Biblical Truth or Christian Myth?

Ephesians 4:8-10 has been a challenging text for interpreters, probably since Paul first wrote this epistle. In the context of Paul’s discussion of gifts given to the church (apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers), he writes, “Therefore it says, ‘When He ascended on high, He led captive a host of captives, and He gave gifts to men.’ Now this expression, ‘He ascended,’ what does it mean except that He also had descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is Himself also He who ascended far above all the heavens, so that He might fill all things.”

But what does it mean that Jesus “descended into the lower parts of the earth”? And who are the “captives” being referred to in Paul’s quote from Psalm 68:18 One explanation of Ephesians 4:8-10 depends on linking together details from several problem passages to create an account of what Jesus did between His death on the cross and His resurrection on the third day. The narrative goes something like this:

Luke 16:23-31 records Jesus’ teaching about a rich man in hell and Lazarus in the bosom of Abraham. In the story we find that both men die and go to difference places, but they are able to see each other from their respective locations in Sheol. The Hebrew word sheol refers to the place of the dead which has three compartments: there is a place for the wicked, a place for the righteous, and also a place for evil angels (2 Pet. 2:4). Paradise is the place for the righteous dead within Sheol. The rich man was in Sheol, in the compartment of judgment (hell), but Lazarus was in another compartment—a place of peace and blessing. The story refers to a great gulf fixed between the place of blessing (Paradise) and the place of judgment (Hell).

Before Jesus died he said to the thief on the cross, “”Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43). Since Jesus was not resurrected until the third day, he must have been with the repentant thief in Paradise before being raised. According to 1 Peter 3:19-20 Jesus went and proclaimed his victory over death to the Old Testament saints who were waiting in Paradise and brought them to heaven with Him. That is what Paul was referring to when he wrote that Jesus “led captive a host of captives” (Eph. 4:8). Matthew 27:51-53 records this event. On the day Jesus died “the tombs were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised; and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they entered the holy city and appeared to many.” These are the Old Testament saints who were raised from the dead and are now with Jesus. Paradise is now in heaven (2 Cor. 12:4) where Jesus is, and to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord (2 Cor. 5:8).

But how can we be sure that this is correct – especially considering that each and every one of these texts used to explain Ephesians 4:8-10 is itself very difficult and much debated? To put it another way, how can we discern between biblical truth and Christian myth? In my view, the answer is found in three important hermeneutical principles. First, never build your theology on a problem text. Second, always prefer the clear, most straightforward interpretation. Third, avoid using the context of one problem passage to explain another problem passage.

With these interpretive principles in mind, let’s look against Ephesians 4:8-10, as well as above noted texts that are often used to help explain it.

Ephesians 4:8-10 is set in the context of God’s giving gifted leaders to the church. The quote from Psalm 68:18 recalls Numbers 8:19 and 18:6 where the Levites were “taken” from among the people of Israel and “given” as gifts to Aaron, the high priest. The “captives” are one and the same with the “gifts.” The Levites are taken as captives from among the Israelites and given as gifts to assist the priests. Paul is appealing to the principle of analogy. Throughout history, God has chosen special leaders for the spiritual community. Jesus who descended from heaven to the “lower parts,” that is “the earth” (appositional genitive) is the giver of gifted leadership for the church.

Luke 16:19-31 is a parable, a true to life story, intended to teach that riches don’t guarantee one’s entrance into the kingdom of God. The rich man is suffering while poor Lazarus is being blessed. The “great chasm” (16:26) reveals that there is no passing from one state to another after death.

1 Peter 3:19-20 is set in the context of Peter’s comments about triumphing over suffering. He reminds his readers in verse 18 of how Jesus suffered and what it accomplished. Although He was “put to death in the flesh,” he was “made alive in the spirit.” While Jesus died to His earthly sphere of existence, by resurrection (“made alive”) He entered a fuller life (“in the spirit”) to continue his ministry. This was the same ministry Jesus carried out “in the spirit” when Noah was preaching to people who disregarded his message, died in the flood and are now “spirits in prison.” Peter’s point is that Jesus’ suffering physical death was not a defeat! It inaugurated once again His ministry as Divine spirit.

Matthew 27:51-53 is set in the context of the account of Jesus’ death. What did it accomplish? Matthew records that Jesus’ death broke the bonds of death and some people were raised even as the widow’s son, Jairus’ daughter and Lazarus had been raised from the dead. But notice that they were raised “after” Jesus’ resurrection (25:53). Jesus is the “first fruits” of the resurrection (1 Cor. 15:20). These were raised after Jesus, but because of His victory over sin and death.

2 Corinthians 12:1-4 is set in the context of the vindication of Paul’s apostleship. In this text Paul cautiously appeals to his experience of being “caught up into Paradise.” Whether that happened on the road to Damascus or when he was stoned at Lystra and left for dead is debated. The point is that Paul has been in God’s presence (“Paradise”) and seen and heard things no one else has experienced. How dare anyone challenge apostolic authority!

So then, understood in context, do these texts clarify our understanding of Ephesians 4:8-10? I’ll leave that up to you to wrestle through. Regardless, in interpreting Scripture we must emphasize what is clear and avoid speculating on unnecessary details. For myself, I won’t build a theology on uncertain and debated texts. And I will continue to prefer the clear and simple interpretation over against a complex and speculative viewpoint. All in all, my goal – as best as I am able – is to embrace biblical truth and to avoid Christian myth.

About J. Carl Laney

J. Carl Laney teaches Biblical Literature at Western Seminary and is an instructor for Western's Israel Study Program. Carl has authored numerous books, including most recently, “Discipleship: Training from the Master Disciple Maker” (2018).