When Jesus Went to Hell

When Jesus Went to Hell

Jesus went to hell during his time in the grave according the Nicene Creed (325 AD). “He descended into Hell.” Of course this statement was made three hundred years after his crucifixion and death so there was a lot of time to answer the fundamental question, “What did he do in hell?”

According to the catechisms that emerged over this period, Christ freed the captives. Did he free everyone or did he leave Satan and other reprobates? The Christian answers to this question are all over the map. Some say he left only Satan in hell. Others say he left Satan and his fallen cohorts. Still others say certain sinners and all the company of devils remained in hell and everyone else was freed.

The more fundamental question is whether hell is a permanent and eternal state or not. Origin got into a lot of trouble by saying it was not an eternal state. Origin was a universalist who believed that all would be saved. He claimed that the love of God would eventually draw all unto him.

Theodore of Mopsuestia and his student Nestorius proposed a similar theology. While they did not deny hell they wrote and propagated the theology of universal liberation for all who were in hell. Hell was a temporary abode. This theology is consistent with an all powerful and ever-loving diety.

When Nestorians arrived in China they were met by Zoroastrians. There was a history between these religions. The Gospel stories of the nativity are remarkably similar to the story of Mithra the Zoroasian God: born of a virgin, his birth was attended by shepherds. Magi, who are Zoroastrian priests who were guided by the stars to the place of  the birth of Jesus. These magi even had a meal ritual of bread of wine. These symbols and rituals pre-dated Chrstianity by at least 500 years.

It may be that the doctrine of Hell within Zoroastrianism that profoundly influenced Christianity. Hebrew culture only had ideas of Hades and Gehenna. Zoroastrians had a highly detailed and robust doctrine of hell.

The best-known Zoroastrian text to describe hell in detail is the Book of Arda Viraf. It depicts particular punishments for particular sins—for instance, being trampled by cattle as punishment for neglecting the needs of work animals. Other descriptions can be found in the Book of Scriptures (Hadhokht Nask), Religious Judgments (Dadestan-i Denig) and the Book of the Judgments of the Spirit of Wisdom (Mainyo-I-Khard).

The Book of Arda Viraf is a Pahlavi text which describes in vivid detail an other-worldly journey which is reminiscent of similar journeys in the Jewish apocalypses, such as 1st Enoch.  Viraf was chosen for the journey with the task of seeing if the prayers of the people were reaching heaven.  There he is guided by divine beings, who explain to Viraf all that he is seeing.  He sees heaven, hell, and hamestagan (purpatory), which is the abode of the people whose bad actions perfectly balanced their good actions.  The descriptions of hell take up most of the book, and are far more detailed than the descriptions of heaven.  Viraf sees people being very cruelly punished in a myriad of ways, and the divine beings with him explain what sin they had committed that led to this treatment.

For the first 400 years of Chrisitianity Zoroastrians and Christians were mortal rivals. Converts would destroy temples and statues to prove the authenticity of their conversions. Many Christian monasteries in Asia and Asia minor are built on the ruins of former Zoroastrian temples. Mor Gabriel monastery in present day southeast Turkey, where I once lived, is built on a former Zoroastrian temple.

When Nestorian Christian went to China as masons, missionaries, and merchants along the Silk Road, they brought this doctrine of hell with them. There seems to be evidence that this doctrine found it’s way into the teachings of Chinese Buddhism and Daoism.

There are seven types of evidence that Chinese religions were influenced by Christian borrowed doctrine of hell during the Tang Dynasty.

  1. Nestorian Christians arrive in an official capacity before the Tang Court in 635 AD led by Alopen and are ordered to translate their scriptures into Chinese.
  2. Leading Nesotorian theologians (Jing-Jing) and linguists along with Tantric Buddhist leaders from India (Prajna) worked together in China under the patronage of the Emperors.
  3. The Nestorian Monument erected in 781 mentions the doctrine of hell in the Chinese text.
  4. Guan Yin emerges in a Marian/Messiah form during the Tang Dynaasty as a savoir for those in Hell.
  5. Buddhist/Daoist statuary as Dazu begins to display a developed cosmology of Hell.
  6. Tantric Buddhism is displayed at Dunhuang showing evidence of Nestorian influence.
  7. The Luoyang Inscription is used to save both the dead and living from Hell.

About daleinchina

Chongqing University of Arts and Sciences.
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