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CHRIST'S DESCENT INTO HELL.
PSALM xvi. 9 & 10.
Wherefore my heart was glad, and my glory rejoiced ; my flesh also shall rest in hope. For why? thou shalt not leave my soul in hell, neither shalt thou suffer thy holy one to see corruption.
In two excellent discourses of Dr. Clarke lately delivered to you from this pulpit, and occasionally mingled with remarks of my own, I endeavoured to show you what is really the scriptural account of Christ's descent into the grave, and how scanty proof it furnishes for us to suppose that Christ actually went down to preach in hell. In conformity to my promise, I shall endeavour to throw additional light upon the subject from the decrees of Christian councils, and from the opinions of some early Fathers eminently distinguished by their learning, zeal, and orthodoxy. But it is
proper to call your attention to some preliminary observations.
In traditions adopted without research, and propagated without caution—in the imagination heated at one moment by enthusiasm, and in another darkened by superstition-in a sincere, but inconside
rate and intemperate zeal to multiply the benevolent actions, and thus promote the glory of our Redeemer, we may account for the origin and the continuance of the common notion on the subject we are now discussing; and when it had received the sanction of a creed, from the decrees of any council, or in the formularies of any church, hesitation would be imputed to fastidiousness, and dissent would be charged with impiety. We must not lose sight of other causes which influence opinion. Explanation, as attempted with more or less skill, gradually changes the form of the question. Defence, as conducted with more or less earnestness, imperceptibly introduces extraneous matter. The charms of novelty are succeeded by the promptness of custom, and the confidence of prejudice; and singularity casts upon presumed facts that imposing air which mystery throws around controverted doctrines; and the delusion is perpetuated by a latent and consolatory persuasion that in proportion as the subject is removed from the common apprehension, or common experience of mankind, there is increased merit in assent to the supposed authority of a revelation from Heaven. Reason distrusts her own strength, and conscience is alarmed by her own phantoms. From similar causes arise many of the unprofitable disputes which have divided and agitated the Christian world.
I am not aware of any very alarming consequences which may flow from the commonly received opinion, and be very injurious to the faith or the piety of the generality of Christians. But it has no visible tendency to strengthen that faith, or to animate that piety. It may, in some cases, cherish that spirit of blind and superstitious credulity, the operation of which, upon subjects of much higher moment, is unfavourable to true religion. It has often perplexed well-meaning men with insuperable difficulties—it has given occasion sometimes to pertinent objections, and sometimes to contemptuous scoffs, among the opponents of the Gospel and upon all these accounts it should be treated cautiously and argumentatively. But whatsoever be the result of the inquiry, the general credibility of the Scriptures will not be endangered, and their peculiar efficacy in making us wise unto salvation will not be diminished.
If we admit the commonly received opinion, nothing is gained to the great cause of revelation-if we reject it, nothing is lost to that cause. Was Christ the promised Messiah ? Did he inculcate the doctrines ascribed to him by the four Evangelists? Did he cause the deaf to hear, the leper to be cleansed, the paralytic to rise from bis bed and walk, and the blind to see? Did he die
Did he die upon the cross, to set before us an example of humility and resignation? Did he rise from the dead to furnish us with a record for earnest of our own resurrection? If these things be true, then Christ, whether he did or did not preach to the spirits in hell, yet remains the infallible teacher, and the gracious redeemer of the whole human race. Now the notion which I am combating is confessedly not founded, directly or indirectly, upon words used by
Christ himself, who, as you must remember, often spoke of his own approaching death, of his resurrection upon the third day, of the glorified state preserved for him in Heaven, and of the extraordinary assistance which was to be given to his followers by the Paraclete, and who, before his ascension, opened the minds of his followers, that they might understand how all things which were written in the law of Moses, and in the Prophets, and in the Psalms, concerning himself, must be fulfilled. Yet of a recent descent into hell he said not one syllable.
Again, the same notion is not supported by the express or implied meaning of the statements made by the four Evangelists, nor by St. Luke in the Acts, nor by St. Paul in his various Epistles, nor by the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews, nor by the author of the Apocalypse, nor by St. Jude in his Epistle, nor by St. John in his three Epistles, nor by St. Peter in his second Epistle ; and as to a passage in his first, upon which the advocates for a descent into hell rest their belief, I shall presently endeavour to prevent all misconception of St. Peter's words by a full interpretation.
This fact, if it really existed, must have been known to most or all of the sacred writers; and, if known, it would hardly have been passed by, as it were, by common consent, without any express statement, and even without any distinct allusion. But surely the silence of so many attendants on our blessed Lord, who were appointed to convey to all future ages the history of their heavenly Master, should make us cautious in ascribing to our Lord a transaction which seems to have no connection, near or remote, with his acknowledged and important mission upon earth — a transaction which does not enhance the expiatory merits of his death — a transaction which gives no additional clearness to his doctrines, nor additional weight to his commands—a transaction which neither illustrates nor confirms the truth of his resurrection — a transaction which, from the shortness of the time that must be assigned to it, does not appear to have produced, nor indeed was likely to produce, any beneficial effects upon the wicked beings in whose presence, and for whose sake, Christ is supposed by some persons to have gone down into hell. And, under such circumstances, does not this descent seem to our common sense a waste of effort, and, I may add, a waste of miracle? For the descent, if real, was miraculous. It may be asked, too, whether Christ preached only, or whether he also worked miracles to give effect to his preaching? If he worked miracles, where is the evidence that he worked them ? For of those which he worked upon earth, there is ample and unequivocal testimony. If he preached only, but did not work miracles, is it probable that, as a teacher in hell for three days, he wrought that conviction which in the course of his ministry he often failed to impress, or effected that reformation which he often failed to effect among his countrymen, who had seen him heal the diseased, and give eyesight to the blind? Were the obdurate minds of the damned more speedily convinced, and more power