean regions (Muddiman 2001: 192–93).” (Frank Thielman, Ephesians (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament) 270-271 (Kindle Edition); Grand Rapids, Michigan; Baker Academic)

Emerson sums up the evidence:

“As Bales notes, this phrase in the MT, when used in this construction, “indicates ‘the lowest regions of the earth,’ one of the many phrases and terms that OT authors use to refer to the underworld.” 65 The important point to make here is that the two verses in the LXX that most closely resemble Ephesians 4: 9 both make clear references to the underworld. 66 Paul does not allude to passages that speak of a descent from heaven to earth, as the incarnation and Pentecost interpretive options would demand. Rather, he alludes to two passages that speak clearly of a descent to the lowest regions of the earth, a phrase that is synonymous with the underworld, or place of the dead, in the OT and ANE cognate literature. 67” (Matthew Y. Emerson, “He Descended to the Dead”: An Evangelical Theology of Holy Saturday, 40-41 (Kindle Edition); Downers Grove, Illinois; IVP Academic)

Again:

“The superlative adjective (), however, does appear a handful of times in the LXX, and its usage there does provide some helpful perspective for this passage. On three of the seven occasions of its use in the LXX, the genitive expression “of the earth” () modifies it. For instance, Ps 63: 9 [62: 10] reads, “those who seek my life … will go down to the depths of the earth ()” (see also Ps 139: 15 [138: 15]; Odes 12: 13 [= Prayer of Mannaseh 1: 13]). In none of these passages can the genitive be taken in apposition to “the lowest parts” as in views (1) and (3), “the lower parts, that is, the earth”; it can be viewed only as possessive or partitive, “the lower parts of the earth. The only place in Jewish literature where the comparative adjective () does appear is in the Greek Apocalypse of Ezra, a document that may be a Christian composition incorporating earlier Jewish apocalyptic traditions. In this document, Ezra asks God to see “the lower parts of Tartarus” (, 4: 5). 28 A retinue of angels then leads Ezra into lower and lower parts of the Abyss. There is no sign that this document has been influenced by the words of Ephesians. The document suggests that the language of “lower parts” would be readily understood in Jewish circles familiar with an apocalyptic worldview as referring to Hades, Tartarus, or the Abyss….The “lower parts of the earth” makes the most sense in its first-century religious context if it is interpreted as an expression for the underworld or Hades.” (Clinton E. Arnold, Exegetical Commentary On The New Testament: Ephesians, 6714-6739 (Kindle Edition); Grand Rapids, Michigan; Zondervan)

However, what is truly fascinating about this passage is that Paul here shows us that Christ descended-not only to Paradise in Sheol-but to the very depths of Hades that kept the dammed.

How do we know this?

The Apostle Paul quotes here from the Old Testament in this passage, to establish his point that the saving message and work of Jesus has extended to every area of Creation.

Notice the exact quotation from the Old Testament that Paul references:

Psalm 68:18-You have ascended on high, You have led captivity captive; You have received gifts among men, EVEN FROM THE REBELLIOUS, That the LORD God might dwell there.

The passage which Paul alludes to has Jesus descending into the very regions of Sheol where the most wicked were imprisoned. Christ’s mission of redemption and reconciliation had to do with even the most wicked.

Recall that Paul earlier in Ephesians had discussed the work of Christ and the church involving the principalities and powers. This is reminiscent of another text of the New Testament that Paul wrote:

Colossians 1:16-20-16 For by Him all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers. All things were created through Him and for Him. 17 And He is before all things, and in Him all things consist. 18 And He is the head of the body, the church, who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in all things He may have the preeminence. 19 For it pleased the Father that in Him all the fullness should dwell, 20 and by Him to reconcile all things to Himself, by Him, whether things on earth or things in heaven, having made peace through the blood of His cross.

Paul tells us that the work of Christ in His death on Calvary had the potential to reconcile not only things on Earth (like human beings) back to God, but even things in Heaven! Specifically: thrones, dominions, principalities, and powers.

These were expressions used by the Jews of Paul’s day to have reference especially to the wicked angels who had rebelled against God.

“While all three texts refer to the angelic hierarchy surrounding God’s throne, the Jews believed the same hierarchy existed in the kingdom of evil. Furthermore, many of these terms were commonly used to refer to various ranks of human leaders in governmental positions of authority. The angelic kingdom was widely believed to be structured in an analogous way to earthly political kingdoms….While “principalities” (archai) and “authorities” (exousiai) seem to be uniquely Jewish expressions for the unseen realm, many of the other words he used were also used by Gentiles to refer to the world of spirits and invisible powers. Words like “powers” (dynameis), “dominions” (kyriotetes), “thrones” (thronoi), “angels” (angeloi), “world rulers” (kosmokratores), “demons” (daimonia), “elemental spirits” (stoicheia) and “rulers” (archontes) were known and used by pagans, as evidenced in their magical and astrological texts.”” (Clinton E. Arnold, The Powers Of Darkness: Principalities & Powers In Paul’s Letters, 90-91 (Kindle Edition); Downers’ Grove, Illinois; InterVarsity Press)

The renowned series of books, The New International Greek New Testament Commentary, agrees with this assessment:

“Rather, we should suppose a hierarchy of heavenly powers -“thrones” superior to “lordships,” and so on (see particularly Lightfoot 151-52). The “thrones” are assuredly to be located in heaven (cf. Dan. 7:9; Rev. 4:4; though cf. Wis. 7:8), not least because the word is used for heavenly beings in Testament of Levi 3:8 (in the seventh heaven, with “authorities”); 2 Enoch 20:1; and Apocalypse of Elijah 1:10-11. Likewise the “dominions” (xvptotirltiES) are almost certainly to be taken as referring to heavenly powers, in the light of Eph. 1:20-21 (also I Enoch 61:10 and 2 Enoch 20:1; F. Schroger, EDNT 2.332). But the same must be true of the “principalities” (apxai) and “authorities” (~4ovaiat) in the light of 2:10 and 15, not to mention the other New Testament parallels (I Cor. 15:24; Eph. 1:21 again; 3:10; 6:12; see also on 2:10). The fact that all four terms thus refer only to the invisible, heavenly realm23 and the repeated emphasis on Christ’s supremacy and triumph over the “principalities and powers” in 2:10 and 15 do therefore strengthen the likelihood that the two lines were inserted by the author(s) of the letter, sacrificing the balance of the hymn in order to add a further reference to Christ’s superiority over all beings in heaven as well as on earth.” (James D.G. Dunn, The New International Greek Commentary: The Epistles To The Colossians And To Philemon, 1292-1301 (Kindle Edition); Grand Rapids, Michigan; William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company)

Don’t miss the point!

Paul had outlined the blessings we have in Christ-including His descent into the realm of Hades where He conquered the powers of darkness there-so that He can give gifts to His people to help build up His body in this world.

The ministry of the church in this world ties back directly to what Jesus did when He died and descended into the realm of Hades.

Now, we have been left with the work of preaching the Gospel in this world. We have gifts given to us to help us accomplish this great work, and we must do what we can to convert the lost and built up the church.

Ephesians 4:11-16-And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, 12  for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, 13  till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ; 14  that we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting, 15  but, speaking the truth in love, may grow up in all things into Him who is the head—Christ— 16  from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love.

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit, be with you all. Amen.

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