JESUS & HIS DESCENT INTO HELL
Although the victory was fully won by the descent of the Lord from glory to the cross, there was to be one more descent of the Saviour, even into the realm of hell. The victory had been won by the principle of humiliation and death. The prize would be seized by one more triumphant plunge into descent. We recite it in the Apostle's Creed: "He descended into hell. .. ." The early Christians who formulated this creed had a clear understanding of the importance of doctrine, and they rightly included this phrase which has been omitted by some modern editors of the creed, because they do not understand the wonderful nature of the victory which the Lord Jesus won in His death.
Satan was in possession of a very great spoil. He had in one part of hell all the souls of all the believers from righteous Abel, who had been the first human being to die, down to the soul of the penitent thief, who was to linger on in life for a brief moment after Christ gave up His spirit, and who would die after the executioners broke his legs with blows. Such blows could never touch the Saviour because all of the price had now been paid, and it had been written that not a bone ofHim should be broken (Exodus 12:46; Numbers 9:12; Psalm 34:20; John 19:36).
The triumph of Christ and the nature of the spoil is all the more wonderful when we understand just what had been the state of the dead before the time of the cross. The Bible teaches clearly that the bodies of all who die return to the dust from which they were made (Genesis 3.19). In the grave of the body, there was no knowledge and no return. The bodies of the dead knew not anything. All the verses in Scripture that speak of unconsciousness after death are referring to the sleep of the body. Longfellow grasped the truth well when he wrote:
Dust thou art, to dust returnest
Was not spoken of the soul.
But hell, whether we speak of it under the Hebrew word "sheol" or the Greek word "hades" or under our English translation, "hell," was the place of the conscious existence of the souls and spirits of all the dead, believers and unbelievers, who died before the time of the death of theLord Jesus Christ. This hell was in two compartments, torment and paradise, and between the two there was a great gulf fixed. In the story, not parable -- be sure you understand that it was not a parable -- of the rich man and Lazarus, the Lord Jesus describes the difference between the death of a believer and an unbeliever while He Himself was yet alive on the earth (Luke 16:19-31). The beggar died and was carried by angels into "Abraham's bosom"; the rich man died and "in hell he lifted up his eyes being in torments." Abraham and Lazarus were visible "afar off," and Abraham told the rich man that "between us and you there is a great gulf fixed."
It was to Paradise in hell that the Lord Jesus Christ went in His Spirit at the moment He dismissed it on the cross. It was a direct invasion of territory that Satan had considered as being his own. We are greatly tempted to let our imagination run to what must have happened when the Lord of glory made His appearance there. What must there have been in the hearts of all who had opposed Him in His righteous ones through all generations! What must have been in the hearts of those who had ventured all in faith, with nothing more than His promise, waiting for this moment! But since our God has not been pleased to reveal any of the details, we shall never go beyond that which is written.
The arrival of Christ in hell and His subsequent departure, taking with Him all the spirits and souls of all believers, emptying hell of the saints, casts great light on several passages of Scripture and reveals more of the nature of the spoil which He took from Satan by this work of atonement and its consequences. The triumph by humiliation had revealed the rightness of the divine methods as opposed to the false methods of pride and arrogance. Christ's descent into hell was to bring the immddiate announcement of His victory to all the spirit world and to show the authority that He had now gained by conquest.
Up until this time, the devil had had the power of death (Hebrews 2:14), and he had also in charge the keys of death and hell (Revelation 1:18). When man sinned, the law of sin and death began its operation, and Satan had the power of enforcing this law within limits set by God. It would appear that all the unregenerate are within the devil's power at any time and are taken captive by him at his will (II Timothy 2:26). When he desires, he can make an unsaved man sick, or can make him well, or can take his body in death. Before the cross, he held the keys, or the authority, over the decay of the tomb and the entrance to hell, but there is no line to say that he had any power whatsoever in hell.
We know from the book of Job that Satan exercised the power of death over the children of Job only when permitted by God, and that he could not touch Job's body until he had the divine permission. The New Testament reveals to us that he is still the agent forced by God to perform some actual task in connection with the physical death, even of a believer (I Corinthians 5:5). Perhaps here is a part of the explanation of the conflict between Michael, the archangel, and Satan concerning the body of Moses. God had designed that Moses should appear with Christ at the transfiguration
(Luke 9:30), and that he shall be raised from the dead as one of the two witnesses of the Apocalypse (Revelation 11:3), and therefore, an exception was made in connection with his body at the time of his death. Even though Satan's task concerning death might have been a loathesome one, he was offended when Michael interfered. But whatever his work in connection with bodies, the spirits and souls of the believers were never, for an instant, in his power, and upon death they are taken in charge by the angels of God, who, before the time of the cross, carried them to Paradise ~Luke 16:22).
The death of the Lord Jesus Christ destroyed - brought to nought
"him that had the power of death, that is, the devil" (Hebrews 2;14).
The word "destroy" has no suspicion of any such meaning as annihilation but rather is that of rendering harmless, useless, worthless. Thus the Lord made a public example of Satan and immediately proved the decline of Satan's power by taking the keys with which Satan pretended to some authority over the righteous spirits and, entering among them until the three days and nights should be accomplished, announced the freeing of those who had been thus detained.
The fact that our Lord told the penitent thief that they would be together on that very day in Paradise also demonstrates that He did not have to go to torment in hell, where the unregenerate spirits had been confined. Herein lies the explanation of three passages in the Bible. First, here is the meaning of our Lord's prayer in the garden of Gethsemane: "O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless not as T will, but as thou wilt" (Matthew 26:39). Some have thought that He was flinching before the thought of the agony of the cross that was about to come. Such flinching would have been a spot and a blemish, which would have rendered Him ineligible to be the Lamb slain for sinners. Some have thought that Satan had come with a fierce attack that would have meant premature death, when He sweat great drops of blood and that the attempt was being made in order to prevent Him from going on to the cross to become the Saviour. Such an explanation would have Satan to possess power superior to that of the Son of God and would negate His own express statement, "No man [Greek, no one] taketh it [my life] from me, but I lay it down of myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again" (John 10:18). The cup, as another passage clearly shows, was the wine of the wrath of God, the full wages of sin, the second death, separation from God in torment in hell, and ultimate eternity in the lake of fire. Thus the whole scene of the cup is described, "Who in the days of his flesh, when he had offered up prayers and supplications with strong crying and tears unto him that was able to save him from death, and was heard " (Hebrews 5:7). That this is the true meaning of the passage is also proved by the nature of prayer. God must answer all prayer that is in His will (I John 5:14, 15). Christ, being of the deity, could not have prayed a prayer outside of the divine will; otherwise He would thereby have been a sinner. Therefore the prayer for the passing of the cup must have been heard and answered affirmatively. This is what the writer to the Hebrews clearly affirms: He prayed and was heard.
This, too, explains the triumphant cry of Peter on the day of Pentecost. He quotes the Psalmist: "For David says concerning him, I saw the Lord always before me, for he is at my right hand, that Imay not be shaken; therefore my heart was glad, and my tongue rejoiced; moreover my flesh will dwell in hope, for thou wilt not abandon my soul to hades, nor let thy Holy One see corruption. Thou hast made known to me the ways of life; thou wilt make me full of gladness with thy presence. Men and brethren, I may say to you confidently of the patriarch David, that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. Being therefore a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him that of the fruit of his loins, according to the flesh, he would raise up Christ to sit on his throne; he foresaw and spoke of the resurrection of the Christ, that his soul was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh see corruption" (Acts 2:25-31).
So Christ descended into Paradise and on the third day the Lord God brought Him forth and with Him emptied hell of the spirits and souls of all the vast company of the redeemed. What a spoil! What a prey! Now before all of the angels of the universe, fallen and unfallen, could the plan of God begin to be seen in all its righteous perspective. The spirits and souls of all the redeemed were taken to heaven on that day of His Resurrection, For it was on the day of the Resurrection that this happened. He appeared to Mary and told her not to touch Him because He had not yet ascended to His Father (John 20:17), yet a few hours later He was back in the midst of the disciples, saying, "Handle me, and see" (Luke 24:39).
Not only had our Lord thus used the keys of hell to empty it of all the spirits and souls of believers, but He had locked that compartment so that none of His own, forever, would ever be forced to pass even one moment away from Himself. Here was the fulfillment of His announcement concerning His Church, that the gates of hell should never prevail against it (Matthew 16:18). How often has the force of Satan prevailed against the Church on earth! The proof lies in even a casual glance at Rome, Corinth, Galatia, Ephesus, Philippi, Colosse and ThessaIonica. But "when he ascended on high, he led captivity captive" (Ephesians 4:8). Henceforth death would usher all believers directly into the presence of the Lord. To be absent from the body would mean to be present with the Lord (II Corinthians 5:8); to depart would mean to be with Christ which is far better (Philippians 1:23).
Moreover, in order to reveal to the universe that the victory over death was complete, He invaded the very dust of the earth at His Resurrection and took out the bodies of a select company and gave them resurrection bodies. "The graves were opened; and many of the bodies of the saints which slept arose, and came out of the graves after his resurrection, and went into the holy city, and appeared unto many" (Matthew 27:52, 53). We have no idea whatsoever as to whom these were or as to their number. We simply know that here was the fulfillment of the great feast of the first fruits which had been practiced yearly by Israel. On the day of the harvest, they took one sheaf from the field and laid it up before the Lord (Leviticus 23:10). On the day of theResurrection, our Lord thrust His sickle into the cemeteries of earth and drew one sheaf to Himself. The eternal bodies are there in heaven, one first handful of all the billions who are to follow. Is it any wonder that He cried to John, "Fear not, I am the first and the last, I am the living one; I died and behold I am alive for evermore, Amen, and have the keys of death and of Hades" (Revelation 1:17, 18).
All that was done was by the condescension of love and grace. The Son of God came from heaven alone and went to the cross alone. But when He came forth from death, He brought with Him not only the hosts of the believers who had awaited this moment of triumph in Paradise, but He brought with Him, in foreview, all of those who would ever believe in Him as their Saviour. "For it became him, for whom are all things, and by whom are all things, in bringing many sons unto glory, to make the pioneer (the originator and the one who carries through) of their salvation perfect through suffering" (Hebrews 2:10). As Cod had said, "it is not good that the man should be alone" (Genesis 2:18), so it was not good that the Son of God should be alone. He was to be made perfect by placing at His side the redeemed who should be as a bride with a bridegroom. Out of the side of Adam, God had taken a rib from which He made the woman for the man. Out of the wounded side of the Saviour, the Lord God would bring the church, "the fullness of him that filleth all in all" (Ephesians 1:23).
That company of believers, called in the Scriptures by so many names - bride, body, friends, the chosen, the ekklesia, the church, the cailed-out ones -- have been given the authority to become sons of God (John 1:12). Anyone calling himself a child of God without having been born again, is really a child of Satan, the no-god. But those who have, by the work of the cross, been made partakers of the divine nature (II Peter 1:4), are sons of God by divine begetting through His own will (James 1:18), by means of the divine and incorruptible sperma, the Word (I Peter 1:23), and are therefore possessors of the very life of God, a life that is above and beyond anything with respect to physical life, a life that came by the divine inbreathing (Genesis 2:7), a life that was lost as a result of the fall.
One of the greatest of the divine purposes in calling out this great company of believers was in order that they might replace Satan and all his hosts. Thus it would be seen that a company of beings, made lower than the angels, but who were willing to count themselves as one with Christ in His humiliating death for sin, could take over all of the functions that had been given to Satan or usurped by him and his followers. These would perfectly perform, through humble submission to the divine principles of total dependence upon God, all that could be required in the divine government. Thus we read that God's purpose is "that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now (since the cross) be made known to the principalities and powers in the heavenlies" (Ephesians 3:9, 10). Through the Church! Not the organization, of course, but the organism. The living, vital body of believers, redeemed by His blood and accepting the principles that underlie the redemption that is in Christ, knowing self to be nothing and Christ to be all in all, are destined, with Christ, to judge the world (I Corinthians 6:2), to judge the angels (verse 3), to sit upon the very throne of the Saviour (Revelation 3:21).
Text taken in-part from:
"The Invisible War" by
Donald Grey Barnhouse
Ministry Resources Library
Zondervan Publishing House
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