In the first post, we saw that the idea that Jesus ‘Harrowed Hell’ between his death and resurrection as a disembodied soul/spirit, has been a traditional Christian belief. We also established that it has been a topic of interest in the; Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant faith traditions. Before examining the specific proof-text found in Acts 2 we investigated the source text found in Psalm 16:10. In looking at the source text, we saw that the author seems to be using the two statements synonymously. This was established with the Old Testament definition of a nephesh, along with the fact that all nephesh are said to go to Sheol when they die. Finally, we saw that Old Testament writers associate the nephesh with the body that decays after death. In this second part of the article, we will then move on to examine Peter and Paul’s sermons in greater detail to see if they agree with David’s assessment of what happens to a person after death.
Peter’s Definitive Distinction: Jesus Ascended To Heaven, David Did Not
The ‘Harrowing of Hell’ doctrine teaches that between death and resurrection Jesus descended to the realm of the dead and robbed Hell of all the righteous souls. It is taught that after robbing Hell, Jesus took the righteous souls into Heaven. While this idea is romantic, it is problematic when compared to what scripture teaches and Jesus specifically states in the Gospel of John. The Gospel of John teaches that Jesus existed with God in Heaven prior to becoming incarnate. (see John 1:1-18) In addition, Jesus himself say to his disciples “what then if you see the Son of Man ascending to where He was before?” (John 6:62) Jesus himself explains that he was in Heaven before the incarnation. He also explains that “no one has ascended into Heaven, but He who descended from Heaven: the Son of Man.” (John 3:13)
After Jesus was crucified and was resurrected, he explains that he had not yet returned to the Father in Heaven. In the Gospel of John Jesus says, “stop clinging to Me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to My brethren and say to them, ‘I ascend to My Father and your Father, and My God and your God.’” (John 20:17). Later in the book of Acts we read about Jesus ascension into heaven. Luke says, “And after He had said these things, He was lifted up while they were looking on, and a cloud received Him out of their sight. And as they were gazing intently into the sky while He was going, behold, two men in white clothing stood beside them. They also said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into the sky? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in just the same way as you have watched Him go into Heaven.” (Acts 1:9-11)
Those that teach the doctrine of the ‘Harrowing of Hell’ cannot reconcile their teaching with Jesus direct statement that nobody has ever ascended to heaven. In an attempt to harmonize scripture, most proponents will say that this statement only applies to those that died in the Old Testament. They will then often state that when Jesus’ emptying or ‘Harrowing of Hell’ all of the Old Testament believers then went to Heaven. If this is the case, what are we to make of the Peter’s statement in his sermon regarding David still being in the grave? Peter says “for it was not David who ascended into heaven, but he himself says: ‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at My right hand.” (Acts 2:34) In fact, Peter is not alone, Paul also makes the same statement. It’s important to note that both Peter and Paul are making this statement in their sermons after the resurrection and ascension of Jesus. If the ‘Harrowing of Hell’ doctrine was correct, according to the proposed timeline, David should now be in Heaven. In Peter’s sermon, he compares and contrasts Jesus with King David. Peter claims that Jesus has proven who he said he was by being resurrected from the dead and ascending to heaven, in contrast to David who has not ascended and is still in his tomb. To say that Jesus took David to Heaven with him as a part of the process of ‘Harrowing Hell’ stands in direct contradiction to Jesus’ words in John 3:13 and also goes against the contrast that both Peter and Paul make in their sermons between David and Jesus.
Paul Describes Death As Sleep
In describing David’s death as sleep, Paul follows in a long-standing Jewish tradition. The death of Moses is depicted as ‘sleeping with his fathers’ in Deut. 31:16. This similar description of death as sleep is found in Job (Job 14:10-14), the Psalms (Psalms 13:1-6), the book of Kings (1 Kings 2:10), the book of Jeremiah (Jeremiah 51:37-39, 56-57) and Daniel (Daniel 12:2-3). This theme is then continued on in the New Testament by Jesus himself. (see Matthew 9:23-24 and John 11:11-14)
Perhaps the most relevant Pauline text in regards to this topic is 1 Cor 15:17-20. In this text, Paul connects the theme of death and perishing. Paul states that if there is not a bodily resurrection, all those that have already died have perished. Paul writes:
“….and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins.
Then those also who have fallen asleep (have died) in Christ have perished. If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied.
In this text, we see the continuity of thought continued. When a person dies they do not continue to exist in some form but rather experience the cessation of life, perish, and decay in their grave. For Paul then, and the Christian, the only hope in life after death is found in the resurrection of the body. Paul also calls death sleep in similar texts; 1 Cor 11:30, 15:51-52; Eph 5:14, 1 Thessalonians 4:13-15, 5:10. In these texts, Paul associates’ personhood with the body that is being resurrected. Paul never describes death as the separation of the body and soul. He also never described resurrection as a reunion of body and soul. The same person who dies and ‘sleeps’ is the same person that is awakened and rises from the dead.
It should come as no surprise then that Peter also calls death sleep following in the same Jewish tradition. Peter says, “and saying, ‘Where is the promise of His coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all continues just as it was from the beginning of creation.’” (2 Peter 3:4) As he continues in his line of reasoning he also describes death as perishing. A few verses latter Peter says, “The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.” (2 Peter 3:9) For both Peter and Paul, death is described as the entire person ‘sleeping’ which results in perishing and decay. The only hope then is for the Creator of the universe, who originally formed man out of the dust of the ground in the book of Genesis, to resurrect the dead from the dust and breathe new life back into them.
Paul Describes Burial As Being Laid With One’s Fathers
Closely tied to the previous point is Paul’s description of burial as being ‘laid with one’s fathers.’ In the Old Testament to sleep or be laid with one’s fathers was a way of describing both death and burial. To be ‘laid with one’s fathers’ was an honorable burial. We find this description of Moses in Deut 31:16, David in 2 Sam 7:12, Solomon in 1 Kings 11:43 and multiple other kings. (see 1 Kings 14:20, 15:8, 15:24, 16:6, 16:28, 22:40, 22:50, 2 Kings 8:24, 10:35, 13:9) Just as Paul describes death in different terms as Peter in regards to sleep, he also describes burial in different terms than Peter as being ‘laid with his fathers.’
Paul’s Definitive Distinction: David Has Decayed, Jesus Did Not
Next, we come to Paul’s definitive distinction in which he contrasts David’s decay with Jesus resurrection. In Paul’s sermon, he makes the following statement:
“Now when David had served God’s purpose in his own generation,
he fell asleep; he was buried with his ancestors and he decayed.
But the one whom God raised from the dead did not see decay (diapthora).”
The root of the Greek word that both Peter and Paul use to describe what happens to the bodies of Jesus and David is the word phtheiró. (Strong’s 5351) This word is a verb and is defined as: to perish, waste away, corrupt, destroy, decay. In fact, the root (pht) literally means “waste away”. The specific word that is used by Paul and Peter is the word diaphthora. (Strong’s 1312) This word is derived from the Greek word diá, (Strong’s 1223) meaning “thoroughly,” which intensifies the root word phtheírō, “to defile, corrupt”. (Strong’s 5351) As a result, diapthora is defined as: thoroughly corrupt, totally disintegrate, to waste away by decaying. What is interesting about this word is that it is only used in the book of Acts by both Peter and Paul in these two sermons. In its use, we can distinguish two ways of using the word.
- In regards to the resurrection:
Jesus did not see decay, destruction, decomposition. (Acts 2:27, 2:31, 13:34, 35, 37)
- In regards to death:
David and his Fathers did see decay and destruction. (Acts 13:36) (see also Acts 2:29 David is still dead, Acts 2:34 David did not ascend to heaven, and John 3:13 Jesus says nobody has ascended to heaven)
Let’s examine these two uses further.
The first time this word is used it is found in Acts 2:27. Here Peter is directly quoting Psalm 16:10. The text reads:
“Because You will not abandon my soul (psuche) to Hades,
Nor allow Your Holy One to undergo decay (diapthora).”
There are a few important things to note here. First, it is likely that Peter was quoting the Septuagint the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament that was originally written in Hebrew. The Septuagint translates the Hebrew word nephesh into the Greek word psuche. In addition, the Septuagint translates the Hebrew word Sheol into the Greek word Hades. If the reader is not careful it could be easy to impose a Greek dualistic understand upon this text. Misread, the reader might translate the text in this way:
“You will not abandon my soul (psuche) to Hades.”
Reading this text, a person might interpret the text to mean something along the lines of, “you will not abandon my immaterial soul that survives my body at death to the realm of the dead where disembodied souls go when people die.”
On the other hand, the text could be understood from what I argue would be more in line with a Hebraic understanding of the text and also more consistent with the Bibles overall presentation of anthropology. This view is that human beings are a psychosomatic whole and there is not an immaterial part of a person that survives their death. Taken this way, the text should be read:
“You will not abandon me (nephesh) to the grave (Sheol).”
This way of translating the text, in my opinion, is more Biblically consistent with the language that is being used as well as the Bibles understanding of anthropology. The Hebrew word nephesh in the Old Testament can refer to humans, animals and corpses. It is not used to refer to a disembodied soul. In addition, the Hebrew word Sheol is best understood as the grave, the place that every person goes when they die. If we look at the context of this text and what Peter says, I believe my translation is supported. In addition, this would also coincide with the way David originally wrote the Psalm in the first place as we have previously examined. What we will find is that Paul helps bring to light the fact that unlike Jesus, David is still dead. So, while Jesus did not see decay and rose to life, David is still in the grave and is decomposing. As a result, we can say that abandonment of ones psuche in Hades results in decay, destruction and decomposition. Here we can see that a nephesh or psuche is not an immortal soul that survives death. In addition, we see that Sheol or Hades is not a realm of disembodied souls/spirits.
In Acts 2:31 Peter summarizes David’s word’s by saying:
“he (David) looked ahead and spoke of the resurrection of the Christ,
that He was neither abandoned to Hades, nor did His flesh (sarx) suffer decay (diapthora).”
What is interesting about this summary is that while Peter had previously quoted Psalm 16:10 which uses the Greek word psuche to define Jesus, here he uses the Greek word sarx which means flesh. In this way Peter unites his understanding of both psuche and sarx. For Peter then a soul (nephesh) and the flesh (sarx) are the same thing, we are a psychosomatic whole as persons. Peter’s understand of humanity is that personhood and identity are tied to the flesh.
Moving on to Paul’s sermon, Paul says in Acts 13:34-35:
“As for the fact that He raised Him up from the dead, no longer to return to decay (diapthora),
He has spoken in this way:
‘I will give you the holy and sure blessings of David.’
Therefore, he says also in another psalm,
‘You will not let your Holy One see corruption (diapthora).’”
Paul says that Jesus did not experience bodily decay or corruption because he was raised from the dead. He repeats this again in Acts 13:37 saying:
“but he whom God raised up did not see corruption (diapthora).”
The conclusion from Paul’s statement is the necessity of resurrection in order to not see decay which Peter ties to both the soul (psuche) and the flesh (sarx). In stating the opposite, we can say that if Jesus would have been abandoned to Sheol/Hades he would have seen decay of both his soul (psuche) and the flesh (sarx). This is validated in the next text because David is not raised from the grave (Sheol/Hades) and does see decay.
Here we come to the second use of the word diapthora which is defined again as: thoroughly corrupt, totally disintegrate, to waste away by the decaying. In the same sermon, Paul says in Acts 13:36:
“For David, after he had served the purpose of God in his own generation, fell asleep
and was laid with his fathers and saw corruption (diapthora).”
It seems that for both Peter and Paul a person’s identity is tied to the body. (described as both psuche and sarx) In these sermons, there is no reference to disembodied life, or life after death. There is also no mention of a reunion of body and soul, but rather of resurrection from the dead. The soul or life is said to go to the grave, when the flesh dies the entire person dies and begins to decompose. Both Peter and Paul draw a contrast between David’s death and Jesus life, between David being in the tomb, and Jesus who has risen from the tomb. For Peter and Paul, David’s body is in the grave, and Jesus’ body has risen from the grave. David’s body has been decomposing, and Jesus body has risen and has been perfected and will never see decay.
In addition, it might be added here that the doctrine of Christ ‘Harrowing of Hell’ goes against Jesus own words that he would be killed and raised three days later. Jesus said he would be destroyed (kataluó- Mark 14:58) and would be raised three days later comparing himself to the temple. Jesus said he would be killed (apokteinó– Mark 9:31) and would rise on the third day. He said he came to give his life (psuche Mark 10:45) as a ransom. Jesus own expectation was that he would be completely dead for three days in the grave.
Something that is also interesting to note is that the book of Acts uses all three words soul (psuche), flesh (sarx) and body (soma) to refer to a person who is resurrected. Acts 9:40 is the only time the Greek word for body (soma) is used. In context, the word is used to refer to Tabitha who has died and is resurrected. Soma here is used to describe the resurrection of Tabitha just like soul (psuche) and flesh (sarx) are used by Peter to describe the resurrection of Jesus.
Personhood Is Described By Peter And Paul As Embodied
It is important to notice that both Peter and Paul associate personhood with the body that is either raised from the dead or stays in the tomb. In Acts 2:29 Peter says that David died and was buried. He does not go on to explain death as a separation of body and soul. Paul makes this same point in Acts 13:36 associating David with his body that which he describes as currently experiencing decay.
“Brethren, I may confidently say to you regarding the patriarch David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day.”
In discussing this text, proponents of a dualist anthropology still feel justified in finding wiggle room in the text to explain how it fits within their paradigm. The exegetical move that is often made is to point out that the text says that David died and was buried but Peter specifically states that only David’s tomb is with us today. In other words, the claim is that Peter was intentional to not say that David is still in the tomb himself. At best this is an argument from silence, at worst it is deceptive. In taking the statement that “he died”, this phrase could easily be interpreted in different ways depending on what one believes death to be. Death could be read as the cessation of all life, or it could be read as the separation of body and soul. However, Peter goes on to say that David was buried. Here Peter associates David with his dead body. Note Peter does not say “David died, and his body was buried.” Peter spatially locates David in the tomb as a part of his burial process. Let’s look at Paul’s description to see if he agrees.
Paul’s description of Jesus:
“Therefore, He also says in another Psalm,
‘You will not allow Your Holy One to undergo decay.’” (Acts 13:35, see also 13:37)
In contrast to David:
“For David, after he had served the purpose of God in his own generation,
fell asleep, and was laid among his fathers and underwent decay.” (Acts 13:36)
We have already looked at how Paul directly contrasts Jesus with David in terms of undergoing decay. When we read these two texts we also see that Paul associate’s personhood with the body that either does or does not undergo decay after death. When examining Acts 13:36, we can see that the same person, David, who fell asleep (died), and was laid with his fathers (was buried), is the one that is undergoing decay. While more literal Bible translations give a fairly straight forward interpretation of this text, some less literal translation have been potentially deceptive in how they have translated the text. For example, look at how the NIV Bible translates Acts 13:36.
“Now when David had served God’s purpose in his own generation,
he fell asleep; he was buried with his ancestors and his body decayed.”
The NIV translation adds the word ‘body’ to the text when it does not appear in the Greek. The potential inference is that David is not his body. The text can then be interpreted to mean that “he was buried with his ancestors and his body decayed” but his soul left his body and survived. While it doesn’t have to be read this way it leaves open this sort of dualistic interpretation of death. In its original formation however, Paul is clear that David is his body and he is dead, in his tomb undergoing decay. In their sermons both Peter and Paul seem to make it clear that humans are their bodies and they do not transcend or escape them at death. They, therefore, place their hope in the bodily resurrection from the dead. The fact that Jesus was bodily raised from the dead is what gives the church hope, that Jesus will one day return and raise the dead, just as he was raised.
Peter And Paul Use Of The Word Psyche (Soul)
One additional question we might ask is, how did Peter and Paul use the Greek word psyche in their writing? Their use of the word in context may give us a better understanding as to their belief on the immortal soul and how they viewed Psalm 16:10 when David speaks of a nephesh being abandoned to Sheol. While we don’t have as much writing from Peter as we do from Paul, 1 Peter 3:20 speaks about Noah and the ark. Peter states that eight psyche (souls) were saved from the flood and the rest died. If Peter believed that souls lived on after death this seems like an odd choice of words to use in context. Instead it looks like Peter believed the words nephesh and psyche refer to a person’s life as an embodied creature.
When we examine the writing of the apostle Paul we find that he also uses the word psyche in the context of bodily death in contrast to bodily life. Writing to the church in Rome, Paul quotes Elijah in 1 Kings 9:10 who says, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the sons of Israel have forsaken Your covenant, torn down Your altars and killed Your prophets with the sword. And I alone am left; and they seek my life (nephesh), to take it away.” (see Romans 11:3) Paul is either actively translating the Hebrew word nephesh to the Greek word psyche, or he is quoting the Septuagint which has already made that translation. Either way, Paul understands a psyche as something that dies by the sword, just like Elijah originally used the word nephesh to mean something that could die. Paul also says in Romans 16:4 that Prisca and Aquila have risked their psyche (lives) for him. Again, we see that Paul uses psyche in the sense of life and not immortal soul. In interpreting the creation narrative in the book of Genesis, Paul says in 1 Cor 15:45 that Adam became a living soul. Here Paul qualifies the Greek word psyche with the Greek word zoe which means to live, because a soul can be alive (see Genesis 2:7) and it can be dead. (see Leviticus 19:28) Paul also says in Philippians 2:30 that Timothy came close to death, risking his psyche (life) for the gospel. These examples all continue to prove the point that both Peter and Paul did not believe that Jesus descended to Hell as a disembodied psyche between his death and resurrection. Both apostles understood the psyche to be the person’s life and it died along with the body.
Peter And Paul Never Use The Word Hades In Their Writing
If the concept of Hell or Hades was an important part of communicating the gospel, the two most prominent early church apostles, Peter and Paul, both missed the mark in communicating that truth. Neither Peter nor Paul ever used the Greek word Hades in their letters to the early churches. Instead, they warned their hearers about death, destruction and perishing. Paul proclaimed that the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23), and Peter answered back with the loving truth that God does not want anyone to perish but instead he wants all to come to repentance. (2 Peter 3:9) God does not desire death, he desires life. All throughout the Bible, God can be seen as providing people with the choice to choose life over death. Paul told the church in Corinth that if there is no resurrection then that have fallen asleep (died) in Christ have perished. (1 Cor 15:18) Paul does not say those that have died are currently either in Heaven or Hell as many modern preachers currently articulate postmortem existence. Instead, Paul places the hope in the resurrection saying that when the dead are resurrected the perishable and mortal body, will be raised an imperishable body. (1 Cor 15:42). This is not to say that there will not be judgement, rather it is to say that judgement after death is never said to take place in the Bible until after the resurrection.
In review and summary, here are seven reasons why scripture does not support the doctrine of Jesus ‘Harrowing of Hell’.
- Peter’s definitive distinction: Jesus ascended to heaven, David did not
For Peter, the definitive distinction between the death and burial of David and Jesus, is that David is still in his tomb while Jesus has been resurrected from the dead and has ascended bodily to the Father. Evidence for this is seen in texts like; John 3:13 where Jesus states nobody has been to heaven. In Acts 2:34 Peter explicitly says that David did not ascend to heaven, and Acts 1:9-11 describes how Jesus’s ascended back to heaven.
- Paul describes death as sleep not conscious activity
Drawing on his Jewish heritage, Paul describes King David’s death as sleep. This was a common idiom used both in the Old and New Testament to describe death. In addition, Paul tells the Corinthian church in a conditional phrase that, if there is no resurrection, those that have fallen asleep and died will perish completely. Perhaps the strongest textual support for this argument is found in 1 Cor 16:17-20 where Paul states that without the resurrection everyone will perish.
- Paul describes burial as being laid with one’s fathers
Again, drawing on his Jewish heritage Paul uses the idiom of being laid with one’s fathers to describe the burial of King David. David spatially locates David in his tomb and not in Heaven or Hades. This strong theme of describing death as sleep is seen in; Deut 31:16, 2 Sam 7:12, and 1 Kings 11:43, and is confirmed in John 11:11-14 when Jesus describes Lazarus’ death as sleep.
- Paul’s definitive distinction: David has decayed, Jesus did not
For Paul, the definitive distinction he makes in his sermon is the contrast between David who is in his grave decaying, and Jesus who has been raised from the dead and has not seen decay. Evidence for this was seen in the contrast between Jesus who did not see decay, destruction, or decomposition (Acts 2:27, 2:31, 13:34, 35, 37), and David and his Fathers who did see decay and destruction. (Acts 13:36)
- Personhood is described by Peter and Paul as embodied
In their similar sermons, both Peter and Paul attribute personhood to being an embodied being. Therefore, when a person dies, “they” go to the grave and experience decay because a person is their body. Evidence for this is seen in texts like Acts 2:29 and 13:36 where David is described as dead, buried and decaying in his tomb
- Peter and Paul’s letters describe psyche (souls) die when the body dies
Both Peter and Paul use the Greek word psyche in such a way that indicates that they did not believe in the immortality of the psyche. Their use of the term in context refers to the whole person dying. Evidence for this is found in 1 Peter 3:20 where Paul describes people as psyche who died in the Flood. Perhaps the strongest textual evidence may be Romans 11:3 where Paul quotes 1 Kings 9:10 connecting the words nephesh and psyche with bodily death.
- Peter and Paul never used the word Hades in their writing
While it is an argument from silence, neither of the apostles use the Greek word Hades in their letters. If either of the apostles understood the wicked to go to a disembodied underworld called Hades when they died, neither of them articulated this or warned their readers about this threat of postmortem existence.