About the book:
This book was written by Alan E. Lewis a theology professor at Austin Presbyterian Seminary. He considered the book to be the culmination of his life’s work and was able to finish it before dying of cancer in 1994. The book is a written exploration concerning the question “where was Jesus between the cross and the resurrection?” Lewis indirectly challenges the Catholic doctrine of the “Harrowing of Hell” that teaches that Jesus survives his death as a disembodied soul, goes down to conquer death and Hades, and returns liberating disembodied souls to heaven. His thesis could be summarized in this quote:
So Christ himself did not, despite centuries of theological and homiletical deceit, survive the grave! He succumbed to death and was swallowed by the grave, his sabbath rest in the sepulcher (tomb) a dramatized insistence that his termination was realistic and complete, a proper subject of grief and valediction.
This book very well may be one of the best books written on the topic of conditional immortality. Lewis is thorough in his approach and addresses centuries of theological debate along with his journey. The footnotes in this book often outweigh the actual text itself. One could spend years just reading all the books he has cited. With that said, this book is not an easy read. Each sentence is compact and gives the reader much to reflect on. It is a book that needs to be read multiple times to fully digest the strength and breadth of the arguments. In addition, it is not a short book by any means, the book itself is almost 500 pages in length.
In the prologue of the book, Lewis says that Holy Saturday is “a day which forces us to speak of hell and conceive how it might be that God’s own Son, and therefore God’s own self, lay dead and cold within the sepulcher (tomb).” Lewis’s working thesis is that Jesus is the paradigm through which we understand humanity. He seeks to establish a Christocentric Hermeneutic for how we read scripture and understand God through the model of Christ. Lewis argues, if Jesus was truly dead on Holy Saturday, and was awaiting resurrection and vindication by the Father, then we will also truly die and will wait in the grave for our resurrection. He reminds us that it was “Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.” (2 Timothy 1:10)
Part One: Hearing the Story
Lewis begins with the compelling statement that there is no gap between what God says and what God does. If we simply read the Biblical narrative we see that Jesus said he would be killed and in the tomb for three days. Jesus makes this statement in the gospels multiple times and in several different ways. Jesus warns his disciples that he must be killed and will rise again in three days. When asked for a sign, he says that his death, burial and resurrection will be like Jonah’s time spent in the belly of the fish. When confronted publicly Jesus says that his body/temple will be destroyed and that God will raise it back up in three days. If we trust God to tell the truth and that Jesus is fully God, we need to trust that Jesus was where he said he would be on Holy Saturday. But we have a tradition that has said that Jesus descended into Hell as a disembodied soul, so we must wrestle with the tension between our narrative as it is presented to us Biblically and the tradition that we have been handed down to us. Lewis explains that tradition has attempted to refashion the narrative portraying Jesus as a hero. The gospels on the other hand tell us the story of the road to Emmaus which paints Jesus death as a failed messiah. It is only in the resurrection that we find out that Jesus has been vindicated by the Father. If death is not truly a defeat then resurrection cannot be a genuine victory.
Lewis says that what we need to hear is the story told by the early church in the book of Acts, which is the often-repeated formula “you killed Jesus, but God raised him from the dead.” The Biblical language is always that of resurrection and ‘rising up’ from the grave, and never a reunion of body and soul. Lewis says Jesus’ “humanity was not only particular but representative and universal, that of the Second Adam (e.g., 1 Cor 15:22, 45, Rom 5:12-21), the one who on behalf of many both obeyed and paid the price of disobedience.” The gospel narratives tell us that Jesus is the fullest revelation of God the Father. The birth narratives tell us that Jesus is God incarnate, the divine in mortal flesh. In the first section of the book, Lewis successfully invites the reader to revisit the Biblical narrative and read afresh what our story has to say in comparison to traditions that have been handed down. Jesus fully entered into our humanity and mortality which must mean that Jesus truly died.
Part Two: Thinking the Story
Now that we have learned to listen again to the story, Lewis invites the reader to think about the narrative passed down to Paul which is that Jesus died, was buried, and was raised from the dead.
“For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.” (1 Cor 15:3-4)
The Early Church Fathers struggled to explain just how God could truly die. The problem with intellectualizing and rationalizing the story is that “the church would allow its borrowed concepts to determine rather than serve the telling of its story, to blunt the sharp edges of its meaning. So, it was that at least one major point, the assumption of Greek philosophy seduced the church into safe and comfortable waters.”
Lewis reminds the church that we should not put the proverbial cart before the horse. He says, “the purpose of the doctrine is to preserve that story, there are times and instances when it is necessary for the story to critique and reform church’s doctrine, thus exercising its own priority as God-given Word over the reflections and conceptualizations, and formulations of the church.” Historically, the church struggled with interpreting the nature of Jesus humanity and divinity and attempted to define them through the doctrine of the hypostatic union. In addition, when we look back historically we see that the church struggled to conceive how the triune God could in essence become binary temporarily because of the teaching of the immutability of God. The problem is that the church failed to realize that the incarnation itself challenges the idea of the immutability of God. If Jesus was truly human both the death and resurrection also challenge the idea that God is immutable. Jesus changes by taking on humanity, he changes in death and he is perfected in the resurrection. The prophetic reminder is that theology must be the servant and not the master of our narrative. What the doctrine of immutability tries to protect is the character of God. We can still hold to the immutable character of God while conceding that God can change his mind, have emotions, and Jesus can become incarnate thus changing metaphysically.
The way that this has played out theologically, we are left with three very different options.
Option #1 Death divides Jesus two natures
Taken this way, the divine part of Jesus continues to live while the humanity of Jesus dies.
(This has been traditionally rejected because it is a division of the hypostatic union, it separates Jesus humanity from his divinity)
Option #2 Death divides Jesus body and soul.
Understood this way, it allows for Gods humanity to survive death as a soul and his divinity to survive death as attached to his humanity.
(This view presupposes a dualistic understanding of human nature along with the adoption of the immortality of the soul)
Option #3 Death is complete
If we allow the narrative to speak for itself, we trust that Jesus was where he said he would be, in the grave for 3 days.
(This challenges dualist anthropology, the mutability of God, and ideas of the Trinity)
Lewis says “what the story of the cross requires us to conceive, as a theological necessity, an indispensable thought, is ‘God’s union with perishability.’” If we believe that Jesus truly became human and as a result mortal, what we must preach about Holy Saturday then is that between cross and resurrection Jesus laid dead in the tomb. This then requires that we revisit our theology and doctrine in light of our story.
Part Three: Living the Story
In the final section of the book, Lewis invites us to think about how what we have discovered might shape the way that we live our lives. Lewis says, “as Easter Sunday says that the Creator knows and shows the creature how to die, and how to live by dying, so the Easter Saturday church too, must know how to die, and be ready to practice its own abandonment and self-surrender.”
What we have been invited to do is to first listen to our story with fresh ears. Next, we have been invited to rethink our story in light of that listening. Finally, Lewis asks, “are we willing to enter a historical period of death, and burial and reversal of church history on the way back to the cross?” Jesus death reminds us of the Genesis account of creation and specifically the fact that we are mortal beings dependent upon our Creator. Understanding our mortality helps us to live in dependence of our Creator. Our problem is that we have been living as humans in fear of death. Jesus comes to provide a solution to our fear of death.
“Therefore, since the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself likewise also partook of the same, that through death He might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and might free those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives.” (Hebrews 2:14-15)
Lewis contrasts how we might live in the face of death by contrasting the death of Socrates with the death of Jesus. Socrates did not fear but embraced death as an escape from the body. In contrast, Jesus in fear of death, submitted himself trusting that God would help him escape a tomb. Learning how to live the story also reminds us of the cosmic warfare going on and that God is actively fighting Satan, sin and death. Here we are reminded that we live in a war zone. The gospels show us that much of Jesus ministry was spent on the positive side healing and restoring creation and on the negative side fighting evil and liberating people from the bondage of demonic oppression.
In summary, Lewis explains that knowing that Jesus lived our life, died our death and occupied our grave allows us to die with courage knowing that he has ultimately overcome the grave.