Ephesians 4:9 speaks of Jesus’ descent into the lower regions of the earth.

“In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower regions, the earth?”

Interpreters over the centuries have argued about what this is in reference to. The Apostle’s Creed speaks of Jesus “descending into hell.” It says, “Jesus Christ…who …was crucified, died, and buried; he descended into hell.”

Protestants are sometimes uncomfortable with this phrase of “descending into hell” because it does not seem to be a doctrine taught in the Scriptures. Therefore, some have responded with a view that looks at the descent in Ephesians 4:9 as the incarnation of Jesus. Another option, through Calvin’s influence accounts for the so-called ‘figurative’ view, which understands Christ’s descent as the torments he suffered on the cross in his substitutionary death.

While both of these are valid options, after studying the passage I am becoming more and more convinced that Jesus’ descent in Ephesians 4:9 is referencing Jesus’ descent to the dead in his burial. Four arguments point me in this direction

The Historical Argument

The Apostles’ Creed was not written or approved by a single church council at one specific time. It gradually took shape from about A.D. 200 to 750. The phrase, “He descended into hell,” was not found in any of the early versions of the Creed. In the Apostles’ Creed, the phrase was originally “descended to the dead” in Latin (descendit ad inferos) but was later changed to “descended into hell” (descendit ad inferna). Eric Hutchinson notes.

In a pronouncement of an Arian council held at Sirmium in 359, there is no statement about Christ’s “burial”; in its place, there is only the statement of His “descent”: “And He went down to the subterranean regions, and ordered the things there–upon seeing whom the gates of Hades shuddered” (presumably referring to Matt. 16:18). This suggestive substitution of “descended” for “buried…descended” is found again in the Creed of Venantius Fortunatus in sixth-century Gaul (he in fact proceeds directly from “crucified” to “descended”). In most versions, however, both clauses were included in subsequent centuries.

In any case, what is clear from these and other early uses, by the Arians as well as by the orthodox, is that “hell” as they were using it referred to the “abode of the dead,” represented in the Old Testament by “Sheol,” rather than the “abode of the damned, which is to say, “Gehenna.”

Moreover, Rufinus, the only person who includes the phrase before A.D. 650, did not think that it meant that Christ descended into hell. He understood the phrase simply to mean that Christ “descended into the grave,” ie. was buried. Later this phrase was incorporated into versions of the Creed that already had the phrase “and buried,” so some other explanation had to be given.

The Canonical Argument

Both the Old and the New Testament have texts which speak of the the theme of descending to the dead. In Matthew 12:40, Jesus compares his burial to Jonah in the belly of the whale (in Jonah 2 it is also a reference to the abyss, the place of the dead). Jonah itself is filled with this imagery and Jesus picks up on this theme and relates it to his life. In Acts 2:24-28, Peter speaks of Christ in the grave and God’s power and victory over death. In Ephesians 4:9-10 and Romans 10:7, Paul makes theological use of Christ’s descent to the place of dead.

Many Protestants prefer to interpret the Ephesians and Romans passages as referring to the incarnation, but in those texts Paul appears to be relying upon Old Testament texts that speak of Sheol or the place of the dead (e.g. Job 28:22; Ps. 68:18; 71:20; 107:15-16).

Elsewhere in the Scriptures it seems that Jesus’ descending to death as part of his work on the earth. He defeats Death through his own death (Heb. 2:14-15; Col. 2:15).

The Grammatical Argument

The debated phrase in Ephesians 4:9 is “τὰ κατώτερα μέρη τῆς γῆς” which can be translated “the lower regions of the earth.” τὰ κατώτερα μέρη are in the accusative case while τῆς γῆς is in the genitive case. There are multiple ways one could take the genitive here.

Genitive of Comparison: parts lower than the earth or under the earth = Christ’s descent into Hades

Epexegetical Genitive/Appositional Genitive: lower parts, namely the earth = Christ’s incarnation

Partitive Genitive/Possessive Genitive: the earth’s lower parts = the grave

While all of these are grammatically possible I think the grammar points away from it being the incarnation because of the extra phrase joining “the earth.” If the incarnation was only meant then why describe it as “the lower parts?” It could be in contrast to ascending, but the earth by itself could communicate that. Choice implies meaning, and the author of Ephesians chose to be more specific than simply the earth.

_1000x1000The Contextual Argument

That Christ is descending to the dead makes good sense of the cosmic scope of the letter to the Ephesians. God the Father has not only blessed us in times past, but also in the heavenly realms (Ephesians 1:3). The plan was to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 1:10). The triumph of Christ over the evil powers demonstrates that he has authority over all space, and his body is going to fill all spaces (Ephesians 1:23).

Christ is the key to the universe according to Ephesians; his body is going to fill all things, it will complete all things, and it will explain all things. Christ fills, completes, controls, rules, and determines the filling of heaven and earth.

In the image to the right it makes sense that for Christ to fill all things he must descend to “the lower parts” to conquer.


While many Protestant’s argue “descend into Hell” should be removed from the Apostle’s Creed or understood as Jesus experiencing Hell on the cross (in line with Calvin) I think it is best to follow the earliest version of the Creed that speaks of Jesus descending to the dead.

1 Corinthians 15 describes the Gospel as, (1) Christ died, (2), he was buried, and (3) he was raised. Many times our Gospel presentations lacks the substance of his burial, but one of the earliest Creeds understood the consequence of his burial. It is through his burial that Christ triumphs over all the heavens and the earth. He conquered the earth, Sheol, and he now is seated in the heavens. His burial is an important part of Ephesians 4:9, the theme has echoes in the Old Testament, and its significance is confirmed in the Creeds.


Also see Matt Emerson’s excellent articles on this subject.

Here is a chart of options for how to take Jesus’ descent (you could also take descended into the dead as a reference to Sheol/Hell).

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Ephesians is about the triumph of Christ over supernatural forces and how he is bringing unity to all things. One of the key passages for understanding this is Ephesians 4. Ephesians 4:1-6 bases an encouragement to unity on a Trinitarian reflection (One Spirit, One Lord, One God and Father). Then verses 7-16 shift the focus to diversity within unity.

It is in this second half that Paul gives one of the more detailed portraits of how Christ’s triumph and unity relate. He portrays Christ as a divine warrior using Psalm 68 who both ascends with captives (to fill all things) and also descends. Related to this spatial movement of ascension is his giving of gifts for the sake of unity. He gives apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers.

So Paul connects Christ’s divine conquering to the gift of unity.

But Paul’s use of the Old Testament has troubled modern interpreters. A few have called this use of the OT as “very odd” while Fitzmyer even says that Paul completely disregards the original context of the Psalm.

In Ephesians 4:8 Paul quotes from Psalm 68:18, but he changes a crucial word. In the LXX it says that God “received” gifts from men. Paul instead quotes it saying that Christ “gave” gifts to men. Here is a chart showing that difference and the other changes Paul makes in comparison with the LXX. (I have taken this chart from Richard Lucas’ dissertation.)

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So what are we to do with this change? In my study of the passage I have identified five main views which I put into a chart (the linked chart is in a PDF so it is easier to read). This chart is not exhaustive, but it does represent the major views that I have encountered. I hope this can serve interpreters so that they can more quickly get into the process of judging the benefits of each view instead of searching for the different views out there.

This is a difficult issue, but I think the first option is the most likely. Paul was reading the Psalm in light of the movement of the entire Psalm. He is not simply quoting one verse in abstraction from the rest of the Psalm but appropriating the narrative movement of the Psalm. This could be labeled creative interpretation, but it is also faithful interpretation. He looks back on Yahweh as the Divine Conqueror and sees the Psalm fulfilled in Jesus Christ. Christ is the victorious Divine Warrior who has the right to give gifts to his people because of his triumph.

For one of the better articles on this issue see Gombis’ article “Cosmic Lordship and Divine Gift-Giving: Psalm 68 in Ephesians 4:8.”


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Time, Space, and Jokes

February 21, 2016 — 1 Comment


I have an article that Desiring God published on Paul’s “philosophy” in Ephesians. The article started with the realization that Paul argues that Jesus sums up the twin towers of basic ontology (time and space). Then it occurred to me that the imperatives in the second half must be linked to what came before.

Here is a sample.

On a casual reading of Paul’s letters, some might assume that Paul ignores philosophical questions. Yet Paul did not shy away from the deepest, most complicated questions at all. In fact, he tackled them with the strength and confidence of a bull in a rodeo. But unlike many philosophers, Paul’s philosophy was wrapped in pastoral garments. He thought that our understanding of time and space should determine the types of jokes we tell and what sort of husbands and wives we should be.

Philosophers for centuries have debated the twin towers of time and space. What is their nature? How do we describe them? What is their relationship to God? Augustine in his Confessions says, “What then is time? If no one asks me, I know: if I wish to explain it to one that asks, I know not.”

In Paul’s least occasional letter, Ephesians, he writes to Christians about God’s cosmic plan, summed up in the body of Jesus Christ.


Turris_Babel_by_Athanasius_KircherTodd Wilson has an excellent review of Scot McKnight’s book Kingdom Conspiracy (which I also reviewed). He brought up two questions towards the end which were thoughtful responses.


First, he asserts the people of the kingdom are not to be equated with the kingdom although they are inseparable from it. People may be a concomitant of the kingdom without constituting the essence of the kingdom.

While I follow the distinction, I am not sure it works. A thought experiment clarifies this. Wilson is essentially arguing that the essence of the kingdom is the dynamic sense, following Ladd. But couldn’t we also say that power should not be equated with the kingdom but is inseparable from it? This then seems to be a distinction without a difference because it is hard to find that which is equated with the kingdom which is not also inseparable from it.

So proposing this distinction actually undercuts the dynamic sense as well as the people sense of the kingdom.

A little look at the history of the definition reveals that the dynamic sense has been the leading view since Gustaf Dalman’s study Die Worte Jesu in 1898. George Eldon Ladd popularized this view in his numerous works on the kingdom arguing that the abstract idea is the primary meaning. Even the dictionaries have followed suit. However, Ladd’s conception of the kingdom must be understood in its historical and geographical context. For Ladd was, at least in part, reacting to dispensationalism with its focus on land, and therefore was prone to downplay other features.

Second, there seems to be some confusion on whether Jesus himself is the embodiment of the kingdom, or if he is the proxy or agent of God’s kingly rule.

The presence of the king is the presence of the kingdom. Certainly not in full, because we are waiting for it to be consummated, but Jesus is embodying the kingdom in his ministry thereby being the proxy agent of God’s kingly rule. I don’t think we can or should separate the two.

Luke 17:20-21 in particular has a reference to this concept. The Pharisees ask when the kingdom of God will come (temporal question), and Jesus replies by telling them they do not understand the nature of the kingdom for the kingdom of God is coming in ways that cannot be observed. Jesus then says “The kingdom of God is in the midst of you” (ἰδοὺ γὰρ ἡ βασιλεία τοῦ θεοῦ ἐντὸς ὑμῶν ἐστιν). Although there is much debate whether this should be translated “within you” or in the “midst of you,” he seems to be correcting their view of the kingdom as not external, but localized.

So why can’t they observe it? Because they are blind. It is standing right there in front of them.

Interestingly, The Gospel of Thomas 113 has a parallel passage: Jesus’ disciples said to him, ‘When will the kingdom come?’ Jesus said, ‘It will not come by expectation. It will not be a matter of saying “here it is” or “there it is.” Rather the kingdom of the Father is spread out upon the earth, and people do not see it. The parallel ties the concepts of “spread out upon the earth” with it being ἐντὸς ὑμῶν. Could Jesus be saying the kingdom is spatial now in bodily form?

Both the Gospel of Thomas and Tertullian (Marc. 4.35) associate the saying in Luke 17:20-21 with Deut 30:11-14 (LXX), where the commandment is said to be not far away, or in heaven, or beyond the sea, but very near, in one’s heart, and in one’s hands. Deuteronomy casts the commandment in spatial terms, not far away, or in heaven, but near. If both Tertullian and The Gospel of Thomas tie this passage to the nearness language of Deuteronomy, then it would be fitting to tie such to the spatiality of Jesus’ body. The kingdom is in the midst of them in the person of Jesus. Thus, it seems from the surrounding literature that Luke is not giving a spiritualization or interiorization of the kingdom in the usual sense.

At some point we need to ask what embodiment actually means, but for most I think they are asserting that Jesus is picturing both what kingdom life is and what it will be like.

I could go on and speak much more about this. If interested see my forthcoming book for a whole argument concerning this issue from Matthew, but I will leave it here.

Overall I am thankful for Wilson’s response and maybe he has further thoughts that will help clarify my thinking on these issues.




Best Albums of 2015

December 11, 2015 — Leave a comment

I listen to music almost all day while I work so it is always fun to go back and look through some of my favorite albums of the year. Each year when I post this, I find myself regretting not adding an album and also repenting that I ever put one of these on here. Well hindsight is 20/20 my friends.

Without further ado, here is my list for best albums of 2015.

(P.S. I have not listened to Adele. And yes, I did not really like Kendrick’s new album, so sue me. Also all Drake’s songs sound the same, so there.)

(1) Tame Impala: Currents


(2) Sufjan Stevens: Carrie & Lowell

(3) Dan Deacon: Glass Riffer

(4) Leon Bridges: Coming Home

(5) Josh Garrels: Home

(6) Sandra McCracken: Psalms

(7) Chvrches: Every Eye Open

(8) Justin Bieber: Purpose

(9) Grimes: Art Angels

 (10) Beach House: Depression Cherry

(11) Jamie XX: Colour

(12) The Weeknd: Beauty Behind the Madness

Notable mentions: Borns, Father John Misty, The Lone Bellow, Alabama Shakes.

Here are my lists for 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, and 2014.







Of the writing of books on homosexuality there is no end.

Authors can set off on one of two trails. Either they can try to argue their way around Scripture presenting new research or they can respond to the latest arguments defending the more traditional and historic view of homosexuality.

But a third path has appeared in the woods as well. Recently the conversation has turned to more detailed and pastoral issues.

One of these specific issues in the historic view is whether same-sex attraction is sinful (SSA is a common euphemism for homosexual orientation). Does the object of the desire make it sinful? Did Jesus ever desire a sinful object? Or does a desire become sinful only when it gives birth to sin?

This is a practical issue for counseling situations and simply in terms of having well-reasoned biblical and articulate views of sexuality. Should pastors and leaders be urging those with SSA to be repenting of an orientation? Or should we simply tell them to repent when the desire has given birth?

I have been following this debate for a little while and have not seen a succinct summary of the issues, so I thought I would compile a primer on “who’s who” of this debate. I will give my opinion at the end but the aim is not necessarily to convince you. The aim is more modest: to provide a summary of the the main talking points in a succinct post.

Any short excerpt has the possibility of distortion, so I have tried to provide the key points acknowledging that more could be said. That is why a link is provided with each name. There are other people I could list, so forgive me if I missed anyone, but I think this gives an overview of where the argument stands.

Homosexual Orientation is Sinful

Denny Burk

The Bible says that our sexual desires/attractions have a moral component and that we are held accountable for them.

Paul says that the desires themselves are morally blameworthy and stand as evidence of God’s wrath against sin: “For this reason God gave them over to degrading passions… and [they] burned in their desire toward one another” (Rom 1:26-27). Sexual desire that fixates on the same-sex is sinful, and that is why God’s judgment rightly falls on both desires and actions. Again, the issue is not merely sexual behavior but also one’s enduring pattern of sexual attraction.

My conclusion is that if sexual orientation is one’s enduring pattern of sexual attraction, then the Bible teaches both same-sex behavior and same-sex orientation to be sinful.

Many say that “being gay” is not “reducible” to same-sex sexual attraction. In a limited sense, I would agree with that. I do not dispute that gay people report heightened emotional connections with the same sex that are non-sexual in nature. So maybe we would agree not to say that sexual desire is the only element that gay people experience as a part of their SSA. Nevertheless, sexual desire does seem to be the defining element.

Kevin DeYoung

What does that say about orientation? Well, it would certainly suggest that the sexual desire for somebody of the same gender is sin, if it arises to the level of lust (just like lust for somebody of the opposite sex would be sin as Jesus says in Matthew 5). And I think we go a little farther to say that the desire itself—the kind of attraction—is disordered, meaning it’s not the way that God designed things from the beginning.

So is homosexual orientation sinful? I wouldn’t want somebody watching this who has a struggle with same sex attraction to think that they are beyond the pale of God’s mercy or forgiveness. At the same time, I want them to know that Scripture clearly says that to act upon those attractions and to engage in that behavior is sinful.

* With DeYoung’s language, it is not clear that he sits squarely in this camp.

Albert Mohler

The Bible speaks rather directly to the sinfulness of the homosexual orientation — defined as a pattern of sexual attraction to a person of the same sex. In Romans 1:24-27, Paul writes of “the lusts of their hearts to impurity,” of “dishonorable passions,” of women who “exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature,” and of men who “gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another.” A close look at this passage reveals that Paul identifies the sinful sexual passion as a major concern — not just the behavior.

When it comes to a same-sex attraction, the orientation is sinful because it is defined by an improper object — someone of the same sex. Of course, those of us whose sexual orientation is directed toward the opposite sex are also sinners, but the sexual orientation is not itself sinful.

Homosexual Orientation is Distinct From Sinning

Nick Roen

The Bible does not seem to explicitly mention same-sex attraction. It is possible that the “dishonorable passions” in Romans 1:26 could be dealing with SSA, but it’s unclear whether this is a reference to simply experiencing an attraction, or following the attraction into active lusting.

Our passions may be disordered by the fall of this creation, and yet be distinct from active sinning.

Given the above realities, it seems right to say that while homosexual practice is active sinning, the experience of same-sex attraction need not involve active sinning.

Wesley Hill

I think it may make sense to view the differences between us as differences between multiple models/definitions of homosexuality. It seems to me that some view homosexuality much more like a pre-modern Christian might: to be homosexually oriented is to experience discrete moments of temptation, forbidden desire, and (perhaps) to perform certain actions or behavior.

But we live in a constantly changing world, and many modern Westerners—especially, but not only, younger people—recognize that “being gay” today is a cultural identity.

A gay orientation can be understood as an overall draw toward someone of the same sex, which is usually a desire for a deeper level intimacy with those of the same sex. Just like a heterosexual orientation can’t be reduced to a desire for straight sex, a gay orientation can’t be reduced to a desire for gay sex.

I want to suggest—and I do so tentatively, as a sort of thought experiment—that when people like Julie (and I) say that their “being gay” can be the time or the place where they experience redemptive grace, they’re speaking very much within a contemporary framework of thinking about homosexuality. They’re recognizing that not all aspects of this new social construct—“being gay”—are reducible to what the Bible names as lust or what pre-modern Christians (and modern ones) recognized as sin. There’s a whole raft of experiences and social connections and relational histories and aesthetic sensibilities that go under the rubric of “being gay” for many of us moderns. And when we suggest that our coming to Christ doesn’t simply erase all that but instead purifies and elevates parts of it, we’re not suggesting that the inclination to have gay sex somehow gets sanctified. Rather, what we’re trying to articulate is that much of who we were as gay is somehow made Christian.

Preston Sprinkle

We can quickly dismiss Romans 1:27, since it’s not talking about same-sex attraction but same-sex lust.

I don’t think it’s accurate to equate what people mean by same-sex attraction to what the Bible says about sexual desire. SSA is a general disposition, regardless of whether someone is acting on, or even thinking about, it.

It would be wrong to reduce same-sex attraction to a desire to have sex. Same sex attraction refers “an enduring pattern of emotional, romantic, and/or sexual attractions to” someone of the same sex and includes other non-sexual relational bonds such as “affection between partners, shared goals and values, mutual support, and ongoing commitment” (APA). SSA is not just about actively wanting to have sex.

Romans 1 appears to conflate desire and action. That is, Paul doesn’t seem to view a naked desire apart from a sinful action. (But SSA is something that is not acted upon.) Notice that when Paul mentions the “passions of dishonor” in 1:26 he immediately explains these desire by describing an action: “for even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones.” Paul is talking about women having sex with women. And he doesn’t consider the “passions of dishonor” separate from the act. It’s the whole entire event—the act and the desire that fueled the act—that’s condemned as sin.

Summary and Reflection

So where are we today? First, there seems to be some difference in how people are using words like “orientation”, “desire”, “lust”, “inclination” and “attraction.” For a few there appears to be some assent and involvement if a desire is there. For others orientations and inclinations are uncontrollable and therefore held at some distance. To my knowledge Burk never distinguishes attraction from desire.

But it seems to me that there should be a difference between “desire/lust” and “orientation/inclination.” Orientation/inclination should not be considered sinful in of itself, while lust would obviously put someone into the category of sin giving birth. The hardest word, both in the bible and in contemporary use, is the word desire. But James 1:14-15 pushes me towards thinking that there can be desires that are not sinful, until they give birth to sin.

It is true, in a sense, that SSA is one dimension of what it means to have a sinful nature, just as heterosexuals have sinful desires within the sphere of their heterosexual desires. The question Christian’s must wrestle with is the moral status of “orientation” not only “same-sex orientation.” Heterosexual orientations can also be sinful. But this is different from seeing the orientation as sinful in and of itself.

Although we could spend quite a bit of time on terminology this is not where the center of the debate is. The major question of this debate is whether SSA can be reduced or defined by a sexual desire. If SSA is not reduced to the sexual act then the orientation itself is not sinful. This circumvents the terminology question and asks a deeper question of orientation itself. Could it be that we are defining orientation using the sexual revolution’s map?

It is related to anthropology and whether we follow Augustine and see every sinful desire as a disordered good and even holding onto some remnant of good. So does a “same-sex orientation” preserve goodness in that the desire for mutuality, friendship, and companionship are good desires? Therefore if “same-sex orientation” is not reduced to the sexual act then the orientation itself is not sinful.

As a friend pointed out, we Christians have a vested interested in defining something like orientation in ways that explicitly call attention to its redeemable facets that are common to all orientations. If not we will have a two-tiered sexuality.