The Messiah
Opens the Gates of Sheol
by John A. Tvedtnes and Matthew Roper

In a rather intriguing passage, one of Jesus’s disciples, Simon bar Jonah, better known to the world as Peter, wrote that:

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. (1 Peter 3:18-20)

Many of today’s Christians reject the clear meaning of the passage and deny that the Messiah, between the time of his death and resurrection, visited the spirits of the dead. Yet this is precisely what was believed in the first centuries A.D., from which come a number of documents that speak of the Messiah “descent” into hades or sheol (sometimes rendered “hell”), the realm of the dead. Among the earliest to discuss the subject are the second-century writers Melito of Sardis (Homily on the Passion); Tertullian (A Treatise on the Soul 55), Hippolytus (Treatise on Christ and Anti-Christ) and Origen (Against Celsus 2:43).

That the visit to sheol was a matter of faith is indicated by its inclusion as an article in the Apostle’s Creed. Ignatius, a late first-century leader, wrote that Jesus had visited and taught the prophets in the spirit and raised them from the dead (Epistle to the Magnesians 9).

The Epistle of the Apostles, known from a complete Ethiopic version, a fragmentary fifth century Latin manuscript (now in Vienna) and a fourth or fifth century mutilated Coptic manuscript in Cairo, places the following words in the mouth of Jesus, visiting with his apostles after the resurrection:

For to that end went I down unto the place of Lazarus, and preached unto the righteous and the prophets, that they might come out of the rest which is below and come up into that which is above; and I poured out upon them with my right hand the water [baptism, Ethiopic text] of life and forgiveness and salvation from all evil, as I have done unto you and unto them that believe on me.

In the Ethiopic document known as the Testament of our Lord and our Savior Jesus Christ 38-39, Jesus tells his apostles, “For this reason I descended and conversed with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, with your fathers the prophets, and I announced to them, in Sheol, the rest in the heavens where they shall come. With my right hand, I gave them the baptism of life, pardon and remission of all sin, as I did for you, and (as I shall do) hereafter for those who shall believe in me.” He then tells them that he who believes “shall come out of the prison and will be delivered from chains, from punishment and from the fire,” to which the apostles respond, “O Lord, you have truly given us joy and rest, for because of their faith and their confidence, you have announced to our fathers and to the prophets; also for us and for all.”

The Acta Pilati (Acts of Pilate), in its present form from the fifth century, has a later appendage (Part II, The Descent into Hell) that probably predates the first sections. It tells how, when Jesus descended into hell, he removed there from the spirits of the righteous and of the repentant. The latter were then baptized in the Jordan River.

Of particular interest is evidence that the concept of the Messiah visiting sheol is also found in some Jewish texts. Two second-century Christian writers, speaking of Jesus’ preaching to the dead, attributed to the prophet Jeremiah a prophecy not found in our current versions of that biblical book that the Lord would descend to preach salvation to the dead. These were Justin Martyr (Dialogue With Trypho 72) and Irenaeus (Against Heresies 3:20; 4:22).

Moses Gaster, in a compilation of “Hebrew Visions of Hell and Paradise,” cites the Revelation of Rabbi Joshua Ben Levi, in which we find the belief that only the Messiah can open the gates of sheol:

R. Joshua, son of Levi, tells further: “I asked the Messiah to allow me to look into Hell, but he did not allow me, as the righteous should never behold Hell.” So I sent to the angel called Komm that he might describe Hell for me. But it was impossible, for at that moment R. Ishmael, the high priest, and R. Simeon, son of Gamaliel, and ten just men were killed, and the news reached us, so I could not go with the angel. I went afterwards with the angel Kipod and the light went with me up to the gates of Hell, and the Messiah came with me, and they were opened. The sinners who were there saw the light of the Messiah, and rejoiced, and said to one another: “This will bring us out from here.”

Here, then, we have a clear indication from a rabbinic source that the Messiah would open the gates of sheol and liberate its spirit-prisoners. Jesus’ actions in bringing his joyous message to the spirits of the dead and liberating them may be reflected in his citation of Isaiah 61:1-2 in the synagogue at Nazareth, saying that he would “preach deliverance to the captives” (Luke 4:17-20).


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