The Ascension (II)

In our study of the Ascension (begun Coloured Supplement May 2003), we need to re-focus for a moment and consider another doctrine that raises similar questions - the descent of Jesus to the dead.

The New Testament puts death on the centre of the stage. It spends a great deal of its space talking about the death of Jesus. It says death is real. Dying is real; and sometimes dying can be terrifying, as it was for Jesus on the cross. Yet the good news of the Christian gospel is this: yes, death is terrible; but Jesus Christ became man

"that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death - that is, the devil - and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death" (Heb 2.14-15).

One of the great consequences of the death and resurrection of Jesus is the hope and assurance they bring. That Jesus descended to the dead is one element in this assurance. So what does it mean when we say in the Apostles Creed: "He descended to the dead"?

Hades and Hell

Peter said on the day of Pentecost: "Seeing what was ahead, [David] spoke of the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to the grave [literally, 'Hades'], nor did his body see decay" (Acts 2.31). If Christ was not abandoned to Hades, he went there first! But what is "Hades" and how does it differ from "Hell"?

The traditional versions of the Apostles Creed, that some still use, have "he descended into Hell" rather than "to the dead" or "to Hades". "Hell" is misleading, as English meanings have changed since these early translations. Originally "Hell" was used to translate two distinct words in the Greek text of the New Testament. It no longer is so used. The result has been some confusion.

The two distinct words are Gehenna and Hades. Each of these words has its roots in the Old Testament. Gehenna is the valley of Hinnom, the refuse dump outside Jerusalem where the garbage was burned. It had been the place of idolatrous child sacrifice. Its meaning was then extended to include the place of final retribution for sinners - "Hell" as we understand it today.

Hades was very different. It is Sheol of the Old Testament, the place of the departed. It refers to the whole of the unseen world that, it was believed, we pass into at death.

Gehenna is a place of punishment. Jesus said: "if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into Hell [Gehenna]" (Matt 5.30) Hades is more neutral. It is a place of waiting. Both the good and the bad are there according to the Old Testament.

The problem is that in normal modern usage "hell" is always used to refer to the state of final punishment only; so it translates now Gehenna only. In the Creed, as in Peter's Pentecost sermon, it is said that Jesus went not to Gehenna but to Hades. That is why modern versions of the Apostles' Creed have not that Jesus "descended into Hell", instead they have, "he descended to the dead". And that is right.

So what is meant is simply this: Jesus went through death into the unseen beyond the grave.

But how can we say today that Jesus descended to the dead? Isn't this pure mythology? Isn't such a doctrine a "fantastic dream" - as one liberal scholar says:

"nothing else than the appropriation, and the application to Christ, of a fragment of the redemption-mythology of the Oriental religions, best known to us in the ancient story of the Descent of Ishtar to the underworld, and reflected also in a number of Greek myths (Orpheus and Eurydice, Heracles and Alcestis, the story of Persephone, etc.)?" And he adds that these are all "rooted in vegetation- and sun-myths".

Well, what do we say? Is it mythology?


A great deal of confusion has often come from the use of the word "mythology". It means different things to different people.

How can we define "mythology"? Rudolph Bultmann, who used the word very freely and in so doing greatly influenced the theological world (negatively) in the last half of the 20th century, once defined it like this:

"Mythology is the use of imagery to express the otherworldly in terms of this world and the divine in terms of human life, the other side in terms of this side."

Few would find fault with that use of the word "mythology". Maybe the word is dangerous as suggesting "fairy stories" or "myths" just like the Greek myths just referred to; but if the word is used in this technical and sophisticated way, we can see a lot of what Christians say is "mythological". To say God is "Our Father" is mythological in this sense. For we don't mean that God is exactly like a human father. We can't ask, for example, who is his wife? We simply mean, and the Bible means, that God exhibits "fatherly" characteristics (in fact he supremely does so). But he is not a "literal" father in the way a human being is a father. We are "expressing the other worldly in terms of this world." And that is necessary when talking about God. Why then has there been such a great controversy over the question of "myth" in Christianity?

The problem came from Bultmann himself. Yet the problem is not because of Bultmann's view of the way religious language works. The problem came over what he said religious language refers to. For he said that our religious language or our biblical "mythology" is mostly referring to man and not God and the world. A great many of the religious statements about Christ, the eternal world, about his incarnation, about the reality of demonic forces, about the Resurrection, Ascension and Last Judgment are not statements about the way things happened or are in the external world or will be one day, according to this view. They are really statements about man's inner consciousness! Why? Because, said Bultmann, modern man cannot believe in these things; you can't at one and the same time use electricity and believe in the "supernatural". Why on earth not?

But we do need to be careful about the use of the word "mythology" in connection with statements of belief.

It is often felt that a "myth", even in this technical sense, is something mysterious or uncertain; to use a myth means we cannot really know or be definite about what we are saying. So it is said, in Christian theology, because we use "mythological" language to describe the "beginning" and the "end", we don't really know what happened at the beginning, nor can we know what will happen at the end. Indeed, because we have to use "mythological" language about the end, as is obviously being done in the book of Revelation, some wonder whether anything at all will happen at the end!

We have to be careful. We do have to use "picture language" (that is less misleading than the term "mythological language") to talk about the Second Coming, life after death, Heaven and Hell. But Christians have always been aware of that. So Augustine, wring on the fact that Christians believe that "Christ is seated at God's right hand," said of "sitting" (in the 4th century AD): "the expression indicates not a posture of the members, but judicial power, which the majesty never fails to possess." Although he did not call this "mythological" - the word or its equivalent wouldn't have occurred to him - he knew that this was the way language worked.

Pre-Copernican myths?

Augustine would never, however, have been doubtful about what Christ was doing now. He would never have dreamt of saying he didn't know. For he knew that Christ was "sitting at the right hand of God." True, the only way he could talk was to use the "picture language" that he got from the Bible. But this language was positive and definite.

The fact that we talk about the future and life after death in "mythological" terms is irrelevant as far as reality is concerned. The reality of the situations or events we are talking about is not affected by the kind of language we use. It is vital to remember this. We have, therefore, no need to be hesitant about what we are saying. Of course, we need to be humble and realise that although we see and are not in the dark, we may only be seeing partially. But partial seeing is seeing something.

To be hesitant about what we say when we have to use "picture language" or "mythological language" is something like this: I ask you, "What happens at dawn?" And you answer, "I don't know; all I can do is to use a pre-Copernican myth and say 'the sun rises'."

Now if you say that, I don't think you are clever, but simply incapable of using language. What happens in the morning is that the sun does rise, as we all know. There is an objective event that happens. We may think that the pre-Copernican myth can be misunderstood. Today we say that the earth goes round the sun and not vice-versa. But as we all know the "myth" is usually capable of communicating. We can work with it perfectly well. In fact, granted our limitations, namely that we are on earth and not out in space, this is a clear way of talking, clearer than if we had given an answer in post-Copernican terms.

We can now begin to see why to scorn the descent of Jesus to the dead as mythological is unreasonable. We have already seen how much criticism of the Ascension is unreasonable (Coloured Supplement May 2003). "All this belongs to a three-decker universe," some say. "Christians and their creeds are tied to this universe. We've rejected such a view of the universe; let's reject these creeds."

But it is not so simple. The earliest Christians were far less "spatially" hide bound than we imagine. In any case, they had to, as we have to, use spatial metaphors. This was almost whether they liked it or not. Space goes with value. We normally use metaphors of space to indicate value or superior or inferior position even when there is no question of "geographical location" We say, "Prices are up and wages are down." In an Examination or Election one person comes out "on top"; others, in terms of results, are "underneath" or "below" or even "bottom" (indeed, "superior" and "inferior" are the Latin for "higher" and "lower"). So when we say Jesus Christ descended to the dead or Hades, we don't mean that he went under the earth. "The language of descent," says J.I.Packer, "is used because Hades, being the place of the disembodied, is lower in worth and dignity than life on earth, where the body and soul are together and humanity is in that sense whole."

"At the right hand of God"

We must now return to the Ascension. The Ascension, the New Testament affirms, was an event in the past (cf Coloured Supplement May 2003). Its ultimate importance, however, is not in itself and the details of it, nor even in the fact that it made the disciples aware that the resurrection appearances had ended. Its importance lies in what it then came to symbolise - the fact that Christ is now "at the right hand of God".

This is the best language can do. We have already noted the limitations of language and Augustine's comment on this phrase. Calvin puts it like this: "It is not a question of the disposition of his body, but of the majesty of his authority." Karl Barth says:

"It states pictorially the truth which from its very nature cannot be represented, that the might and sovereignty of God is in actual fact identical with the might and sovereignty of him who as true God became true man and as such died upon the cross and of course rose again."

This is a picture of an Eastern court. It means that Christ is invested with the full majesty and authority of God. This imagery did communicate, and it still does (we talk of "the right hand man"). The early Christians communicated with it their supreme belief that Jesus is reigning. This was their basic belief about Christ.

They used to look back to the Old Testament to see verses or parts of the Old Testament that most applied to Jesus Christ and their experience of him in the present. There was one verse they went back to time and time again. What was it? It was the first verse of Psalm 110:

"The LORD says to my Lord: "Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet."

Jesus himself had been the first one to use this text. According to Mark chapter 12 verse 36 he had done so in his teaching in the temple. Then at Pentecost Peter applied this verse to Jesus as the one "exalted to the right hand of God" (Acts 2.33). It is cited in a number of places in the New Testament. One New Testament scholar says this:

"Wherever we read of Christ being at the right hand of God, or of hostile powers being subjected to Him, the ultimate reference is to this passage. In view of the place which Psalm 110.1 holds in the New Testament, we may safely put it down as one of the fundamental texts of the primitive kerygma [or preaching]."

The use then of this imagery did not come about because of a particular view of the cosmos - a three decker view; rather it came about because the imagery was in the Old Testament. But more fundamental still. It came about because the early Christians believed it was profoundly true, Jesus is King.

Some think that it got into credal statements right from the start. Paul's letter to the Romans perhaps indicates this. At one point in that great epistle his argument presupposes that his readers know already that it is "Christ Jesus, who died--more than that, who was raised to life - [who] is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us" (Rom 8.34). Some think this reflects an early credal formula.

The idea was certainly central to the thinking of the writer of the epistle to the Hebrews. We are there told that Jesus was a "high priest in the order of Melchizedek" (Heb 5.10). Later he is said to be such a priest "for ever" (Heb 6.20). What was so significant about Melchizedek? He was both "king of Salem [Jerusalem]" and "priest of God Most High" (Heb 7.1). "His name means 'king of righteousness'; then also, 'king of Salem' means 'king of peace'" (Heb 7.2). Hebrews therefore stresses the kingship of Christ in his priestly role.

But perhaps the greatest statement of this theme is in the epistle to the Ephesians. Paul is wanting the Christians he is writing to to experience something of the power of God in their daily lives as they face the pressures of a hostile world. he also wants the Church to have a vision fro what it is and what it can do. So he prays that they may know God's

"incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is like the working of his mighty strength, which he exerted in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every title that can be given, not only in the present age but also in the one to come. And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way" (Eph 1.19-23).

"Angels, authorities and powers in submission to him"

In the verse with which we started our discussion on the Ascension cf (Coloured Supplement May 2003) - 1 Pet 3:22 - we are told that Christ "has gone into heaven and is at God's right hand - with angels, authorities and powers in submission to him." In Ephesians we are told that Christ is "far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every title that can be given". What are these "authorities and power"? Are they the structures of society, as some say; or are they actual political rulers; or are they demonic forces behind both the structures and the rulers?

There has been much debate over these questions. Michael Green reminds us of "the flexibililty of such terms as 'principalities' and 'powers' in the usage of the New Testament. They do, on occasion, refer to human authorities. They do, for the main part, refer to super human agencies in the spiritual world."

The New Testament clearly believes in "the Devil" - "the slanderer". It implies that the evil in the world is not to be accounted for by the sum total of individual misdeeds. There is an "extra". And the Bible encourages us to think of that "extra" in personal terms - a "he", not an "it". But the Devil can then be seen to be steering other more neutral forces.

Therefore whatever the precise interpretation of "authorities" and "powers" is, we shall not go far wrong if we say this: that all demonic forces, all political forces, all economic forces, all sociological forces, all natural forces, indeed "every title [or name] that can be given", are subject to Christ. Jesus is "far above all". That was the New Testament's unshakeable conviction. Nothing could or can thwart the purposes of Christ. This in turn gave and still gives wonderful hope and assurance. "Who", asks Paul,

"shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword ... ? No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Rom 8.35,37-9).

So let's remember these things when we say, in the Apostles' Creed, Jesus Christ "descended to the dead. On the third say he rose again, He descended to the dead. On the third day he rose again. He ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father."

[Edited extracts from Where did Jesus go? by David Holloway (Marshalls, London, 1983) pp 111-116, 145-148.]

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