As addressed above, the question of exactly how Christ suffered and died was a central controversy in the early Church. On this subject it could truly be said that heaven and hell hung in the balance. The tension is clear as, on the one hand, we know that the Persons of the Godhead cannot, as God, die, and on the other, that the hypostasis presented in Scripture reveals Christ’s person, wholly God and wholly man, to be indivisible. So in accord with the council of Chalcedon, we say that a divine Person died on our behalf, though only according to His human nature. God – God the Son – indeed died, though not qua God. Christ, the second divine Person of the Trinity, died as Man for us men.
This is the sole way to hold to that basic Chalcedonian standard, that Christ is verily man and verily God without confusion of substance. To deny this is, by way of monophysitism – an alloyed blending of Christ’s humanity with His divinity, depicting Him as a pseudo-divinized chimera – to revert to the most carnal aspects of heathenism. For our fathers, in the worst of their pagan religion, having fallen into ancestor-worship, became idolaters. They made their gods in their own image; their gods could die like men. In fact, they had died. They did so because they were not gods at all, but men, even if of a heartier sort than we are now.
These were the very internal contradictions of heathenism which beleaguered the minds of the Platonists and begged remedy in the hearts of the northern tribes. That remedy was revealed uniquely in the advent of Christ, both transcendent and immanent without confusion. Remarkably, this is the substance which the monophysites laid aside in exchange for a return to the shadow. Though Alienists are moving in a different direction, their gnosticism is no less subordinationist than monophysitism. Both clearly diminish Christ.
Death in Scripture came upon men as a consequence of sin. It is a moral and penal category. As such, Christ suffered death in His flesh as a result not of His own sin, but of ours. While in His Godhood an incorruptible Spirit of the same essence and substance with the other members of the Godhead, He lives so long as the other two live, which is to say, eternally. Death cannot contain Him, for He is Life. The heathen gods could make no such claim.
But Christ’s death coincided with the death of national Israel. This, the Scripture assures us, was essential, speaking of this synchronicity as “the fullness of time” (Gal. 4:4). Christ’s advent could only have come in tandem with the erasure of national Israel from the earth. With an eye toward Christ’s advent, Hosea mourned the onset of the demographic winter which would culminate in the death of the nation:
They have dealt treacherously with the Lord,
For they have begotten foreign children.
Now the New Moon shall devour them and their heritage. (5:7)
The princes of Judah are like those who remove a boundary;
I will pour out My wrath on them like water.
Ephraim is oppressed and broken in judgment,
Because he willingly walked by human precept. (5:10-11)
Ephraim has mixed himself among the races;
Ephraim is a cake unturned.
Aliens have devoured his strength,
But he does not know it;
Yes, gray hairs are here and there on him,
Yet he does not know it. (7:8-9)
They sow the wind,
And reap the whirlwind.
The stalk has no bud;
It shall never produce meal.
If it should produce,
Aliens would swallow it up.
Israel is swallowed up;
Now they are among the nations.
Like a vessel in which is no pleasure. (8:7-8)
Hosea tells us that Israel had diluted herself with other peoples to the point that she was fast approaching complete dissolution. But Eusebius, that great doctor of church history, has summed up the Nicene perspective of this parallel:
At the time that Herod was king, who was the first foreigner that reigned over the Jewish people, the prophecy recorded by Moses received its fulfillment, viz. ‘That a prince should not fail of Judah, nor a ruler from his loins, until he should come for whom it is reserved.’ That same, he also shows, would be the expectation of the nations. The prediction was evidently not accomplished as long as they were at liberty to have their own native rulers, which continued from the time of Moses down to the reign of Augustus. Under him, Herod was the first foreigner that obtained the government of the Jews. Since, as Josephus has written, he was an Idumean by the father’s side, and an Arabian by the mother’s . . . the government of the Jews, therefore, having devolved on such a man, the expectation of the nations was now at hand, according to prophecy; because with him terminated the regular succession of governors and princes, from the time of Moses. . . .
From this time also, the princes and the rulers of Judah, i.e, of the Jewish nation, ceasing, by a natural consequence, the priesthood, which had descended from a series of ancestors in the closest succession of kindred, was immediately thrown into confusion. Of this, you have the evidence of Josephus; who shows that when Herod was appointed king by the Romans, he no longer nominated the chief priests from the ancient lineage, but conferred the honor upon certain obscure individuals.1
Eusebius cites the prophecy of Jacob (Gen. 49:10) as being fulfilled in the fall of the royal line, because the integrity of that lineage, and the priesthood, which he also mentions, represented the sanctity of the nation as a whole (Deut. 17:15; Lev. 21:14). The fulfillment of this prophecy – that a non-Israelite would one day usurp the throne – was always understood as the precondition to the Messiah’s advent in which the true Heir of Judah would ultimately assume His throne: the death of the nation, underscored by the fall of the royal line to foreigners, precipitated the Messiah’s death. For the now-mongrelized nation hated Him, the last scion of the royal line and the very God who had called them to holiness from the beginning. As it is written, the Cornerstone was to them “‘a stumbling block and a rock of offense’ . . . and to this doom they were also appointed” (1 Pet. 2:8).
and was buried…
Inasmuch as death evokes certain ideas of rest, blessing, or punishment to mankind universally, there are yet wide gradations of value discernible between traditions. These differences are evident in the variegated funerary rites of each: the Mongol of the eastern Steppes, for example, often left corpses open to the sky as an offering to the carrion birds. Whereas the Hamitic mind has, far more than that of any other breed, been inclined to cannibalize their dead. The Hindi has tended, like the ancient Aztecs, to commit their people’s corpses to nearby rivers. But amongst the Japhetic clans, earthen burial or entombment has ever been the norm for all but bitter enemies or those fallen to some plague. Even the exceptions to this rule, such as in the case of Vikings sometimes committing the body of a chieftain to sea or flames, were always seen as the extravagancies of wildmen. Again, we found Christianity answering what were, for us, ancient and tenacious questions: why we die, why we ever ascribed to that passage both terror and ecstasy, and why the graves of our fathers seemed hallowed to us.
Death always evoked from our tribes a solemnity toward familial remains, and we ever spoke of death in the very terms used in Scripture – being “gathered to our fathers” or “sleeping with our fathers” (a repetitious concept in the Bible). But it took Christianity to explain and ultimately vindicate this tendency. As of our people’s conversion, burial has been attended with a recitation of Scripture with reference to man’s creation from the earth and his inevitable return thereunto, the dust from whence he came. The completion of a cycle: his earthy purposes at an end, man is granted rest from all earthly toil. Words are spoken of the forgiveness of sins and the resurrection of the body on the final day. Thus the grave represents at once the urgency of life and the end of all urgencies. This practice of interment, while differing little in form from our heathen ancestors’ (but for its Christian elaboration), we call “Christian burial.” Though the burial itself were little changed, the assurance of Christ’s dominion redeemed the grave itself to a holy purpose – a passing of the veil into the resolution of all things, where all is put to right, we are gathered to our fathers, and our Maker wipes away every tear forever.
He descended into Hades
Christ’s condescension is often viewed only as pertaining to the veiling of His Godhood in the flesh, but we see His descent into Hades as the apotheosis of that condescension. On this subject of Christ’s “descent” St. Paul has left us this parenthetical statement:
Now this, “He ascended” – what does it mean but that he also first descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is also the One who ascended far above all the heavens, that He might fill all things. (Eph. 4:9-10)
Which is to say that He who is worthy of most honors condescended to suffer the most judgment. In this the Alienist imagines a metaphysical sanction for social revolution, the leveling of society. He casts this divine condescension as a role reversal toward the abolition of all hierarchy, and scales of value, but it’s just the opposite – it emphasizes them. For without the abiding importance of hierarchy, Christ’s condescension loses all significance. The anthropocentric reference point assumed in this contrast of ascent and descent (from the surface of the earth) implies the necessity of such value judgments on the part of men. Christ’s descent is meaningful specifically because all states of being, economically speaking, are not equal, but varied of degree and value.
Yet there remains today a low rumble of disagreement as to what this descent into Hades was: was it a visit to Abraham’s bosom? Was it the land of the dead (the grave)? The lake of fire? Or are we to understand Him to have suffered “hell on the Cross,” as in a state of judgment under God?
To begin with, the word “Hades” is another term lifted from mythology – Greek, in this case. It is the name of the god of the underworld, the son of Kronos and Rhea, and this, according to Alexander Hislop’s The Two Babylons (1919), identifies Hades as none other than Nimrod, son of Cush and Semiramis (Gen. 10:8). But in time, the name Hades would also be applied to the realm of the dead itself, and thus was it co-opted in the Septuagint as a synonym for the Hebrew word Sheol, “the trash heap, the pit.”
If “Hades” is the accepted terminology here, the creed then teaches that Christ simply descended into the Grave, the Limbus Patrum, Abraham’s Bosom, or a place of rest awaiting the final judgment.
More often than not, however, Christians use the word “Hell” as an alternate of Hades here; and Hell is another old Germanic word adopted for Christian idiom and more consonant with the Greek concept of Tartarus, or the Hebrew Gehenna. If “Hell” is the accepted terminology, we are speaking of something slightly different – a descent into the prison reserved for fallen angels and all men who qualify as sons of the devil. This is a narrative which would have resonated deeply with the Northern tribes as it paralleled their own mythology of Thor, who descended into Hell to shatter the dominion of evil and free those taken captive. To this end, Christians have traditionally cited the messianic writings of Isaiah:
The Spirit of the Lord God is upon Me,
Because the Lord has anointed Me to heal the brokenhearted,
To proclaim liberty to the captives,
And the opening of the prison to those who are bound. (Isa. 61:1)
Many still have, in full acknowledgment of the mythological baggage of both of these words, Hades and Hell, resolved to say that Christ “suffered Hell on the Cross,” meaning, a status of condemnation under the judicially administered wrath of God. While this resolves the tension, we note that it does not scuttle it. Rather, it seems to draw subtly upon hints of each.
Here again, the creed reveals itself a distinctly folkish testament.