Christus Victor and the Descenus ad Inferno: Why Pitstick, Oakes and Von Balthasar are all wrong!

I am going to make a short comment about something that requires pages and pages of discussion. I don’t know if you have been following the discussion in First Things between Alyssa Pitstick and Edward Oakes on the issue of the “Descent into Hell” as taught by Hans Urs von Balthasar. It began with this exchange in the December issue, and continued with this exchange in the January issue, and kept going (with a shift in gear into the discussion of what is and is not heresy) in the “On the Square” blog (here, here, here, and–Stephen Barr entering into the discussion–here). My guess is that it hasn’t ended yet…

This is a discussion only for the brave of theological heart. But I confess that I find myself quite befuddled by it–for at times I agree with Pitstick and at times with Oakes. Both have good arguments in themselves and good criticisms of the other. But I also find myself frustrated with the categories in which the discussion is taking place.

For a start, I am no expert on von Balthasar’s theology. I am a little disorientated by the fact that the argument over a key Christological doctrine has become tangled up with the defence of a reputation of a great (but not infallible) scholar. I am the last person who needs convincing that theologians can err–infallibility only pertains to the magisterium. Nor do I think a bloke should be crucified for getting it wrong every now and again–except when he continues to do so by obstinately rejecting correction (for eg. see here). I agree with the opinion posted on the Pontifications blog, that

many of the great theologians of the Church have blundered on important matters: Origen, Gregory Nyssen, and Augustine immediately come to mind. Not bad company to be in, I would think.

I also find that somehow the discussion has strayed into a bit of Prottie-bashing–that somehow the Protestants are being branded with teaching that Christ’s descent into hell was a part of his humiliation rather than part of his glorification. Now some Protestants may have taught this (eg. Calvin, Barth, I don’t know, I’m no expert on their theology either) but the official Lutheran position is fully consonant with the faith of the Catholic Church:

Because among the teachers of the ancient church as well as among some of us different explanations of the article on Christ’s descent into hell may be found, we remain with the simple explanation of the Christian creed… Therefore, we confess, ‘I believe in Jesus Christ, our Lord, God’s Son, who died, was buried, and descended into hell.’ In this Creed the burial and Christ’s descent into hell are distinguished as two different articles, and we believe simply that the entire person, God and human being, descended into hell after his burial, conquered the devil, destroyed the power of hell, and took from the devil all his power. (Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration, Article IX, par. 1-3).

It is clear from this passage that they regard the “descent” as part of Christ’s glorious victory and not a part of his redemptive suffering. On this point, Catholics and Lutherans at least agree.

The difficulty, it seems to me (and I am not the first to note it) is with the meaning of the “Hell”. In Latin it is “infernum”, in Greek it is “Hades” and in hebrew it would have been “Sheol” (or “the pit”). Now, Pitstick thumbs her nose at historical-critical readings of scripture, and at the same time embraces the medieval “structure” (her word) of the afterlife, complete with heaven, hell, purgatory, limbo for unbaptised infants and the “limbo of the fathers”. I had never heard of the latter before reading this debate. Now, the first three are a part of Catholic doctrine, but the last two are (I believe) not obligatory for faith. In fact, I have equally as much skepticism and respect for both the historical-critical reading of the scriptures and the full medieval schemata of the afterlife. I have never before heard of anyone discussing “purgatory” in terms of those who died before Jesus’ death and resurrection. Pitstick gets into one hell of a mess (if you will excuse the pun) discussing whether or not the righteous dead whom Christ liberated during his descensus had already been purified in purgatory or not. As far as I have understood, purgatory is a purification (rather than a place) which the baptised faithful must undergo if at the time of their death they are not fully free of attachment to venial sin (attachment to mortal sin has an entirely different result!).

But if an historical-critical approach were to be taken, it would become clear that the word “Hades” in the original creed (and in the scriptures) cannot hold the full weight and meaning of what we have come to know as “hell”, namely the place of eternal damnation and exile from the presence of God. The Septuagint translation of the Old Testament makes clear that “Hades” is the Greek equivalent of “Sheol” in Hebrew, which the King James Version translates as “the grave” and the Vulgate translates as “infernum”. To me then, it seems pretty clear that (even though the Lutheran Confessions point out that the “burial” and “descent” are two separate articles of the Creed) the original version of the Creed conceptually linked the idea that Christ was buried in the tomb with the idea that he descended to the place of the dead. Furthermore, in both the Hebrew and Greek thought of the time, there was no concept that anyone ever “went to heaven” when they died (indeed, this concept is impossible to find in the New Testament, let alone the Old Testament), everyone (without distinction) went to Sheol/Hades. This is the import of Psalm 88, a Psalm which in the Christian tradition is interpreted with reference to Christ’s own descent into Sheol.

It is not conceptually difficult, therefore, for one to envisage what havoc was wraught upon the “place of the dead” by the entry into it of the “Holy One” of God (Ps 16:10), the one who was Life itself. The effect would have been exactly that which both the Lutheran Confessions and traditional Catholic/Orthodox theology describe: the complete destruction of the power of “the place of the dead” to hold those who belong by faith in Christ to God, ie. the “Harrowing of Hell” as depicted in the classical Orthodox iconography. The Catechism upholds this interpretation by saying:

632 The frequent New Testament affirmations that Jesus was “raised from the dead” presuppose that the crucified one sojourned in the realm of the dead prior to his resurrection [Acts 3:15; Rom 8:11; 1 Cor 15:20; cf. Heb 13:20]. This was the first meaning given in the apostolic preaching to Christ’s descent into hell: that Jesus, like all men, experienced death and in his soul joined the others in the realm of the dead. But he descended there as Saviour, proclaiming the Good News to the spirits imprisoned there [cf. I Pt 3:18-19].

and again

636 By the expression “He descended into hell”, the Apostles’ Creed confesses that Jesus did really die and through his death for us conquered death and the devi
l “who has the power of death” (Heb 2:14).

This still, I believe, leaves room for those who wish to explore the matter of whether or not Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Word and Second Person of the Holy Trinity, experienced “Hell” in the more specific sense of the experience of the complete alienation from the presence of God. Here I think von Balthasar’s theology has something to say–only he got the timing wrong. The Scriptural accounts of Jesus’ last words upon the Cross give us two completely certain facts:

1) that Jesus was forsaken by God when he was dying upon the Cross (Matt 27:46; Mk 15:34)
2) that Jesus completed our redemption and his suffering for sin before he breathed his last breath and died (John 19:30)

You can add to that the very clear scriptural and patristic theology that the time Jesus spent in the tomb was a “sabbath rest” in perfect fulfillment with the Law of God, rather than a continuation of Christ’s work (which, like the work of Creation, was completed on the sixth day).

So I am quite happy for people to speculate that Jesus experienced the depths of hell in the moment of his abandonment by God upon the Cross (in fact, in far greater torment than we ever could, since we have never known the intimacy of the presence of God in the way Jesus, as Second Person of the Holy Trinity, could have). Of course, there is a very great mystery here, but I will leave that to the theologians! It is quite clear, however, that Jesus’ suffering did not continue after his death, and therefore that his “descent to the place of the dead” can not be interpreted as an experience of the eternal damnation of hell.

As for the Holy Father’s own point of view, I find it significant that he has repeated in Sacramentum Caritatis a phrase from his own encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, that:

[Jesus’] death on the Cross is the culmination of that turning of God against himself in which he gives himself in order to raise man up and save him. (§12)

I cannot read that in anyway to suggest that the “culmination” was still to come in the descent of Christ into hell. That was the first act of Christ’s victory over death.

As for Fr Oakes’ insistence that we do not celebrate the victory of Christ over death until Holy Saturday has been completed, I suggest that he is simply insufficiently familiar with the ancient Christian doctrine of the “Christus Victor”, or the ancient hymnody which celebrates the victory over death as taking place on Good Friday and on the Cross. The Resurrection is confirmation of this Victory, but the Victory itself was won when Jesus cried out: “It is finished!”

[Reader: Well, thank goodness this blog is finally “finished”! I thought you said it was going to be a short comment?
Schütz: You want to see my long comment? I have said before, have I not, that everything is relative?]

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3 Responses to Christus Victor and the Descenus ad Inferno: Why Pitstick, Oakes and Von Balthasar are all wrong!

  1. Can anything good come out of Melbourne? says:

    It seems so. I didn’t think You were up to the task, but it seems You’ve proven me wrong. :-) Good post!


  2. Schütz says:

    Well, gee, ta very much, Lucian! Glad it worked for you! :-) I do think these guys are tying themselves in knots over a very simple (if deeply mysterious) issue.

  3. Schütz says:

    By the way, for those interested, there is quite an amazing dialogue by four Lutheran theologians recorded on the Cor ad Cor Loquitur blogsite on this subject. See:

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