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What happened on Good Friday?

Most Christians are no doubt familiar with what happened on Good Friday.  Naturally, this is the day that church tradition commemorates as Jesus’s death on the cross (though recent scholarship has called into question the precise date that this acually happened, but that’s a post for another year).  Church tradition also commemorates another event that happened on this day by way of the Apostles’ Creed:

I believe in God the father almighty, Maker of heaven and earth
And in Jesus Christ, his only son, our Lord;
Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of a virgin Mary
Suffered under Pontius Pilate,
Was Crucified, dead and buried.
He descended into Hell…

Many churches have different variations of the last line, one of which is “He descended to the dead.” Likewise, many churches leave out this verse entirely. Personally, I believe it is best left in.  I believe that most churches who leave it out do so simply on the philosophical/metaphysical idea that they don’t like the idea of Jesus going down into hell.  But I wonder if those who leave this out really fully understand what’s going on here.

The Jews had a very different idea of the afterlife than what now has been adopted into Western thought.  There was no idea (prior to the death of Christ, at least) of hell. Instead, Jews believed that the souls of the dead went down to She’ol, which is typically rendered in modern translations as “the pit” or Sheol” itself. Sheol was, in Hebrew and Jewish tradition, the abode of the dead, somewhat akin to Homer’s idea of Hades, where all the dead went, regardless of one’s religious persuasion.  The idea is somewhat similar to the Greek abode of the dead, Hades, seen in Homer’s Iliad.

Traditionally, the early church viewed this event as the time where Jesus descended to the dead to preach  to those who had gone before him (especially, but not limited to, the patriarchs).  Paul writes that it is God’s desire for all to be saved, and this was one instance where he sought to accomplish this task.  In essence, Jesus preached the Gospel to the ones residing in Sheol, so that they might have a chance to accept the message and go to be with Him and God.

This idea is based on a couple of passages in 1 Peter:

1 Peter 4:1 Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves with the same way of thinking, for whoever has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, 2 so as to live for the rest of the time in the flesh no longer for human passions but for the will of God. 3 For the time that is past suffices for doing what the Gentiles want to do, living in sensuality, passions, drunkenness, orgies, drinking parties, and lawless idolatry. 4 With respect to this 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.  (1Pe 4:1-4 ESV)


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