Limbo

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.

Conclusion

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.

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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

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

Trends at ETS 2015

November 23, 2015 — Leave a comment

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I was not able to attend all or even most of the sessions at ETS in Atlanta this year but here is a short summary of the topics that I both heard and heard about.

First, as expected, and as Denny Burk points out, the discussion surrounding homosexuality continued. Included in this were debates, implied questions, and remarks about the following.

Is same-sex orientation sinful?

Should evangelicals condemn reparative therapy?

Can one be an evangelical and affirm gay marriage?

Evangelicals need more theological and thoughtful dialogue and teaching on celibacy and singleness.

On the first issue (SSA) I am working on a primer to help people catch up on the debate. For the rest it is probably best to just go and read Denny’s blog. I won’t repeat here what he says.

Second, while homosexuality was a topic, it was not the only topic of interest nor the only thing spoken about. Evangelicals seem to be increasingly interested in ecumenicism how to incorporate tradition in more of our thinking. This was highlighted in a review of Scott Swain’s and Michael Allen’s book where Peter Leithart, Stephen Fowl, Timothy George, and Mark Bowald presented. Ecumenicism is not an issue that is going away.

Third, hermeneutics continues to be refined at ETS. More and more people are warming up to the idea of allegory, fewer speak of literal interpretation or nuance it, and the debate endures surrounding the benefits and limits of the grammatical-historical form of exegesis. Included in this is how Evangelicals should approach the issue of biblical theology and speak of the relationship between the two Testaments.

Fourth, Evangelicals continue to speak about and even disagree about how exactly to engage culture. All affirm we are now living in Babylon, but disagreement exists concerning what “option” we should take. Should we dis-engage, re-engage, be more pessimistic, or be more transformative? There is a lot of common ground between most people but also differences in both rhetoric and the underpinning convictions for the role of Christians in the world.

Fifth, Scott Rae gave a fascinating presidential address where he detailed some of the upcoming issues in bio-ethics. He rightly noted that most pastors and even scholars are not equipped to answer recent medical advances and it is one of the issues Evangelicals need to be constantly revisiting and applying a biblical and theological perspective.

I am sure there were other conversations that I missed or simply were not on my radar. Let me know if you saw any other trends that are worth noting.

  • Update: I did notice more female involvement this year. That does not mean there was a lot, but genuinely more. I also heard that there were some talks on hip-hop this year.