A sermon delivered by David Hughes, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Winston-Salem, Nc., on February 26, 2012.
Genesis 9:8-17; 1 Peter 3:17-22
The phrase “to hell and back” has been used many times for many reasons. For example, some might say this phrase captures how they feel after they return home from taking a tough final exam at school, or a tense visit with their in-laws, or an athletic contest in which their favorite team gets clobbered.
In 1955, a movie entitled “To Hell and Back” starred Audie Murphy, the most decorated war hero in American history, playing himself as he reenacted his World War II heroics. Because we’ve heard many a veteran like Murphy say, “War is hell,” we can easily understand why a journey to and from Italy and France in WW 2, or Iraq and Afghanistan in 2012 could be summed up by the phrase, “To hell and back.”
But according to Christian scripture and tradition, the title role for any movie entitled “To Hell and Back” should be played by none other than our Savior, Jesus Christ. “To hell and back” isn’t just some catchy phrase where Jesus is concerned. It describes a real journey taken by the real Jesus for real people like you and me.
That Jesus journeyed to hell and back is stated most plainly in the Apostles’ Creed that we will say together later in this service. Notice that the Apostles’ Creed speaks to our belief in the Trinity—in God the Father, Jesus the Son, and the Holy Spirit, otherwise known as Holy Ghost—as well as other important affirmations, including “the holy catholic church” which refers to the Church universal, not the Roman Catholic Church.
Regarding Jesus the Apostles’ Creed has this to say:
(He) was conceived by the Holy Ghost,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate
was crucified, dead, and buried;
He descended into hell.
The third day he arose again from the dead;
He ascended into heaven,
and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty;
from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead (emphasis mine).
What the Apostles’ Creed says among other things about Jesus is that between his death and resurrection he made a journey into the bowels of hell. The Lord doesn’t say why, or what impact was made. But it makes clear that before Jesus ever ascended into heaven he descended into hell.
But why should we care what the Apostles’ Creed says? We’re Baptists, and we don’t routinely say the Apostles’ Creed since Baptists historically aren’t creedal people. In theory that’s true. But it’s interesting that many Protestants, including Baptists, are reclaiming the Apostles’ Creed because it’s probably the oldest and simplest expression of our faith produced by the church.
While the Apostles’ Creed wasn’t a finished product until the 8th century AD, the core of the Creed was established as early as 200 AD. To be honest, the phrase “He descended into hell” wasn’t officially added to the Creed until 570 AD. That’s one reason to this day that phrase is either altered or completely omitted in the Creed as it is used by some denominations (see The Worshipping Church, p. 14). But we have strong evidence that the phrase was a part of the creeds of the church from its earliest days.
And then, there is the evidence contained in the scriptures, especially 1 Peter 3. Specifically, the Apostle Peter writes this about Jesus: Christ… suffered for sins once and for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, in which he also went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water.
If you were to ask me to rank order the most difficult passages to interpret in the Bible, I would rank this passage first! Which is why I find it ironic that Peter observes elsewhere that there are some things in (the Apostle Paul’s writings that are) hard to understand (2 Peter 3:16)! If that isn’t the pot calling the kettle black, I don’t know what is!
Since the days of Augustine 1600 years ago, biblical scholars have been wrestling with this passage, and there are as many interpretations as there are interpreters. That’s why it would be foolish of me to stand here today and give you the definitive meaning of 1 Peter 3 because only Peter and the Lord know what Peter actually had in mind.
What I can do is give you some sense of the questions and range of interpretations that flow out of this very difficult passage, and why it might support the belief that Jesus, in fact, descended into hell.
Notice, if you will, that the passage ends with observations about baptism that connect it to the story of Noah. Peter says the flood covering the earth in the days of Noah actually prefigured baptism, and this baptism saves you—not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Even this part of the passage is controversial, because it suggests baptism, rather than our belief in Jesus, saves us. It also says Noah and his family are saved through water, not from water. We don’t have time to untie all the knots in this baptism imagery. So let me cut to the chase.
Most scholars think this was a passage used historically by the church to prepare candidates for baptism. This explains why 1 Peter 3 is the lectionary scripture for the first Sunday of Lent, since Lent is the traditional season in the church for the preparation of candidates for baptism.
Peter is communicating something all new converts to the faith need to hear. Christians of Peter’s day were suffering terribly under Roman persecution. And they were tempted to give up on their faith, and blend into a sinful culture like everybody else.
But, Peter says, there is another way. In fact, Jesus suffered and died so that we could be different, so we could rise above our suffering and the temptations of our culture and be transformed by the living Spirit of Jesus Christ. In fact, it is the Spirit that saves us, and not our baptism. But our baptism is important because it demonstrates that we have been so immersed in the Spirit of Jesus that nothing in heaven or earth, not even the gates of hell can prevail against us!
So far, so good. But Peter throws an extra twist into this passage that makes it even more powerful and mysterious than most. Here’s why.
We tend to think of the power of Jesus to save as flowing only one direction in the river of history—forward. If you were born after Jesus’ day, and heard the gospel, and believed on the Lord Jesus Christ as your Savior and Lord, you became a Christ-follower on the spot, and were assured a place in the kingdom of God, in this life and the next.
But what if you lived before Jesus came to this earth? Would you be destined to hell simply because you were born too soon? Or does Jesus’ power to save move backwards as well as forward in history?
Peter certainly seems to think so.
But questions abound about what Peter says, and later, the Apostles’ Creed says about Jesus’ journey into hell. Let me name a few:
- Exactly where did Jesus go when he made journey?
- Exactly when did he go there?
- To whom did Jesus preach?
- What did Jesus say when he preached?
- What was and is the impact of Jesus’ preaching?
Again, without getting too bogged down in technical details, here are some of answers to these questions.
Some say Jesus actually journeyed not into hell but into Sheol, or the Old Testament name for the abode of the dead. Technically, Sheol is a holding place for the dead, and not the same as New Testament version of hell. This explains, by the way, why some versions of the Apostles’ Creed say, “he descended to the dead.” In other words, Jesus didn’t just appear to die, as some heresies were saying. He actually died, and went to that netherworld region inhabited by the dead. And later he actually rose form the dead.
Others say just as emphatically that Jesus in fact went to hell, the hell we read about in the New Testament, that horrible place of suffering and separation from God.
When did he go?
Some say the “pre-existent Christ”, the Spirit of Christ that existed from the foundation of the world actually spoke through Noah when Noah was warning his contemporaries of the flood to come. In that sense, Jesus made this journey long before he was physically born.
The Apostles’ Creed says Jesus made this journey during the three day interval between his crucifixion and resurrection. Others argue that Christ made this journey after his resurrection. Still others say it happened during or even after his ascension into heaven.
To whom did Jesus preach?
Once again interpreters are all over the map. Some say Jesus preached only to the righteous of the past, or the likes of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Others say Jesus also preached to those who rebelled against God, including those who drowned in the flood in the days of Noah. Still others say that wicked angels who were corrupting humans beings according to Genesis 6 are the “imprisoned spirits” Jesus spoke to.
What did Jesus preach when he descended into hell?
Here’s where theology gets even more interesting! Some say Jesus was preaching a message of salvation to the righteous, and judgment to the evil. And Jesus led only the righteous into the freedom of the kingdom of God. Others say Jesus only preached judgment to the lost, and pronounced them confined to hell for eternity. Others say Jesus preached the ultimate victory of God, and pointed to the day when every knee would bend and every tongue (including the Devil’s) confess, that he was Christ the Lord. Still others say Jesus preached the gospel, and gave the lost another opportunity to accept God’s forgiveness and become a part of the Kingdom. Starting with Adam and Eve, Jesus led the repentant masses out of the clutches of hell. And to this day, they say, Jesus keeps the doors of heaven open to the lost who chose to repent.
That last position is known as “universalism”, and it is extremely controversial since it implies that lost people can become Christians after they die. This position is generally considered unorthodox. At the same time, many Christian believers, including the likes of C.S. Lewis, appear to be universalists in some shape or form.
What was and is the impact of Jesus’ preaching in hell?
Here’s the bottom line for me—Jesus loves us so much there’s nowhere he won’t go to find me and save me. Some of us are in hell right now, and we haven’t died yet. Jesus won’t hesitate to come into your hell, into your prison, to bring you to God. You may think you’re too bad, too far gone for Jesus. But this is a guy that’s been to hell and back, and nothing you’ve done will shock him, or cause him to give up on you.
Moreover, once we belong to this Jesus, there shouldn’t be anywhere we are unwilling to go to bring others to Christ. If you find yourself thinking, “Sure I care about people. But there are just certain places I won’t go, and certain things I wont do even to tell them about Jesus,” then I would just ask you this question.
What if Jesus had felt the same way about you?
Friends, I don’t know what you believe about universalism, about Jesus saving us after we die. We could get hung up on that issue for 2000 years—in fact, the Christian church has. Here’s what I know. There are people living in a hell on earth moving in and out of our lives and our church and our community every day.
What will we do about them?