A Study of the Doctrines of the Church of God

Part Five: ``... crucified under Pontius Pilate and buried...''

by Jared L. Olar

  With this installment of our series on the Creed, we come to the  core of the Gospel, the fundamental historical fact of the Christian faith  that only the most desperate of unbelievers have ever attempted to deny: Jesus  Christ was ``crucified under Pontius Pilate and buried.''  Another elaboration  upon this doctrine may be found in the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed:  ``He  was also crucified for us, suffered under Pontius Pilate and was buried.''   Or as it says in the modern form of the Apostles' Creed, Jesus

``... suffered under Pontius Pilate; was crucified, dead, and buried;


descended into Hell; ....''

  To these ancient credal declarations we may compare the following quotation  from the most recent edition of the ``Statement of Beliefs'' of the Worldwide  Church of God (WCG):         

``As the prophesied Savior of humanity, [Jesus] died for our sins,....''

  As is well known, the WCG has always placed very great emphasis upon the atoning  sacrificial death of Jesus Christ.  As we have just read, Jesus``died for  our sins.''  This is in essential agreement with the Nicene Creed's ``He was  also crucified for us.''  Year by year we have, just as the early Jewish and  Gentile Christians did, focused our hearts and minds upon the springtime solemnities  and festivities of the Passover and Feast of Unleavened Bread.  During that  holy season we have very laudably commemorated the miracle of the Exodus some  3,500 years ago-something I do not think most Christians appreciate enough,  or praise God for, during their Paschal observances.  After all, without the  first Passover in Egypt, there could never have been any Passover of Christ  in Jerusalem.             

Of course our primary focus during the spring holy days has always  been placed upon the awesome miracle of our redemption some 2,000 years ago,  accomplished through the shed blood of Jesus, the Lamb of God (John 1:29;  Rev. 5:6)-Christ our Passover who is sacrificed for us (I Cor. 5:7).  Itis  clear that over time our understanding of, and appreciation for, the salvation  we now have through the Passover of Christ has grown immensely, but we have  always had the most profound appreciation for everything that Jesus went through  in order to save us from Sin and Death.

I do not think it is necessary, nor very practical, to cite specific  examples of WCG literature devoted to this subject, because every springtime  our magazines always used to highlight the way Jesus fulfills the typology  of the Passover season.  Instead, I wish to engage in a fresh examination of the historical event of the suffering, death, and burial of Jesus Christ under the government of Pontius Pilate.  Because more than any other tragic event in human history, what happened to Christ has had the most important consequences on our lives here on earth.

``Crucified Under Pontius Pilate...''

  The New Testament tells us that Jesus Christ was sentenced to death by Pontius  Pilate, who was Roman procurator of Judaea during the latter years of the reign of Emperor Tiberius (Matt. 27:24-35; Mark 15:15-24; Luke 23:24-33; John 19:15-18).  However, these historical facts can be verified not only from the writings of the New Testament, but also from the testimony of the Jewish historian Josephus and the Roman historian Tacitus , both of whom wrote in the last decade of the first century A.D. The text of Tacitus is clear and explicit, and is entirely trustworthy and conclusive regarding the crucifixion of Jesus Christ under Pontius Pilate.  Writing of Emperor Nero's persecution of the Church that beganin 64 A.D., Tacitus tells his readers about:

``... a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus,....'' (The Annals XV.44)

  Unfortunately the text of Josephus, in which he narrates several unjust deeds  of Pontius Pilate in Judaea, was later interpolated and corrupted by a Christian  author, so that the non-Christian Jew Josephus was made to say things about  Jesus that he could never possibly have really said. However, according to Gaalyah Cornfeld's The Historical Jesus (1982), pp.188-192, many scholars  are confident that the original text of Josephus may be reliably reconstructed  with the help of an Arabic translation of the writings of Agapius of Hierapolis,  an obscure Christian historian who lived in the 900s A.D.  For easy comparison,  I will place in two columns the relevant portions of the corrupted text of  Josephus (left) and of the more reliable version found in the Arabic version  of Agapius (right):                 

``Now, there was about this time, Jesus, ``At this time there was a wise man who was
a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a called Jesus. And his conduct was good,
man, for he was a doer of wonderful and he was known to be virtuous. And
works-a teacher of such men as receive many people from among the Jews and the
the truth with pleasure. He drew over to other nations became his disciples. Pilate
him both many of the Jews, and many of condemned him to be crucified and to die.''
the Gentiles. He was Christ; and when
Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal
men among us, had condemned him to
the cross,....'' (Antiquities XVIII.3.3)

``Was Crucified, Dead, and Buried ...''

  Thus, the historicity of the death by crucifixion of Jesus Christ under Pontius  Pilate may be firmly established and substantiated, from both friendly witnesses  (i.e., the New Testament and other early Christian sources) as well as from  unfriendly witnesses (i.e., the Jew Josephus and the pagan Roman Tacitus).   Therefore, whatever else one may think of the death of Jesus, we can be sure  that His death was extremely painful and demeaning.  Crucifixion as a method of punishment was intentionally designed to be ``cruel and unusual punishment.''   It was meant to be a horrid, agonising, shameful, undignified, and humiliating  way to die. The death of Jesus is so offensive, so scandalous, that when artists portray the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, they always show Him wearing a loincloth.  But in our base wickedness, we did not even allow our Savior the dignity of a simple loincloth.  He died naked, bruised, and bloodied, His wrists and ankles impaled by metal spikes and His left side pierced by a spear.

This was a death that offended the Universe itself.  As our Savior's  death drew near, it was as if the sun hid her face in shame and grief (Matt.  27:45). And then at the moment of His death, the very earth shook violently,  as if in spasms of intense sorrow and crying, while the Veil of God's Temple  was torn in half-very much like the Hebrew custom of expressing grief at the loss of a loved one (Matt. 27:50-53).  During the third century A.D. a Christian  historian named Julius Africanus described these events, quoting from two pagan historians who were witnesses to these cosmic upheavals:

``On the whole world there pressed a most fearful darkness; and the rocks were rent by an earthquake, and many places in Judaea and other districts were thrown down. This darkness Thallus, in the third book of his History, calls, as appears to me without reason, an eclipse of the sun. For the Hebrews celebrate the Passover on the 14th day according to the moon, and the passion of our Savior falls on the day before the Passover; but an eclipse of the sun takes place only when the moon comes under the sun. And it cannot happen at any other time but in the interval between the first day of the new moon and the last of the old, that is, at their junction: how then should an eclipse be supposed to happen when the moon is almost diametrically opposite the sun? Let that opinion pass however; let it carry the majority with it; and let this portent of the world be deemed an eclipse of the sun, like others a portent only to the eye. Phlegon records that, in the time of Tiberius Caesar, at full moon, there was a full eclipse of the sun from the sixth hour to the ninth- manifestly that one of which we speak. But what has an eclipse in common with an earthquake, the rending rocks, and the resurrection of the dead, and so great a perturbation throughout the universe? Surely no such event as this is recorded for a long period. But it was a darkness induced by God, because the Lord happened then to suffer.''

  Surely this was a death like no other.  But what difference could the execution  of an obscure Jewish rabbi possibly make to any of us?  In the eyes of the  Jews and Gentiles of the first century A.D., Jesus was just another religious  upstart-yet another failed Messianic claimant.  So why does the Church insist  that His death is more important than anyone else's death?  Why would a religion  have as a fundamental tenet of faith the assertion that a man named Jesus``suffered  under Pontius Pilate; was crucified, dead, and buried''?                     

A gigantic pile of books have already been written providing  excellent answers to those questions, and I have no desire or intention to  write yet another one today.  Instead, I think the best thing I could do at  this point is to do what the Church has done from the very start of Her Mission, and direct our attention to God's marvelous prophecy of the Suffering Servant  that is found in Isa. 52:13-53:12.  In that prophecy,God foretold that He  would raise up an Israelite man who would endure terrible suffering and an  ignominious death.  Despite His being completely sinless, this Servant would  be regarded as a common criminal, but buried in the tomb of a rich man (Isa.  53:9, 12).  Why?  So that the sins of Israel, and of all other nations, could  be atoned (Isa. 53:11-12).

In other words, Jesus died for our sins, paying the penalty  that our own transgressions and wickedness have incurred (Rom. 6:23).  His  suffering and death made possible the restoration of our relationship with  our holy and righteous Father in heaven (Isa. 59:1-2; II Cor. 5:18-21).  When  our first parents Adam and Eve disobeyed the Eternal God's commandment, we  humans became bitter enemies of our Maker (Jer. 17:9; Rom. 8:7).  Even more,  pain and suffering and death entered into the world in which we live.  But we can see all throughout the Hebrew Scriptures that God, in His infinite love for us His Children, promised He would send His Servant-His very own Son-to save us from all of the consequences of sin.  When Jesus was miraculously conceived by the holy Spirit in thewomb of the virgin Mary, that divine promise was fulfilled at last.  The long-awaited Messiah had come to deliver His People  from their enemies:  Sin and Death.

Tragically, neither the Jews (represented by men like Herod  and Caiaphas) nor the Gentiles (represented by men like Pilate and his soldiers)  recognised the Messiah for who He really is.  Instead, they cooperated in a satanic plot to murder the most important human being who has ever lived.  Imagine what our Savior must have felt, to be subject to such abuse and hatred,  coming from those He had come to save.  But in the most blessed of all ironies,  their wicked murder of the Incarnate King of the Universe made possible their  own salvation.  The death of Jesus was not the death of a mere mortal-it was  the death of the pure and sinless Lamb of God (John 1:29), the perfect sacrifice  atoning for all humansin-i.e., in Jewish theology, the perfect Kapparah  .  Since the Messiah Jesus is none other than the Eternal God of Israel, made flesh by the virgin Mary, that means that His death was able to destroy Death.  By no means could the very source and embodiment of Immortality ever be conquered by Death.  Therefore, those who put their trust in God Incarnate need no longer fear death.

In the second installment of this series, I observed that each  Christian doctrine touches in some way, or overlaps with, every other doctrine.   We can see another  illustration of that truth in the doctrineof the Atonement-it  is dependent upon and intermeshed with the doctrine of the Incarnation.  We  have seen in Isa. 63:4-9 that God declared Himself to be the one and only Savior of His People.  The task of accomplishing our salvation is something no mere mortal could ever do. Even Jesus' own mother Mary, the greatest of God's saints, could not accomplish the Atonement. For although she was chosen by God to be the one who would bring us our Savior, she was only a human, not God.  No, God said in Isa. 42:8 that He would not allow the credit for His victory to go to anyone else but Himself.  By implication, that means the Savior would have to be God Incarnate-a mortal man who could feel the pain of Sin and Death like the rest of us, but also the Eternal God who could never been vanquished by Sin and Death.

``He descended into Hell ....''

  At this point we must turn our attention to one of the most complicated and  controversial doctrinal articles of the Apostles' Creed:  Christ's descent  into Hell.   According to this doctrine, when Jesus died His soul descended  into the realm of the dead, known as Sheol in Hebrew, Hades  in Greek, and misleadingly known as ``Hell'' in English.  Because of human  sin, even the souls of the righteous were confined in Sheol.  Jewish  legend refers to the ``region'' of Sheol in which the righteous were confined  as Paradise-there they awaited their redemption at the hands of the  Messiah, their Savior.  While dead in Sheol (Luke 23:43), Jesus subjugated  Satan and his minions, and ``preached to the spirits in prison''(I Pet. 3:18-19;  4:5-6), thereby rescuing the souls of the righteous from Hell.  At the resurrection  of Jesus the souls of the righteous were released from Hell and were able to ascend to Heaven, waiting patiently in God's Presence for their own resurrection.   This doctrine thus serves to explain whether or not those who have died before  the coming of Christ would ever be able to obtain salvation.  (In addition  to the scriptures cited above, the following texts have also traditionally  been used tosupport this doctrine:  Psa. 16:10; Acts 2:27, 31; Eph. 4:8-9;  Phil.2:10; Col. 2:15; and Rev. 1:18)

Historically speaking, the ``descent into Hell'' refers to a belief that appears in both orthodox and heretical Christian literature about the middle of the second century A.D.  Later, in the fourth century this doctrine was elaborated in the most fanciful way imaginable in apocryphal writings such as the so-called Gospel of Nicodemus.  The ``descent into Hell'' does not seem to have appeared in the earliest versions of the Apostles' Creed, but various churches had begun to include it by the end of the 300s A.D.

Considering that the WCG has in the past adamantly denied that  the human soul has consciousness after death (a belief known as ``conditional  immortality'' or ``soul sleep''), obviously we could never have expressed  assent to this doctrinal article.  The earlier forms of the Creed that lacked  this article would have posed no problem to us, but the modern version we would have regarded as ``unspeakable.''  In an attempt to resolve this thorny problem, in his article ``The Apostles' Creed'' (TheWorldwide News , September 1999, pp.8-9), Michael Morrison suggested that Christians who believe in conditional immortality might possibly reconcile themselves to this doctrinal article of the Creed by reinterpreting it.  This is in fact what Conditionalist author Edward Fudge did in his book The Fire That Consumes  (1994).  In a footnote on page 143 of his book, Fudge writes:

``The Apostles' Creed says of Christ that `he descended into Hades.' The first appearance of this clause is evidently in the so-called Fourth Formula of Sirmium (A.D. 359). Originally it was intended to mean only that Jesus truly died. Rufinus, presbyter of Aquileia, said the phrase explained an old doctrine rather than adding a new one, and for that reason the Aquileian creed omitted the clause `was crucified, dead, and buried,' replacing it with the new expression. Most medieval and modern forms of the Apostles' Creed include the clause but also retain the original statement that Jesus `was crucified, dead, and buried.'''

  In this way a Christian who does not believe that the souls of the deadare  conscious could nevertheless accept the statement that Jesus``descended into  Hell,'' interpreting it as a poetic repetition of the preceding clause ``was  crucified, dead, and buried.''  This may satisfy some, but unfortunately the  facts of history contradict these claims of Rufinus and Edward Fudge.  First,  Rufinus was utterly mistaken (as usual-Rufinus is notoriously unreliable) when he claimed that ``descended into Hell'' was just another way of saying ``crucified, dead, and buried.'' Second, whatever Rufinus personally may have believed about the descent into Hell, Fudge was utterly mistaken to claim that the clause ``He descended into Hell'' originally meant only that Jesus truly died.  If true, that only begs the question of what it means to ``truly die.''  In fact the truth is quite the opposite of Fudge's assertion.  As Philip Schaff wrote (emphasis added):                         

``This clause was unknown in the older creeds, though believed in the Church, and was transferred into the Roman symbol [creed] after the fifth century, probably from that of Aquileia, A.D. 390, where it first appears among Latin creeds, as we learn from Rufinus.'' (The Creeds of Christendom, vol. II, p.46)

  In support of Schaff's claim that the doctrine of Christ's descent into Hell  had long been accepted by most Christians, we may consider thesewords which  Ignatius Theophorus, second Bishop of Antioch and personal friend of Bishop  Polycarp of Smyrna, wrote to the church at Tralles in Asia Minor about the  year 110 A.D.:                             

``...[Jesus Christ] was truly persecuted under Pontius  Pilate; He was truly crucified, and truly died, in the sight of beings in  heaven, and on earth, and under the earth....'' (Epist. ad Trall. cap.  IX)                                 

  These words of Ignatius directly parallel those found in the later formof  the Apostles' Creed, mentioning the death of Jesus under PontiusPilate, and  then mentioning that ``beings under the earth'' were aware ofHis death.  We may also consider the spurious Gospel of Peter, written sometime in the first half of the second century.  Of course, not only did the Apostle Peter not have anything to do with this document, but the author in fact seems  to have been some form of Docetist-i.e., someonewho claimed that the Son of God only appeared (Greek dokein) to suffer and die on the cross.  All the same, the man who was responsible for this forgery seems to have been influenced by I Pet.3:18-19; 4:5-6 when he wrote his narrative of Christ's  resurrection, as we see from this passage:                                 

``... again [the soldiers guarding Jesus' tomb] see three men come forth from the tomb, and two of them supporting one, and a cross following them .... And they heard a voice from the heavens, saying, `Thou hast preached to them that sleep.' And a response was heard from the cross: `Yea.''' (Gospel of Peter 10)

  As seen from the above-quoted words of Ignatius Theophorus, Docetist heretics  were not the only second century Christians who believed in the descent into  Hell.  In fact, the Docetic heresy found in the Gospel of Peter was  presented in a subtle enough manner that many orthodox Christians who lived  in those days were duped, believing it to have really been written by the Apostle Peter.  That is probably an indication that the majority of orthodox Christians of that era had no objections to this document's reference to Christ's ``preaching to them that sleep.''  As evidence of that fact, we may consider the following words of Melito of Sardis, a revered Quartodeciman Christian who flourished about the middle of the second century:                                     

``[Christ is] the one that destroyed Death, and triumphed over the Enemy, and trod down Hades, and bound the Strong One, and carried off Man to the heights of heaven.'' (On Pascha 102)

  These words of Melito are admittedly capable of being interpreted as merely  figurative or poetic language describing the death and burial of Jesus Christ.   However, it is clear that they should be taken as a reference to the doctrine  of Christ's descent into Hell, because in another place Melito wrote:                                         

``When the Savior shut His eyes upon the cross, light shone in Hell; because the Lord descended to destroy Hell, not in body but in soul; because the Lord descended and ravished all Hell with His soul, but with His body the earth." (New Fragment II.12)

  Not long after Melito's day, we can find another reference to this doctrine.   Like Ignatius of Antioch before him, Melito of Sardis was a contemporary and colleague of Polycarp, first Bishop of Smyrna, who was an even more famous  Quartodeciman Christian.  The most important and well-known disciple of Polycarp  was Irenaeus, second Bishop of Lyons, who wrote the following words circa 180 A.D.:                                             

``... for three days [Jesus] dwelt in the place where the dead were, as the prophet says concerning Him: `And the Lord remembered His dead saints who slept formerly in the land of sepulture; and He descended to them, to rescue and save them.'.... Then also the apostle says, `But when He ascended, what is it but that He also descended into the lower parts of the earth?'... If, then, the Lord observed the law of the dead, that He might become the first-begotten from the dead, and tarried until the third day `in the lower parts of the earth,'... how must these men [Gnostic heretics] not be put to confusion, who allege that `the lower parts' refer to this world of ours ... ? For as the Lord `went away in the midst of the shadow of death,' where the souls of the dead were, yet afterwards arose in the body, and after the resurrection was taken up, it is manifest that the souls of His disciples also, upon whose account the Lord underwent these things, shall go away into the invisible place allotted to them by God, and there remain until the resurrection, awaiting that event ....'' ( Against Heresies V.XXXI.1-2)

  These citations from the early Church Fathers Ignatius, Melito, and Irenaeus-I  could also cite Church Fathers of the third and fourth centuries-conclusively  establish that the credal phrase ``He descended into Hell'' has always been  understood in a literal sense.  Therefore, if one wishes to reinterpret this  article of the Creed in a ``conditionalist'' sense, one must ignore the constant  tradition of the mainstream of Christianity.  Furthermore, to quote Philip  Schaff once again, such a reinterpretation of this doctrinal article ``makes  it a useless repetition in figurative language.''  (Hence Michael Morrison's  reference in the September 1999 WorldwideNews to the desire of certain  Christians to delete this clause from the Apostles' Creed.)  For that reason,  I would suspect that most Conditionalists would be more comfortable with an  earlier version of the Apostles' Creed-one that does not include the offending  doctrinal article-than they would with a subjective reinterpretation of the  descent into Hell.  (In any event, once one begins to reinterpret doctrinal  articles in this way, it can be difficult deciding when and where to stop the reinterpretation of the Christian Creed.)                                                 

In this overview of the Christian doctrine of  the Messiah's death, we have seen that His death has atoned for our sins, and has rescued us from our ancient enemy Death.  For that, every Christian should daily give thanks to God.  How important are these truths we have studied in this installment?  They are of the greatest importance, because the suffering  and death of our Savior Jesus Christ is the very basis of all Christian faith  and practice (Matt. 25:31-46; Luke 9:23-25; I Cor. 15:30-32; Rom.12:1-2).   As members of Christ's mystical Body, we can rejoice in our steadfast hope  in the glorious promise of His Kingdom.  But just as the Son of God took on  flesh and shared in our sufferings under theoppressive and unjust government  of Pontius Pilate, so we His brothers and sisters must share in His sufferings  (I Pet. 2:20-23).  Otherwise we cannot expect to share in His victory over  Sin and Death.

I will leave you with this:  These words of the  Creed that we have been studying-``crucified under Pontius Pilate and buried''-provide  the best answer, really the only answer, to the question of why we must endure  suffering and pain in this life.  Apart from the suffering and death ofJesus,  our suffering would be pointless-God really would be the uncaring, aloof Monster  that many claim Him to be.  Thank God for the historical fact of the crucifixion  at Golgotha-an event that had, and continues to have, the most profound effect  imaginable on every single one of us, whether living or dead.  In Jesus Christ,  we have a God who hurts when we hurt, who wants to save us so badly that He  took all our pain on Himself at Golgotha, dying the same death that we die.   When you think about it, would you really want any other kind of God?

To be continued....

                         About the Author:  Jared Olar lives in Pekin,  Illinois, with his wife Christina and son Alexander.  Jared enjoys the study  of ancient, biblical, ecclesiastical,and medieval history.  Recently he was  blessed with two opportunities to share with the Peoria congregation of the  Worldwide Church of God some of the information he has gleaned from his studies:   through his facilitation of a series of Bible Studies on Dr. Walter Kaiser's  book The Messiah in the Old Testament (which he completed in November),  and through a series of classes on the Apostolic Fathers (which he completed  in January).


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