Monday, April 9, 2012

Pied Piper tries to read Christ out of hell

John Piper, who famously tweeted, "Farewell, Rob Bell," in response to Love Wins, Bell's much hyped but substantively vacuous critique of the doctrine of hell, may now have some explaining of his own to do with regard to the nether world. In a post at his Desiring God blog, Piper advocates omitting a clause from the Apostles Creed which apparently does not line up with his understanding of Scripture.
The Apostles’ Creed says, “[He] was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended into hell. The third day He arose again from the dead.” There are many meanings given to this phrase. I simply want to ponder the traditional interpretation that Christ went to the place of the dead to preach the gospel to Old Testament saints that he might set them free for the full experience of heaven. This is the view of the Catholic Catechism and many Protestants as well. I don’t think this is what the New Testament teaches.
Exactly what, then, does the New Testament teach? Piper considers two specific passages from 1 Peter:
Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, (19) in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, (20) because they formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water. (1 Peter 3:18-20)

They are surprised when you do not join them in the same flood of debauchery, and they malign you; (5) but they will give account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead. (6) For this is why the gospel was preached even to those who are dead, that though judged in the flesh the way people are, they might live in the spirit the way God does.” (1 Peter 4:4-6)
In tackling the first passage, Piper basically paraphrases a portion of the study notes from the ESV Study Bible, claiming Peter is merely saying "that Christ, through the voice of Noah, went and preached to that generation, whose spirits are now 'in prison,' that is, in hell. In other words, Peter does not say that Christ preached to them while they were in prison. He says he preached to them once, during the days of Noah, and now they are in prison." This is a particularly narrow understanding of the passage which reflects an ignorance of its historical and literary context. Piper is an outspoken critic of N.T. Wright but, in this particular instance, he could learn something from him. In his commentary on 1 Peter, Wright notes that the Apostle draws together four elements:
First, after his death Jesus made a 'proclamation' to 'the spirits in prison'. Second, these spirits had been disobedient in the days of Noah. Third, Noah's building of an ark to rescue his family points forward to baptism. Fourth, baptism is less about washing clean and more about 'the appeal to God of a good conscience'.
Piper, of course, is only concerned with one of these four elements, namely, the proclamation to "the spirits in prison." However, as Wright points out, Peter has a much wider purpose in bringing all four together.
We should remind ourselves of what the passage is basically all about. It is an encouragement to people who are likely to suffer unjust treatment from the human authorities -- not just, in other words, from a random act of mob violence or casual brutality, but an official, legal, persecution. And the point that Peter is making is not only that this brings them into line with the Messiah himself, who suffered in the same way. The point is that after his suffering he announced God's victory over all 'authorities', particularly the ones in the heavenly places. In other words, the point of these four elements is to add further dimensions to what he's already said about the new authorities. The human authorities embody 'spiritual' authorities which stand behind them in the shadowy, unseen realm. And Peter's point is that these complex authorities have received notice that Jesus has overthrown their power. He is now sovereign over the whole world, all other authorities included. That is why the passage ends with the emphatic claim that Jesus, through his ascension into heaven, now has 'angels, authorities and powers subject to him' (verse 22).

So how do these four apparently peculiar elements add up to this conclusion? Here there is a bit of local colour which will help. One of the better-known books in first-century Judaism, much treasured by many who were hoping for God to do some great act of liberation, was the one we know as 1 Enoch. It wasn't actually written by the Enoch we find in Genesis 5.18-24, but it was written to look as though it was. This book traces the woes and problems of the world right back, in particular, to the wicked angels of Genesis 6, spiritual beings who, in the time of Noah, rebelled against God their creator. The book 1 Enoch celebrates, in particular, the victory God has won, or will win, over these spiritual beings. What Peter is saying here is that the victory over these dark forces of evil has in fact been won -- through the Messiah; and that, after his resurrection (after he had been 'made alive by the spirit', as in verse 18), he, the Messiah, made his definitive announcement to the 'spirits'; they had indeed been judged. Their power, such as it was, had been broken. This ought then to function as a considerable encouragement to the little groups of Christians who face persecution from their own local authorities, and from the shadowy spiritual 'forces' that seemed to give them their power. Ever since their original rebellion these 'forces' had been wielding usurped power. Now the Messiah has triumphed over them, and deep down they know it.
Piper's second passage is curiously chosen, since it is not at all controversial. He correctly interprets it "to refer to those who, after being preached to, have since died. He is not referring to preaching to them after they have died." On this point, Wright agrees:
Peter, as ever, is encouraging those who have to face downright hostility because of their following of the Messiah, and because they refuse to go along with the wild and dehumanizing behaviour of those around (verses 3-4). But this will all be sorted out at the judgment. When that time comes, the wicked will have to give account of themselves. The pagan world can look on when a Christian dies and say, 'There you are! Now what's happened to your splendid "hope"? It may even look, to the pagan, as though the Christians have lost the struggle. But these Christians, now dead, had already received the powerful word of the gospel which was preached to them during their lifetime (1.23-25). Thus, even though bodily death has come to them as a form of 'judgment' (compare Romans 8.10), their believing in the gospel during their lifetime means that now, by God's spirit, they are alive in God's presence, awaiting the resurrection which is yet to come.
It would appear that Piper is barking up the wrong tree. In attempting to provide theological and exegetical cover for Protestant churches which omit or, at best, [bracket] the phrase, "he descended into hell," he has built his argument around two passages which have nothing to do with the subject. Moreover, particularly with the first passage, he has committed hermeneutical hari kari by failing to consider the wider context. All this, in order to reach this dubious conclusion:
I would say, therefore, that there is no textual basis in the New Testament for claiming that between Good Friday and Easter Christ was preaching to souls imprisoned in hell or Hades. There is textual basis for saying that he would be with the repentant thief in Paradise “today” (Luke 23:43), and one does not get the impression that he means a defective place from which the thief must then be delivered by more preaching.

For these and other reasons, it seems best to me to omit from the Apostles Creed the clause, “he descended into hell,” rather than giving it other meanings that are more defensible, the way Calvin does.
This, based on Piper's selective reading of Scripture, is a straw man. The clause in question makes no specific mention of Christ "preaching to souls imprisoned in hell or Hades." It merely says, "he descended into hell." It does not logically follow, then, that since "there is no textual basis in the New Testament for claiming that between Good Friday and Easter Christ was preaching to souls imprisoned in hell or Hades," the clause, "he descended into hell," should then be omitted from the Apostles Creed. Neither are Jesus' words to the thief on the cross sufficient reason to justify the omission. David acknowledges with awe that God's presence fills the whole created order (Psalm 139:7-12).
Where shall I go from your Spirit?
Or where shall I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there!
If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!
If I take the wings of the morning
and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me.
If I say, "Surely the darkness shall cover me,
and the light about me be night,"
even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is bright as the day,
for darkness is as light with you.
Similarly, Paul acknowledges in Ephesians 4:9-10 (a passage Piper conveniently avoids) that the presence of Christ, God Incarnate, fills the whole creation.
In saying, "He ascended," what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower regions of the earth? He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.
The thought of Christ in hell understandably makes some believers squeamish. However, if we omit this element from his work of redemption, we make that work incomplete. How could Jesus destroy death without descending to the very realm of death? How could he take captivity captive unless he engaged captivity on its home turf?

The historic creeds are, after all, nothing more or less than elaborations and commentaries on the basic confession, "Jesus is Lord." We need to be mindful of the full implications of that statement. The Lordship of Christ holds sway "in heaven and on earth and under the earth" (Philippians 2:10). To omit any realm from his Lordship is to confess an incomplete faith in an incomplete Lord.