Crux, Mors, Inferi

Samuel Renihan, Crux, Mors, Inferi: A Primer and Reader on Christ's Descent (Independently published, 2021), 230pp., Paperback/Hardcover/Kindle. 

Samuel Renihan has recently published an excellent book on the doctrine of the descent of Christ into hell. His thesis—that Christ descended to hell on the Sabbath, as stated in the ancient creeds—is one with which I was in agreement prior to reading it. What surprised me was how helpful it was devotionally.

In Crux, Mors, Inferi, Samuel Renihan, argues for the descent of Christ to hades/hell between his death and resurrection, drawing not only from scripture (in part 1), but also from historical theology (in part 2) as an expert on Reformed and Particular Baptist history. The name of the book, which in Latin means "cross, death, lower world" is taken from a quote by Hilary of Poitiers' On the Trinity, one of the greatest early church treatises on the Trinity. He writes, 

I have divided Crux, Mors, Inferi into two parts. The first part is an exegetical argument, teaching positively that when Christ died on the cross, his human soul descended to Sheol, and his resurrection was, therefore, a resurrection from the dead. The second part of the book deals with historical theology, showing, on the one hand, some of the reasons why this doctrine has been neglected in the modern Reformed tradition, and, on the other hand, that it does have a presence in Protestant literature, including lesser-known Reformed literature. [p17]

The first chapter, The Created Realms, interprets the triad "heaven, earth, under the earth" as found explicitly or implicitly throughout scripture (Ex 20: 4, Dt 5:8, Rev 5:3, Php 2:10,) stating, "the Scriptures describe Sheol as a place under the earth where the dead, the devil, and demons dwell. Because Sheol is regarded as a place 'under the earth' the earth itself is called the mouth of Sheol, and those who die are said to descend to the depths of the earth.” As a student of the triadic forms found in scripture, I found this section illuminating. 

In chapter two Renihan explores the biblical idea of Sheol, arguing for an upper and lower Sheol (see Lk 16:22-26) wherein there is a great distinction between the comfort of the righteous in Abraham's bosom and the torment of the wicked in its lower regions. I am thankful for his brief emphasis on the theme of resurrection in the Old Testament which has significant explanatory power in the distinction between the experience of the righteous and wicked of Sheol/death and anticipates the gospel. On page 38, he states, "Other verses in the Bible indicate a perspective that while all must go to Sheol, for some there will be a future resurrection, a future glory that follows death in Sheol." For those who want to explore this topic further, I recommend Desmond Alexander's "The Old Testament View of Life after Death" (Themelios, 1986.) 

Probably the most provocative section in the book is Renihan's argument that the "goat for Azazel," released on the Day of Atonement (the other goat being offered to the Lord, Lev 16:8-10) prefigures Christ's descent. Many Protestants have feared to tread this path, lest the atonement be seen to be an offering to ransom us from Satan, rather a propitiatory sacrifice to appease the wrath of God. However, the connections between Azazel and the demonic are quite strong, and Renihan's case is almost persuasive to me: "The two goats are the one Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. He descended to hell, sent out of the camp to Azazel. Then he ascended to heaven, where 'he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption' " (Heb 9:12) I only found myself wishing for more depth at this point.

The book then turns from the Old to the New Testament, connecting the descent to the "Sign of Jonah" (Mat 12:39-40) and to the descent/ascent passage in Ephesians 4:8-10. Here Renihan faults the ESV translation, which he asserts ought to be "he had also descended to the lower regions of the earth", that is Hades/Sheol, rather than the lower regions being the earth [p66]. Setting translation issues aside, I found his argument that the passage shows the universality of Christ's work to be convincing: "It reads most naturally to understand Paul as saying that just as Jesus ascended to the highest height of heaven, Jesus has also descended, antecedently, to the lowest region of the earth, which is Sheol." As might be expected, 1 Peter 3:18-22 comes in for treatment as well and Renihan explains the passage well, concluding "Jesus Christ descended not to languish, but to liberate; not to suffer, but to subdue, not to preach, but to proclaim. He set free the prisoners of hope, he took the keys of death and Hades, and he declared his total victory to the hosts of darkness," providing one of the greatest quotes in the book.  

Some supplemental arguments and a conclusion take up the fifth and sixth chapters, which I found helpful in working out and connecting the doctrine of the descent with other ideas and passages. More than anything, I found that a firmer and broader grasp of the descent helped me to understand and envision the story of redemption, for instance, Satan's expectation that perhaps the Christ could be conquered through death--to imagine perhaps some great moment when Satan's eyes were opened in horror to discover that the very place in which he thought the Christ may be able to be bound, Jesus freely and formidably triumphed and removed captives from his grasp. Renihan also discusses the time of Christ's resurrection in the body prior to his ascension with a brief discussion of John 20:17. Once again, the descent adds vividness to this account. I have sensed at times a sort of slight melancholy to some of Christ's interactions post-resurrection. The fact that Christ had already triumphed over the demonic world and the grave (in an even deeper way) and had already ascended from the lowest plane (Sheol) to earth, lends a certain quality of anticipation and longing to the forty days of his post-resurrection pre-ascension, making the ascension seem even greater as the King came through heaven's gates and was handed the scroll of all history in the divine court (Rev 5.) 

I will only briefly touch on the second part of the book, which is an overview of 16th and 17th century reformed theologian’s views on the descent, with a particular view to surface pro-descent passages that may have previously gone unnoticed. There is significant amount of helpful and unique scholarship here, including references to reformers I had never heard of previously. Considerable attention is given to Thomas Bilson (1547-1616), an Anglican bishop who, in an ongoing exchange with Henry Jacob, produced two books on the subject of the descent, one 420 pages and the other 678 pages! [p120]  A total of thirty-one pages of Crux, Mors, Infeiri, are given to reproducing Bilson's work:

What he did unto Satan, we shall learn by seeing what he suffered at Satan's hands. Proportionable to Christ's humiliation was his exaltation; and for the violence which he endured, he received full satisfaction. As then on the cross Christ suffered at Satan’s hands, and by Satan's means [suffered] reproach, rage, and wrong; so in his resurrection he reaped a triple recompense from Satan: Submission, whereby his pride was subjected under Christ; Captivation, whereby his rage was restrained, and himself chained by Christ; Restitution, whereby his spoils were divided, and delivered unto Christ. 

Overall, the second part of the book is important and the work and scholarship that went into it are admirable. The format is helpful as well, as there may be those who want to read the first part of the book carefully, and skim over the last part. This should not be seen as a diminishment of the last half of the book. There remains much work to do in the original sources due to wrongful conclusions or particular emphases that may not represent the truths or historical theology. Everyone wants to claim that "history is on their side" which can easily lead to misrepresentation of the sources. 

It should be noted that the book is far shorter than it first appears. The type is perhaps slightly larger than I prefer, and large sections of both scripture and, as noted, older sources, are extensive. Although the book is 230 pages (with bibliography and scripture index) much of the book could probably be read in a couple of afternoons. This leads to my only significant criticism, which is that I wanted more of Renihan’s own thoughts and reflections.

Renihan concludes the book by stating,

Jesus Christ was crucified and died. His body was buried, and his soul descended to Sheol, not to languish but to liberate the resting saints, not to suffer but to subdue Satan, not to preach but to proclaim just victory over the spirits in prison. In his resurrection and ascension Jesus Christ carried his bride home to heaven., presenting himself as a sacrifice in the holy of holies not made with hands. Henceforth, Hades is a ruin of darkness and misery; heaven is a city of light and beatitude. 

More of this please, Dr. Renihan! Highly recommended.

Paul Dirks is the Lead Pastor of New West Community Church in New Westminster, British Columbia. He is the author of Is There Anything Good About Hell?.

Related Links

"Christ Descended into Hell: No Hope without It" by Aaron Denliger

"Keeping "Christ's Descent Into Hell" by Mark Jones

"Hell to Pay" by Nick Batzig

"Whatever Happened to Hell?" by Timothy Gibson

"Our Creed: For Every Culture and Every Generation" by Mark Johnston