Does the Bible permit polygamy?

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The question really says it all, doesn’t it?

Okay, clearly not, seeing as how there appears to be a great deal of confusion on the issue. Cult leaders say “yes,” usually because they want to satisfy their own sinful desires. Most Christians would say “no,” although they’re not always sure how to articulate why, beyond pointing to the creation of Adam and Eve.

Some, though they disagree with polygamy, say you’re not going to find it explicitly condemned in the Bible. “Despite what some may think, the Bible never condemns polygamy,” Rachel Held Evans writes in A Year of Biblical Womanhood (Kindle location 1316), to give but one example.

One doesn’t have to look hard to see that many of the “heroes” of the faith were polygamists—Abraham had multiple wives and concubines; Jacob had multiple wives and concubines as well. Even the greatest kings of Israel, David and Solomon, had multiple wives.

So… does that mean it gets a green light—or at the very least, a proceed with caution?

Nope.

We find an explicit command against kings and rulers taking “many wives,” (along with excessive riches) in Deut 17:17, “lest his heart turn away,” but that’s about it. While you might not be able to point to a specific verse that says verbatim “polygamy is wrong,” one only has to look at how polygamy is depicted:

The first polygamist is Lamech, who takes two wives, Adah and Zillah (Gen. 4:19). Lamech, a descendent of Cain, is a prideful and wicked man, one who arrogantly boasts to his wives about his murdering ways and lack of fear of repercussions (Gen. 4:23-24).

This is not a good start.

Abraham, the man of faith and friend of God, is another polygamist. It didn’t go well for him. Sarah, who gave Hagar to Abraham as a concubine, became bitter with Hagar when she conceived Ishmael and treated her harshly. Eventually Hagar was sent away with her son, while Sarah and Isaac remained with Abraham. (see Gen. 16, 20)

Jacob was tricked into marrying Leah before Rachel, and treated her as more of a burden than a blessing, and there was clearly strife between the two wives/sisters (see Gen. 29-30).

Gideon, he of fleece fame, had “many wives,” and also led Israel into idolatry because of the ephod he made (Judges 8:27-35).

Elkanah, the father of Samuel, was a polygamist. He was married to both Hannah and Peninnah, who is called Hannah’s “rival” (1 Sam. 1:6-7).

King David may have been a man after God’s own heart, but a one woman man he was not. He was married to Saul’s daughter, Michal (1 Sam. 18:27), but during his exile took for himself many wives: Ahinoam, Abigail, Maacah, Haggith, Abital and Eglah (2 Sam. 3:2-5). Later, when he settled in Jerusalem, he took for himself more wives and concubines, including Bathsheba (2 Sam. 5:13). His family was characterized by strife and rivalry as well with attempted coups from two of his sons.

Solomon, David’s son, was even worse, with 700 wives and 300 concubines, most of whom he married for political purposes such as Pharoah’s daughter. “And his wives turned away his heart” (1 Kings 11:3), he fell into idolatry and the nation was eventually split in two under his son’s harsh rule.

Those are but a few examples of practitioners. And while all were used by God, and many are shown as heroes of the faith, we never read that God was pleased with their polygamy.

So, what about monogamy?

Interestingly, where polygamy is portrayed in a consistently negative light, monogamy tends to be displayed with an equally consistent positivity. 

When Adam is introduced to his wife, he rejoices over her with a love song, “they were naked and not ashamed,” and God declared it all “very good” (Gen. 2:1-24; Gen 1:31).

The created ideal remains the standard throughout the Scriptures.

The Song of Song’s celebration of romantic love is entirely within the context of monogamy. The aforementioned Deut. 17:17, as well as the command to abstain from adultery (Ex. 20:14), implicitly point to monogamy as the ideal (after all, if one is the standard, then anything beyond that is “many” and adultery against  the one). The New Testament explicitly calls it out as the ideal for marriage by placing it in the characteristics of both elders and deacons—”the husband of one wife” (1 Tim. 3:2, 12; Titus 1:6).

Most significantly, marriage is described as a picture of Christ and His bride, the Church (Eph. 5:23-33). Jesus loves His bride, He will never forsake her. His heart has no room for rivals.

So does the Bible permit polygamy?

Our starting point determines the answer, ultimately. If we see the Bible as a mere collection of ancient stories, we’re going to have trouble answering that question definitively.

If you’re evil and trying to violate people in order to satisfy your own sinful desires (see Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism), then you can probably twist together a case.

But if marriage is a picture of the gospel—if Jesus’ love for His bride is your starting point, as Paul says ought to be—you can’t honestly come away from the Scriptures suggesting it advocates for polygamy.

The disingenuousness of the “no theological position” position

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“In these matters, I don’t think anyone should have a theological position.”

During a recent interview, a well-known pastor and author was asked about his views on the afterlife and how they compare to those of a former colleague. This was his response (after a bit of dancing). Before even reading the interview, I already knew a bit of what to expect—the interviewer, interviewee and I would probably not exactly align on a number of key matters—but this response got me thinking:

Can someone honestly hold a “no theological position” position?

I’m not so sure.

See, here’s the thing: Any deeply held belief we have about who God is, what He is like, what He will or will not do, or our response to Him is a theological position.

“God created the world in six days” is a theological position. So is “Mankind came about via an evolutionary process.”

“It is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment” is a theological position. So is “salvation is possible for everyone, even if they don’t know the name of Jesus.”

Even the notion of offering “theological possibilities with a heavy dose of humility” instead of “theological positions” is a theological position.

It’s just a disingenuous one. 

Humility and confidence are not enemies. Yet too often we see people—out of what I hope is a desire to be kind and loving, and seeking to create opportunities for people to know Jesus—treat them as polar opposites. Position become possibility, certainty becomes option, and truth becomes opinion.

This is not what God wants for us. He wants us to truly know Him, to come to a greater understanding of Him, and to be transformed by that knowledge (Rom. 12:2). This is why He inspired the Scriptures—to make us wise for salvation and to equip us for every good work (2 Tim 3:15-17). This is what glorifies Him and pleases Him—not to act in ignorance any longer, but as obedient children to grow in holiness (1 Pet. 1:14).

These are all theological positions—and it’s right and good that we have them. Don’t let a false notion of humility be the guise for insincerity.

Awful judgment and great hope

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[John’s] prologue contains an awful word of judgment: He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, and the world did not know Him. He came to His own, and His own did not receive Him (vv 10-11). Jesus Himself spoke of this rejection He experienced, saying, “This is the condemnation, that the light has cone into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil” (3:19). Many years ago, I was interviewed by Dr. James Montgomery Boice for his radio program, and I had occasion to quote this verse. I attempted to quote the King James Version, which says, “Their deeds were evil,” but instead I said, “Their eeds were deevil.” That was the end of that interview, and as a result of it, even though it was long ago, I can hardly read that text without flinching. But we ought to flinch even when we read the words properly, for this verse tells us the world is exposed to the condemnation of God because people prefer the darkness to the light. They do not want to cone to the light, Jesus Christ, because their evil deeds will be exposed.

But John’s prologue also gives very good news: But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name (v. 12). This is the good news of the gospel, the great hope that John wants his readers to know John longs for them to believe in Jesus as the Christ.

R.C. Sproul, John: St Andrew’s Expositional Commentary (Kindle edition)

God is Love, but Love is Not God

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“Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.” 1 John 4:8

We assume not that God is love but that love is God. In other words, we don’t go before the real creator of the universe and say to him, “Please tell us what you are like and therefore how you define love.” Rather, we begin with our own self-defined concept of love and allow this self-defined concept to play god. When I say it “plays god,” I mean that we let it define right and wrong, good and bad, glory-worthy and glory-less, even though such valuations belong to God alone. Love becomes the ultimate idol.

The Church and the Surprising Offense of God’s Love: Reintroducing the Doctrines of Church Membership and Discipline by Jonathan Leeman (Kindle Edition)

 

Holy Above All

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The God of the Bible, the eternal, transcendent God who is the creator of all that was and is and ever will be—he is the sovereign one, the supreme authority in the universe. No creature holds authority over him and “whatever [He] pleases, he does” (Psa. 135:6; Isa. 46:10). None can direct him or give him counsel (Isa 40:13), nor can anyone say to him, “What have you done?” (Dan. 4:34-35)

This picture of God should rightly cause us to tremble in unholy fear—if that’s all we know about him. But because God has revealed his character to us, we can rejoice! Why? Consider the ways the Bible speaks of God. He is called “love” (1 John 4:8), “jealous” (Ex. 30:14), “wrathful” (Nahum 1:2), and “merciful…” (Ex. 34:6) But there is one characteristic that undergirds them all: holiness. “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts,” the Seraphim sang in Isaiah’s vision of the Lord, “the whole earth is full of his glory!” (Isa. 6:3; see also Rev. 4:8)

God’s holiness again calls to mind his being distinct from the world he has made, but more than that, “the word holy calls attention to all that God is,” writes R.C. Sproul, “It reminds us that His love is holy love, His justice is holy justice, His mercy is holy mercy, His knowledge is holy knowledge, His spirit is holy spirit.”1

It’s the holiness of God that reminds us that he is not the “petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully” Richard Dawkins would like him to be.2 Nor is he, as Roger Olson suggests in his critique of Calvinist theology, a “moral monster,” if he indeed rules and reigns to the degree that the Scriptures proclaim.3 His holiness is instead a reminder that all he says and does, everything about him, is perfect, right and good—even when it’s hard for us to understand.

—from Contend: Defending the Faith in a Fallen World

The God Who Acts

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What is the major difference between the God of the Bible and other “gods”?

This is a question that came to mind when reading Isaiah some time ago. The answer is surprisingly simple.

The biggest difference between our God and all the other ones vying for the title is this:

The God of the Bible — The Father, Son & Spirit — acts.

He calls (Isa. 41:4, 41:9, 42:6, 43:1, 43:7, 48:12, 49:1, 51:2).

He carries (Isa. 46:4).

He speaks (Isa. 7:7, 10:24, 22:15, 23:16, 29:22, 37:6, 38:1, 43:1, 43:12).

He purposes (Isa. 14:24, 19:12, 23:8, 44:28, 46:10, 48:14, 54:16, 55:11).

He judges (Isa 59:18, 65:6).

He saves (Isa. 25:9, 30:15, 33:22, 35:4, 45:22, 49:25, 63:1, 64:5)

He redeems (Isa. 29:22, 43:1, 44:22, 44:23, 48:20, 50:2, 52:9, 63:9)

There is no other god who emphatically states, over and over again, “I save. I judge. I purpose all things,” and actually have it be true.

Only the God of the Bible.

Only Jesus.

The whole story of the Bible is about a God who acts. He calls creation into being. He creates the first man and woman with His own hands. He casts them out of the garden. He promises their redemption. He carries Enoch to heaven, and closes the door to the Ark once Noah is inside. He calls Abraham to a land he did not know and leads his far-off descendants out of Egypt to take that land as their own. He sends them into slavery once again and returns them to the land He promised.

He sends His Son to perfectly obey all His commands on their behalf, to die in their place, and to rise again in victory over sin and death. To bring together a people who would be the Bride and Body of Christ, free from the stain of sin.

This is the message all of Scripture proclaims. It’s the message Isaiah came to preach. This is the message Jesus’ life, death, burial and resurrection bring into crystal clarity:

There is a God who acts to save His creation and He will redeem His people.

We cannot save ourselves and all other “saviors” are folly. There is no hope in a god that cannot act.

Nothing else offers that kind of hope.

Not TV, sex, sports, music, education, self-esteem, or vague spirituality.

There is only hope in Jesus.

So let us put our hope in Him.

From of old no one has heard or perceived by the ear, no eye has seen a God besides you, who acts for those who wait for him (Isa. 64:4).


An earlier version of this post was first published in May 2009.

Rejoice! We Serve a Precise God!

There’s this quote that I absolutely love from Charles Spurgeon. I first read it a couple of years ago, and one I keep coming back to. Here’s what Spurgeon said:

A Puritan was told that he was too precise; but he replied, “I serve a precise God.”

What always gets me is the Puritan’s response: “I serve a precise God.”

How often do we consider the preciseness of God? Some time ago, maybe two hours before I first read this quote from Spurgeon, I noticed a few Facebook friends “liking” a silly page called “God created men first, cause you always make a rough draft before a masterpiece!” (And, yes, I get the joke.)

Some time ago, I was reading Galatians chapter two, wherein Paul is explaining how after fourteen years of preaching the gospel, he went to Jerusalem because of a revelation that had come to him. In verse two, Paul explains that:

I went up . . . and set before them [the Apostles] . . .  the gospel that I proclaim among the Gentiles, in order to make sure I was not running or had not run in vain.

Notice Paul’s concern for precision of his gospel. He set before the Apostles “the gospel that [he proclaims] in order to make sure that [he] was not running or had not run in vain.”

Paul was desperate to make sure that the gospel he proclaimed—that Jesus Christ had lived a sinless life on our behalf, died on the cross and bore the punishment for our sins, rose again bodily from the grave on the third day and was now seated at the right hand of the Father in Heaven; that salvation comes through faith alone in Christ alone—he was desperate to make sure that this was, in fact, the gospel!

He didn’t want to be responsible for dividing the church between Jew and Gentile, especially if it was still required that God’s people obey the Old Testament food regulations and rituals.

Was he correct? Was his gospel precise?

Absolutely!

He understood that if the gospel is Jesus + anything, it equals nothing.

It’s vanity to believe in anything else or to proclaim anything other than the precise gospel found in Scripture. To believe anything other than, to borrow the title of Tullian Tchividjian’s book, “Jesus + Nothing = Everything.”

The Apostles got this. Peter, in his famous sermon at Pentecost, spoke of “this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men” (Acts 2:23).

Focus on these words for a second: “The definite plan and foreknowledge of God…” God was incredibly precise in how He predetermined events to unfold. It’s one of the miracles of both history and Scripture. We see how Jesus, throughout His earthly life and ministry as well as His death & resurrection, perfectly fulfilled the prophecies about the Messiah in the Old Testament.

All according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God.

This is great news for us; because God is precise, we get to live in confident expectation that the promises He offers will come to pass. That when we place our trust in Christ and in His finished work on the cross, we will most assuredly stand with Him in glory at the end of the age.

Because God is precise, we know that there will be an end to sin, to death, to suffering. That one day, there will be a new heaven and a new earth, where none of these things will exist.

Because God is precise, we have hope.

And we serve a precise God because if He was anything other than, He would be no God at all.

So, study the Scriptures diligently. Learn sound doctrine. And rejoice in the hope that comes from knowing that we serve a precise God.


An earlier version of this post was first published in August 2010.

“The” vs. “An”

One of the reasons I am always nervous about speaking or writing about eschatology (that is, theology concerning the future return of Christ and the final events of history), is because of questions like, “Is so-and-so the Antichrist?”

Maybe it’s Obama. Or maybe Oprah. Or maybe Cheney. Or…

If you Google “Is <blank> the antichrist,” (please don’t) you’re almost certainly going to find a massive list of web pages ranging from hilarious to depressing and disturbing.

Sometimes I wonder how much all of this speculation really comes down to a grammar issue; specifically, a confusion between definite and indefinite articles.

When we’re talking about prominent figures of our day and asking if they’re “the antichrist,” maybe it’s helpful to ask if we mean “the” or “an.” While we do see references to the man of lawlessness in 2 Thess. 2:3 and the false prophet of Revelation that are often connected in our theology to “the” antichrist, we also would be wise to consider John’s epistle in fleshing out our understanding of the idea of an antichrist:

Children, it is the last hour, and as you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come. Therefore we know that it is the last hour. (1 John 2:18)

When reading John’s epistle, it seems that he is working hard to strike a balance between the picture of the representative of the evil one (man of lawlessness/man of sin/false prophet) and a broader understanding of the term “antichrist,” one that in our time we may have overlooked. Broadly, the term “antichrist” means anyone “who denies that Jesus is the Christ” (1 John 2:22). Those who deny the Father and the Son, John later tells us in the same verse, they are antichrist.

While this is a pretty broad definition, it’s helpful to keep in mind whenever that question of “is so-and-so the antichrist” comes up. Whether you’re questioning if it’s a politician or a media mogul, you’ve got to ask: Are they THE representative of the evil one, the one who will be revealed just before the Day of the Lord?

And the answer is… probably not.

But they may well be AN antichrist. Their words and their practice may be so opposed to Jesus that the only appropriate description of them is “antichrist.” They are deniers of the Lord and signs of the end being near (just as they were in the time of the Apostles). But being AN antichrist and THE antichrist… those are very different things. When we understand the difference, it helps us better understand what’s going on in the world and allows us to serve as better witnesses to the grace of God—treating the opponents of Christ with mercy, even as we plead with them to repent. But when we get the two mixed up, things get messy really quickly.

“The” is not the same as “an.” Whatever you do, don’t confuse the two.

That Which His Holiness Demanded, His Grace Has Provided

The “god” which the vast majority of professing Christians “love” is looked upon very much like an indulgent old man, who himself has no relish for folly, but leniently winks at the “indiscretions” of youth. But the Word says, “Thou hatest all workers of iniquity” (Psa 5:5). And again, “God is angry with the wicked every day” (Psa 7:11). But men refuse to believe in this God, and gnash their teeth when His hatred of sin is faithfully pressed upon their attention. No, sinful man was no more likely to devise a holy God than to create the Lake of Fire in which he will be tormented for ever and ever.

Because God is holy, acceptance with Him on the ground of creature doings is utterly impossible. A fallen creature could sooner create a world than produce that which would meet the approval of infinite Purity. Can darkness dwell with Light? Can the Immaculate One take pleasure in “filthy rags” (Isa 64:6)? The best that sinful man brings forth is defiled. A corrupt tree cannot bear good fruit. God would deny Himself, vilify His perfections, were He to account as righteous and holy that which is not so in itself; and nothing is so which has the least stain upon it contrary to the nature of God.

But blessed be His name, that which His holiness demanded, His grace has provided in Christ Jesus our Lord. Every poor sinner who has fled to Him for refuge stands “accepted in the Beloved” (Eph 1:6). Hallelujah!

A.W. Pink, The Attributes of God

The Purpose of Testing

Our faith is tested by the fire for a purpose—that it may be found to praise, honor, and glory at the revelation of Jesus Christ, whom having not seen you love. Though now you do not see Him, yet believing, you rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory (1 Pet. 1: 8). Faith is refined so that at the last day, at the final consummation of the kingdom of Christ, it will be the occasion for praise, honor, and glory. God values your faith more than He values your gold or your present comfort. Peter is moved by the fact that the readers of his epistle love Christ, despite never having seen Him. Our Lord Himself said, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” ( John 20:29). After the resurrection when Jesus appeared to the eleven in the upper room, He rebuked them for their unbelief, for their hardheartedness. They had not believed the testimony of the angel and the women who were at the tomb. God places a premium on faith that is the substance of things not seen, as the author of Hebrews indicates (Heb. 11:1).

Inexpressible joy is a reality that human words can never adequately describe. That joy, which is a fruit of the Holy Spirit, is ineffable. It defies description. One commentator on this text likened it to the glory of the Son. He said, “A blind man who has been blind from birth cannot understand the noonday sun. No matter how many times you try to explain it to him, he has no reference point by which to understand its magnitude.” The author went on to say that someone who can see may not be able to express adequately the reality of the brightness of the sun to someone who is blind, but the person who can see knows the sun the moment it shines upon him. We perceive the light. We do not have to reason about it; we see it for what it is. So it is with the Word of God. Many people are blind to the truth of God, but when the scales fall from their eyes and the Spirit of God opens their eyes to His Word, they see the truth of it immediately. We certainly have sound, objective reasons to believe the Word of God, but those reasons are about as necessary as arguments for light to people who can see the sun. Our joy is inexpressible. It is a glorious joy, a weighty joy, not a superficial joy.

R.C. Sproul, 1 & 2 Peter: St. Andrew’s Expositional Commentary, p. 38 (Kindle Edition)

Immanence, Transcendence and Assumed Knowledge

Today, I had the pleasure of filling in for my friend Matt Svoboda (one of the pastors at The Bridge in Spring Hill, TN) in his Theology Thursday series. Here’s an excerpt:

There was a time when if you used the term “God,” the vast majority of people would know who and what you were talking about. Generally speaking, the West was “Christian;” people had at least a passing familiarity with the Bible and the majority of the population went to some form of Christian church (it was, after all, expected of polite society). But today, things are very different. While the studies show that the majority of Americans profess to believe that there is some sort of “other power,” it cannot—and must not—be assumed that we’re talking about the same thing anymore. “God” could mean anything today—it could mean the God of the Bible, the god of Islam, the earth… it could even be you. The existence of a personal God, and specifically as described in the Bible, is no longer an assumed concept in our spiritual-but-not-religious world.

So let’s talk a bit about God in the way the Bible does for a moment as we discuss his nature.Consider the psalmist’s joyful proclamation, “O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens”(Psa. 8:1). David gives praise to God because his name is “majestic in all the earth” and his glory is “above the heavens.” In theological terms, he is describing the transcendence and immanence of God—that is, he is both far above and beyond us and yet he is intimately involved with us.

Head over to The Bridge’s blog and read the rest.

The King and the Fox

Matt Jensen shared this quote from Irenaeus in his message at the truthXchange Think Tank, “Two-ism and Apologetics“:

Such, then, is their [the Valentinians’] system, which neither the prophets announced, nor the Lord taught, nor the apostles delivered, but of which they boast that beyond all others they have a perfect knowledge. They gather their views from other sources than the Scriptures; and, to use a common proverb, they strive to weave ropes of sand, while they endeavour to adapt with an air of probability to their own peculiar assertions the parables of the Lord, the sayings of the prophets, and the words of the apostles, in order that their scheme may not seem altogether without support. In doing so, however, they disregard the order and the connection of the Scriptures, and so far as in them lies, dismember and destroy the truth. By transferring passages, and dressing them up anew, and making one thing out of another, they succeed in deluding many through their wicked are in adapting the oracles of the Lord to their opinions. Their manner of acting is just as if one, when a beautiful image of a king has been constructed by some skilful artist out of precious jewels, should then take this likeness of the man all to pieces, should rearrange the gems, and so fit them together as to make them into the form of a dog or of a fox, and even that but poorly executed; and should then maintain and declare that this was the beautiful image of the king which the skilful artist constructed, pointing to the jewels which had been admirably fitted together by the first artist to form the image of the king, but have been with bad effect transferred by the latter one to the shape of a dog, and by thus exhibiting the jewels, should deceive the ignorant who had no conception what a king’s form was like, and persuade them that that miserable likeness of the fox was, in fact, the beautiful image of the king. In like manner do these persons patch together old wives’ fables, and then endeavour, by violently drawing away from their proper connection, words, expressions, and parables whenever found, to adapt the oracles of God to their baseless fictions.

Adapted from Against Heresies by Irenaeus of Lyons

The Non-Negotiables

Over on Facebook, I’ve been asking readers what they think are the non-negotiables of the Christian faith. The discussion thus far has been really helpful, so I wanted to bring readers here into the discussion as well:

What, in your mind, are the non-negotiables of the Christian faith? What are things that, if you don’t believe them, are indicators that you might be outside the faith and what things can you be severely wrong on but still probably scrape through as though snatched “out of the fire”? 

Some of the points that have been hit so far include the nature of God, the person & work of Jesus Christ (this encompasses things like the virgin birth and his life of perfect obedience), justification by faith alone and the Bible as the only inspired and authoritative word of God. So what I’d like to know from you is what else?

Is there anything would you include that hasn’t been included? Anything you’d take away? Do you believe there are such things as non-negotiables at all?

He Descended into… Hell?

Cross in Winter

Have you ever sat down and read some of the creeds of the Christian faith? I’ve recently been looking at the Apostles’ Creed, one of the oldest that has been preserved for us. It’s amazing to how the early church distilled the essentials of Christian doctrine: An early formulation (although without explicit explanation) of the doctrine of the Trinity (“I believe in God the Father . . . and in Jesus Christ, His only begotten Son . . . I believe in the Holy Ghost”). The distinction of the creator from His creation (“Maker of heaven and earth”). Jesus’ virgin birth, crucifixion and resurrection on the third day.

And in the middle of it, there’s this odd line:

“He descended into hell.”

Not too long ago, the question of what this means came up when we were visiting some old friends for dinner. They attend a church that recites the creed as part of its liturgy and our friend found he couldn’t recite this portion. The idea of Jesus going to Hell didn’t make sense and he wondered if I could explain. So I started to see what I could find out. While researching, I turned to J.I. Packer’s little book, Affirming the Apostles’ Creed and found an interesting explanation. What Packer asserts is that the part of the problem—aside from the creedal statement being based on an extremely difficult verse to interpret (1 Pet. 3:18-20)—is a translation issue. Here’s what Packer writes:

The English is misleading, for “hell” has changed its sense since the English form of the Creed was fixed. Originally “hell” meant the place of the departed as such, corresponding to the Greek Hades and the Hebrew Sheol. That is what it means here, where the Creed echoes Peter’s statement that Psalm 16:10, “thou wilt not abandon my soul to Hades” (so RSV: av has “hell”), was a prophecy fulfilled when Jesus rose (see Acts 2:27-31). But since the seventeenth century “hell” has been used to signify only the state of final retribution for the godless, for which the New Testament name is Gehenna. What the Creed means, however, is that Jesus entered, not Gehenna, but Hades—that is, that he really died, and that it was from a genuine death, not a simulated one, that he rose.

In other words, while one must be careful to avoid speculation on the precise meaning of a difficult text, what this could mean is that the creed is saying that Jesus really died—He didn’t fake it as some suggest (such as proponents of the swoon theory—that he merely passed out on the cross and people thought he was dead; incidentally, here’s a great clip of Matt Chandler’s reaction to that theory). But all speculation aside, here’s why Packer suggests this line of the creed matters so much:

What makes Jesus’ entry into Hades important for us is not, however, any of this, but simply the fact that now we can face death knowing that when it comes we shall not find ourselves alone. He has been there before us, and he will see us through.

Because Jesus has conquered death, it no longer has power over us. Christ’s victory is complete and we need not fear. “He has been there before us, and he will see us through.”