Descent into hell


Recently on a feedback card at church, someone commented:

“I thought Jesus didn’t descend into hell! Just that he suffered the death we deserved.”

The answer is: yes and no! The question raises complex issues that cannot be easily answered in a short space.

So let me take a long space. (And if you are interested, read on, read slowly, and re-read if you need!)

There are a couple of complicating factors. The first is how we use the English word, ‘hell’ to translate various Hebrew and Greek words. The second is the history and meaning of the phrase in the Apostles’ Creed, “he descended into hell”.

Let me now try and unpack these issues in turn.

The various uses of ‘hell’ in translating the Bible into English

The English word ‘hell’ often does double duty in translating words from the original biblical languages of Hebrew and Greek.

The Hebrew word ‘Sheol’ is pretty much a close equivalent of the Greek word, ‘Hades’. These words (especially ‘Sheol’) can refer simply to the grave, where bodies decay. But more particularly they can also refer to what I define as “the shadowy place dead souls go to await their punishment” (i.e. before the final day of judgment).

To give you an idea of the range of meaning, in the New Testament, for example, Hades is translated by the NIV variously as:

  • “the depths” (Matt 11:23)
  • “hell” (probably here the final place of punishment, Luke 16:23)
  • the “grave” (Acts 2:27, 31).

It is also simply transliterated as ‘Hades’—something like the dominion of the dead (Matt 16:18; Rev 20:13).

But there is another Greek word, ‘gehenna’, also translated by our English word, ‘hell’, found most often on the lips of Jesus in the Gospels. This word refers to the final place of eternal punishment for those who die unrepentant and unreconciled to God (e.g. Mark 9:43, 45, 47; Luke 12:5).

So when we see ‘hell’ in our English Bibles, it can mean ‘the grave’, or the ‘place dead people go’ (before final punishment, i.e. Sheol/Hades), or it can refer to the ‘place of final punishment’, i.e. ‘Gehenna’ (or ‘Hades’ once in Luke 16:23).

The “descent into hell” in the Apostles’ Creed

This confusion and even ambiguity becomes a problem when we consider the use of the phrase “he descended into hell” in the Apostles’ Creed and historical theology.

The text of the Nicene Creed seems to have been discussed, agreed and then developed over several well-known and official early church councils (Nicea, Constantinople and Chalcedon).

By comparison, the Apostles’ Creed was not written or agreed at any one church council, but evolved much more organically from about 200 AD to 750 AD. Along the way, the manuscript record shows it existed in various different forms.

It may surprise you to know that the phrase “he descended into hell” has not been found in any of the earliest versions of the Creed, until it appears in one of the two versions cited by Rufinus (390 AD). Then it disappears and does not seem to occur again until 650 AD. And even when Rufinus mentioned it, he took it to mean that Jesus descended to the ‘grave’ (i.e. the Greek form of the Creed used ‘Hades’—the place dead bodies go—as opposed to ‘Genenna’, the place of eternal punishment).1

A good guess about what happened is that “he descended into Hades” originally appeared as an alternate way of saying “he was… dead and buried”, as the Creed now says in the line before. But then someone thought they’d keep both phrases from the separate versions, and since “descended into hell” was listed after “dead and buried”, it was taken as something happening later in the chronology.

The verses (in my view) that could most likely support a physical descent into the realm of the underworld come from 1 Peter 3:18-20 (and 1 Peter 4:6). I don’t have time and space to go into all the details. But in brief, the grammar of these verses, and other theological concerns, seem to support the idea that the Spirit of the pre-incarnate Christ preached to those who lived in Old Testament times (especially in Noah’s Day, in this context) through the mouths of the prophets back then, and their spirits or souls (those who disobeyed the message preached, like people did in Noah’s Day) are now “in prison”. That is, these verses are not about Jesus going to the ‘underworld’ to preach judgment (let alone a second chance) to dead souls being held there.

I think that when Jesus died, his body went to the grave, and his soul went to be with the Father, until his body was resurrected on the third day. After all, on the day he died, Jesus promised the repentant thief on the cross that “Today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43), and his cry from the cross “It is finished” (John 19:30) implies his work of sin-bearing suffering had been completed on the cross and required no further trip to hell.


Calvin and others have provided a theological interpretation of the words “he descended into hell”: that on the cross, as Jesus was dying, he experienced ‘hell’ when he experienced a sense of abandonment from the Father as he bore our sin and faced the wrath it deserved.

I think this is a good theological account of the words, but is unlikely to be what the original authors of the line in the Creed meant.

A Postscript about the Creed

So we are left with a few options for the phrase in the Creed.

1. Drop the phrase altogether. But if we drop it from the Creed, that sounds like we are getting rid of our belief in hell. An unintended outcome, but it could be misunderstood that way by the casual observer.

2. Pick an alternative (as the recent Sydney Diocese prayer book, Sunday Services, permitted), namely either:

  • (a) “On the cross, he descended into hell” (the theological interpretation), or
  • (b) “He was crucified, dead and buried, he descended to the grave/place of the dead” (historically more accurate, but clumsy and repetitive).

3. Keep it as is (and try and explain the confusion).

After reading this, I am sure you will agree it is not a simple matter. But Christians are not very good on agreeing about change.

1. My source for this is Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology, Inter-Varsity Press, Leicester, 2000, p. 586.

70 thoughts on “Descent into hell

  1. Sandy

    thanks for tackling this thorny issue.

    In a similar vein, what do you think about the words in the song “Behold the Lamb of God” where it says “Deserted by God, man and friend”.

    Was Jesus really deserted by God?

    Thinking back to the OT sacrificial system of the blood flowing over the mercy seat, God somehow seems to be absorbing his wrath at our sin. Yes, Jesus calls out from Psalm 22 “My God, My God, why have you deserted me” – but the end of the Psalm shows that the Psalmist was not really deserted.

  2. Thanks Sandy – this is a great discussion of a tricky one. Of course, we Anglicans have a whole Article (Article III) just for this topic!

    Just wanted to inquire at one point. You wrote:

    “I think that when Jesus died, his body went to the grave, and his soul went to be with the Father, until his body was resurrected on the third day”

    Do we really go for this body/soul dualism? Isn’t this a kind of Apollinarianism?

  3. Hamish, I feel the force of your comment.

    Even to say, as I did in sympathy with Calvin’s approach, that on the cross Jesus experienced (or descended to) hell, needs to be done with caution, because that’s not the wording the Bible uses for what happened on the cross.

    For example, in bearing wrath and judgment on sin, what Jesus experienced was not eternal (as I think the Bible says hell will be for those who die unforgiven).

    Likewise, you are right to raise cautions over popular ways of expressing what was happening on the cross with regards the intra-trinitarian relations of Father and Son, in terms of abandonment or desertion.

    We understand Jesus’ deity and manhood to have been perfectly combined, two natures in one person. However my understanding is that it is especially with regards to his humanity in which Christ (the one person) suffered, and in which he experienced the sense of abandonment that the famous cry from the cross echoing Psalm 22:1 refers to.

    It seems problematic if our words about the atonement in songs imply some sort of split in the actions or being of the Trinity. How can God the Son no longer be in the presence of God the Father? How could God the Father cease to love the Son with the love with which he has loved him for all eternity?

    Language such as the Father punished the Son, without some careful nuance and qualification, can also be problematic.

    I would generally prefer to say something like “On the cross, Jesus bore his Father’s wrath at sin/bore the punishment our sins deserved” (expressing it in the passive voice).

    Or “On the cross, Jesus experienced a very real sense of forsakenness not for his own sins, but for the sins of people like us.”

    I think Jesus did propitiate the Father’s wrath at people for their sins, and he did experience forsakenness on the cross. I just think we need to be cautious in how we express it.

    For this reason, I also pause and wonder about a couple of other popular song lyrics. E.g. In “How Deep the Father’s Love”, the line

    The Father turns his face away.

    I am just not quite sure this is ever how the Bible puts it.

    Likewise this one from “Never Alone” by Simone Richardson, I just don’t quite get which way the poetry should be taken (and some possible interpretations confuse me)…

    Silence from God blackens the sky.
    A creeping dread in every heart.
    Lost in the world now God departs,
    God departs.

    I am not a very poetic sort of guy, and maybe I should lighten up, but I’ve never been quite sure of the meaning of what I am singing about there.

  4. Michael, with regard to my

    I think that when Jesus died, his body went to the grave, and his soul went to be with the Father, until his body was resurrected on the third day

    you wrote

    Do we really go for this body/soul dualism? Isn’t this a kind of Apollinarianism?

    You will have to refresh me on Apollinarianism, and I would like to express myself more precisely (in biblical ways) but I was simply searching for a way to express what I see to be the scriptural teaching, that if we die, before the general resurrection, “we are away from the body but at home with the Lord” (2 Cor 5:8); as when Paul is torn between desiring to “depart and be with Christ, which is better by far” and remaining
    “in the body” (Philip 1:23-24).

    I take it Christ’s resurrection was the first fruits in advance of the general resurrection at the end of this age. So his experience of being away from the body but at home with the Lord, would have lasted between his death on the cross and his resurrection on the third day.

    Have you got a better word than “soul” (which I was not meaning to define in a tight dualistic way) to express a person’s being, when they are with the Lord, but awaiting their resurrection body?

  5. Actually Sandy, I’m not sure body/soul dualism has much to do with Apollinarianism. If anything, I think denial of Christ’s human soul would be close to Apollinarianism – which seemed to affirm a human soul for Jesus but deny a human spirit. I think most early church fathers would have seen the modern rejection of a body/soul dualism as producing something like Apollinarianism in Christology if they had ever encountered it.

    I think it’s fairly obvious that a body/soul dualism is simply taken for granted as being part of orthodox Christianity’s view of human nature for much of the last two thousand years. The early church, the medievals, the Reformers, and I suspect most Reformed systematics since then all affirm a body/soul dualism fairly ubiquitously.

    If it’s wrong, I think moderns need to coin a new word for it, and not try and draw on ancient heresies for the label, as historic orthodoxy sees a denial of the human soul of Jesus as a heresy.

  6. Thanks so much for this post.

    As a member in an pod pca church we repeat the creed every Sunday and I always omit the phrase. I guess my hang up is that we should clearly state what we mean. Unbelievers in the crowd will not understand our theology if we say things we don’t actually mean.

    Thanks for tackling a seriously sticky issue.

  7. Eliminate the phrase I would say.  A gospel-preaching church will affirm the reality of hell in everything else it does and teaches, and it will be fairly obvious.  But I’ve rarely heard the proper theological understanding of this phrase taught to a congregation, and then you’d have to explain it to visitors every time.

  8. Everything you need to know about the descent into hell is articulated in the Lutheran Confessions, specifically this short section.

    The Solid Declaration of the Formula of Concord

    IX. Christ’s Descent To Hell

    1] And since even in the ancient Christian teachers of the Church, as well as in some among our teachers, dissimilar explanations of the article concerning the descent of Christ to hell are found, we abide in like manner by the simplicity of our Christian faith [comprised in the Creed], to which Dr. Luther in his sermon, which was delivered in the castle at Torgau in the year 1533, concerning the descent of Christ to hell, has pointed us, where we confess: I believe in the Lord Christ, God’s Son, our Lord, dead, buried, and descended into hell. For in this [Confession] the burial and descent of Christ to hell are distinguished as different articles; 2] and we simply believe that the entire person, God and man, after the burial descended into hell, conquered the devil, destroyed the power of hell, and took from the devil all his might. 3] We should not, however, trouble ourselves with high and acute thoughts as to how this occurred; for with our reason and our five senses this article can be comprehended as little as the preceding one, how Christ is placed at the right hand of the almighty power and majesty of God; but we are simply to believe it and adhere to the Word [in such mysteries of faith]. Thus we retain the substance [sound doctrine] and [true] consolation that neither hell nor the devil can take captive or injure us and all who believe in Christ.

  9. Thanks for your comments.

    Juan, I am not a patristics scholar, and so I was wondering if you can tell me which “ancient Christian teachers of the Church” (to quote your Lutheran confession) talk about the descent to hell (understood in the way you affirm? And can you tell me what different things they say?

    As I said above, my understanding is that this line did not come into the Apostles’ Creed until perhaps sometime in the 4th Century A.D., quite late relatively speaking, and then in that first occurrence, it appears apparently as an alternative to “dead and buried”, rather than as a subsequent item.

    However I have another more basic disquiet with locating the defeat of Satan as occurring after burial, namely the testimony of Scripture. E.g. Colossians 2:3-15

    When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us; he took it away, nailing it to the cross. And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross (NIV).

    To me Hebrews 2:14-15 also seems to say pretty clearly that it was

    by [Christ’s] 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. (NIV)

    That is the defeat of Satan is located in time at the cross, not after his burial.

  10. Charlie, would you like to outline briefly the key aspects of the particular defence of this clause from the reformed perspective in the book you recommended?

    Is the author defending the approach of Calvin (theological descent on the cross) or some sort of post-mortem activity in hell, as per the Lutheran approach just mentioned, or some other variation?

    The blurb on the link indicates some nice endorsements from Ligon Duncan and Michael Horton, but it doesn’t actually say which view the author goes for, nor what his key arguments are; just that he thinks the phrase is worth retaining.

  11. Sandy, it’s late so I can’t take the time now to do real justice to summarizing the book, but in brief, he argues the following:

    “The Reformed interpretations of both the Westminster Standards and Heidelberg Catechism express the correct doctrine of Christ’s descent as two sides of one
    coin: as to the body of Jesus Christ, he descended into the state of death; as to the soul of Jesus Christ, he suffered the agonies of hell. This double meaning was
    that of the father of much of Reformed thought, John Calvin…”

    To your question, I’d say he would refute what he identifies as a Lutheran perspective (along with several other perspectives that he outlines in considerable depth). After refuting them and defending his perspective of the reformed view (from both the creeds and writings of church fathers, and of course biblical exegesis), he then concludes:

    “With this in mind, we see why it is important not to delete this phrase from the Apostles’ Creed in Reformed churches. Not only is it a biblical phrase, following the principle of sola Scriptura, that expresses the work of Christ and our comfort in him, it is an historical phrase that links us as Protestants to our Christian
    past as members of the ‘one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.’ To delete this phrase would be overly
    sectarian and remove us from the historic catholic faith.”

    Indeed, he would concur with Venema (from his 1996 book, “What We Believe: An Exposition of the Apostles’ Creed”) that:

    “it would constitute a great loss were this article removed from the Creed solely because it has often been understood in an unbiblical way. It would be a loss because, as the Reformed churches have understood it, this article expresses an (if not, the) essential dimension of our Lord’s suffering and atoning work.”

    For those not yet compelled to pick up the book, you can get a substantial subset of the content, and certainly a taste of the approach and intent of the author, in his 2007 article on the same topic, “In Defense of the Descendit:
    A Confessional Resp onse to Contemporary Critics of Christ’s Descent into Hell” in the Confessional Presbyterian, available as a 14 page PDF here:

    In fact, the quotes I’ve offered here are from that, but they’re nearly identical to statements he makes within the book. I just couldn’t as easily copy/paste from that. grin (See pages 51, 73, and 11 of the book, which have substantially the same wording as the quotes above.)

  12. Charlie, thank you very much, I think what you did there was just what was needed, giving a brief outline of his view, and an historical basis for keeping the phrase.

    Some will still say the phrase is misleading, understood in its natural sense, and the cost of keeping the historical connection is too great. But we do well to weigh historical connectedness.

    Your comment helps those who want to delve deeper to know where to go.

    As we say in Australia, “Good onya, mate!” And sleep well.

  13. Hi Sandy, Michael & Mark,

    Regarding Apollinarism (however you want to spell it – seems to change a lot). I think it is that if we have the Logos *being* the soul of the human Jesus.

    I think the orthodox version of what you, Sandy, are saying is that Jesus has a human soul as well as a human body in addition to his divine nature and the human soul of Jesus goes to heaven. But the Logos *as divine* never left heaven (or, better, never ceased to be omnipresent).

    But of course this gets very weird very quickly.

  14. Andrew, I think what you described (the orthdox bit of Jesus having a human soul and human body perfectly combined with his divine nature) is exactly what I was getting at.

    It does get tricky. But precision sometimes is.

    Thanks for commenting.

  15. @Mark – you’ll notice I said ‘a kind of Apollinarianism’. I am trying to indicate the sort of weirdness Andrew notes in thinking of Jesus’s soul flying off somewhere while his body lies in the tomb … and yet isn’t he still upholding the universe?

    @Sandy – I don’t think those verses (‘away…at home’) commit us to a dualism of the kind where we think of there being two separable bits of us. The language of body and soul can be taken as indicating two necessary aspects of human nature. But I don’t think the Bible commits us to the metaphysics of a substantial and separable soul – and neither does an appreciation of the pre-modern tradition. If the tradition got entangled with that metaphysics since, then it needs correcting or adjusting.

  16. Hey Sandy,

    One verse that also seems to relate to the descent clause is:

    “For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” (Matt. 12:40)

    The “heart of the earth” is a classic reference (it would appear) to Sheol (the underworld below the earth). It speaks well to the most primitive understanding of the descent clause as an affirmation of Christ’s death and burial (and hence we should translate: “he descended to the place of the dead”).

    My problem with Calvin’s approach is that it injects a new interpretation into an old statement. I suspect we should stick with the original intention behind the words rather than re-interpret them as did Calvin.

    Every blessing,


  17. Hi Andrew,

    I agree. I wasn’t trying to say the more modern view was Apollinarianism, just that the classic view certainly isn’t. It is not even ‘a kind of Apollinarianism’ to use Michael’s qualifier.

    Apollinarianism of any kind is a complete red herring. I do think that if the fathers of the early church had come across the modern rejection of the soul they probably would have considered it a heresy, irrespective of what we intended by that. If memory serves me correctly one father (might have been Origen?) got seriously criticised (and contributed to his reputation for heresy) for constructing a Christology without explicit mention of a human soul for Christ. He wasn’t making the Logos the replacement for the human soul, just trying to bypass the issue so to speak. But that nuance wasn’t accepted.

    Hence I think we need to state any concerns we have about the classic view of anthropology (soul/body) without any reference to ancient heresies at all. ‘Our’ view would probably have been considered heresy by the ancients.

    Hi Michael,

    I am trying to indicate the sort of weirdness Andrew notes in thinking of Jesus’s soul flying off somewhere while his body lies in the tomb … and yet isn’t he still upholding the universe?

    I think that’s two different kinds of weirdness.

    One is the weirdness many moderns feel when it is suggested that we have a non-material component that eternally endures, a soul.

    The other is the weirdness that people feel when confronted with a Chalcedonian Christology, that Jesus Christ has two different natures with very different properties, and so can be both truly definitively dead and still upholding the universe simultaneously. You can deny the existence of a human soul and still find this weird, and think that it is ‘a kind of apollinarianism’ to think that Jesus Christ died and yet continued to uphold everything. I think that’s got more to do with where someone stands on impassibility and the two-natures of Christ.

    The latter and the former are both weird, but they’re two different kinds of weirdness.

  18. Well, with Jensen, Baddeley, Moody and Foord, I’m talking with some 4 Aussie theological college lecturers here. Possibly out of my depth on some of the details and technicalities.

    I realise that sometimes careful nuance is needed. But basically, in terms of what happens when we die, I reject the idea of ‘soul sleep’ and I am just trying reflect what I see the Bible saying, as in Phil 1:23-24 and 2 Cor 5:8 (and context), where Paul anticipates being away from the body and at home with the Lord. In addition, this gels with Jesus’ promise to the criminal on the cross with him, “Today you’ll be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43), which I take it was fulfilled, although I take it the criminal’s body decayed in the ground, and Jesus’ body was buried for the two nights, till being raised on the third day!

    I’m with Mark (I think), and am not quite sure about what the big deal is with using the word ‘soul’ to describe a person’s being with the Lord, while they await the resurrection of the body. And I certainly think Jesus had a human body and soul.

  19. Marty, you wouldn’t pick it, but the original question I began my post with, which we got on the comment cards at church, came from my sermon on Jonah 1-2! (Audio here if anyone wants.)

    So just for completeness, here’s my original extra part of the answer.

    In my sermon on Jonah 1-2 and on the basis of Jesus’ own words in Matthew 13:38-41, I compared and contrasted the descent and ascent of Jonah (into near death in the sea and the fish) and Jesus (into death on the cross and the tomb).

    Here’s part of what I said from my printed sermon notes…

    But the key point of comparison Jesus makes is that both were entombed for a 3 day period – Jonah in the fish in the sea, Jesus in the ground. And both had the agony of feeling abandoned by God. But Jonah only went close to death, whereas Jesus went all the way, there and beyond. Jonah went close to hell (sheol/hades). But on the cross, we might say, Jesus descended into hell. And for Jonah the punishment was self-inflicted. But Jesus chose to bear this punishment for others.

    In regards to the sermon, you might note now (even if you missed it in passing as you listened) that I said, “on the cross, we might say, Jesus descended into hell”. In the actual audio, I think I might also have added the words, “as it were”.

    This was my attempt to point out that I was not necessarily speaking literally about what Jesus did after his death, or the architecture of the underworld. Rather I was using the idioms and figures of speech of Scripture and historical Christian theology to explore a comparison of Jonah and Jesus.

    In the sermon, I was picking up on the ‘descent’ or ‘going down’ language in Jonah (Jonah 1:3 twice, 1:5, 2:6). I pointed out that there was not just literal aquatic imagery in chapter 2, but also ‘underworld’ imagery (the ‘grave’/‘Sheol’ in 2:2, the ‘pit’ in 2:6). Jonah was descending not just into the ocean but towards the grave/Sheol.

    And for comparison, I picked up the well-known phrase from the Apostles’ Creed – “he [i.e. Jesus] descended into hell” as a point of comparison. And I used this comparison to explore how they both felt abandoned by God in their “descent”.

    After all that, Marty, I agree with you that if we want people to respect authorial intention in the Bible, it’s probably an ethical approach to respect it with other texts. Hence the problem you point out with Calvin’s approach.

    So that’s why – peace to Charlie – I think I probably lean towards going with you (“descended to the dead/grave/place of the dead – my original option 2b) or with Andy and Thomas earlier (omit – option 1).

    Thanks for getting us back on topic.

  20. I happy to leave ‘Apolliniarism’ well behind – fair enough.

    What interests me is the suggestion that the human being consists of two not only distinct but separate substances – a body, and a soul – that can be separated by death. I don’t think the Bible affirms this distinction as clearly as the later tradition did. Sandy, those passages you mention I think speak of the person’s security in God without necessarily demanding that we are split in twain, with a part of us ‘up there’ and a part of us ‘down here’.

    I could be wrong of course (again) and I am sure I will be rapidly corrected if I am!

  21. I hope I didn’t miss someone else say it, but one passage that really reshaped my understanding of the idea of abandonment, which caused me to not like the phrase in the song, “The Father turned His face away.” was Psalm 22:24—

    “For He has not despised or detested the torment of the afflicted (afflicted one—NIV).  He did not hide His face from him but listened when he cried to Him for help.”

    Being forsaken is not dependent on God turning or looking away.  It was the Father’s will to cause Him to suffer (Isiah 53) to fulfill His holiness and justice.  He was not ashamed or regretful but was fully satisfied.  I don’t believe God shied away from the wrath He was pouring out to the point that He couldn’t stand looking any more.

    Make sense?

  22. Kelly, thanks, yes that confirms my little disquiet, thanks for pointing it out.

    Mind you, I have not insisted we drop this much loved song from our song list, as I don’t think it is a serious enough problem. If I were to do that there would be many other songs I would want to deal with first.

  23. It seems much of the problem arises because of sloppy translations. Many modern translations of the Bible try and attain some consistency, so that γέεννα “gehenna” is translated “hell” while ᾅδης “hades” and ‫שאול‬ “sheol” are often just transliterated. The line in the creed (in Latin) reads “descendit ad inferna,” and “infernus” means “lower, that which lies beneath” and so “the underworld (or netherworld).” In that sense it corresponds with Greek “hades” and Hebrew “sheol” more closely than it does with Greek “gehenna,” the place of eschatalogical judgment. (In fact, the Vulgate usually uses “infernus” to translate “sheol.”)

    Furthermore, at least in the OT, “sheol” is not necessarily a bad place, it’s just where you go when you die (e.g. Gen 37:35).

    So the English version of the creed, more carefully translated from Latin, ought to read “He descended to the underworld” (or “netherworld”). Likewise, if English Bibles are translating the Greek and Hebrew rather than just transliterating it (which is a bit of a cop-out), they could also use “underworld.” That way “hell” (which I think raises notions of judgment and punishment in the minds of many people) can be reserved for “gehenna” and much of the difficulty can be avoided.

  24. @Michael
    I seem to recall Graham Cole describing our constitution as a “functional unity” but an “ontological dualism” to balance the Hebrew emphasis on the whole person with the biblical passages which speak of being apart from our body/tent or departing to be with the Lord.
    Is the “functional unity” idea what you have in mind or are you thinking about us in more strictly physicalist terms (death = switch-off until the resurrection)?

    Agreed, two kinds. And maybe the two-natures weirdness recedes a bit once we stop thinking about God as a dweller in time in space. I doubt the eternal Son should be thought of as a bigger version of Jesus who sits around *in heaven* *while* his avatar wanders the earth (I’m not saying you think that!)

    @Martin & Sandy
    That’s helpful about hades/gehenna. But I also notice that the Greek of the Apostles Creed doesn’t seem to use either but κατώτατος (cf. ). Sandy do you have any insight here – you have obviously done more research into the creed’s history?

  25. Well I lean physicalist, and I don’t think those texts demand something else.

  26. @ Michael I have a question of interpretation:
    You said, “… The language of body and soul can be taken as indicating two necessary aspects of human nature. But I don’t think the Bible commits us to the metaphysics of a substantial and separable soul – and neither does an appreciation of the pre-modern tradition… ”
    You also said,  “What interests me is the suggestion that the human being consists of two not only distinct but separate substances – a body, and a soul – that can be separated by death.”
    And then finally, you accepted without something called “physicalism” (death = switch off until resurrection) as a term you leaned towards.
    Perhaps I’ve missed something here, but what does this mean for the thief to whom Jesus made his promise? If he was dead, (= switched off until his resurrection), then what did Jesus’ words mean to him? Presumably he has not yet been resurrected. Perhaps you have written on this elsewhere.

  27. Thanks Graham.

    It all depends what we understand ‘Today’ to mean. After all, Jesus himself wasn’t in ‘paradise’ on that day… right?

  28. Just for interest, “A Prayer Book for Australia” (which was narrowly rejected for use in the Sydney Diocese by Synod in the late ‘90s, but is used pretty much everywhere else in Australia) has this version of the lines in the Apostles’ Creed:

    “was crucified, died and was buried;
    he descended to the dead.”

    I agree with Sandy that this is a bit repetitive, but maybe not quite as much as if “dead” had been used both times.

  29. Hooooold on a seccy

    Mark said:

    Actually Sandy, I’m not sure body/soul dualism has much to do with Apollinarianism

    And I agreed.

    But maybe there is something here after all. The point in common between Apollinarism and dualism is (or is usually) that the seat of personhood is in the soul. Therefore if the Word became flesh – ie. was the same person – then he must have taken the place of soul in the human Jesus.

    Is this what you are thinking of Michael? And, if so, why aren’t you pursuing it – it is very interesting!

  30. Hi Andrew,

    I’m under the impression that the oldest versions of the creed are in Latin and that the Greek is likely a translation from the Latin (although I could well be wrong on that). Nonetheless, both the Latin and Greek versions seem to hark back to Eph 4:9. What is more, the Greek κατώτατος just means “lowest place” and so is almost certainly just another way to refer to the underworld which has been chosen by Paul (in Ephesians) to fit his argument about ascending and descending.

  31. @ Michael: re the meaning of “Today”
    Well yes, every communication depends on the meaning of the words we use! But, I ask, why could not Jesus have been referring to what remained of that day when he said “Today you will be with me in paradise”? However one reckoned the “day” there was a part of that “day” when both were going to be physically dead. If I were hanging on a cross with not many hours to live, and the One I had appealed to for “remembrance” promised me something “today” I think it most likely I would assume that “today” had its most usual meaning. I doubt I would assume that I was being reminded that this conversation was happening “today” and I doubt I’d interpret the words in some special theological way, or as “you are about to go into non-existence, but she’ll be right mate, because at some time in the future, you’ll come alive again.”

  32. @But Graeme, we are hearing the word Today as Luke reports it, not from the point of view of the thief. I think ‘Today’ is a Biblical-Theologically suggestive word in any case (‘Today if you hear his voice’ etc).

    @Andrew – I know better than to argue with Mark!

  33. @ Michael:
    Yes, it is true that sometimes, “today” is a theologically suggestive word, and Ps 95/Heb 3&4 is a case in point. The context makes this clear, because Ps 95 is already 400++ yrs removed from the action, and does not purport to be a quote of a first hand report. However, given that Luke is telling his readers that he is reporting verbatim [or near enough] a real conversation between Jesus and a thief, it is entirely reasonable to “hear the word ‘Today’ from the point of view of the thief.” In fact, Luke’s narrative demands it. To do otherwise is to do violence to Luke’s stated purpose, which is to use sacred history to teach theology (Lk 1:1-4).

  34. Sorry, Graeme, I simply disagree. Interpreting ‘Today’ in this theologically significant way does not go against Luke’s purpose in writing history – just as by using the word ‘paradise’ Jesus didn’t mean ‘Eden’.

  35. Good one Sandy!
    I think you know where I stand…
    Either 1. Drop the phrase altogether or 2a. “On the cross, he descended into hell”

  36. Michael, that’s an interesting point… what did Jesus mean by “Paradise”? The story of Lazarus and the Rich Man suggests that the place of the dead was divided into two. Could Paradise refer to the place where the faithful dead rested, rather than what we normally think of as “heaven”? (That too is a tricky concept… it’s clearly not the same as the new universe we see at the end of Revelation either)

  37. @Dannii

    Paul seems to identify it with heaven here: 2Cor 12:2 I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows. 3 And I know that this man was caught up into paradise—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know.

    @Michael – be interested to know your thoughts on the last statement. I realise it isn’t definite about an extra-body experience but it does seem to demonstrate that such a disembodied state was conceivable and possible in Paul’s mind.

  38. @ Michael:
    Sorry for this but I’m puzzled by the reference to “physicalism” and the need to define what has seemed to me to be reasonably simple terms, so I trust that you will pardon me asking 3 simple questions arising out of Luke’s record:
    1. In plain, non-theological words, what conscious state did the thief have immediately after his death, and what conscious state does he presently have?
    2. In plain, non-theological words, what conscious human state did Jesus have immediately after his death.
    3. If he has not yet done so, when will the thief realise Jesus words have come true.

  39. Note – I am not completely signed up to physicalism but:

    1 – none
    2 – none
    3 – at the resurrection

  40. I don’t think there’s much exegetical support for Michael’s claim of a theological interpretation of “today” in Luke 23:43. The comparison with the use in Hebrews (and there from Ps 95) fails to appreciate the significant difference in context: both Hebrews and Ps 95 are addresses to the audience while Jesus’ words on the cross are direct speech to the thief. For the former there’s clear warrant to shift the temporal referent to the audience’s present day, for the latter the natural inference would be to understand the reference to be relative to the time at which the words were spoken. The fact that ‘today’ is imbued special significance in Hebrews clearly does not warrant attributing such significance to all its uses, and Luke elsewhere seems happy to use it in its normal sense.

    There’s also some support for the idea that the place of the dead (i.e. “Sheol”) in OT times was not simply a place for bad people, but that everyone went there. The idea seems to be reflected, as Danii has pointed out, in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, but there are other indications. For one, in the OT, both good people (such as Jacob) and bad people are said to go to Sheol. In aNE belief there are considerations which are also suggestive: compare the fates described in the Sumerian poem “Gilgamesh, Enkidu and the nether world.” Here, for example, among the dead we hear of the fate of the man with seven sons:

    “Did you see him who had seven sons?”
    “I saw him.”
    “How does he fare?”
    “As a companion of the gods, he sits on a throne and listens to judgments.”

    Others (well, in reality, most) were not considered so fortunate. Compare the above with the following:

    “Did you see the leprous man?”
    “He twitches like an ox as the worms eat at him.”

    If such is the case, Jesus’ reference to “paradise” (παράδεισος, usually ‘garden’ in the LXX and probably in Rev 2:7, ‘paradise’ only in Luke 23:43 and 2Cor 12:4 in the NT) need not be understood as a reference to an indeterminate future time following the resurrection.

    (To complicate matters slightly, it could be argued that later OT texts appear to depict Sheol in an increasingly negative light, and this too is a feature of later Mesopotamian depictions of the netherworld. Yet, while Sheol is increasingly viewed as bad, the only clear alternative within the OT is avoiding Sheol or being rescued from Sheol. I don’t think this detracts from the possibility that Jesus’ reference to ‘paradise’ referred to a place for the righteous dead prior to the resurrection.)

  41. @Graeme – it mightn’t be traditional, but I don’t see how it isn’t within orthodoxy.

  42. @Michael

    I think you are right about physicalism not being heresy though both Calvin and Lateran V condemned soul-sleep (cf. Sandy above).

    But aside from the exegetical issues (which are pretty significant ISTM), have you thought about how physicalism will affect your theology of responsible agency? The non-Christians who reject dualism also tend to espouse determinism (physical reality being governed by natural laws). Are you happy to go along with that and what it might mean for God’s relationship to, eg. the Fall? I know there are (hard) compatibilists (eg. Edwards, Helm) around already but it seems pretty problematic to me.

    Second, I wonder what physicalism does to personal identity in the context of the resurrection? If God has to recreate my body from worm-food – how is that *me* rather than another person who is been imbued with my attributes (memories etc.)? Or is personal identity *nothing more* than a set of attributes – so if I get Alzheimers I cease to be me?

    I can’t say the advent of Christian physicalism fills me with joy. It sounds too much like the death of human subject itself.

  43. @ Michael & @ Andrew
    One last comment, (probably!).
    So let me get what Michael seems to be saying/requiring, recasting it in familiar terms.
    Following Chalcedon, Christ in his life as truly God is also truly man, of a reasonable soul and body, the two natures without confusion, change, division or separation.
    Then, following his crucifixion, Christ in his death and for the real time until his resurrection no longer possesses a functioning reasonable soul because “death=switch off until resurrection”
    Then at the instant of his resurrection, the reasonable soul functions ( =switched on) again?
    Is this not seriously problematic for Jesus own human ‘continuity’, and therefore his continuity as One person and subsistence, not parted or separated…?

  44. Let me underline – physicalism is a theory I am exploring.

    Graham: there is no such thing as a ‘reasonable soul’ to switch on and off.

    Andrew: I don’t see why the problems you outline are inherent in physicalism, nor why the exegetical issues are insoluble.

  45. Michael,

    The problems Andrew raises are inherent to physicalism because physicalism holds that there is no dualism – everything that exists in the material creation is physical. Our personhood is a product of our bodies, and our bodies, like all physical objects are governed by natural laws of cause and effect.

    As everything is physical it is bound by cause and effect. The human self-perception that we are agents who make decisions freely is an illusion.

    As everything is physical, when the body ceases to function, and then decays, the relevant person ceases to exist. It’s far more than soul sleep – it is a cessation of existence, because there is nothing other than the body that makes us persons, there’s no soul that continues upon the death of the body.

    Without continuity of existence, is the person who God raises from the dead the same person who died? I’d tend to say no – they just have the same memories, and the same body (now glorified), but they are a new creation. The only ways I can see that being avoided is either:

    a) saying that the person is caught in the overlap of eternity and time and as eternity is timeless continuity of existence is preserved that way.

    My problem with that is it dissolves the Creator/creature distinction. We will never inhabit eternity in the sense that God does. We will always be creatures of time.

    b) holding that God can change the past. People with a strongly nominalist view of God’s sovereignty can hold that God can do even logically impossible things like make married bachelors. If God can change the past retrospectively, then God can create someone who has returned to dust and they can be the same person who ceased to exist. For the rest of us without such a problematic view of God’s sovereignty it’s harder to see how that could be.

    Other than those options, without some way to establish continuity, there is no hope for a person alive now. Our hope can be no more than that God will create someone with our memories and a body just like ours. And that seems to fall a long way short of the hope the Bible holds out. *I* will see the Lord, not my clone.

  46. @ Michael: The words “reasonable soul” simply come from Chalcedon (451); and “switch-off” was not my original use of words. [see discussion.]

    @Andrew: You have raised the problem with physicalism: the discontinuity of the self which is not merely soul-sleep. And thus the notion of physicalism is really a Buddhist anthropology.

    My point was, this introduces a discontinuity into the integrity of Jesus, and is seriously problematic for understanding that the Jesus who saves and intercedes NOW is the same Jesus who died THEN.

  47. Apologies. My last comment was @ Mark Baddeley, and not @ Andrew.

  48. @Mark – This is fine sounding, but I don’t see that it necessarily follows. Human agents inhabit a world of cause and effect to which they contribute some causes and experience some effects. You don’t need to resort to a whole bunch of metaphysics to short-circuit the problem. Hard determinism is not the only philosophical option in any case (as you well know).

  49. All went to the place of the dead, but only those sanctified – set apart – were “covered” by Covenant, with a promise of resurrection.

    Jesus called this place the bosom of Abraham. The idea is of Abraham as a faithful Covenant head who shelters, by his obedience, those of his Covenant body. We have the same picture in the High Priest, who had Holy to the Lord on His head and the twelve tribal gemstones on his bosom, on his body.

    Revelation 4-5 shows the ascension of Christ (the firstfruits lamb) and His opening of the New Covenant in heaven. This allows the final blessings and curses of the Old Covenant to fall (yes, this is all first century). In the 5th Trumpet, the Old Covenant faithful were still in this Abrahamic place, under the Altar of Incense in heaven. The vengeance they sought was delayed for one generation, from AD30 to AD70. They had a Covenant lawsuit against Jesus – they called Him to keep His part of the Covenant. But He forgave those who murdered Him. The four angels – the horns on the corners of the square Altar-Land of Israel – would not be sated until the Roman siege came to an end. Later on, the Angel says there will be “no more delay.”

    Israel was allowed to fill up her sins by persecuting the true Bride. For this crime, the Jews who hardened their hearts like Pharaoh would not be forgiven, as Paul said. Post- Pentecost, their crime was high-handed. Romans 9-11 was entirely fulfilled. After Ad70, there is no longer any Jew-Gentile distinction, not in God’s eyes anyhow.

    So, the Old Covenant angelic rulers retired in Rev. 4 and cast down their crowns. At the end of the book, the OC saints entered heaven to replace the angels and pour out the Covenant curses on Herodian worship, which was decommissioned. There is now a human government in heaven, those enthroned in Rev 20.

    All those in Abraham finally received their heavenly country, precious gems mined from the Land. But the New Jerusalem also has pearls from the Gentile Sea. The kingdom “Land” will expand until there is “no more Sea.”

    Revelation is not that hard when we identify the patterns of God’s work in the Old Testament. It’s the same thing over and over again, on a greater and greater scale.

    The Ascension of Jesus (receiving the scroll) matches Moses’ ascension and His receiving of the Law. An image of the beast is built by a corrupt priesthood while He is away (in this case, Herod’s Satanic Talking Temple). The harlot drank the New Covenant curses cup (Numbers 5), and a new generation entered a heavenly country, to rule the gospel age. As Peter said, they were looking for a new heaven and a new “Land.” They got it.

    So “paradise” is no more. The saints, including Abraham, the faithful thief, and Lazarus, are gems on the bosom of our Great High Priest. The promise was fulfilled. This first resurrection ended the Old Covenant. The second resurrection will end the New.

    Hope that makes sense.

  50. A long and interesting discussion which I haven’t had time to follow fully.  But I think nobody’s yet mentioned the appearance of Moses and Elijah at the Transfiguration—they must therefore have some kind of real existence at that time!  Also interesting is that the disciples immediately recognised them.  (This point isn’t original – Bp Glenn Davies mentioned it recently.)

  51. Seems this post is lost in the ancient construct of the 3-tiered universe, readily adopted by the early Jesus-cult.

    Is there any non-biblical data or evidence to support any of the postulations put in above comments?

    If the realms so described exist universally, then there must be evidence beyond Christian scipture alone.


  52. Stephen
    The 3-tiered universe is right through the Bible. Sounds like you are familiar with its use in the order of the Creation week, but we also find it in the geographical layout of the original world: Adam sinned in the Garden, Cain sinned in the Land, and the sons of Seth sinned in the World. The ark of Noah also had three levels. Then we see it in the Tabernacle and Temple: Garden – Most Holy; Land – Holy Place (mediators between God and men); and then the Gentile court/World. Jesus was condemned by the High Priest (Garden), condemned by Herod (Land) and then by Rome (World/“Sea”). This pattern is also crucial in understanding the resurrection: Garden – Jesus; Land – AD70 (as described above, the first resurrection) and World – the second resurrection, yet to come. God loves architecture, which is why He bores us to death sometimes with it. It is there to EDIFY the Church.
    So the three-decker world in not fictitious. It is an architectural description of Creation, and how we are to minister within it.

  53. Hi Michael,

    Yes, people do live in a cause and effect world.

    But we also believe in human agency – that our decisions are in some significant sense uncaused by things in creation anterior to us. Physicalism makes that conviction hard to maintain.

    Yes, epicureanism ‘solved’ the problem to their satisfaction, and David Hume to his – two worked examples of physcalism solving the problem – but most other philosophers think their solutions ultimately failed. Similarly more contemporary attempts to locate free will as a subset of those events caused in an indeterminate way is also argued to fall short – indeterminancy is not the freedom necessary for agency.

    If you’re going to classify two thousand years of orthodox views as some kind of apollinarianism, or as weird, it would be good to recognise that there are genuine concerns about your alternative – concerns that can’t be just asserted to be solved.

    The Christian church has been aware of the possibility of physicalism as an option since the beginning. It rejected it for thousands of years. There are reasons for that – dualism wasn’t the only option they had.

    And that’s not even getting into the issue of continuity of the person past death.

  54. I do of course recognise that physicalism is not without difficulties. Did I say otherwise?

    Assertions are being made on both sides of the equation, dear.

    Haven’t go to the continuity issue yet. I don’t think it is insurmountable. Nor do biblical scholars of different stripes think that the texts demand a dualist solution.

    I will probably write something somewhere else about it rather than here.

  55. Friends, thanks for all the comments. I have been away over the weekend at our annual church conference (where I gave the talks), so could not keep up.

    In brief, as I said earlier, and now with Graham, I just want to understand Christ’s words on the cross in what seems like a straight forward way.

    To be back right on topic (although I can see the more philosophical stuff was definitely related), I am interested in your opinions of which way you’d go re. the phrase in the Creed if you use it at church.

    1. Omit the phrase altogether.

    2. Pick an alternative:
    (a) “On the cross, he descended into hell”
    (b) “He was crucified, dead and buried, he descended to…
    (b)(i) the dead
    (b)(ii) the place of the dead
    (b)(iii) the grave
    (b)(iv) the underworld (thanks, Martin)

    3. Keep it as is.

    If you are not sick of this topic, I would value the opinion of all commenters, who have not yet indicated their preference. If you can summarise why in a sentence that’s good too.

  56. Hi Sandy,

    Thanks for bringing us back on topic smile

    I’d keep the words as is.

    I think it is generally better to not change the forms of words handed down, and that have been received widely throughout the world, unless it is really, *really* necessary. Part of the point of this kind of statement is undercut if each group then tweaks bits of it to more precisely reflect their own views at that point. Like a song with an unhelpful line or image, just leave it, and explain how the problematic bit is being interpreted on a regular basis.

  57. A few comments:

    The NIV predetermined that Sheol meant grave and sought to translate it as such. Their inability to do this consistently reflects that this understanding is flawed. It also ignores the fact that when translating the LXX the term grave was not used but Hades.
    Thus, it is a mistake to equate Sheol solely to the grave.
    It is equally a mistake to equate Sheol to hell (a mistake perpetrated by the Latin use of infernus for Sheol).
    Hades and Sheol are best understood as equivalents. They mean “place of the dead”.
    This rules out Sandy’s b (iii)

    Sheol is always understood negatively in the OT (I don’t think Gen 37:35 is a positive or neutral reference to Sheol – it simply says that mourning lasts up until that time). Unpleasant as it is – Sheol (in OT thinking) is seen as an unfitting destination for the righteous (who should live with God) and the wicked (who have escaped punishment). The OT hope becomes something after Sheol.

    The Luke 23 statement of Jesus could just as easily be translated as “I say to you today, you will be with me in paradise”. As UBS consultant Hong notes, the Greek doesn’t make the case one way or the other. Thus, even if you don’t like Michael’s eschatological “day” – the passage doesn’t necessarily mean “you’ll be with me in paradise within 24hrs”. You must make that decision from elsewhere.

    Given this, Acts 2 seems decisive. The contrast is drawn between David and Jesus. David remains in Sheol, Jesus did not remain in Sheol. Thus the OT hope is not to avoid Sheol (who can avoid death (and hence Sheol), the exceptions being Enoch and Elijah?) but to pass through death and Sheol. This is what Acts 2 says Jesus did.

    Given not everyone is wholly convinced of this – in the creed I’d go for “descended to the dead” – which is what the oldest forms have.

  58. Tony,

    The Latin ‘infernus’ does not mean ‘hell’, just ‘lower, that which lies beneath’, the Vulgate uses a different term for ‘hell’. So I don’t think you can justly blame it for equating sheol with hell.

    Regarding Luke 23:43, I don’t think it is accurate to say your alternate translation can be made “just as easily.” Jesus uses similar words on numerous occasions (i.e. “Truly I say to you”), and nowhere else are they then qualified adverbially as your UBS notes imply. The phrase almost always stands alone as an introduction as far as I can see. Consequently it is far more likely that the traditional English translations punctuate the verse correctly at this point. Furthermore, this reading sets up a contrast with the thief’s hope at some indeterminate future time (see verse 42) with Jesus’ assurance that he will be blessed ‘today’. (Aside from the fact that it is a little redundant to say “today I tell you…” since that’s self evident.)

    Of Sandy’s suggestions, I think 2(a) says something different to what the creed actually means by way of the troublesome clause. 2(b)(i) sounds odd. I agree with Tony that 2(b)(iii) is no good. And even though I suggested it, 2(b)(iv) is in danger of tapping into popular culture at a point which makes it sound like Jesus fought vampires. So 2(b)(ii) is perhaps the best of the options.

  59. This:

    Thus the OT hope is not to avoid Sheol (who can avoid death (and hence Sheol), the exceptions being Enoch and Elijah?) but to pass through death and Sheol. This is what Acts 2 says Jesus did.

    reminded me of another passage that I wanted to flag as I think it is germane to the discussion and seems to rarely be discussed.

    And that’s 1 Samuel 28. I realize that there is a long history of interpreters reading that chapter as a demon pretending to be Samuel, but that seems to have utterly no exegetical warrant in the text. The text itself seems to baldly state that a witch called up a spirit who was the prophet Samuel and Samuel spoke and gave much the same message he had given Saul when he was alive.

    That doesn’t address the question as to whether it should be ‘hell’ or ‘place of the dead’, but it is relevant to whether ‘place of the dead’ means more than just the local graveyard.

  60. @ Martin:
    Latin: sorry about my lack of clarity. I would suggest that the Latin use of infernus in the creeds contributed to a confusion of meaning with Sheol and Hell (ie one became equated with the other). There are certainly broader theological factors at play in this confusion. That is to say – Rufinus’s clearly knows that his use of the Latin infernus for Sheol does not mean hell, but that this distinction is lost in later generations. This role the creeds played in this (and in particular the shift into Latin) is reflected in Grudem’s historical reconstruction of the development of the Apostles Creed).

    Greek of Today: I refer you to Hong’s work “Understanding and
    Translating ‘Today’ in Luke 23.43,” by J. Hong, published in “The Bible
    Translator,” Vol. 46, 1995, pp. 408-417.
    He finds that – from looking at the Greek construction in Luke that statistically it is more likely to punctuate after today (as I sugested). Statistics don’t make the case – but they do show that my reading is possible/plausible.
    Earl Ellis also refers to a number of early manuscripts punctuate it as I have suggested.
    You mention the “truly, truly I say to you” sayings – but these are not exact parallels (its not a truly, truly saying). In thinking that my reading renders today “redundant” – doesn’t such redundancy appear in Jesus saying “truly, truly I say to you” (isn’t it obvious who’s speaking?).

    @ Mark
    A truly weird encounter – which if we take the claims of the text as true – Saul has an encounter with the dead Samuel.
    I would suggest (in a manner consistent with the rest of the OT) – that Samuel was in Sheol. From here he is raised (or better yet roused). His insubstantial nature is reflected in that he is a “shade” (which is the consistent way in which the dead are spoken of (see: Johnston – Shades of Sheol).
    If we follow OT usage – then we are better off speaking, rather than the soul of the dead, but the shades. This would fit well with Peter Bolt’s suggestion that the demons of the NT are in fact ghosts (ie shades). They (like Saul) have somehow free from Sheol (for a time).

  61. Hi Tony,

    Thanks for referencing Hong’s article. I think you’ve misunderstood the significance of his statistics. He demonstrates that, when considering two specific grammatical and syntactical constructions he analysed (i.e. the position of the adverb σήμερον ‘today’ relative to the event it describes as well as the tense of the associated verb), there is no definitive requirement for the adverb in this instance with either the preceding or following clauses. The fact that there may be a few more examples of one association than the other out of a fairly small number of examples (around 20 in Luke-Acts) cannot be said to be statistically significant.

    This is, I think, reflected in Hong’s own conclusion: “It undeniably makes more sense to associate the word with the following clause, rather than with the previous one” (p. 416).

    Regarding Jesus’ “truly I say to you” sayings, Luke never has “truly, truly” and the reporting of Jesus’ words here is essentially identical to all the other sayings in Luke — unless you include the adverb σήμερον in the first clause. It is also worth adding that Hong’s failure to analyse the syntax within this specific pattern undermines the significance of his statistical analysis.

  62. Word studies are important, but they don’t give the full picture. The reason the word “today” is used by Jesus is because the passage is working its way through Israel’s seven feasts. When Jesus gets to this point, it’s the Day of Atonement. He is the High Priest at the centre, and the thieves are the two goats. One is going to God and the other is going to outer darkness.

    So, we can analyse a word or a sentence till the cows come home. But if we ignore literary or liturgical allusions, we will stay in the dark. The modern scientistic mind can’t cope with the Bible because it has no imagination. God is a poet, and we need to read Scripture in a way that allows for this added dimension of history. Unfortunately, the modern conservative mind can’t, or won’t, receive the text fully in the way it was intended.

    Would such retentive word studies be much good in analysing modern literature?

    Here’s an even more ascerbic link if you are interested, but it might also give you a laugh:

  63. Hi Martin

    Thanks for the correction – it has been some years since I read Hong. I had thought that from his survey of Luke-Acts and the ‘verb+Today’ and ‘today+verb’ construction that the structure of Verb+Today outnumbers the alternative Today+Verb. On this basis doesn’t he say, ‘As a preliminary observation we can say that as a rule, ‘today’ is placed after the related verb’ (p412)(which is why I said “statistically more likely”).
    Furthermore, Hong states ‘and that
    ‘from a strictly textual point of view, it is impossible to determine which of the clauses before and after it the word “today” should be associated with’. (p416).
    As such, I think Hong’s conclusion is not supported by the weight of his own evidence).
    I am not saying Hong makes my case. As Mike suggests there are other more important factors that need to be considered.
    All I am saying is that Hong’s work shows that the reading I have suggested is just as plausible as the alternate reading.
    (my bible software seems to be acting up – so I can’t look up the Lucan ‘truly I say to you’ sayings. The point that I was making there was not about the use of the adverb, but in regards to the “redundancy” of Jesus words – which is that ‘truly I say to you’ is in of itself not more or less redundant that ‘truly I say to you today’).

  64. Hi Tony,

    Hong is mistaken in his claim you’ve quoted from p. 416. That is only valid if his two criteria are exhaustive. They are not, and once one looks beyond those criteria to Luke’s reporting of Jesus’ ‘amen’ sayings we find that all the evidence points to reading the adverb ‘today’ with the following clause, not the preceding one.

    Of course that only reinforces Hong’s final conclusion.

    Hi Mike,

    I certainly agree that lexical semantics cannot exhaustively explain the significance or meaning of the biblical text. On the other hand, I would not be so quick to undermine the importance of lexical semantics among the array of tools all readers use to understand texts.

    OTOH, your approach troubles me. Has the idea that ‘today’ in Luke 23:43 refers to the Day of Atonement feast been suggested by anyone in the last 2000 years besides yourself?

  65. Hi Martin

    I can understand your hesitation, but there has been a lot of development in biblical theology over the last 2-3 decades that is only just making its way into prime time. This means that new discoveries are actually possible. Not everything comes with footnotes. I can send you my book and you will see what I mean.

    What I have done is taken the structures laid down in the Torah and found them right through the Bible, including here in Luke. Problem is, most Bible scholars don’t read the Bible as literature, or even as a united book. So they miss stuff that twelve year olds can pick up in a second… (see second half of video)

  66. Unfortunately, the bit about Hades is somewhat misleading since in Luke’s gospel account the story of the rich man and Lazarus uses the word “hades” in reference to the place where the rich man was suffering in torment.  If hades is merely the grave in every instance in the New Testament, then why does Luke use the word to refer to suffering in flames?  Of course, we should remember that Lazarus and Abraham are also in hades but they are across a great gulf.  It would seem to me that greater precision in biblical exegesis needs to be made regarding this apparent contradiction in the author’s article.  (See Luke 16:19-31, ESV).



  67. Hi Mike,

    While I’m quite aware that “new discoveries are actually possible,” I’m also aware that most of the claimed “new discoveries” ultimately prove to be spurious dilettantism. The more convincing among them tend to be based in legitimate ideas but press on well beyond what is warranted to arrive at false conclusions. Consequently any “new discovery” needs to be examined very carefully, not least because one implication is that God has been happy to have his word misunderstood by his people for the last 2,000 years.

    Furthermore it is incorrect to characterise recent biblical scholarship as failing to read the Bible as literature. If that’s your impression you need to read more widely. What it does do, however, is recognise the literary diversity within the Bible and appreciate each part’s unique contribution within its specific literary form. Nonetheless, the focus on intertextuality in much modern biblical study demonstrates that your accusations are largely unfounded.

    I have watched the video to which you linked. I’m not sure what the words of the 12 year old are meant to highlight — most of what he says reflects what many commentaries say about the forming and filling structure of the text. Of course he goes beyond this a little in attributing specific structural significance to the grains and fruit of day 3, but I don’t find this idea overly compelling — the video certainly doesn’t offer sufficient reason to think that the idea is more than a product of a fertile imagination.

    This has now moved far from the topic of this thread. I would be happy to review your book although my time is quite limited. Since this has moved off topic I think I’ll refrain from further comment.

  68. Hi Martin

    Thanks for your comments.

    Modern scholarship is great as far as it goes, but it rarely deals with literary structural analysis. And it has little imagination, which is required to read the Bible. I have read enough of scholarship to observe that. It’s why quite a few of the comments above are arguing about twigs and trees without understanding the forest context. How many understand Hades within a Tabernacle/Temple construct, for instance?

    Dilettanteism is one thing. But making a structural observation that plays out in Scripture again and again is quite another.

    I’d be happy to send you a copy of my book. It’s not a big one. Then you’d have a better idea of what I’m babbling about.

    Kind regards,

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