Epiphany 2009, Volume XVIII, Number 1Table of Contents
(A featured article from the journal: The Harrowing of Hell: Filling in the Blanks by Peter Burfeind)
Christ’s descent into hell (descensus ad infernum) has inspired the imagination of theologians, the creativity of artists, and the comfort of laymen. The event is a veritable warehouse of doctrines through which the church has often rummaged. Yet, one cannot help but be puzzled by the usual parenthetical manner with which the doctrine is handled in most Lutheran circles.
Only a novel approach to the descensus can sever it from a discussion of the state of souls in the intermediate period between death and resurrection. After all, Christ’s descent is precisely that: the intermediate period between death and resurrection. Unfortunately, speculation on this intermediate state is often met with knee-jerk anti-Romanism. Surely the Confessions — reflecting Luther’s hands-off approach to the topic — unintentionally provoke this attitude, speaking of “useless, unnecessary” [Latin: inutiles et curiosas; German: unnützlichen, unnotwendigen] questions on the descent. But what is “useless and unnecessary” and what is not? What limits are established by the Epitome when it formulates the doctrine in its “simplest manner”? Has the modern church simplified the doctrine out of practical existence?
Or is it possible to wrestle with what amounts to the roots of purgatory and see if the church may short-circuit the doctrine at its early stages, claim for herself — and resurrect! — a beautiful doctrine purged of its antievangelical developments? An odyssey into the terrains mapped by these questions is the purview of this article.
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