What did Jesus do for three days after he descended into hell?

Q. I have a question.  What do you think Christ “did” for three days after he descended into hell?

The Bible doesn’t tell us very much about what Jesus did between the time he died on the cross and when he was raised from the dead, but it does give us a couple of tantalizing hints.

Peter writes in his first letter, “Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit, in which also he went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits—to those who were disobedient long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah when the ark was being built.”

This suggests that Jesus, between his death and resurrection, went in the Spirit and actively preached the gospel to those who had perished centuries before in the great flood.  Perhaps these people, because of the great wickedness on the earth at that time, were considered not to have had a reasonable opportunity to respond to God, and so Jesus came and proclaimed the gospel to them in its fullness, in light of his just-completed death on the cross.

Even though Peter doesn’t mention people from other historical periods, since his concern in this part of the letter is to develop an analogy between baptism and rescue from the flood in the ark, it’s possible that on this occasion Jesus also proclaimed the gospel to other “imprisoned spirits” who had lived at different times.  Peter says more generally later in this letter that “the gospel was preached even to those who are now dead, so that they might be judged according to human standards in regards to the body, but live according to God in regard to the spirit.”

Paul gives us a suggestion that some of those who heard the gospel under these circumstances responded positively.  In Ephesians he quotes from Psalm 68, “When he ascended on high, he led captives in his train,” and then applies these words to Christ: “What does ‘he ascended’ mean except that he also descended to the depths of the earth?”  The “captives” would be the souls whom Jesus led out of their “imprisonment” after they responded positively to the gospel when he proclaimed it.

From these biblical hints about what Jesus did between his death and resurrection, the community of his followers later developed the doctrine of the “harrowing of hell.”  To “harrow” means to despoil; the idea is that Jesus triumphed over hell and released its captives.  This doctrine has a rich history in the art and literature of the church.

Duccio di Buoninsegna, "The Harrowing of Hell"
Duccio di Buoninsegna, “The Harrowing of Hell”

If someone’s prediction doesn’t come true, are they a false prophet?

Our church believes that the gift of prophecy is still available today. There’s one man in the church who recently predicted something that didn’t happen.  The Bible says in Deuteronomy that if a prophet’s words don’t come true, they’re not genuine.  I mean, we’re not going to kill this guy or anything (as it also says to do in Deuteronomy), but is he a false prophet?

I wouldn’t apply a “one strike and you’re out” rule to the question of whether someone who speaks prophetically is genuine.  The book of Deuteronomy offers us more than one test of a false prophet.  One is that their predictions don’t come true.  But another is that even if their predictions do come true, if they then say “let us go after other gods,” they are false prophets and are not to be trusted. The fulfilled prediction is a test of faith for believers.  So we aren’t supposed to go exclusively by outcomes, but by whether a prophet’s words and actions point us to the true God.

Since prophecy is a spiritual gift, we should expect that for budding prophets, there will be a “learning curve.”  As they learn to use their gift, they will become sharper and more accurate in their prophecies.  The corollary is that those who feel called to develop a prophetic gift and calling should be more restrained at the outset, until they develop confidence in their gifting.  That’s why I wouldn’t apply a “one strike and you’re out” rule in every case.  To me the main test is whether the prophet is calling people faithfully to obedience.

That much said, I have to admit that I lost confidence in a man I had considered a prophet, who made much of the fact that “God had told him” everything he was predicting, when several of his predictions in a row didn’t come true.  So there is still something to this test of accuracy.

Another thing to consider is that only a small percentage of prophecy in the Bible is predictive, or “fore-telling.” The rest is exhortation or “forth-telling,” a description of God’s perspective on how the community is conducting itself, rather than a prediction of what God plans to do, whether in mercy or judgment.  I would therefore add that a (mature) true prophet will probably come close to these proportions in his or her words to the community.
DeuteronomyHebrews
(A guide to Deuteronomy and Hebrews is available in the Understanding the Books of the Bible series.)

Was Noah’s flood a worldwide event or a local one?

Q. In your Genesis study guide you seem to take for granted that Noah’s flood was a worldwide event. You write, “God must have used some extraordinary means to cause a flood of this magnitude, since ordinary rainfall, even a downpour of forty days, wouldn’t be sufficient to cover all the mountains on earth.”  But I’ve heard some people claim instead that this flood was a local event.  How would you respond?

Floodwater

You’re right, one school of interpretation does hold that Noah’s flood was a local event in which the waters rose 15 cubits (22 feet) above their usual height, or else this far above their flood stage.  This would still be a tremendous flood, but local one.  However, the statement in Genesis that the high hills (or mountains) were all covered with water would seem to rule this out.

The statement is actually made within a poetic couplet that’s based on the repetition of meaning, whose second line provides greater focus, as is typical of Hebrew poetry.  The couplet can be translated this way:

And the waters were great, exceedingly, exceedingly, upon the earth
and they covered all the high hills that were under the skies;
Five and ten cubits upwards were the waters great
and they covered the high hills.

“All the high hills that were under the skies” are in view, and the claim is that these were covered to a height of 15 cubits, so I think the writer’s intention is to describe a worldwide event.

However, it’s important to remember that all of this is written from an observational perspective. The author of the flood account is reporting that all of the high hills out to the visible horizon (“under the skies”) were covered by the waters.  So this would conceivably still allow for a local flood, although it’s being envisioned as a worldwide event.

In either case, however, this would still be a flood of such magnitude that the problem of its mechanism remains. Some extraordinary means must have been responsible, because as I go on to say in the guide, the description of the flood in Genesis, no matter how we interpret it, “doesn’t line up with our modern cosmology.  Much of the universe is described here by analogy to things in human experience, so that there are ‘floodgates’ in the sky and ‘springs’ in the ‘great deep.'”  So it’s a real challenge to get from the way the author envisioned the created world to the way we understand it today.

I think it’s more profitable to realize that the Genesis account here is describing a wrestling match between the waters and the earth.  The waters “were great” or “prevailed” over the earth: “Prevail” in Hebrew is the root GBR, while the adjective “high” applied to the mountains or hills is GBH. Both roots convey the sense of strength and might. In other words, the greatest strength that the earth can muster—supposedly immovable mountains—cannot resist the force that God raises against it.

The flood was sent because almost the entire human race had turned away from God into violence and wickedness, but if they felt nothing could stop them from taking that path, their false sense of security has now been exposed.  The story ultimately has a moral lesson, so if the only thing we take away from it is a conclusion about how widespread the flood was, or about how it happened, we’ve missed the point.

For a further discussion of the flood in light of the way the biblical authors envisioned the created world, see this related post.

How does knowing about Hezekiah’s name and the 130 proverbs help me to be more like Jesus?

Okay, you’ve convinced me that there are 130 sayings in one of the collections in the book of Proverbs because this is the numerical value of Hezekiah’s name in Hebrew.  But how does knowing this help me be a better Christian?  How will it make me more like Jesus?

Many of us may have been encouraged to look, every time we read the Bible, for some specific thing that we should believe or do to become more Christ-like.  This, we’ve been told, is how God speaks to us through the Bible and how reading it helps us grow.  And so we look for what one person called their “gem of the day,” a bright and inspiring thought to carry with us as we go about our activities.

There’s a real danger to this approach, however.  It risks turning us into moralists who are trying hard on their own, in small ways each day, to become better people—to be able to say, as Émile Coué put it, “Every day, in every way, I’m getting better and better.”  What we should want instead is to become genuine followers of Jesus who are implicated in the grand story of God, which Jesus brought to its culmination, followers who are creatively and courageously living out that story in their own lives.

Knowing about Hezekiah’s name and the 130 proverbs won’t help you become a better moralist.  But it will help you appreciate more about the story that you find yourself in, if you do want to become more like Jesus.

For one thing, it gives you a better understanding of what the Bible actually is.  The Bible isn’t a loose compilation of thousands and thousands of discrete propositions that we need to select and arrange in order to get guidance on various subjects.  Rather, it’s a carefully crafted and curated collection of literary compositions, some as short as poetic couplets (proverbs), others as long as the sprawling histories in Samuel-Kings or Chronicles-Ezra-Nehemiah.  Seeing the care and intentionality behind the collection of proverbs “compiled by the men of Hezekiah” can help you appreciate the nature of the Bible and the crucial role that God allowed human agents to play in its composition and collection over the centuries.  In the Bible, God was letting us humans write his story with him.  And that’s what he still wants us to do in our lives today.

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Woodcut of Hezekiah burning idols

Seeing the honor that Hezekiah’s men paid to their royal patron by making sure their collection of proverbs came out to the right total (even though they had to repeat some proverbs from the earlier collection of Solomon’s sayings to reach that total) helps us recognize that at a particular moment in Israel’s history, after godless kings had suppressed devotion to the true God, a new righteous king was reshaping the affairs of the kingdom and allowing biblical scholarship to flourish once again. Behind that little number, 130, there’s quite a story about what it took and what it cost to give us the Bible.  I personally find this much more inspiring than any “gem of the day” my eye might happen to glance upon and isolate from the flow of the text that makes up the flow of the story.

So, to sum up, details like the 130 proverbs help us appreciate the fabric of the Bible, how it has been woven together from real stories of real people who were striving and struggling to serve God in their own places and times, and who are implicitly calling on us to do the same.  When we do, we become more like Jesus as we continue in our own lives the story, of which he is the center, found in the pages of the Bible.

Hezekiah and the 130-proverb collection: does it really add up?

To justify your organization of the book of Proverbs in The Books of the Bible, you claim that the collection of proverbs “compiled by the men of Hezekiah” has 130 sayings in it because this is the value of Hezekiah’s name in Hebrew.  But his name is actually spelled different ways in the Bible, so the value could be 136, 140, or 146 instead.  Besides, there are 138 verses in this section of Proverbs, or 137 if you don’t count the heading; neither of those match any possible value for Hezekiah’s name.

Hebrew, like several other languages, uses letters for numbers, so every word has a total numerical value that can be employed for symbolic purposes.  The argument I’ve made in the introduction to Proverbs in The Books of the Bible and in my study guide to Proverbs/Ecclesiastes/James is that the compilers of this collection put exactly 130 sayings in it as a way of honoring their royal patron.

It is true that the name HezekiaHezekiah130h is spelled different ways in the Bible, resulting in different totals. In the book of Kings, for example, it’s typically Hizqiyahu, which adds up to 136.  In the title to the book of Isaiah, it’s Yihizqiyah, which totals 140. And in Chronicles, it’s usually Yihizqiyahu, totaling 146.

However, the issue when it comes to appreciating the design of the book of Proverbs is how the name is actually spelled in the heading in that book that introduces the second collection of Solomon’s proverbs.  There it is Hizqiyah, which adds up to 130.  If the compilers of the book are using the value of Hezekiah’s name to determine the size of this collection, then 130 is the value we must consider them to be using.

And while it is true that the traditional verse divisions typically do correspond one-to-one with the individual sayings in the book of Proverbs, this is not the case in every part of the book.  In this second collection of Solomon’s proverbs specifically, there are several longer sayings that make up more than one verse, for example:
Remove the dross from the silver,
and a silversmith can produce a vessel;
remove wicked officials from the king’s presence,
and his throne will be established through righteousness.
(This is Proverbs 25:4-5 in the traditional numbering.) So there will be something less than 137 actual proverbs in this collection.

It would not be difficult to propose a division of the material that would result in a total of 130 discrete sayings.  However, it would be just as easy to dispute this division and suggest a different one that would yield another total.  I don’t think it’s possible for us to establish today exactly how the compilers of Proverbs intended for this material to be divided up.  However, the way they use, to all appearances, the value of Solomon’s name, 375, to determine the size of the first collection, which clearly contains 375 discrete sayings, strongly implies that the same thing is going on in the second collection of Solomon’s proverbs, the one “compiled by the men of Hezekiah.”  This is particularly true since a few proverbs are repeated from the first collection (e.g. “The words of a gossip are like choice morsels; they go down to the inmost parts,” 18:8 = 26:22), suggesting that the compilers were trying to get up to a particular total.

A reader of this post has asked, “But how does knowing about Hezekiah and the 130 proverbs help me to be more like Jesus?” To see my reply, click here.

Can we on earth do anything to help those who have already died?

As Paul is defending the resurrection in 1 Corinthians, he asks, “If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized for them?”  Is there really something we here on earth can do, such as being baptized, to help those who have already died?

In my guide to Paul’s Journey Letters I explain that he doesn’t actually support baptism for the dead.  My understanding of Paul’s reference in 1 Corinthians to those who were baptized on behalf of the dead is that he was talking about something his opponents were doing—the people who denied his teaching about the bodily resurrection.  Paul was pointing out how inconsistent and contradictory this practice was, in light of their doctrine:  It made no sense to baptize the bodies of the departed through a substitute if those bodies were gone and never coming back.  But Paul wasn’t advocating either the practice (baptism for the dead) or the doctrine (denial of the resurrection).  He was just delegitimizing his opponents with this rhetorical question.

As for your specific concern, I wouldn’t rule out the possibility that some devotional activities can reach across the divide between this world and the next.  Christ’s intercession at the right hand of God for us here on earth is a clear example.  (It may also be that God hears and answers the prayers of believers in heaven for people on earth, although we aren’t told about this specifically in the Bible.) So maybe our prayers can also be of some benefit to those who have passed on.

This gets into the larger question of whether everyone’s eternal destiny is fixed definitively at death, or whether people have some opportunity after death to embrace God’s love, and might be helped towards this through our prayers. There are some hints about this in the Bible, such as when Peter talks about Jesus going and preaching to the spirits who were in prison.  But we don’t know enough to be able to say for sure.

BaptismIn any event, baptism itself is only effective, as the church has held throughout the centuries, if the person being baptized has faith in Jesus as Lord and Savior.  This faith is not something one person can supply for another.  (In infant baptism, the parents or sponsors are doing for the infant what they believe he or she would if able; the expectation is that the infant will later confirm this action as a believer.)  The issue in this case, in other words, is the nature of baptism itself, not the question of whether we can do anything for those who have passed on.  Prayer, maybe, but baptism, no.

Did the earth’s atmosphere become translucent and then transparent, allowing light and then the sun to become visible on earth?

sun_4ae1db4b5688c

The following is a comment on my earlier post on the question of how there could have been light on the first day of creation when the sun was only created on the fourth day.  Because of its length and detail, the comment is printed here and my response follows.

What a great question. Whilst I don’t believe that Genesis was written as a science textbook, I believe that there should be harmony between what we see in the Bible and what we observe in science. This is because God is the author of both.

One of the most important things one needs to do in scientific research and in Biblical hermeneutics is to determine the frame of reference. I think that it is important that readers of Genesis 1 understand that the days of Genesis come from the Hebrew word “yom” which can mean a very long indeterminate length of time . . . an age.

Furthermore, a change in the frame of reference takes place between Gen. 1:1 [“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth”} and Gen. 1:2 [“Now the earth was formless and empty”]. It moves from the universe to the surface of the primordial earth.

The text does not say that light was created in Gen. 1:3 [“God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light”]. The actual Hebrew word is “hayah” which means to “appear” or to “cause to appear”. According to the best planetary theory the primordial earth had a dense and opaque atmosphere. This is exactly what the Scriptures say. Planetary models describe how the atmosphere slowly cleared and day and night were distinguishable . . . they “appeared”. Later on the atmosphere becomes translucent and then transparent. This explains the sun and moon “appearing” only on creation Day 4. This scientific model is in harmony with what the best science describes.

The rest of Genesis is also completely consistent with science. The establishment of a stable water cycle, the appearance of continents and plants, the clearing of the atmosphere, the appearance of sea animals and birds, followed by land animals and humans. Science tells us that this is the order that these things happened. But the Bible said it first! For an ancient writer to just get one of these creation events correct would be something. But to get them all correct and in the correct order is truly remarkable. The probability of an ancient writer getting the order of the 13 creation events correct is 13 factorial or 1 chance in 6.227 billion.

Don D. Wallar, M.Sc.
President, Toronto Chapter
Reasons to Believe
http://www.reasons.org

Don, thanks so much for sharing your own reflections on the Genesis account.  It’s great to engage these questions with you.

It seems to me that we are approaching the account with different expectations.  You’re expecting that it will be possible to match up its narrative details with the facts of natural history. I’m not necessarily expecting this; rather, I think we need to try to understand the account as a whole from its own perspective and then ask how it speaks to us today.

But this difference in approaches doesn’t mean we can’t talk.  In the Genesis study guide in the Understanding the Books of the Bible series, I invite small group members to state their opinions briefly about how the Genesis creation account  relates to science, but then “leave them at the door” and not debate them, so that the group can explore the text on a literary level. And that’s what you’ve allowed the two of us to do by your references to its literary structure and vocabulary.  Let me then engage each of the points you made.

The meaning of the word “yom.” The basic and most common meaning of the Hebrew word yom is “day.”  In most cases this is an ordinary day.  It’s true that the term can also be used figuratively to mean a longer, even an indeterminate, length of time.  In Deuteronomy, for example, Moses tells the people of Israel to celebrate Passover so that they will always remember “the day of your going forth from the land of Egypt.” The NIV translates this as “the time of your departure,” recognizing that a longer period of time is in view.  The prophets, to give another example, often begin their oracles by saying “In that day,” referring to an indefinite future period.  And so forth.  So how can we tell whether yom means a simple day, or a longer time period?  We have to depend on the context.  And the Genesis account says that for each “day,” “there was evening, and there was morning.”  I take this as an indication from the author that we’re meant to understand these as ordinary days, which the Hebrews considered to begin at sunset.  From the author’s observational perspective, creation looks like six days’ work:  realms are created on the first three days (day vs. night, sky vs. sea, sea vs. land), and these realms are populated on the next three days.  “A place for everything, and everything in its place”:  the account communicates the original order, beauty, and harmony of God’s creation.  But it doesn’t necessarily say that creation took place over a long period covering many ages.

•  Change in reference after the start of the account. Our English translations give us the impression that there is a change in the frame of reference after the opening sentence of the creation account, a change “from the universe to the surface of the primordial earth,” as you put it.  We hear about God creating “the heavens and the earth,” and then the action apparently shifts to the waters of the sea, grass on the ground, etc.  But the words used for “heaven” (shemayim) and “earth” (‘erets) in the opening sentence are actually the very same words used for the “sky” and the “land” everywhere else in the account, for example, “God made lights for the expanse of the sky (shemayim),” “The land (‘erets) produced vegetation,” etc.  So it would be more accurate to translate the opening line of the account this way:  “In the beginning God created the sky and the land.”  We would then realize that this is a summary of what follows, in the characteristic Hebrew narrative style.  (For example, later in the book of Genesis we’re told in summary, “Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers, they hated him all the more.”  Then we get the details.)  So as I see it, there is no change in the frame of reference.  An earthbound observer is describing “the sky and the land” throughout the whole account.

•  The meaning of the word “hayah.” The Hebrew word for “to appear” is actually ra’ah, “to see,” in the Niphal or reflexive stem meaning “to be seen” or “to appear.”  That’s the word that’s used in the creation account when God says, “Let the water under the sky be gathered to one place, and let dry ground appear.”  The word hayah means “to be.”  It can also mean “to become,” that is, “to come into existence,” and that’s what I understand the term to mean with regard to the light of the first day:  “God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and the light was (hayah),” that is, light came into existence.  This is not a case of a previously created entity becoming visible.

Even though these considerations related to the vocabulary and structure of the account leave me convinced that it is literally intended but written from an observational perspective, I share your belief that there is an ultimate coherence between scientific discoveries of the wonder and beauty of the created universe and the Bible’s revelation to us of God as Creator.  I happen to believe that these operate on two different levels, while it seems you believe they operate on the same level.  But we both agree that we can learn much about God from what are often called the “two books” of God’s revelation, nature and Scripture.  The fine organization you work with, Reasons to Believe, encourages believers and seekers to reflect with wonder and respect on the universe that God created, and I feel that the Genesis author is doing exactly the same thing, speaking out of an ancient culture to readers down through the ages.