Questions about the Creeds [Part 1] Did Jesus descend into hell?

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One of the most puzzling articles in the Apostles’ Creed is the sentence “he descended into hell, the third day rose again from the dead.” As our congregation has started to study the creeds, confessions, and catechisms of the reformed tradition I’ve started to receive questions about what some of our confessions mean. What does this line of the Creed mean?

For most people the problematic word is “hell.” In popular theology hell is a literal place designed to punish people. It seems problematic the God’s Son should “descend” into a place designed for punishment. And it raises the question, why is Jesus going there? Is he being punished? Is he being purified? Just what exactly is he doing?

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Reformed Christians are deferential to the creeds and confessions. I like to say that we assume the veracity of our confessional standards unless and until a clear, compelling, and widely-received counter argument is produced. And since the Reformed tradition teaches that confessions are subordinate standards–that is they rank below God himself and God’s revelation of himself in Scripture–we should seek to understand the Creed in light of the Bible.

The gospel accounts of Jesus’ words to the thief who believed him seem to call the Creed into question. Christians who affirm Jesus’ descent into hell often argue that it took place after his death and before his resurrection (i.e., on Holy Saturday). What do the Gospels recount. One contains a promise that Jesus and a criminal crucified would be in paradise “today.” The others barely mention the event or ignore it completely.

Luke is unique in recounting that one of the two criminals crucified with Jesus petitioned Jesus: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (23:42). Jesus’ replies, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise” (43).

The Gospel of Mark doesn’t record Jesus’ encounter his two fellow convicts and Matthew simply states that the robbers insulted Jesus (Matt. 27:38, 44).

John records that two men were crucified with Jesus, but not that they were robbers or that they interacted with Jesus at all (19:32).

If we are to interpret passages of Scripture that appear to be unclear or ambiguous in light of those that are clear then we have to find some other biblical evidence that supports the Creeds’ assertion and clarifies what Jesus is recorded to have said from the cross.

A passage that seems to meet that description may be found in the first letter of Peter. In 1 Peter 3:18-19ff.:

For Christ dies for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive by the Spirit, through whom also he went and preached to the spirits in prison….”

Of course, Peter isn’t entirely clear as to who these “spirits in prison” are and he doesn’t make clear precisely what Jesus preached, why he preached it, or what the outcome was. Nevertheless, it is clear that Jesus didn’t descend to hell to suffer. He had already declared that his work of atonement was finished.

In all likelihood his purpose was as R. C. Sproul puts it, “He goes to hell to liberate those spirits who, from antiquity, have been held in prison. His task in hell then is one of triumph, liberating Old Testament saints.” the Old Testament saints being those, who like Abraham, believed in God before Christ’s advent and their belief was credited to them as righteousness (see Genesis 15:6, Romans 4:22).

So, yes Jesus descends into hell. However, the English word “hell” isn’t a particularly accurate or helpful translation of the original Greek and Latin versions of the Creed. The hell referred to in the Apostles’ Creed isn’t a place of suffering, but more about that in our next post.

Making a life or making a living?

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News reports regularly give statistics about the rise or decline in new applications for unemployment benefits. Each of us probably knows at least one person who has been unemployed for more than a year. We likely know many more who have been without work for a shorter period of time. Our society has generally embraced the model of work for wages–we exchange our knowledge and/or manpower for cash. Most of us can’t think of any other way in which to order our lives. The question is, however, does this arrangement really work all that well? Does making a living require us to sacrifice our lives?

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Frederick Buechner has written:

We must be careful with our lives, because it would seem that they are the only lives we are going to have in this puzzling and perilous world, and so they are very precious and what we do with them matters enormously.

Given the premium our culture puts on comfort (the ‘good life’), it’s ironic how little we intentionally our lives to see if we are treating them as precious or as simply a means to an end. Are we simply doing more and more meaningless things with ever greater efficiency?

What does making a life really look like? In a recent post Scott Martin notes:

Those focusing on making a living see wealth solely in the context of the cash nexus: the opportunities, possessions, luxuries and leisure that money affords. Those focusing on making a life see wealth in terms of the depth and quality of their relationships, the strength of their home, the memories they make, the moments they share, the lives they touch. In fact, the people I most respect who have made lives worth emulating rarely focus on money at all. There have been times when they have had plenty and times when they have struggled, but the constant is in how deeply they have loved.

Imagine sitting down with a financial planner and in addition to totaling your bank accounts and mapping your investments, you also mapped your significant relationships and explored your relationship to your home.

Martin continues quoting Buechner:

Buechner writes that the world is full of people who “seem to have listened to the wrong voice” and are doing work that “seems simply irrelevant not only to the great human needs and issues of our time but also to their own need to grow and develop as humans.”

It’s ironic that some of the vocations that directly seek to meet the greatest human needs are the least esteemed (and rewarded) in our culture: teacher, care-giver, social worker, priest. Could it be that our value system is inverted?

Ask yourself: am I making a living or making a life? What two things could I most easily change in order to improve the quality of my life (in terms of relationships)? Resolve to start making those changes.

The dangerous work of ministry

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The way I was going about doing the work of God was destroying the work of God in me.  -Anonymous Pastor

I love pastors. Really. Yes, I know that in our current moment it is more hip to be cynical of religious institutions and to reject the notion of religious authority. I get it. And I admit that there have been people and events and trends that perhaps give some justification to this cynicism. At the same time, I know too many pastors.

Many people only know a succession of ministers who serve their church as pastors over the years–they come and then they go. Some linger longer than others, but eventually they move on. There’s a tradition in presbyterian pastoral ministry of virtually renouncing all contact with members of a prior congregation once a pastor leaves. In some ways it makes sense, but it also means that few parishioners retain any contact with ministers who aren’t their pastor.

It’s easy to misunderstand people we don’t really know and whose lives we really don’t get. Of course, it gets complicated when we’re talking about pastors–especially, your pastor. It would be weird to ask her, “So…what’s it really like serving us?”

What seems a weird question for an individual to pose is actually a very appropriate question for a session and personnel committee to ask. Here’s the bottom line: the work of ministry is dangerous. It’s dangerous because it is so easy to use “god” to run from God. We can easily employ busyness in god-work and god-talk as a substitute for an on-going transformative relationship with God in Christ.

Ministers need the support of their congregations to really flourish in their work, and the session has to be an ally and advocate in creating a culture of appropriate clergy care.

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Ironically, churches sometimes believe that they’ll “get more for their money” if they drive their pastors harder. Preach more sundays. Do more visits. Be available in the office during business hours. Attend meetings on week nights, do funerals and weddings on saturday, and get to the church building at 6am Sunday morning to lead an exciting and life-changing encounter with the living God at 8:30 and 11:00.

None of these is a bad thing. In fact, one or two weeks as above is probably okay. What’s not okay, however, is expecting the above schedule to be the normal routine. It’s not healthy. It’s not sustainable. In the end, both the church and the pastor will pay a steep price.

How to train key leaders as disciples and leaders

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Last week I joined staff and area directors from sixteen campuses, along with our executive coaches, for training in ministry building. It was the best training of my ministry career. One of the things that made it powerful was the synergy that emerged from sharing the experience with one of my direct reports and our coach. All told, we spent more than 40 hours together face to face, which is more than we’d normally get in an academic year.

Key to the training is a tool—we received more than thirty tools over the week—called the “discipleship cycle.” It’s illustrated below. The discipleship cycle is the most effective way to both guide Christians in maturing as followers of Christ, but at the same to move them along a continuum of leadership development as well.

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“Hear the Word” – Through prayer, scripture, and in shared discernment, we come to agreement on what God is asking us to do. It may be agreeing to reach out to three people whom God has brought to mind. It may be taking the risk to approach another graduate student and encourage him in his faith. It could be any number of things.

“Respond actively” – When God leads us to do something—regardless of what it is—we respond actively. Hopefully out active response is also a full response rather than a marginal effort.

“Debrief and interpret” – This is critical to growth both as a leader and as a disciple. In community with another, we consider what God asked us to do and how we responded to his invitation. How did we feel? What was the outcome? What did we like about the experience? What was uncomfortable? What held us back from full obedience? You get the idea.

 

Asking questions is an incredibly fruitful way of coming to understand another. Answering questions is also an incredibly rich way to come to understand ourselves. Put these together with a trusted guide or coach who can, in reliance on God, attempt to bring some degree of interpretation to the experience and the combination is dynamite.

What’s so beautiful about this approach is that it can be deployed quite easily and naturally throughout the day and even a brief five minute encounter can become a micro-seminar with a very concrete, very particular lesson.

During the week, we used this tool and I found that it forced me to stop, consider the action or goal I had undertaken, evaluate my response to it, and then connect the two in the company of a coach who could help by clarifying, observing, and interpreting.

What tools do you use to help train followers of Christ as leaders?

 

 

 

Five reasons the church should care about the arts

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The dominant narrative around evangelicals and the arts is one that pits populist evangelicals as standing in opposition to or judgment upon the arts. Think: Thomas Kincade more than Rembrandt; Jenkins and La Haye, Left Behind more than Tolstoy’s, Anna Karenina.

It’s true that evangelicals have a mixed history when it comes to valuing the arts. Thankfully there is some movement towards engaging and valuing the contribution the arts make to the creation of both a good life and a good society. One example is the organization, Christians in the Visual Arts (CIVA). CIVA explores the relationship between the arts and the Christian faith. I’m fortunate to know several people associated with this organization including its Executive Director, Cam Anderson.

The evangelical church must make significant progress in valuing and embracing the arts as well as artists. This is the case both because the arts are inherently valuable (they’re valuable because of what they are) and because the arts play a critical role in the formation of culture.
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Here are five reasons that why the evangelical movement needs to take seriously God’s call to be stewards and supporters of the arts:

  1. Art is an echo of God’s creativity and an expression of our nature as image-bearers. We create because our creator has endowed us with the ability to do so. We are, as Tolkien pointed out, sub-creators. Our creativity is contingent upon and flow from God’s creativity.
  2. Art engages our imagination, our primary faculty. In a technological age, it’s tempting to believe that rationality is our primary faculty. As G. K. Chesterton observed, “The only truly rational men are all in insane asylums” (that’s a paraphrase). His point is that being human means more than being rational. C. S. Lewis observed, “Reason is the natural order of truth; but imagination is the organ of meaning.”
  3. Art reflects and interprets our present moment–it helps us to see ourselves. Art is the product of reflection upon our moment. Artists generally create in response to something that they perceive either in their own life or in the life of the community or nation. Reading art can help us to see our collective self through the eyes of another–an immense gift.
  4. Art communicates truth in a way that surpasses rationality. Rationality was king in the modern era. Today it will increasingly be important to communicate truth through forms that are adequate to the task and that also by-pass the epistemological uncertainty of our post-modern society. It’s very difficult–although perhaps not impossible–to argue that a piece of art is “untrue.” 
  5. Art expresses possibilities for the future. The arts can also help us to imagine what the future could be like. The arts often critique, but they are also able to communicate a positive vision for the future.

Let this be a call to the evangelical movement to value the arts as much, if not more than, we have traditionally valued things like missions–art is, in its own way, an extension both of discipleship and of mission.