The confession of the early church was that Jesus Christ was crucified, buried and on the third day, he rose again from the grave. Somewhere along the way, Christians asked the question, where was Jesus between his death and resurrection? It seems that after reading the four gospel accounts, the most obvious answer would be that Jesus was dead and in his tomb for three days and three nights until he was resurrected back to life. Multiple texts found in the gospels such as; Matthew 12:40, 26:61, 27:40, 24:63; Mark 8:31, 9:31, 10:34, 14:58, 15:29; John 2:19 all explicitly or implicitly teach this truth. In contrast to this, several Christian faith traditions have taught that upon death, Jesus’ disembodied soul/spirit travelled to an underworld called Hades where he rescued prisoners from their bondage and took them to Heaven. This doctrine often called the ‘Harrowing Hell’, has been propped up by a small handful of Biblical texts that have been pieced together to teach the doctrine of Christ’s ‘descent’ into the underworld, which understood as a land of dead disembodied soul/spirits. This narrative is explicitly taught within the pseudepigrapha document titled “The Gospel of Nicodemus” which is not recognized as an authoritative text by the faith traditions that teach this doctrine. However, scriptural support for this doctrine is only found implicitly and is typically supported by only a few scriptural passaged that must be pasted together in an attempt to justify the proposed narrative.
If you are interested in reading a copy of “The Gospel of Nicodemus” it can be found here.
Three books have been recently published which all support the doctrine of the ‘Harrowing of Hell’, each from a different faith tradition’s perspective.
1. A Catholic View
The book “Christ’s descent into Hell” written by Lyra Pitstick compares and contrasts the theological views of Catholic theologians; John Paul II, Joseph Ratzinger and Hans Urs von Balthasar. In the book, Pitstick looks at how these theologians have approached the theology of Holy Saturday and Christ’s descent into Hell from a Catholic perspective.
2. An Orthodox Perspective
The book “Christ the Conqueror of Hell; the Descent into Hades from an Orthodox Perspective” written by Hilarion Alfeyev examines the ‘Harrowing of Hell’ from the Eastern Fathers perspective. Alfeyev also examines samples of liturgical poetry that have been written on the topic of Christ’s descent.
3. An Evangelical Theology
“He Descended to the Dead’: An Evangelical Theology of Holy Saturday” by Mathew Y. Emerson looks at the descent of Christ from an evangelical perspective. Emerson encourages his readers to embrace the narrative of the ‘Descent’s’ place within the historical creeds. Here Emerson separates himself from many other evangelicals who teach that Jesus went to Heaven between his death and resurrection.
All three of these books use the following five scriptures which have often been misinterpreted, to support the doctrine of the ‘Harrowing of Hell.’
- In Acts 2:27-31 (quoting the Psalms), Peter declares God won’t leave Jesus’ soul in Hades.
- In 1 Peter 3:18-20 Jesus is said to communicate to spirits in prison. For a more detailed article on this text: Peter 3:18-20.
- In Ephesians 4:7-10 Paul states that Jesus descended to the lower regions of the earth.
- In Philippians 2:9-10 Paul says those “under the earth” will bow to Jesus.
- In Romans 10:6-8 Paul uses the language of ‘ascending to heaven’ and ‘descending to the dead.’
In Emerson’s book he makes the following argument:
- Christ’s human life, death, descent and resurrection is paradigmatic for how we understand what it means to be truly human.
- He believes his book shows that Jesus descended to the underworld as an immaterial soul between his death and his resurrection. Therefore
- All of humanity will also experience death as the separation of the body and soul and will exist as a soul in an intermediate-state between death and resurrection. And also
- We should, therefore, read the Bible as a text that supports dualist anthropology.
If Emerson is correct, and the ‘Harrowing of Hell’ can be found to be scriptural, I believe that he is right in his assessment. It seems to me that all Christians should be able to consent to Emerson’s first point. Christ is indeed paradigmatic for how we understand what it means to be truly human. However, if the opposite can be proven through scripture, that Christ did not descend to the dead but rather remained dead and embodied in the tomb for three days, then dualism is not the anthropological paradigm that scripture teaches. In other words, if the ‘Harrowing of Hell’ doctrine can be disproven through scriptural support, I suggest that we can then conclude that:
- All of humanity will also experience death as the cessation of life in its entirety. To die then as a human is to undergo bodily decay, and nobody will experience consciousness of any form between their death and resurrection. And also
- We should therefore read the Bible as a text that supports a wholistic anthropology in which humans are to be understood as creatures that cannot live disembodied.
In this article, we will be examining Acts 2:27-31. We will look at Peter’s sermon as a whole and specifically the Old Testament text that he quotes found in Psalm 16:10 which declares that God won’t leave his Holy one in the grave. If this specific text is to be used as support for the doctrine of the ‘Harrowing of Hell’, it should be validated by being able to show that either David, or Peter, or both men believed that upon death, a person’s material or immaterial nephesh/psyche (soul) descends to an underworld i.e Hades. In addition, we will examine how Paul’s sermon in Acts 13 also plays a significant role in this question because his sermon should be understood as a direct parallel to Peters.
1. The Old Testament Says All Nephesh (Souls) Go To Sheol When They Die
First, it will be helpful to examine the source text found in Psalms 16:10 that both Peter and Paul quote from in their sermons. Peter quotes Psalm 16:10 in his sermon once in Acts 2:27 and again in Acts 2:31. Paul on the other hand, only quotes the second half of the verse leaving the first half out. Paul’s quote of this verse can be found in Acts 13:35. The text that both Peter and Paul quote comes from king David in which he states:
“For You will not abandon my nephesh (soul) to Sheol;
Nor will You allow Your Holy One to undergo decay. (shachath)
The primary question that needs to be asked is, are these two verses to be understood as synonymous statements, or are they two distinct and separate statements? In other words, does a soul being abandoned to Sheol mean the same thing as a person’s body undergoing decay? Or are these two distinct statements, the first referring to a soul being abandoned to Sheol as something that separates from the body at death and the second statement then applying only to the person’s body which undergoes decay? To answer this question we might further ask, how does the Old Testament use the Hebrew word nephesh? When looking at how the Hebrew word nephesh is used in the Old Testament, we find that nephesh is used to speak of both humans and animals as well as living bodies and dead bodies. The Hebrew word is intimately connected with being an embodied being and is said to die when the body dies. The text declares that upon death, the nephesh goes to Sheol. Sheol is a unique Hebrew word found in the Old Testament that refers to the place where all dead people go. There are a multitude of texts that speak of the nephesh (soul) going to Sheol when a person dies. The Psalmist articulates this common Hebraic understanding when he says “What man can live and not see death? Can he deliver his nephesh (soul) from the power of Sheol? (Psalm 89:48)
The fact that the Old Testament expectation was for all people to go to Sheol when they die is easily established. The patriarch Jacob repeatedly speaks about his grey hairs going down to Sheol. (Gen 37:25, 42:38, 44:29) In Korah’s rebellion, the sons of Levi are all said to go to Sheol when they die. (Numbers 16:30, 33) Likewise, Job also speaks of his expectation to go to Sheol when he dies. (14:13, 17:13). The Psalmist tell us that the fate of the wicked is to die and go to Sheol. (Psalm 9:17). But Sheol is not just a place for the wicked, the Psalmist clearly states that nobody can escape death. (Psalm 89:48). King David proclaims that he expects to go to Sheol when he dies. (Psalm 116:3) Once people go to Sheol they are described as the dead. (Proverbs 9:18) The book of Ecclesiastes agrees with the Psalmist that everyone goes to Sheol when they die. (Eccl 9:10) The prophet Isaiah tells his readers that the inhabitants of Jerusalem and men of Judah will meet their end in Sheol. (Isaiah 5:14) Sheol is not discriminatory in regards to wealth or status either, Hezekiah king of Judah is expected to go there. (Isaiah 38:10) The Prophet Hosea says that all of Israel will descend to Sheol. (Hosea 13:14) Finally, Jonah describes his death or experience in the belly of the fish as a descent into Sheol from which God rescued him. (Jonah 2:2). All of this scripture evidence supports the claim that the overwhelming expectation from the Hebrew scriptures is that when anyone dies, they end up in Sheol, however that is defined.
2.The Old Testament Says That Nephesh (Souls) That Go To Sheol Decay
We might ask then, what happens to the nephesh in Sheol? If the nephesh (soul) was immortal we would not expect it to undergo decay. Aftercall, the decay of an object results in its dissolution. If this is true we should view the two statements in Psalm 16:10 to be distinct and not synonymous. However, if they are meant to be synonymous or parallel statements, we might expect to find other Biblical texts that speak of the decay of the person/soul upon death. What we find upon further investigation is that Job, the Psalmist and Isaiah all connect this same Hebrew word shachath which means to undergo decay or go to ‘the pit’, with the Hebrew word nephesh (soul). Look at the following three texts in which a nephesh is said to undergo decay upon death. Notice how the nephesh is said to experience the same fate as the body in death and is tied to the mortality of the subject being described. In addition, death is described as perishing and humanity is ascribed the same fate as animals.
“He keeps back his soul (nephesh) from undergoing decay (shachath)
And his life from perishing by the sword.”
“For the redemption of his soul (nephesh) is costly, and he should cease trying forever
That he should live on eternally, that he should not undergo decay (shachath)
For he sees that even wise men die; The stupid and the senseless alike perish
And leave their wealth to others. Their inner thought is that their houses are forever
And their dwelling places to all generations; They have called their lands after their own names.
But man in his pomp will not endure; He is like the beasts that perish.”
“Lo, for my own welfare I had great bitterness;
It is You who has kept my soul (nephesh) from undergoing decay (shachath),
For You have cast all my sins behind Your back.”
In addition to biblical authors using the specific word nephesh to speak of the bodies decaying after death, they also associate personhood with bodily decay. In the following three texts we see that; the Psalmist expects to undergo decay at death, Ezekiel associated personhood with bodily decay postmortem, and Jonah expresses being rescued from Sheol or the grave so that he would not undergo decay. None of these authors make a distinction between the body and nephesh (soul) at death. They all associate the process of decay with themselves as an embodied being who dies.
“What profit is there in my blood, if I undergoing decay (shachath)?
Will the dust praise You? Will it declare Your faithfulness?”
“They will bring you down to undergo decay (shachath),
And you will die the death of those who are slain. In the heart of the seas.”
“I cried for help from the depth of Sheol; You heard my voice. I descended to the roots of the mountains. The earth with its bars was around me forever, But You have brought up my life from undergoing decay (shachath), O Lord my God.”
The Psalmist declares that to die, is to undergo decay and return to the dust of the earth. This was the promise and description of death found back in Genesis 3:19. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Jonah proclaims that to be rescued from death means to be rescued from decay. So far what we have been able to establish is, that the Old Testament expectation was that upon death all people or nephesh (souls) went to Sheol. Sheol was not understood to be a disembodied underworld of spirit/souls but rather the grave where the entire person as an embodied creation underwent decay. This is what the Psalmist describes, and as we will see also what Peter and Paul articulate in their sermons. In short, a person is an embodied being that upon death is buried and decays. What we can conclude then is that at the very least, in its original context, David’s two statements should be taken synonymously as meaning the same thing but articulated in different ways. This is a very common practice in song writing, the repetition of thought in two forms of articulation. Just to be sure this is how King David thought about a nephesh and Sheol, lets further examine the Psalms as a whole.
3. David’s Use Of The Word Nephesh (Soul) And Sheol
While some scholars attribute partial authorship of Psalms to King David and others the entire collection of songs, it is clear when looking through the Psalms as a whole that they speak of the nephesh as something that is mortal. For instance, Psalm 7:2 says that a nephesh (soul) can be destroyed by a lion and Psalm 22:20 says that a nephesh (soul) can be destroyed by a sword. Later in the Psalms we read that when a nephesh (soul) dies it returns to dust. (Psalm 22:29) A nephesh (soul) can also be kept from the grave, (see Psalm 30:3, 86:13) or delivered from death. (see Psalm 56:13, 116:8) Texts like Psalm 33:19 and 78:50 are clear that a nephesh (soul) both lives and dies. When a person dies the nephesh (soul) is destroyed. (Psalm 40:14)
Texts like these and many others, make it clear that death is inescapable. The Psalmist writes, “what man can live and not see death? Can he deliver his soul from the power of Sheol? (Psalm 89:48) The Psalmist is clear that the nephesh (soul) is mortal. Again, we read, “for the redemption of his soul is costly, and he should cease trying forever, that he should live on eternally, that he should not undergo decay.” (Psalm 49:8-9) Just like Peter and Paul express concerning King David, the Psalmist declares that when a person dies they (as both body and soul) undergo decay.
The Psalmist declares that Sheol, the place where all dead people go, is a place of death, decay, inactivity, and a place of no return. Sheol is described as death or the place where someone goes in the following texts; Psalm 6:5, 18:5, 49:14, 55:15, 89:48, 116:3. Those that are in Sheol are said to; be consumed (Psalm 49:14) and decay (Psalm 16:10). The Psalmist says in Sheol you are nothing but bones. (Psalm 141:7) Sheol is a place of silence (Psalm 31:17), a place without the praise of God. (Psalm 6:5). Sheol is described as a pit (Psalm 30:3), and the depths (Psalm 86:13) from which there is no return. These descriptions of Sheol hardly sound like a place where disembodied soul/spirits exist. In fact, quite the opposite is true. Descriptions of Sheol involved the decay of the entire person.
4. Peter And Paul’s Parallel Sermons
Hopefully, the previous section has clearly established that Psalm 16:10 should be understood as two statements that are synonymous and not in a dualistic anthropological fashion. The next question we might ask then is, did the New Testament authors, and even more specifically Peter and Paul see death in the same way, or did they view it from a Greek dualist anthropology? If we are correct in assessing David’s original intent in the Psalm, the question becomes, were Peter and Paul true to the texts original meaning or did they use it to express something different altogether? In order to answer these questions, we first need to bring Paul’s sermon into the conversation by showing that the two sermons are very similar. To begin, let’s compare the two sermons that are given in the book of Acts to see how they coincide. What we find is that these texts should be viewed like a story or parable presented in the gospels. In these two sermons, the same message is being presented but from two different people, so each articulation is nuanced by the presenter and its intended audience. Peter is the first to give his sermon in Acts chapter 2. This is later followed by Paul’s sermon in Acts chapter 13.
In reading the text, there are several important facts that reveal that it is most likely the case that Paul’s sermon should be understood as a copy of Peter’s earlier sermon. There seems to be a good reason to believe that Paul most likely heard Peter preach his sermon in Jerusalem. While we don’t know this for a fact, we do know Paul was in Jerusalem and present at Stephens trial and martyrdom. (see Acts 7:58) We can also conclude from the book of Acts that Paul was interacting with the disciples during this time. (see Acts 8:28) Later in his letter to the Corinthian church, Paul states that he is passing on the same message that he had received, which is the repetition of the major teaching points of Peter’s sermon. (See 1 Cor 15:3-4) We also have scriptural support that Peter and Paul interacted with one another because Paul stated that he had confronted Peter as a fellow Jew about eating with the Gentiles. (see Galatians 2:11) Finally, in his letter, Peter calls Paul a beloved brother and describes his letters as hard to understand. (see 2 Peter 3:15)
When the two sermons are examined side by side, it becomes easy to see that the structural format of these sermons are almost identical.
Peter Acts 2 Paul Acts 13
- v.23-24 You Killed Jesus, God Raised Jesus 1. v.29-30 You Killed Jesus, God Raised Jesus
- v.27 Proof = David’s prophecy 2. v.31 Proof = Jesus Appeared to Many
- v.31 David Prophesied about the Resurrection 3. v.35 David Prophesied about the Resurrection
- v.33-36 Difference-Jesus ascended, David didn’t 4. v.36-37 Difference-David decayed, Jesus didn’t
- v.28 Through Jesus there is forgiveness 5. v.38 Through Jesus there is forgiveness
Comparing the structures of the sermons reveals that both Peter and Paul are appealing to the historical fact that Jesus was crucified but God raised him from the dead. In their sermons, both men appeal to specific proofs that show Jesus to be the Son of God. For Peter, the proof is found in David’s comments in Psalm 16:10. While Paul also appeals to this text, he first mentions that Jesus after being resurrected appear to many people. In their sermons, both Peter and Paul are drawing a direct contrast between King David and Jesus. Peter emphasizes that David did not ascend to heaven, and Jesus did ascend to heaven. While Paul emphasizes that Jesus did not experience decay, while David did experience decay. The culmination of both sermons then results in a gospel appeal and a proclamation of forgiveness. The key point here is that each sermon hangs on the comparative contrast of King David and Jesus.
Variants in Language:
When comparing the sermons side by side we see that they follow a very similar format and structure. Paul essentially retells Peter’s initial sermon in his own words. In Paul’s version, he uses commonly understood Hebraic idioms to connect the narrative to Israel’s historical writings. This is seen in the way that Paul articulates the same sequence of events, Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection, but connects the language to familiar phrases used in the Old Testament. In fact, Paul most likely has in mind the book of 2 Kings when he gave his sermon, or is attempting to paraphrase the description of David’s death found in 2 Kings. The book of 2 Kings tells of David’s death in the following way:
2 Kings 2:1-20
- In death, David said he was going the way of the earth (die) 2 Kings 2:2
- The text says he ‘slept with fathers’ 2 Kings 2:10
- Then he was buried 2 Kings 2:20
Paul phrases David’s death in the language of sleep, which is a prominent phrase repeated throughout the Old Testament. He also restates David’s burial as being ‘laid with his fathers’, which is a phrase used for the death of kings and leaders in Israel’s writings. Finally, he expresses David’s time in the tomb as undergoing decay, drawing a contrast between David and Christ and possibly referencing another Psalm.
Peter 2:29 Paul 13:26
- David died = David fell asleep
- David was buried = David was laid with his Fathers
- David was placed in a tomb = David experienced decay
Paul later repeats this same formula, and expresses that it is the early church’s witness, which is of utmost importance.
1 Corinthians 15:3-4 (see also Rom 6:4, and 1 Peter 3:18)
- Christ Died
- He was Buried
- He was raised on the third day
In summary, we can conclude that the Old Testament’s description of death is understood to be the event in which a nephesh goes to Sheol, the grave, and decays over time.
1. The Old Testament says all nephesh (souls) go to Sheol when they die
The Old Testament witness clearly indicates that the postmortem expectation is that all people go to Sheol when they die. Regardless of how one defines Sheol, both the righteous and the wicked go to this place after death in the Hebrew scriptures. Evidence for this is seen in generalized statements such as Psalm 89:48 which pertain to all people as well as statements regarding the righteous such as King David in Psalm 116:3 and the wicked in Numbers 16:30.
2. The Old Testament says nephesh (souls) that go to Sheol decay
As we have seen in several texts, the Old Testament states that nephesh (souls) experience decay when they arrive in Sheol. This should be understood in a common-sense reading in which the person is their body which is undergoing decay. Evidence for this is seen in texts like; Job 33:18, Psalm 49:9-12 and Isaiah 38:17 which all explain that a nephesh decays (shachath) when it goes to Sheol.
3. David affirms all nephesh (souls) that go to Sheol decay
David and the Psalms as a whole describe a nephesh as something that dies when the person dies. In addition, what we have seen is that Sheol is described as the grave, where all bodies go to decay and decompose. Evidence for this is seen in texts like Psalm 49:8-9 which describe the decay of a person after death as well as descriptions of Sheol where people are said to; be consumed (Psalm 49:14) and decay (Psalm 16:10).
4. Peter and Paul’s sermons are best understood as attempting to convey the same message
Finally, what we have seen from examining Luke’s account of Peter’s sermon in Acts 2 and Paul’s sermon in Acts 13 that these sermons seem to be the same with slight variants. The variations in the messages can be explained by the different people communicating the message, and the different audiences receiving the message. In the next post we will examine these two sermons in greater detail.
Continued in Part 2