Book Review: Crux, Mors, Inferni

Crux, Mors, Inferni: A Primer and Reader on the Descent of Christ by Samuel D. Renihan

I didn’t realize this was a self-published book. I’ll admit I’m biased to some extent, at least when looking for thorough, more scholarly books, against self-published titles under the assumption that if it was good enough, somebody would be publishing it other than the author. I realize that’s no longer necessarily true and the Internet provides many options in the realm of self-publication that only complicates the matter further.

That being said, after reading this I don’t feel the self-publication category suits this book and I’m curious why a publisher didn’t pick it up.

I found this book while looking for resources on The Apostles’ Creed. And of all the statements in the Creed, certainly the most confusing one is that Christ descended into hell. If I’ve heard or read a compelling discussion on this statement I don’t remember it. That’s not meant as criticism against my profs or Confirmation pastors, but perhaps a comment on my memory or, more likely, a comment on the confusion apt to surround this statement which is in turn based on 1 Peter 4:6 and somewhat on Ephesians 4:7-10.

Renihan does a good job with this topic, dividing the book into two main sections. In the first section he lays out the Biblical (and somewhat extra-Biblical) topography of creation – heaven, earth and hell as we typically talk about them. He then argues that the Biblical understanding leads logically and naturally to understanding a localized descent of Christ’s spirit into hell – not to suffer, not as part of his defeat, but as the turning point, the beginning of his glorification after his incarnate process of humiliation. Jesus goes to announce and confirm his victory over sin, death and Satan to the deepest recesses of Satan’s stronghold, and we should not interpret this descent as intending to give the dead a second chance at the Gospel (as is argued by the Mormons). In the second section he examines how Reformed theologians dealt with (or failed to deal with) the Creedal assertion of Christ’s descent into hell, often transforming it into a euphemism for death or burial or a spiritual suffering as opposed to an actual localized descent of Christ’s spirit.

I like his work and his argument. He is not exhaustive in his exegetical/Biblical examination. He picks and chooses and that’s probably a necessary evil. I don’t necessarily argue with the verses he opts to cite. However most of his argument rests on a single point that he substantiates mostly with references to Apocryphal writings rather than canonical Scriptures.

His basic thesis is that sheol is the destiny of all (prior to Christ’s death on the cross). It is the abode of the dead. But it is separated into three areas wherein the lowest two are intended for suffering and the upper third is a place of comfort and peace for the righteous dead, referred to as the bosom of Abraham in Luke 16. Renihan also supports this understanding with a reference to the three heavens (2 Corinthians 12), so there is a symmetry with three levels of heaven and three levels of hell, with the uppermost level of hell not a place of torment but rather of comfort – if not heavenly bliss. Jesus’ parable of Lazarus in Luke 16 depicts not the divide between heaven and hell, Renihan argues, but rather the divide between the upper portion of hell for the righteous dead, and the middle level of hell (for the wicked dead) and the lowest hell (for Satan and his demons).

It’s a compelling argument, I have to admit, but I’m still hesitant to embrace it completely. Though admittedly, by accepting it completely it certainly provides for a level of reasonable interpretation of otherwise difficult parts of Scripture. The only real exception to this is Jesus’ words to the thief on the cross – today you will be with me in paradise (Luke 23:43). Renihan makes reference to this but frankly it’s one of the weaker aspects of his argument.

How does all of this matter?

Renihan argues for the Patristic understanding (as supported by Ephesians 4) that Christ descended into hell to demonstrate his victory over Satan and sin and death, in no small part by leading those spirits of the righteous dead out of the upper level of hell and into heaven. From that point on, those who die in faith in Christ do not descend into Abraham’s bosom, the highest region of hell, but rather their spirit goes directly to be with their Lord in heaven, a reality described in Revelation 6:9-11.

It’s the most thorough treatment of the descent of Christ into hell I’ve encountered to date, and has a lot to back it Scripturally as well as in historical Christian exegesis. But I’m still staying on the fence until I have the opportunity to read a bit further. I’m definitely open to good recommendations on the topic!

The second half (2/3?) of the book was of less interest to me, emphasizing how Reformed theologians and preachers dealt with this statement of the Creed while clearly finding an actual, localized descent of Christ’s spirit into hell untenable with their overall theology.

This is definitely a worthwhile read. His writing is very accessible and doesn’t presume advanced theological training or linguistic competency in Greek or Hebrew, though he references the Greek in several places and provides translation as well. Certainly worthwhile exploration on the topic!

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