Journey Out of Time
(See Chapters 11 and 12)
Some Particularly Problematic Passages
Section A 1 Peter 3:18-20:
"The spirits in prison. . . ."
For Christ died for your
sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring
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 who
disobeyed long ago when God waited
patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built.
Section B Ephesians
4:8-10: "He led captivity captive. . . ."
Therefore he said, when he
ascended up on high, he led captivity captive,
and gave gifts
unto men. (Now that he ascended, what is it but that he also
descended first into the lower
parts of the earth? He that descended is the same that ascended
up far above the heavens,
that he might fill all things).
In connection with these two passages a number of
other verses of Scripture are relevant to the
discussion. These have been set forth below, not in their biblical
order but in the order of reference in the
text. The phrases which are specially important in the present
context have been emphasized.
The passages important to Section A are as follows:
And it came to pass, when
men began to multiply on the face of the earth, and daughters
were born unto them, that the sons of God saw the daughters
of men that they were fair;
and they took wives of all which they chose. . . .
There were giants in the earth
in those days; and also after that, when the sons of God
came in unto the daughters of men, and they bare children of
them, the same became
mighty men which were of old, men of renown.
And the angels which kept not
their first estate, but left their own habitation, he hath
reserved in everlasting chains under darkness unto the judgment
of the great day.
2 Peter 2:4,5
God spared not the angels that
sinned but cast them down to Tartarus [so the Greek, not
Hades or Gehenna] and delivered them into chains of darkness,
to be reserved unto
And he laid hold on the dragon,
that old serpent which is the Devil and Satan, and bound him
a thousand years. . . . And when the thousand years are expired,
Satan shall be loosed out
of his prison and shall go out to deceive the nations.
. .and death and hell gave up the dead
which were in them and were cast into the lake of fire.
1 Peter 3:19, 20 (already
quoted as lead text, but here given a possible alternative rendering:
see comment in text below)
By which [spirit] Enoch also
went and made an announcement unto the spirits in prison:
which were sometime disobedient when once the longsuffering of
God waited in the days of
Noah while the ark was preparing. . . .
passages important to Section B are as follows:
And behold the veil of the temple
was rent in twain from the top to the bottom; and the earth
did quake and the rocks rent; and the graves were opened:
and many bodies of the saints
which slept arose, and came out of the graves after the resurrection,
and went into the holy
city, and appeared unto many.
. . .that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth,
and things under the earth. . . .
How can one enter into a strong
man's house, and spoil his goods, except he first bind the
strong man? And then he will spoil his house.
And I say also unto you, That you
are Peter and upon this rock will I build my church; and the
gates of hell shall not prevail against it.
I am he who lives and was dead;
and behold I am alive for evermore. Amen; and have the
keys of hell and death.
It is exceedingly
difficult to disentangle the complex web of traditional lore
that has been woven around
these passages from the very earliest days of the Christian Church.
This lore has significantly coloured our
understanding of what happens to the dead while they await resurrection.
And this colouring can be
observed in both the Roman Catholic and Protestant branches of
the Church. In spite of a very
considerable literature, the meaning of these passages is still
far from clear.
"SPIRITS IN PRISON" (1 Peter 3:18-20).
In the Book of Enoch (Chap.
XII. 4; XV. 6-9,12) we have a supposed report of Enoch, the seventh
from Adam, in which he describes how he was sent to pronounce
judgment upon the Fallen Angels (the Nephilim,
from the Hebrew word Napal, to fall) who had cohabited
with the daughters of men in Noah's day
(Genesis 6:1-4) and were removed from the earth and bound in
chains in a subterranean region called
Tartarus (2 Peter 2:4). They were spirit beings, he says, and
consequently not subject to physical death as
man is and could not, therefore, be put out of action by death.
They were accordingly removed by divine
intervention; and it seems reasonable to suppose that it was
the Lord Himself who undertook to see that it
These angels appear to have been
appointed originally as overseers or "Watchmen"(1) (so they are called
in the apocryphal literature) over human affairs, a duty which
led to the unnatural temptation to become
sexually involved with the daughters of men. Enoch XII.
4 records this circumstance:
1. A not unlikely appointment in view of Hebrews
1:4 ("Being made so much better than the angels, as he [Christ]
has by inheritance obtained a more excellent name than they")
where the (elect?) angels are described as being sent to become
ministering spirits to those who shall be heirs of salvation,
i.e., the elect among men.
thou scribe of righteousness, go, declare to the Watchers of
the heavens who have left
the high heaven, the holy eternal place, and have defiled themselves
with women and have
done as the children of earth do, and have taken unto themselves
are given in Enoch XV. 6-9 and 12, which is now addressed to
But you were formerly spiritual,
living the eternal life, and immortal for all generations of
world. And therefore I have not appointed wives for you; for
as for the spiritual ones of the
heavens, in heaven is their dwelling. And now, the giants who
are produced from the spirit
and flesh, shall be called evil spirits upon the earth, and on
the earth shall be their dwelling.
Evil spirits have proceeded from
their bodies; because they are born from men, and from
holy Watchers is their begetting and primal origin; they shall
be evil spirits on earth, and evil
spirits shall they be called. . . . And these spirits
shall rise up against the children of men and
against the women, because they have proceeded from them.
There is nothing
in all this that actually conflicts with anything in Scripture.
Genesis 6:1-4 seems to be the
Old Testament background of the event, and Jude 6 a New Testament
reflection. The Jews themselves
originally understood the phrase in Genesis 6:2 "the sons
of God" as angels. It is only later that these
sons of God came to be interpreted as saints who forsook the
call of separation and formed the kind of
unholy alliance that Paul forbids in 2 Corinthians 6:14(2), though not overtly with
any reference to Genesis
6:2. Philo of Alexandria (c. B. C. 2042 A. D.) appears to
have been one of the first to suggest that the sons of
God were 'virtuous' men and that the daughters of men were 'wicked
and corrupted' women.(3)
Philo was a
wealthy Jewish philosopher and somewhat of a free-thinker, but
his views probably reflect contemporary
Jewish thought in many ways.
2. "Do not be unequally yoked together
with unbelievers: for what fellowship has righteousness with
unrighteousness? And what
communion has light with darkness?" 2 Corinthians 6:14.
3. Philo, Judaeus: Questions and Anwers on Genesis, translated
by Ralph Marcus, London, Heineman, 1961, Supplement, Book I,
his work The Legends of the Jews, Louis Ginzberg(4) has summary statements
of Enoch VI - VIII:
The depravity of mankind which
began to show itself in the time of Enosh [biblical Enos, the
third from Adam?], had increased monstrously in the time of his
grandson Jared by reason of
the fallen angels. When the angels saw the beautiful and attractive
daughters of men they
lusted after them and said, "We will choose wives for ourselves
only from among the
daughters of men and beget children with them."
Under the leadership of twenty
captains they defiled themselves with the daughters of men
unto whom they taught charms [magic?] . . . . The issue from
these mixed marriages was a
race of giants three hundred ells [an ell in Old English equaled
four feet three inches!] tall,
who consumed the possessions of men. . . . Then the earth complained
about the impious evil
doers. But the fallen angels continued to corrupt mankind.
has a further statement as follows:
Chiefly, the fallen angels
and their giant posterity caused the depravity of mankind. .
Raphael was told to put the fallen angel Azazel into chains,
cast him into a pit of sharp and
pointed stones in the desert called Dudael, and cover him with
darkness, and so he was to
remain until the great day of judgment, when he would be thrown
into the fiery pit of hell.
another name for Satan, or even the name of one of Satan's chief
lieutenants, an individual
who re-appears in some of the apocryphal literature of the Christian
era? The Old Testament could
conceivably be referring to this same spirit being in connection
with the scapegoat of Leviticus 16:8.(5) This
verse refers to one of the goats as being marked "for Azazel,"
which could therefore signify "for Satan."
The significance of this marking might then be that whereas the
one goat was to be slain by man, the
other was to be slain by Satan who has the power of death and
the destruction of the body (Hebrews 2:14
4. Ginzberg, Louis, The Legends of the
Jews, Philadelphia, Jewish Publications Society of America,
1954, vol.1, p.124, 125, 148.
5. "And Aaron shall cast lots upon the two goats: one lot
for the Lord, and the other for the scapegoat ." Leviticus
16:8. The transliteration of the Hebrew word for "scapegoat"
into English is rendered "Azazel".
and 1 Corinthians 5:4,5(6)). That Azazel could refer
to Satan was first proposed by Origen (Contra Celium,
6.43) and adopted by a number of modern writers, Keil(7) among them.
At any rate, the words of Jude
6 (which form part of inspired Scripture) seem to show that there
is a kernel of truth in these Jewish traditions. Jude refers
to "the angels which kept not their first estate but left
own appointed housing" whom God has "reserved in everlasting
chains under darkness unto the judgment of the great
day." The allusion is unmistakable. And 2 Peter 2:4 seems
clearly to be a reference to the
destiny of these angels who are reserved in Tartarus, presumably
a special form of prison, until that Day.
Genesis 6:4 also indicates that
other angels were similarly tempted to intrude into the human
after the Flood, and giant offspring again resulted. These
giants were perhaps chiefly limited to Canaan.
One by one they were slain five of them by David himself,
including the well-known Goliath. They must
have terrified their contemporaries, and if the giant cities
of Bashan, of which J. L. Porter wrote so
eloquently in 1866,(8)
are any indication, they must have grown into a substantial population
of wholly evil
beings of extraordinary stature and vigour.
The Book of Jubilees (IV.
15) re-affirms this Jewish belief that it was in the days of
Jared that "the angels
of the Lord descended upon the earth, those that are called Watchmen,
in order that they might teach the
children of men to do judgment and right over the earth."
In due time these angels forsook the right path
(v.23) and "commenced to mix with the daughters of the earth
so that they were defiled; and Enoch
testified against them all." And (v.25) "on this account
God brought the deluge over the whole land of Eden."
Then in Jubilees V.1 the
recurrence of this invasion is affirmed and it is noted that
the sons they bore
another apocryphal work entitled The Testament of the Twelve
Patriarchs, and under the Testament
6. "Forasmuch then as the children are
partakers of flesh and blood, he also himself likewise took part
of the same; that through death he might destroy him that had
the power of death, that is, the devil." Hebrews 2:14. ".
. . in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when you [the Corinthian
believers] are gathered together, and with my [Paul] spirit,
and with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, to deliver such
a [disobedient] one unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh,
that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus."
1 Corinthians 5:4, 5.
7. Keil, C. F. and F. Delitzsch, Biblical Commentary on the
Books of Samuel, translated from the German by J. Martin,
Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1950, p.259-265.
8. Porter, J. L., The Giant Cities of Bashan and Syria's Holy
Places, London, T. Nelson & Sons, 1866, 371 pp.
of Reuben (section 5), the same circumstances are recounted,
elaborated slightly by the observation
that "they changed themselves into the shape of men, and
appeared to them in their congress with their
husbands, and the women having in their minds desire towards
these who thus appeared to them, gave
birth to giants."
This, then, is the pre-Christian
reservoir of Jewish lore regarding the eruption of fallen angelic
the stream of human history: and of what happened to them. They
themselves suffered imprisonment in
darkness; and their evil offspring suffered slaughter and disembodiment.
This led to an unending search
for re-embodiment by these wandering beings which the New Testament
refers to as evil spirits.
The question is, How much of the
New Testament relates to this episode? presumably Jude 6 does,
2 Peter 2:4. The events of Revelation 20:2, 7 and 8 certainly
indicate that a supernatural spirit being is
capable of "imprisonment." Whether 1 Peter 3:19 and
20 relates to the same issue is not clear, although
these verses certainly refer back to those who were disobedient
in the time of Noah. Are these
"disobedient spirits in prison" men or angels?
It has been suggested by some commentators
that we might take 1 Peter 3:19 as a slightly corrupted text
which should be read "in which Enoch also went and
preached to the spirits in prison" instead of the
present reading "in which also he went and preached."
The passage might then be taken to indicate that
while the spirit of Christ in Noah sought to warn and
evangelize disobedient men, Enoch who had
already been translated was sent to the spirits (the fallen angels)
who were in prison, not to evangelize
them but to announce their condemnation. Could this be why he
was translated bodily? His "mission"
required that he retain all his faculties for the task assigned.
In verse 19 the word "preached" is a
translation of the Greek word kerusso which means "to
announce" or "proclaim" not necessarily
evangelize. It is a kind of neutral word and can signify good
news or bad news. The Greek word
euangelidzo (which means specifically "to preach
the gospel") is not employed here. However, kerusso
is often used as a synonym for the latter, so that one could
not prove too much by any appeal to the terms
of the commission. Besides, it involves both an emendation of
the text which is of uncertain validity, as well as employing
a select meaning to a word which is quite capable of an alternative
rendering. Altogether this interpretation seems somewhat
Dr. E. W. Bullinger in his Companion
Bible (9) suggests
that the word spirits here must be interpreted as
9. Bullinger, E. W., The Companion Bible,
Henry Frowde, Oxford University Press, no date, vol.4, appendix
men are not referred to as spirits even in heaven: he rejects
any relevance. In this view the spirits in prison are therefore
angels, not men. The "visitor" was Christ.
W. G. T. Shedd, in his Dogmatic
Theology, considers that Christ's descent into the nether
region, Hades, has
no warrant in Scripture. His view, widely shared, is that the
Hades of Acts 2:31 simply means "the
The Apostles' Creed merely committed the Church to a belief that
the Lord Jesus really died and
was indeed buried -- although some of those who helped to fashion
this creed may well have privately
interpreted the word hell (in Acts 2:31(12)) as something more than just the grave. Shedd observed
Augustine, Bede, Aquinas, Beza, and most of the Reformed theologians,
have explained 1 Peter 3:18-20 as
meaning only that Christ preached to men who were disobedient
in Noah's time, his spirit being in Noah
who spoke in his name in somewhat the same sense as in 1 Peter
Charles Hodge, in his Systematic
Theology, favours Shedd's interpretation by observing that
it is not
appropriate to present the Gospel to those who have departed
this life for it is a way of salvation only to
the living. He assumed that the words "in prison" merely
signify "in the grave."(14)
We therefore seem to have only
four passages which specifically bear upon the events of Genesis
namely, 1 Peter 3:19, 20; 2 Peter 2:4; Jude 6, and Revelation
20:7 and 8. In a sense it is not necessary for us to
know such things at all, except that the effects of this angelic
intrusion have left a tragic impress upon
human history, for these evil demons are still Satan's most active
agents in the world today and are still
bent upon our hurt and on hindering God's purposes.
The subject is relevant to the
thesis of this volume, however, since the manifest consciousness
fallen and imprisoned spirits might seem to indicate that disembodied
man also has consciousness. But
that such angelic beings should have consciousness without embodiment
is not surprising in view of the
fact that angels were created this way. They are by constitution
conscious without bodies. These four
passages of Scripture therefore do not seriously challenge the
thesis of this volume.
10. "But you have come . . .to the city of the living God
. . .and to an innumerable company of angels, to the general
assembly and church of the firstborn . . .and to God the Judge
of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect . . .and
to Jesus, the mediator of the new covenant. . . ." Hebrews
11. Shedd, W. G. T., Dogmatic Theology, Grand Rapids,
Zondervan, reprint of 1888, vol.2, p. 605.
12. "He [David] . . . spoke of the resurrection of Christ,
that his soul was not left in hell, neither did his flesh see
corruption." Acts 2:31.
13. ". . .the prophets have inquired and searched diligently
. . .searching what or what manner of time the Spirit of Christ
which was in them did signify. . . ." 1 Peter 1:10-11.
14. Hodge, Charles, Systematic Theology, Grand Rapids,
Eerdmans, 1973 (reprint of 1872), vol.2, p.620.
To the extent that all the dead
have seemed to be in Satan's possession, liberating the bodies
who belong to the Lord is tantamount in the symbolic sense
to releasing them from Satan's prison. This
could be the general sense of Ephesians 4:8-10; Matthew 12:29
and 16:18, and Revelation 1:18. It is easy to
see how such an event could be re-cast in the form of a drama
in which the dead are represented as
crying out for release, the Messiah is represented as forcibly
breaking down the door of the prison, and
Satan is represented as being vanquished in his own house. The
apocryphal literature, both pre-Christian
and Christian, deals with these events. Of particular importance
is The Gospel of Nicodemus. Let us
examine this literature briefly and a number of other traditions
that seem to bear upon the matter, and
then attempt to sort out the sequence of events in the six passages
referred to above as important to this
"LED CAPTIVITY CAPTIVE" (Eph. 4:810).
The idea that the grave is not
so much a resting place for the body as a prison from
which the dead are to
be rescued by the living, is very ancient indeed. It was generally
cast in the form of a rescue of a
particular loved one by some single individual, rather than the
rescue of all the dead by some great world
redeemer. It goes back to the earliest times of written and oral
record and is found in similar form in
many areas of the Old World. The most ancient record that we
have at present of such a theme comes from
In this account the heroic Queen
of heaven, Inanna by name, descends to the Nether World to rescue
beloved husband (?) named Dumuzi. She adorns herself impressively
with jewelry since her sister
happens to be Queen of this Nether World and is also her bitter
enemy. Her sister's name is Ereshkigal. It
appears that the idea of adornment is to display her own wealth
and power. She gives instructions to her
attendant, a male figure
named Ninshubur, that if she does not return after three days
he is to set up a hue
and cry in heaven and to appeal particularly to the god Enlil
not to let her be put to death. Failing this, he is
to try and get help from the moon god, Nanna; and if this mission
also fails, he is to go to the "god of
wisdom" whom she believes will surely come to her rescue.
Inanna arrives at the seven gates
and is admitted, but at each gate she is robbed of some of her
Finally, stark-naked, she is brought kneeling before Ereshkigal,
her evil sister. She is condemned by the
Nether World court, somehow put to death, and then hung from
Three days and three nights pass.
On the fourth day her attendant, Ninshubur, proceeds upon his
of rescue. His mission is a failure.
He then fashions two sexless creatures,
kurgarru and kalaturri, entrusts them with "the
food of life" and
"water of life," and instructs them to proceed to the
Nether World and sprinkle the corpse of Inanna. This
they do, and Inanna revives. When she leaves the Nether World,
the dead hasten to go with her. Thereafter
surrounded by this ghostly throng, she wanders from city to city
in Sumer. What happens in the end is not
known since unfortunately some of the tablets are missing.(15)
This story, pieced together from
some thirteen fragments, is dated approximately 2000 B.C., but
assumed that the story is considerably older.
Why her beloved husband needed
rescuing from the nether regions is not known since the tablets
containing the opening of the story are probably missing also.
But it is rather remarkable in that it reflects
faintly a kind of prophetic forecast of the death of the Lord
by crucifixion, his burial for three days and
three nights, and, even more strongly, the resurrection with
Him of a certain number of the dead who then
visit a city (Jerusalem). It might also be noted that Inanna
is slain before she is hung, a circumstance
which is reflected in the wording of Acts 5:30.(16) The resuscitation of Inanna was accomplished by the
(bread?) and water of life.
The next account in chronological
order tells of the descent of the Queen of heaven (now under
15. Pritchard, James B., Ancient Near Eastern
Texts, Princeton University Press, 1969, p.52, 57.
16. "The God of our fathers raised up Jesus, whom you slew
and hanged on a tree." Acts 5:30.
of Ishtar) into the
It is believed this is essentially the same story, though it
is by no
means merely a translation from Sumerian into Babylonian. It
has not yet been established how much
later it is, but probably several centuries.
The plot is basically similar,
and the casting very little different. The heroine has the same
status, but her
reasons for visiting the Nether World are not specifically stated.
There are a few new details. Instead of a
main gate, there is now a door with a bolt, a bolt in place for
so long that it is covered with dust. She
arrives at the door, much adorned like her predecessor, and demands
entrance. When refused, she
threatens to "smash the door" and "shatter the
bolt." She explains her purpose: "I will raise up the
dead. . .so that the dead will outnumber the living." The
doorkeeper asks her to stop her violence, saying,
"I will go to announce your name to Queen Ereshkigal."
It then turns out that Ishtar is sister to Ereshkigal,
as her predecessor had also been.
She is allowed in and, like her
predecessor, is gradually stripped of all her jewelry until she
is quite naked.
A similar fate awaits her. But it appears that she is rescued
by being sprinkled with the water of life, and
this rescue seems to have been helped in some way by the fact
that during her absence the world above
had been rendered infertile to a dangerous point. As she passes
back through each of the seven gates,
she recovers one by one all her pieces of jewelry and her clothing.
Towards the end of the tablet, it turns
out that what she really went to do was to rescue her lover Tammuz,
who had recently died. She succeeds
in her mission and Tammuz is revived. Having previously promised
that if Tammuz is recovered from the
dead, all the rest of the dead would also rise, we presume that
they do; unfortunately the remainder of the
tablet is missing.
Various forms of this story are
known over a wide area, being reflected in the Greek legends
who rescues Semele, and Heracles who rescues Alcestis. The tragic
story of Orpheus and Euridice is in the
same genre, though in this instance the ending is very sad. Orpheus
is promised success provided that he
does not look back to see if his love is following him until
he is back in the world above. At the last moment
when he is about to step out of the Nether World, he cannot resist
the temptation to assure himself that
she is still following: and looking back, he loses Euridice for
ever. In India a similar legend appears
involving Buddha who is himself the liberator. This is told in
his biography, Lalita Vistara. It is, however,
considered by some authorities on Indian literature that this
legend is a borrowed embellishment from
17. Pritchard, James B., Ancient Near Eastern
Texts, Princeton University Press, 1969, p. 106109.
poorly remembered early
missionary teaching regarding events connected with the resurrection
Such a story as this may have been
passed from one traveling storyteller to another or it may merely
reflect a very common human situation in which two lovers are
separated by the death of one, whom the
other is then determined to bring back to life or perish in the
attempt. But it is curious how many suggestive parallelisms there
are with the circumstances surrounding the Lord's death and resurrection,
as though the Lord in Old Testament times had revealed (very
early in human history) some truths
regarding the plan of salvation, details which have not been
preserved in Scripture itself.
likely that the substance of some of these stories were known
to the early Church Fathers, for
many of them seem to have interpreted certain passages of Scripture
in their light, and considered the
doctrine of the Lord's descent into Hades to rescue the Old Testament
saints as an important aspect of his
saving work. It was not, however, formally written into the Church's
statement of Faith until the Fourth
Synod of Sirmium in 359 A.D. Such passages as Ephesians 4:9-10
and 1 Peter 4:6 were believed to be best
accounted for on such a supposition. That the Lord's soul was
not left in hell (Acts 2:27(18)) was thought to
be evidence of just such a successful "rescue mission to
bring up the dead from their prison."
In the earlier centuries of the
Christian era, a number of apocryphal writings appeared which,
were not considered to be canonical, seem to have greatly influenced
the thinking of the more
imaginative writers of the Church. One of these apocryphal books
is the so-called Gospel of Nicodemus. It
claims to represent the events of the trial, crucifixion, and
resurrection of Christ as Nicodemus saw it. It
also purports to tell us some of the things which accompanied
the rising from the dead of many of the
saints which slept, as recorded in Matthew 27:5153.
Chapter XII of the Gospel
of Nicodemus relates the experience of two individuals named
Lenthius who are said to have been raised from their graves at
this time. Matthew 27:51 and 52 records
that "the veil of the temple was rent in twain from top
to bottom; and the earth did quake; and the rocks
rent; and the graves were opened." We are then told that
"many bodies of the saints that slept arose," but
according to verse 53 they did not actually come out of the graves
until after the resurrection of the Lord.
18. "Thou [God] will not leave my soul
in hell." Acts 2:27.
Perhaps we are to understand
that the earthquake which occurred when the Lord died resulted
opening up of many graves but that those who were buried therein
did not actually come forth until three
days later when the Lord Himself had risen.
According to Nicodemus, among those
who arose and visited Jerusalem were these two brothers,
allegedly the sons of Simeon who had blessed Jesus in the Temple
(as recorded in Luke 2:2535). The brothers told the story
(in chap.XII. 15 f.) of how they had died and descended into
Hades, and felt their
experience was so important that they insisted on being provided
with paper to write it all down. Chapter
XIII is their account. It is an interesting record.
All the Old Testament saints were
in this prison "under the earth" (Philippians 2:10),
worthies as Adam, Seth, David, Isaiah, their father Simeon, a
little man named John the Baptist, and even
Lazarus briefly (whom, Satan complained, was taken away from
him by force chap. XV.18).
Shortly after finding themselves
in this dismal underworld, the two brothers notice that suddenly
prison seems to be growing lighter, and as everyone wonders at
it, Adam "the father of all mankind" says:
"That light is the everlasting Light who has promised to
translate us to everlasting life." This causes great
excitement and Satan, becoming anxious, determines to secure
the doors more strongly. As the light
increases, the saints cry out, "Lift up your gates, 0 ye
princes; and be ye lift up, O everlasting gates, and the
King of Glory shall come in" (Psalm 24:7). Satan then demands,
"Who is this King of Glory?" (Psalm 24:8). And
David at once replies, "The Lord strong and mighty, the
Lord mighty in battle." Isaiah then adds his own
prophetic exultation: "Thy dead men shall live, together
with my dead body shall they arise. Awake and
sing, ye that dwell in the dust: for thy dew is as the dew of
herbs, and the earth shall cast out her dead"
(Isaiah 26:19). Meanwhile, very appropriately, David quotes Psalm
107:1316: "Then they cried unto the Lord
in their trouble, and He saved them out of their distresses.
He brought them out of darkness and the
shadow of death, and brake their bands in sunder. Oh, that men
would praise the Lord for his goodness,
and for his wonderful works to the children of men! For he hath
broken the gates of brass and cut the bars
of iron in sunder."
The appearance of passages
such as these quoted in this context would seem so appropriate
to a reader
who was predisposed to such a reconstruction of the events as
to greatly strengthen the impression that
the Gospel of Nicodemus,
though not itself canonical, was nevertheless essentially true
credence seems to have been placed in it by common people.
Meanwhile, the Lord suddenly appears
in the form of a man, "visiting them that sit in darkness
and in the
shadow of death" (Luke 1:79). The saints in exultation cry
out: "This is the Lord who was once slain upon the
cross" (XVII.5). Then the King of Glory, trampling upon
death, seizes the prince of hell, deprives him of all
his power, and takes Adam and all the other saints with Him to
This part of the story seems to
be an elaboration of Matthew 12:29 in which the strong man is
and then his goods are "spoiled." To this may perhaps
be added Matthew 16:18 with a slight shift in
emphasis: "the gates of hell shall not prevail against him."
We therefore have an imaginative
interpretation of Revelation 1:18, "I am he who lives and
was dead; and behold I am alive for ever more.
Amen; and have the keys of hell and death."
Now it is certain that Scripture
owes nothing to such imaginative reconstructions, but biblical
like these might very well form the basis of apocryphal creations
in the first place. Once the
reconstruction had become current (and no doubt the Gospel
of Nicodemus was only one version of it),
the early Church Fathers sometimes appealed to what was probably
a very widely accepted belief
regarding the fate and rescue of the dead. Their appeal to this
common tradition, intended only to
reinforce the validity and acceptableness of their own teaching,
in due time made Scripture seem
increasingly to support just such a vivid picture of the interim
period between the death and resurruction
of the Old Testament saints. In time it became the widely accepted
orthodox interpretation. It was
naturally extended subsequently to cover all who had died in
the present age as well, all who are
awaiting the resurrection which is to accompany the Lord's return.
The Roman Catholic Church made it a
very practical doctrine and one which turned out to be to their
It is easy to see how death
could be considered, by even the most conservative of commentators
early Church, a form of imprisonment; and how, in view of the
fact that Satan was given the power of death
over men (Hebrews 2:14 and 1 Corinthians 5:4, 5(19)), the Lord's victory over Satan might be viewed as
19. "Forasmuch then as the children are
partakers of flesh and blood, he also himself likewise took part
of the same; that through death he might destroy him that had
the power of death, that is, the devil." Hebrews 2:14. "In
the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. . .. deliver such a one [a
disobedient Christian] unto Satan for the destruction of the
flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus."
1 Corinthians 5:4, 5.
sundering of the bars
of the prison which kept them in darkness. Ephesians 4:810
could logically be taken to describe just such a victory achieved
by the Lord in his death and burial in the grave, this descent
the grave then being referred to as a descent into a place called
hell or the nether world, which was
peopled by saint and sinner alike. The resurrection in which
a number of saints clearly took part as a kind
of firstfruits of the harvest sheaf would be taken as the harbinger
of a much larger resurrection which is
later to mark his personal return to the world of the living.
Figurative interpretations of sober factual
statements of Scripture have on many occasions been embroidered
in similar ways to the detriment of
the truth. Whatever is the correct explanation of these difficult
passages, it does not seem that it is really
to be sought in these pagan myths and apocryphal accounts.
If this is how
these stories found their way into Christian tradition, if this
is how it has come about that an
interim period has been crystallized to such an extent as to
become part and parcel of the evangelical
faith, it may be time to rethink the whole issue through again.
There may, in fact, be no grounds whatever
for the common supposition that there is a period of suspense
in a kind of half-fulfilled state of bliss which
seems to be chiefly occupied in waiting for the resurrection
of the body.
Certainly, conservative evangelicals
have entirely eliminated from the more ancient reconstruction
absurd details which left the departing saints in a very uncomfortable
situation, and certainly the whole
concept of purgatory is seen as entirely contrary to the doctrine
of salvation by grace through faith alone.
Nevertheless there remain certain almost insoluble problems so
long as we hold to the idea of a
conscious period of waiting in an "unclothed" state
for the resurrection of the body.
I believe all the verses which have
been referred to in Section B have to be re-examined in
so far as
they really do apply to man and not to evil spirits or fallen
angels. Some different way of interpreting them
is needed which does not fall into the error of confusing what
is said of the Lord's ministry of making men
spiritually "alive from the dead" with some kind of
physical visitation to an underworld. Men are dead,
even while they live, and even more dead than ever once they
have been buried "under the earth": yet
both kinds of dead men will rise to his praise. In the final
analysis, it is not the body itself which is the
prison of the spirit, but death which imprisons the body, and
which thus effectively "captures" the person.
And this captivity applies so long as the "person"
is in a state of disembodied unconsciousness.
my thesis is correct, it is of no importance to the saints who
were left behind that only a few were raised when the Lord Jesus
arose from the dead. In our time-frame there appears to have
been a selective
separation, but in the experience of the dead themselves no such
selective separation or special
privilege need exist. All the Old Testament saints, both those
who came out of their graves when Christ
arose as well as those who were left behind, and we who are still
alive as well as those who have died
in the Lord since that time are all raised together with
our glorified bodies to meet the Lord as He
returns at the same instant. From our point of view there seem
to have been a few privileged ones, but
from their point of view they need not be aware of having anticipated
anyone else. "Anticipation" is a
word-trap, in a time-less world.
Copyright © 1988 Evelyn White. All rights
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