The Self-Grasp and Descensus
of
Jesus the Christ

Dr. W. Noble King
All Rights Reserved

Introduction

1. The Essence, the continuity of identity, and the Self-Grasp of Jesus the Christ have much to do with a biblical interpretation of the Descensus.  We shall therefore restate certain aspects of the basic nature of this Theanthropic Person about to be brought under consideration.

2. Any emptying of Self that might have, and possibly did take place while he was on earth had to do with office and glory and environment and not with the essence of Self-Hood or Self-Content.  In nature, Essence, and attributes the Christ remained God absolute throughout all of his human nature experiences.  We here quote:

The Son of God miraculously descended from heaven yet in such a manner that he never left heaven; he chose to be miraculously born of the virgin, to live on the earth, and to be suspended from the cross; and yet he never ceased to fill the universe in the same manner as from the beginning.  The Person of the Christ was both spaceless and timeless through all his human nature experiences from his conception by Mary to his resurrection from Josephís tomb (Quoted from Calvin by Boettner in The Person of the Christ, p. 47).

3. Dr. Richard Watson also points out that Christ was not only without beginning and without change, being immutable, but that he was extended throughout all space as an omnipresent Being.  "Thus he declared himself to be at the same time in heaven and upon earth: ĎAnd no man hath ascended up to heaven, but he that came down from heaven, even the Son of man which is in heavení.  Thus the Son of man when he was on earth is at the same time in heaven" (Watson, I, 580; Wiley, II, 171; Pope, II, 102; John 3:13; Matt. 18:20).  The three Divine Persons are each God absolutely in that each contains the totality of the Divine attributes and Essence.  Each is omnipresent in that each fills immensity and cannot come and go in the same sense that we do.  Hence the Holy Spirit was here on earth before he came at Pentecost, and when he did come at Pentecost he did not leave heaven.  The eternal Son was here on earth, as a Divine Person, before he appeared in human flesh.  And when he came to earth in human flesh he did not leave heaven as a Divine Person.  Then when he returned to heaven after his resurrection from the dead, he did not leave the earth.  Thus when Jesus took upon himself our human nature that human nature neither limited or restricted the Divine Person of the Son.

4. Thus Jesus the Christ, being God, and as such in possession of the totality of the Divine Essence and attributes inhabits the eternal order.  In clothing himself with our nature he did not leave that order, nor limit his selfhood in that order.  A conscious identity runs through all the changing experiences of that changeless Person: for nothing that can happen in the finite can change the infinite.  Jesus could thus say, " To this end was I born, and for this cause came I into the world" (John 18:37b).  His mission on earth was eternally planned by him, and known to him.  At no time on earth did it fade out, as he was always in possession of the attribute of absolute wisdom.

I

First, therefore, let us notice certain supposed Difficulties with regard to the Self-Grasp of the Christ.

1. Let us first consider the words: "But of that day and that hour knoweth no man.  No, not the angels which are in heaven, neither the Son, but the Father."  Now there is but one Essence and that undividable Essence in its totality is in each attribute.  There is but one attribute of absolute wisdom, and that attribute is possessed concurrently by each member of the Trinity.  If the eternal Son did not know, both the Father and the Spirit did not know.  If the Father knew, then both the Son and the Spirit also knew.  No one of the three can cease to be God; hence all three knew.  What then is meant by the words expressed in Mark 13:32 to which we have just referred?

2. We know that the clause neither the Son does not appear in other gospel accounts, nor for that matter in all versions of Markís gospel.  With that, however, we are not overly interested here.  Dr. Richard Watson (Theological Inst., vol. I, pp. 580-587) points out that the word used in St. Mark is __________, and it may be translated knows or to cause others to know.  It has the force of the Hebrew hiphil, which, in verbs denoting action, makes that action pass to another or to others.  Thus __________, which means I know, also means I make another to know, I declare to another.  The term is most assuredly used in this sense by the apostle Paul in I Cor. 2:2.  He there states: "For I determined not to know __________ anything among you, save Jesus Christ and him crucified."  Paul knew much else, but as far as they were concerned that was all he knew and that was all he was going to preach about.  The exact day and hour of the second coming was not in that body of truth which it was the united will of Father, Son, and Spirit to make known to man at that time.  Hence as far as they were concerned it was all the same as though Jesus did not know.

3. The statement from the cross must also be considered: "Eli, Eli, lama, sabachthani" (Mark 15:34b).  That is to say, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?"  (Matt. 27:46bc).  Two facts must be observed with regard to this question of the Christ from the cross:

(1) There were two distinct natures within the one Christ--the human and the divine.  The human nature of the Christ was sustained and upheld by the eternal Person in whom resided the fulness of the Godhead bodily.  While on the cross it was the human nature of the Christ which became the sacrifice for sin.  This was the basic purpose of the Christ in taking upon himself a human nature.  When the sin of the world was laid on that human nature, the divine nature, or the total essence of Deity withdrew its undergirdings.  The divine Person experienced death in that human nature; and, being a divine Person he was still unconquerable; but the divine nature did not undergird the human nature in that one experience.  Had the divine nature undergirded the human then God the Father, and God the Spirit would have experienced death as did God the Son.  This withdrawal of the divine nature from the human nature, when the human nature became a sacrifice for sin, is symbolized by the darkness that settled down upon the scene.  It is also set forth by Christís use of the term God.  When he himself prayed or spoke detached from other people he never once used the term when he referred to the Father.  The Christ, speaking from his human nature alone while that nature was a sacrifice for sin, and while it was forsaken by the divine nature, could therefore say, "Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?"  That is, "Why has the totality of the divine Essence (God) forsaken me (my human nature) in this hour of need?" When considered in this biblical setting the term God is the only term that the Christ could have used under those circumstances.  Those were the only circumstances, in time or in eternity in which the Christ could have used the term.

(2) Notice further that this question: "Eli, Eli, lama, sabachthani?" is not a question originating in the mind of the Christ.  It is not a question in his mind at all.  It is a question quoted from Psalm 22:1 for the sake of revelation and identification.  In Psalm 22:1-21 we have a prophetic and perfect word-picture of Jesus the Christ on the cross.  The appearance and state of Christís human body are minutely described.  The mocking and jeering enemies, with their head-wagging, lip-curling, and jeering him to scorn are minutely described.  In verse eight of this Psalm we read: "He trusted in the Lord that he would deliver him: let him deliver him, seeing he delighteth in him."  Then in verse eighteen of the same Psalm we read: "They parted my garments among them, and cast lots upon my vesture."  Those prophetic statements were minutely enacted at the foot of the cross.  We shall here quote at some length from the PC, on Mark 15:34, and on Matt. 27:47:

It is generally supposed that our blessed Lord, continually praying upon the cross, and offering himself a sacrifice for the sins of the whole world, recited the whole of Psalm 22 of which these are the first words ("Eli, Eli, lama, sabachthani"), that he might show himself to be the very Being of whom the words refer; so that the Jewish scribes and the people might examine and see the cause why he would not descend from the cross.

Now, it must be ever held in mind that the Christ in Person, in his dual natures, in his healings, teachings, and vicarious death was a revelatory Person.  Thus when he spoke as a man it was to reveal the fact that he was perfectly human, and when he spoke as God it was to reveal the fact that he was Deity.  This is a basic principle in the interpretation of prophetic statements.  When Paul referred to prophecy he wrote:

For it is written in the law of Moses, thou shalt not muzzle the mouth of the ox that treadeth out the corn.  Doth God take care of oxen?  Or saith (he) it altogether for our sakes?  For our sakes, no doubt, this is written (I Cor. 9:9b; Deut. 25:4).

And again:

Now these things were our examples, to the intent we should not lust after evil things as they also lusted...Now all these things happened unto them for ensamples: and they are written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the world are come (I Cor. 10:6, 11).

Then Jesus himself, while praying at the grave of Lazarus, referred to this same principle of interpretation by saying:

Father, I thank thee that thou hast heard me.  And I know that thou hearest me always: but because of the people which stand by, I said it, that they may believe that thou hast sent me (John 11:41c, 42).

Thus the quotation by Jesus from Psalm 22:1, although in the form of a question, is not a question for him at all.  He repeated the question to identify himself as the Sufferer prophesied of in that Psalm as well as in Isaiah 53.  His question was revelatory, and was "for our sakes" alone.  Many grasped the inference and smote their breasts in horror, and left the scene in fear.  We read: "And all the people that came together at that sight, beholding the things which were done, smote their breasts, and returned" (Luke 23:48).

II

Secondly, therefore, let us notice certain of Christís own statements with regard to himself which throw light on his Self-Grasp.

1. We first point out that there is no intermediate place, as such, taught in the Bible.  There is an intermediate state within an eternal place.  For instance, paradise is an Asiatic word referring to the parks and pleasure grounds of Oriental monarchs.  The monarch, at set times, walked in those grounds and parks, and his subjects could join him and discuss their troubles together.  The word paradise is also used in the Septuagint to refer to the garden of Eden (Gen. 2:8ff).  In time it came to mean heaven: "And Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, To-day shalt thou be with me in paradise" (Luke 23:43).  "And I knew such a man, ...How that he was caught up into paradise, and heard unspeakable words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter" (II Cor. 12:3a, 4).  "He that hath an ear to hear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches; To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the tree of life, which is in the midst of the paradise of God" (Rev. 2:7).  Thus the term paradise refers to the immediate presence of the throne on God itself.  Such terms as "Abrahamís bosom", etc., also refer to the immediate presence of God and his throne.  Binney and Steele say, "The scriptures, however, whatever else they may say respecting such a state, do not teach any intermediate place; that is, a place short of and distinct from heaven the abode of Christ" (Theological Compend, p. 137).

2. Jesus, as well as his immediate followers, also taught his own pre-existence.  He said, "And now, O Father, glorify thou me with thine own self with the glory which I had with thee before the world was" (John 17:5).  "And no man hath ascended up to heaven, but he that came down from heaven, even the Son of man which is in heaven" (John 13:3).  "For I came down from heaven, not to do mine own will, but the will of him that sent me" (John 6:38).  "I am the living bread which came down from heaven: if any man eat of this bread, he shall live forever" (John 6:51a).  "What and if ye shall see the Son of man ascend up where he was before?" (John 6:62).  "But I know him; for I am from him, and he hath sent me" (John :29).  John also wrote and said, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  The same was in the beginning with God" (John 1:1, 2).  Jesus thus emphatically taught that he came directly from the presence of God into this world.

3. Jesus also declared that when he left this world he went directly to the Father from whose presence he had come.  He said, "I came forth from the Father, and am come into the world: again, I leave the world, and go to the Father" (John 16:28).  "Then said Jesus unto them, Yet a little while am I with you, and then I go unto him that sent me" (John 7:33).  "Ye have heard how I said unto you, I go away, and come again unto you.  If ye loved me, ye would rejoice, because I said, I go unto the Father" (John 14:28ab).  "But now I go my way unto him that sent me; and none of you asketh me, Whither goest thou?"  (John 16:5).  "Of righteousness, because I go to my Father, and ye see me no more" (John 16:10).  "Jesus knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he was come from God and went to God" (John 13:3).  "While I was with them in the world, I kept them in thy name: ...And now come I to thee" (John 17:12a, 13a).  "And Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, today shalt thou be with me in paradise" (Luke 23:43).  "And when Jesus had cried with a loud voice, he said, Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit" (Luke 23:46a; Psalms 31:5).  Jesus also points out that that little period of time between his death on the cross and his resurrection was spent in the presence of the Father: "A little while and ye shall not see me: and again, a little while, and ye shall see, because I go to the Father" (John 16:16).  There is thus no word of an intermediate place in the experience of Christ when he came from the Father to the world, or when he left the world and returned to the Father.

4. Jesus also taught that he was the active Agent in his own resurrection.  We are, however, told that the Father raised him (Acts. 2:24), and that the Spirit raised him (Romans 8:11); but Jesus declared himself to be the active Agent in his own resurrection.  We shall quote but briefly at this point: "Jesus answered and said unto them, Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up" (John 2:19).  "Therefore doth my Father love me, because I lay down my life, that I might take it again.  No man taketh it from me, but I lay it down of myself.  I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again" (John 10:17, 18a).  Thus Jesus in life and in death remained in full possession of Deity: He inhabited eternity and filled immensity; and knew himself as he knew the Father as both were concurrently in possession of the Essence of Deity (Matt. 11:27, 28).  Other secondary texts are: Matt. 20:19; Mark 9:31; 10:34; Luke 18:33; 24:7; John 10:17, 18a; Acts 10:41; Romans 8:34).

III

With these truths in mind We shall now deal with the Descensus proper

1. The brief period or interval, in redemptive history, between the death of Jesus the Christ and his resurrection is known as the Descensus ad infernos, or the Descent into Hades.  The Greek hades or the Hebrew sheol refers to the hidden or unseen state or place of the deceased.  Neither term as originally used had any reference to happiness or misery. This is its use in Psalm 16: "Therefore my heart is glad, and my glory rejoiceth: my flesh also shall rest in hope.  For thou wilt not leave my soul in hades; neither wilt thou suffer thine Holy One to see corruption" (Psalm 16:9, 10).  Referring to this matter Peter wrote: "He seeing this before spake of the resurrection of Christ, that his soul was not left in hades, neither his flesh did see corruption" (Acts 2:31).  Thus Peter interprets this as the resurrection from the grave.  Paul is probably more clear when he refers to it as meaning the sepulchre: "And when they had fulfilled all that was written of him, they took him down from the tree and laid him in a sepulchre. ...Wherefore he saith also in another Psalm, Thou shalt not suffer thine Holy One to see corruption" (Acts 13:25; Psalm 16:9, 10).  The term: "He descended into Hades" as it appears in the Apostlesí Creed was not added until 200 years after the creed was written.  For a time the expression: "buried in the grave" was used interchangeably with "He descended into Hades".  When one expression was used the other was not.  Thus as originally used it merely meant physical death and physical repose in a sepulchre.  All four gospels so interpret Psalm 16:9, 10 (Matt. 27:61; Mark 15:46; Luke 23:53, 55; John 19:42).

2. In that sepulchre his body was to see no corruption, and his soul, as a result, could not be imprisoned.  His body died; his soul passed under the power of death, and his spirit experienced death, but passed on to the realm of spirits.  His spirit was the Divine Self, or the eternal Christ.  With regard to this matter Dr. Pope writes:

Positively He triumphed in death over death.  First, in His one Person He kept inviolate His human body which did not undergo the material dissolution of its elements: not because, as it is sometimes said, He was delivered from the grave before corruption had time to affect His sacred flesh; but because the work of death was arrested in the very instant of the severance of soul and body.  As His spirit dieth no more so His body saw no corruption.  The unviolated flesh of our Lord was, till the moment He was quickened, a silent declaration of perfect victory; His divinity never left His body, any more than it forsook His spirit in its passage to the realm of spirits (II, 168).

3. Thus had the body of the Christ remained in the grave a thousand years it would have experienced no corruption.  The biblical definition of death, with regard to immortal spirits, is separation.  The sinner is dead in trespasses and sins as he remains away from the salvation of Christ.  The second death is that final and eternal separation from God in the world to come.  The prodigal was both lost and dead when he was separated from his father, and James tells us that the body is dead when separated from the spirit (James 2:26).  When our bodies pass under the power of death they disintegrate, as they remain under the power of death.  But Jesus in the very act of death said, "It is finished" (John 19:30b).  Death had then no more than it could do, as in that act the price was paid (Romans 6:9).

4. The meaning of I Peter 3:18, 19, 20, 22 must now be considered.  The verses under consideration read as follows:

For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit: By which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison; which sometime were disobedient, when once the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls were saved by water. ...Who is gone into heaven, and is on the right hand of God; angels and authorities and powers being made subject unto him.

It is basic principle in hermeneutics that an obscure, or unclear, text cannot have precedence over a clear one, or over many clear ones.  Jesus himself, as we have already pointed out, fully dealt with the matter as to where he went when he experienced death, and as to where he was during the three days from his death to his resurrection.  The Romanists use this area to teach purgatory and related beliefs, although they readily admit that it is not clearly taught in I Peter 3:18--22 (Adam Clarke, Comm., "Rom.  --Rev.," p. 861).

(1) The first view then that we shall consider is the Roman Catholic one.  We quote:

That Christ in His Person preached to the good in the spirit world.  This view is attributed to Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Origen, and Gregory the Great.  It was advocated also by Anselm, Albertus, and Thomas Aquinas.  Zwingli held that Christ preached the gospel of redemption to the Ďspirits in prisoní, that is, to the Old Testament saints, who could not be admitted into heaven proper, prior to the actual death of Christ.  This is substantially the view of the Roman Catholic Church.

(2) A second view is that Christ went and preached to both the good and the bad.  They do not state whether the preaching was to add to the bliss of the saved, or to add to the torments of the damned, or to give the damned a chance to get saved.

(3) A third view is that Christ preached to the wicked only, announcing their final condemnation.  This apparently is intended to add to their torments.  This position was held by many of the Luthern divines.

(4) A fourth view is that Christís spirit went to, and endured, the torments of hell fire during the three days that his body was in the tomb.  This view is spectacular, but it denies the total efficacy of the blood to save.  It is near blasphemy.

(5) The fifth and proper view is that Christ, who inspired all the prophets in the Old Testament, inspired and preached through Noah to the people on earth during the time of Noah who are now in prison awaiting the great judgment day (H.O. Wiley, II, pp. 201ff).

Whedon says, "So Christ went by the Holy Spirit, and preached through Noah, to the antediluvians. ...The object is to identify the men to whom Christ preached; and they are spoken of as they were at the time, not of the preaching, but of the identification" (Comm., "Titus--Rev.", p. 212).

Barnes says, "The supposition therefore is that this whole passage refers to the Christís preaching to the antediluvians in the time of Noah, and not to the spirits after they were confined in prison" (Comm., "James--Jude", p. 177).

Adam Clarke goes into the Latin Vulgate and other Latin MSS, and declares that the eternal Christ preached through Noah to the spirits now in prison who resisted the Christ in the ministry of Noah.  It is here that Adam Clarke points out that the Romanists hold it as an article of faith that Christ went to purgatory, and there preached to the damned, although, as we have pointed out, they admit that it is not clearly taught there (Comm., "Rom.,--Rev." p. 861).

John Miley writes on the matter as follows: "Christ preached through Noah to the spirits now in Prison."  This says he is the correct understanding of the passage.  This interpretation is in harmony with the entire Bible on this subject, and is so held by the majority of the non-Romanist theologians (II, p. 438).

5. Further, from the top of a topless heaven to the bottom of the Gehenna of Fire (and beyond in both directions if that is possible) all was created and upheld by the Christ.  As a result of his sacrificial death and resurrection he was made in Person Lord of all by the Trinity:

And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.  Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name: That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth: And that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Phil. 2:8--11).

Zoroastrian dualism is out.  Miltonís Satan ruling the domain of the damned is out.  Hell was created, and is upheld as a place of punishment for the devil and his angels, and not as a place of rulership for him.  When the spirit of the Christ moved from the cross, he moved into the spirit realm as Lord of all above and beneath: "He led captivity captive and gave gifts unto men" (Eph. 4:8, 9).  His omnipresence demands this (Wiley, II, 203; Pope, II, pp. 168, 169).

6. Much of the glory of heaven for the redeemed is a certain manifestation of the personal Presence and glory of the Christ.  Somehow unknown to us at present much of the horror of the Gehenna of Fire is a certain manifestation in condemnation upon the finally lost of the presence of Christ.  It is an entirely opposite form of that divine Presence manifested in heaven:

Whither shall I go from thy spirit?  Or whither shall I flee from thy presence?  If I ascend up into heaven thou art there: if I make my bed in hell (the opposite of heaven), behold thou art there.  If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea; Even there shall thy hand lead me, and thy right hand shall uphold me (Psalm 139:7--10).

7. When Jesus cried, and said, "It is finished" the word used is __________ meaning, in a general sense, to make a proclamation of some kind as a crier did in ancient times.  Thus that cry of the Christ was a cry of absolute and finished victory over sin, death, and the Satan.  It would have been heard in heaven above, or earth beneath, and in the regions of the damned.  The Person of the Christ was both cosmic and eternal, and his death and resurrection were cosmic and eternal with dates in time for our benefit.

8. Christís humiliation was thus finished at the time of, and in the article of death on the cross.  His exaltation also began at the same moment.  At this moment he moved into the realm of spirits a Victor, although he did not repossess his place at the right hand of God at once.  This took place at Pentecost (John 7:39).  We quote in closing:

...when our Lord cried ĎIt is finishedí the abasement of the Representative of mankind ended.  The expiation of sin demanded no more: it did not require that the Redeemer should be kept under the power of death.  After the tribute of his voluntary expiation death had Ďno more domination over himí.  He triumphed over all the enemies of salvation on the cross.  Death was at once...his triumph, and his release: Ďit was not possible that he should be holden of ití: not only because he was the Prince of Life, but because the law had no more claim (Pope, II 168).

His descensus had now become his exaltation, and his right to cosmic and eternal LORDSHIP over all.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

The Bible: "The King James Version"; "The A.S.V." "The R.S.V."

Barnes, A., Commentary; "James--Jude", p. 177.

Binney and Steele, Theological Compend, p. 137.

Boettner, The Person of the Christ, p. 47.

Clarke, A., Commentary, "Romans--Revelation", p. 861.

Miley, John, Systematic Theology, II, p. 438.

Pope, W.B., A Comp. of Christian Theology, II, pp. 102, 168.

The P.C., "Mark".

Watson, R., Institutes, I, p. 580.

Whedon, Commentary, "Titus--Revelation", p. 212.

Wiley, H.O., Christian Theology, II, pp. 203, 201.

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