Many Christian readers are not familiar with alternative documents that were not canonized or made a part of the traditional Protestant Bible. A selection of these documents were included in the original KJV translation of the English Bible but were later removed because they did not appear to be original documents written by credible sources. These books are commonly known as the Apocrypha. This label can be traced back to the early church father, Jerome who lived in the 5th century A.D. Jerome referred to the books that were not in the Hebrew canon as the “Apocrypha,” which means “hidden books.” The Catholic church recognizes these books as authoritative but does not refer to these books as the Apocrypha. Instead, the books are called “Deuterocanonical”, which means they were added to the canon of Scripture later in history. Catholics do not include all the Apocryphal books in their canon of Scripture, there still remain some that are outside of their Catholic Biblical canon. Protestants, on the other hand, do not typically recognize any of these books as authoritative.
Among that group of books outside the cannon, there are several books that are referred to as pseudepigrapha. These are books that have been written in a biblical style and have been attributed to an author who did not write them. Several of these books have attempted to fill in the gaps of the Biblical narrative that are not found in the Bible itself. Among these books are the Gospels of the Infancy, the Gospel of Nicodemus, the Protoevangelium of St. James and several others.
The Gospel of Nicodemus attempts to fill in the gap between Jesus death and resurrection. A section within the Gospel of Nicodemus that paints this picture has traditionally been called the “Harrowing of Hell.” First, we will present a brief summary of the story and then compare the narrative to Scripture.
A Summary of the Gospel of Nicodemus Part II. The Descent Into Hell
The narrative begins with a prologue, which sets up the story in which Annas, Ciaphas, Nicodemus, Joseph and Gamaliel are told that the two sons of Simeon, the High Priest, who blessed Jesus in the temple, have risen from their graves. The party visits their tombs where their bodies had been laid and finds them empty. They then proceed to go to the city of Arimathaea where they are told that the men have gone. The two men are found and the group says to the two men “tell us how ye have arisen from the dead.” The two sons Karinus and Leucius “make the sign of the cross” and write down their experience of death and resurrection.
These brothers begin their story by describing how they were sitting with “all the fathers in the deep, in obscurity of darkness” when they saw a great light. When the light is recognized as Jesus, Adam and all the patriarchs and prophets begin to rejoice. The prophet Isaiah recognizes Jesus as the man he prophesied about, Simeon validates Jesus identity as the boy he met in the temple, and John the Baptist recognizes Jesus as the man he baptized. The emphasis in this part of the text is the affirmation of Jesus identity through the testimony of those who knew him while he was alive.
The reader is then met with a brief excursus in which the men describe how at one-point Adam had heard of Jesus baptism and asked the angel Gabriel to be restored to the Tree of Life. Gabriel responded by saying that Adam must wait for the proper time to be healed. The story presents Adam in a state of suffering and anticipation.
Satan and Hell (personified) have a conversation:
Next, the men tell of a discussion that takes place between Hell (who is personified as an acting character in the story) and Satan. The conversation can be summarized as follows:
Hell: How can Jesus be mighty if he is a man and fears death? I have power over all the dead!
Satan (prince of Tartarus): I tempted him and had him crucified
Hell: This is the man that has taken dead men from me like Lazarus, don’t bring him here he must be a God, the savior of mankind!
Jesus casts Satan from Hell:
Next, the reader is told that Jesus tells Satan to leave Hell. Hells casts Satan out and attempts to lock Jesus out of its gates as well. At this point David and Isaiah answer from within Hell proclaiming Jesus has come to free them. Jesus then enters Hell and breaks the gates and the bondage of the captives. A legion of devils shakes in fear. We are told that Satan had promised these devils dominion over the world after Jesus’ death. Jesus proceeds to trampled on death and Satan and draws Adam to him. Hell, then proceeds to ask Satan why he killed Jesus and in turn allowed him to come and empty Hell of its prisoners.
Jesus leads the saints to Paradise:
The brothers next describe how Jesus made the sign of the cross over all the saints and led them out of Hell. As they leave, David and all the saints sing a new song of praise. The prophets Habakuk and Micah both invite the people to praise God. Next, Michael the archangel lead everyone to Paradise where they meet Enoch and Elijah who never died. Finally, the saints meet the thief that was crucified next to Jesus. The thief tells them that he went straight to Paradise after he died because Jesus had given him the sign of the cross, a password of sorts to get in to Heaven.
After visiting with family and friends for three days and being baptized in the Jordan the two men were suddenly transfigured and disappear. The texts states that Pilate himself wrote all of this down and made it available in public books.
A Question of Influence:
While the church does not recognize the Gospel of Nicodemus to be authoritative, the question remains, has this book influenced Christian theology in any way knowingly or unknowingly?
The book is thought to be written as early as the 4th century, but more likely later into the 5th century. One of the common themes of the text is the mention of the ‘sign of the cross’ which stands out as odd because it is not mentioned anywhere in other New Testament letters. In order to determine its influence on modern Christianity, we will consider how the story compares and contrast to the Bible itself as well as common modern beliefs about Jesus death and resurrection.
Three Concepts of the Intermediate State
*In an attempt to compare and contrast views we will speak in general terms dividing the systems of thought into three categories. It should be understood this is an oversimplification and there are multiple different views within these categories.
1. The Early Church View:
The early church’s understanding of life after death was that humans are mortal beings. This view coincided with the Old Testament scriptures. This view places its emphasis on Jesus’ promised hope of the resurrection. The hope for the early church was in Christ’s return and the resurrection of the entire person from the dead. In this view there was not a division of soul and body at death, as a result there was no understanding or belief in an ‘intermediate state’. This view was revived by Protestant Reformers William Tyndale and Martin Luther and continues today with groups like the Anabaptists and Seventh Day Adventists.
2. The Catholic View:
The Catholic view of the intermediate state is informed by the belief of the immortal soul. The Catholic church holds that upon death, there are three potential destinations; eternal Hell for those that will never be saved, Purgatory for those that need to be refined before being saved, and Paradise for the Saints who are no longer in need of sanctification. The Second Council of Lyons, which convened in 1274, adopted the teaching of Pope Innocent IV. The Pope declared purgatory as a formal teaching of the Catholic church. This declaration stated:
“If those who are truly repentant die in charity before they have done sufficient penance for their sins of omission and commission, their souls are cleansed after death in purgatorial or cleansing punishments . . . The suffrages of the faithful on earth can be of great help in relieving these punishments, as, for instance, the Sacrifice of the Mass, prayers, almsgiving, and other religious deeds which, in the manner of the Church, the faithful are accustomed to offer for others of the faithful.”
3. The Protestant View:
The Protestant view is very similar to the Catholic view with the exception of the belief in Purgatory. Like the Catholic view, the Protestant view also relies on the understanding of the immortal soul. The Protestant view can be summarized by the Westminster Confession which was written in 1646.
I. The bodies of men, after death, return to dust, and see corruption: but their souls, which neither die nor sleep, having an immortal subsistence, immediately return to God who gave them: the souls of the righteous, being then made perfect in holiness, are received into the highest heavens, where they behold the face of God, in light and glory, waiting for the full redemption of their bodies. And the souls of the wicked are cast into hell, where they remain in torments and utter darkness, reserved to the judgment of the great day. Beside these two places, for souls separated from their bodies, the Scripture acknowledges none.”
(chapter XXXII, Of the State of Men after Death, and of the Resurrection of the Dead)
As we can see the Gospel of Nicodemus could not have had an influence on the ‘Early Church View’ because it was clearly written afterwards. It does seem however that this text has had an influence on both the Catholic and Protestant views of the ‘Intermediate State’. In what follows we will examine the similarities, differences and how it aligns with Scripture.
Affirmation of the Entire Church:
The Bible, the Gospel of Nicodemus, and all three Christian views affirm the; life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ. None of these beliefs are in question. Paul also affirms that this was the teaching of the apostles themselves.
“By common confession, great is the mystery of godliness: He who was revealed in the flesh, was vindicated in the Spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory.” (1 Timothy 3:16)
“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, and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. After that He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep.” (1 Corinthians 15:3-6)
The question then is what happens to people between death and resurrection if anything at all? Is there an intermediate state between death and resurrection?
Dualist Anthropology and the Immortal Soul:
To start, the Gospel of Nicodemus assumes a substance dualism view of anthropology and the belief in the immortality of the soul. The text describes death as being the separation of body and soul.
“But the priests and the elders said: Be it so, that his disciples did steal away his body; but how is his soul entered into his body, and how abideth he in Galilee?” (Gospel of Nicodemus XIV. 3)
However, as we will see the text is also highly inconsistent in that it intermingles the idea of souls being separated from bodies upon death, with souls being embodied in Hades. This also becomes a problem for those that want to literalize the parable of ‘the Rich man and Lazarus’ or attempt to make it out to be a historical occurrence like John Calvin did in his ‘Psychopannichia’.
The General State Of The Dead:
|Jesus upon death||OT Saints (after Jesus)||Righteous who die now|
|Scripture||Luke 16||Acts 2:27||Luke 23:43||1 Thess 4:13-14|
1 Cor 15:12-19
|1. Early Church||Dead||Died and was resurrected||Dead||Dead|
|2. Catholic||Purgatory/Hell||Went to Hell to save souls||Paradise in Heaven||Purgatory or Paradise|
|3. Protestant||Paradise side of Hell||Went to Paradise or Heaven with the thief||Paradise moves to Heaven||Straight to Paradise|
|4. Gospel of Nicodemus||Purgatory/Hell||Went to Hell to save souls||Paradise in Heaven||Implies straight to Paradise|
1. The Early Church View
The Early Church did not view the parable of ‘The Rich Man and Lazarus’ as literal or an accurate portrayal of life after death. The Parable reflects the existing view of the Pharisees that Jesus was correcting. Jesus makes the point that someone won’t or can’t’ be sent from the dead to the living. Instead, Jesus will be resurrected and the Pharisees still won’t believe in him.
B. Jesus was not abandoned to Hades
The Early Church interpreted Acts 2:27 as describing Jesus’ abandonment to the grave not to a disembodied underworld. In his sermon, Peter is quoting the Psalms where David uses the Hebrew words nephesh or life and Sheol which was the Hebrew word for the grave.
C. The Thief on the Cross
The Early Church understood Jesus’ words to the thief on the cross to be pastoral in nature. The thief will not experience time between death and resurrection. Jesus can use the word ‘today’ because the next moment that the thief experiences after death will be his resurrection.
The Early Church understands Paradise to be the Garden of Eden that humanity has been restricted from and will gain access back to when Jesus returns and established his kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.
E. Death as Sleep
The Early Church sees the language of “sleeping in death” as a metaphor in which awakening also corresponds to resurrection.
2. The Catholic View
The Catholic Church understands the parable of the ‘The Rich Man and Lazarus’ to be a literal account of what happens to both the righteous and unrighteous after death.
B. Jesus was not abandoned to Hades
The Catholic Church sees Acts 2:27 as affirmation of Jesus’ ‘Harrowing of Hell’. When Jesus’ body dies he continues on after death as a spirit or soul.
C. The Thief on the Cross
The Catholic Church has a hard time reconciling Jesus words to the thief on the cross with the ‘Harrowing of Hell’ doctrine. How can Jesus both ascend to Paradise and descend to Hell? The only potential reconciliation is if Paradise is geographically located in Hell and the thief descends with Jesus. If this is the case it would run contrary to the Gospel of Nicodemus.
The Catholic Church views Paradise as a place in Heaven for disembodied souls.
E. Death as Sleep
The Catholic Church avoids the language of “sleep” applying it only to the body and not the soul.
3. The Protestant view
Many Protestants see the ‘The Rich Man and Lazarus’ story as a parable while others see it as a literal account.
B. Jesus was not abandoned to Hades
The Protestant view often has a hard time reconciling Acts 2:27 with Jesus going straight to Paradise with the thief.
C. The Thief on the Cross
The Protestant view typically gives priority to Jesus words to the thief on the cross believing that Jesus went straight to Paradise.
The majority of Protestants understand Paradise to be a place in heaven for disembodied souls.
E. Death as Sleep
The Protestant view typically avoids the language of “sleep” concerning death, applying it only to the body and not the soul.
Paradise In Hell?
The state of the dead as described in the Gospel of Nicodemus is anything but pleasant. It is not peaceful or joyful and is certainly not Paradise. Some Protestant views trying to reconcile the larger picture have proposed the idea that everyone who died in the Old Testament prior to Christ also went to Hades or Sheol just as the Old Testament describes, but that Hades was divided into two sections. The only Biblical support for this view comes from Jesus parable in Luke 16. As was mentioned earlier, this becomes problematic when taken literally. The problem is that most modern readers fail to recognize that Jesus is giving a parable to the Pharisees that describes their current belief system. This does not necessarily demand that Jesus believe in the geography of Hades that he describes. Many scholars have attempted to connect this parable and Jesus words describing Abrahams Bosom with Paradise. The idea that developed subdivided Hades into a place of Paradise and rest for the righteous and a place of torment for the wicked.
The Gospel of Nicodemus paints a grim existence for all those that have died prior to Christ. Those in Hades are described as being in the deep darkness, or the pit. This place is described as a “prison” where all people are “bound in the chains of their sin”. This includes; Adam and the Patriarchs and Prophets all of whom “sit in the darkness and in the shadow of death”. These “prisoners that are held bound by original sin” are “sighing in torment”. They are described as “captives which could never be joyful”.
Adam- Body and Soul in Hell?
An attentive reader of the Gospel of Nicodemus will quickly realize the problem it presents in regards to bodies and souls. Adam, who is in Hell, is portrayed as seeking the oil of the tree of mercy to anoint his body which is sick. The reader must immediately ask, how does a disembodied soul experience “pain of the body”? And yet at the same time, the text says that Adam will be joined with his body and resurrected later. Once Jesus descends into Hell and rescues Adam he thanks Jesus for bringing his soul out of Hell saying; “O Lord my God I cried unto thee and thou hast healed me; Lord thou hast brought my soul out of Hell, thou hast delivered me from them that go down to the pit.” This picture of anthropology seems inconsistent to say the least. It presents the same problems that the parable of ‘the Rich man and Lazarus’ does when taken literally.
Lazarus’ Soul In Hell Rejoins Body To Be Resurrected:
In the Gospel, Hell is personified and has a conversation with Satan. In this conversation, Hell says that Lazarus who was “four days dead and stank and was corrupt, whom I held here” was resurrected by Jesus. Lazarus, as a person or soul was in Hell and Hell, says that “like an eagle shaking himself leaped forth with all agility and swiftness, and departed from us”. Here it seems that what is described is a soul because the text indicates that Lazarus body was held elsewhere in the earth. The Gospel speaks of Lazarus’ resurrection saying “the earth also which held the dead body of Lazarus straightway gave him up alive”. So, Lazarus soul which was imprisoned by Hell temporarily later rejoined his body at his resurrection.
Jesus Descends Into Hell Embodied:
The text becomes even more problematic when we come to Jesus. The Gospel says, “as David spake thus unto Hell, the Lord of majesty appeared in the form of a man.” Here we see Jesus coming to Hell in bodily form. However, this does not coincide with what the Bible describes in Acts 2 where Jesus soul is in Hades and that his body (if one holds to dualism) remained in the grave. The ‘Early church view’ would argue that his soul being in Hell was simply a way of saying his life was in the grave. The Catholic and Protestant views both want to separate Jesus body from his soul at death. The Gospel says, “and the Lord stretched forth his hand, said ‘Come unto me, all ye my saints which bear mine image and likeness.”
Not only is Jesus embodied but again we see Adam also embodied. “But Adam casting himself at the knees of the Lord entreated him with tears.”
Two Brothers Transfigured And Taken Up To Heaven
The two brothers of Simon who have died and resurrected are the ones giving the eyewitness testimony of what happened. After they have finished writing everything down the Gospel says “and suddenly they were transfigured and became white exceedingly and were no more seen. But their writings were found to be the same, neither more nor less by one letter.” It seems that in the resurrected state the men are able to vanish into thin air and the implication is that they ascend to Paradise in Heaven.
The Three-layered Geography Of The Gospel Of Nicodemus:
The three-layered geography the Gospel proposes fits nicely with the Catholic and Protestant understanding of the afterlife. Heaven is above, the earth is below it, and Hell is the underworld.
Heaven is where God the Father resides along with, The Tree of Life, Paradise, Enoch, Elijah, and the thief.
Earth is where humans currently live.
Hell is where all of the dead including; Adam, Patriarchs, Prophets, and all the saints reside. They are described as being in torment, without joy, in darkness, sick, and in prison.
In the Gospel, Hades is personified and speaks. This coincides with how the Greeks viewed Hades in their mythology. To the Greeks, Hades was both a location of the dead and a God. This idea is nowhere present in the Bible. It seems that the writer of the Gospel either has adopted this idea from Greek mythology or expects its reader to see the story as a fable and not literally true in all circumstances.
In the Gospel, Satan is said to be the prince of Tartarus. Tartarus is a Greek word associated with Greek mythology and it was the prison in which the Titans were held. This word is found only once in the Bible and it is used as a verb and not a noun. Satan is not described as being a god of the underworld, instead, scripture calls Satan the “prince of the power of the air” (Ephesians 2:2) he is not the prince of a prison where spirits are being held by God. (2 Peter 2:4). In the Gospel, Satan is also described as; “the prince and chief of death” which may be a reference to Hebrews 2:14, the prince of perdition, the chief of destruction, Beelzebub, holder of the keys of Hell, the author of death and the head of all pride. The popular idea of Satan being the king or god of the underworld is still prevalent today. Many Christians believe that Satan is in control of a place called Hell where he tortures the dead.
Enoch And Elijah
The Gospel of Nicodemus says that both Enoch and Elijah have already been in heaven. The text does not give an account of their bodies and if they have been changed at all. This raises questions concerning the Mount of Transfiguration and the disciples encounter with Jesus, Moses and Elijah. The early church view easily explains this text by appealing to Mathews account which specifically calls this encounter a vision (Greek- horama) and not a literal account. Both the Catholic and Protestant views must explain how this literally might have taken place. Was Moses get resurrected from Hell temporarily and then sent back down to Hell at the Mount of Transfiguration? Did Elijah come down from heaven and then return afterwards? The idea of Enoch and Elijah already being in heaven also seems to stand in direct contrast to Jesus words in John 3:13 “No one has ascended into heaven, but He who descended from heaven: the Son of Man.”
Thief In Paradise Jesus In Hell
The Gospel presents an interesting account of what happened to the thief on the cross after his death. The Gospel describes the thief’s testimony in which he says that Jesus sent him straight to Paradise. Jesus even tells the thief that if the angel at the gate gives him a hard time about getting in he simply needs to tell the angel that Jesus sent him and show him the sign of the cross. Jesus on the other hands leaves the thief and descends into Hell. There seems to be a disconnect however because Jesus said he would be with the thief ‘today’ but he goes to Hades and the thief goes to Heaven. This parting of ways becomes an issue for both the Catholic and Protestant views because they cannot reconcile Jesus words of being with the thief in paradise and Peters words in Acts that Jesus soul went to Hades.
The gospel of Nicodemus may have had more influence on current theological beliefs than we have been aware of. This text that was clearly written several hundred years after Christ’s death seems to have influenced the church in some deep ways that have propagated methods of interpreting certain Biblical texts. When attempting to reconcile Biblical texts surrounding this topic the dualist approach often seems to run into more problems than it solves. When viewing the texts from a perspective of conditional immortality, however, there appears to be a coherence to the texts that allow them all to stand in harmony with one another painting a complete picture or narrative of events. A person’s anthropology will have a large impact on how they decide to interpret texts surrounding the idea of life and death.