The Nature of the Atonement: How Should One View the Cross? – Part 3

By: Dr. Steve Sullivan; ©2000
Dr. Sullivan looks at how the Word of Faith Movement interprets 1 Peter 3:18-20 and Ephesians 4:7-10. Can their teachings regarding “ransom-to-Satan” and “recapitulation” be supported by these Scriptures?

An evaluation of the Word of Faith Movement support of ransom-to-Satan and recapitu­lation views of Christ’s atonement from 1 Peter 3:18-20 and Ephesians 4:7-10

Let me again briefly summarize the position of the Word of Faith Movement (WFM) concerning the nature of Christ’s atonement. The WFM represented by Kenneth Hagin, Sr. and Kenneth Copeland believe that the nature of Jesus on the cross changed from divine to demonic. They believe that our redemption is not secured solely by the physical death of Jesus on the cross, but by the combination of His physical death on the cross and His spiritual death in hell. The torture of Jesus by the demons of hell was the ransom God paid for our sins, and it gained access for God back to the earth from which He, in a major way, had been banished. Many of the WFM teachers believe that Jesus was born again the third day by the Spirit of God in hell and was resurrected physically from the grave.

In my last article I briefly critiqued the Word of Faith Movement’s understanding of the atonement of Christ from 2 Corinthians 5:21 and John 3:14 (Numbers 21:8-9). In this article I will critique their understanding of 1 Peter 3:18-20 and Ephesians 4:7-10.

The WFM teachers have contended that 1 Peter 3:18-20 supports their view of the atonement.

For Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, in order that He might bring us to God, having been put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit; in which also He went and made proclamation to the spirits now in prison, who once were disobedient, when the patience of God kept waiting in the days of Noah, during the construction of the ark, in which a few, that is eight persons, were brought safely through the water.

It is possible to interpret verse 19 that Jesus went to the spirit-world (demonic host) and made a proclamation after His death on the cross. But even if this is true, 1 Peter 3:18-20 does not support the view that Jesus suffered in hell at the hands of the demonic. Nowhere in the context of first Peter three does anyone find that Jesus suffered in hell at the hands of Satan and his demonic host. This understanding must be imported into the text for it is foreign to the context.

Dr. Arden C Autry, former professor of the School of Theology and Mission at Oral Roberts University, explained it this way.

The most that can be made out of this passage is that Jesus, after his death and before his resurrection, went into hell and made a proclamation of some sort. That is the understanding reflected in the traditional form of the Apostles’ Creed, when it says, “He descended into hell,” although many prefer to think of that as simply a reference to Jesus’ burial and translate the word in the Creed as “the grave” rather than “hell.” At any rate neither the NT nor the Creed teaches anything about any suffering of Jesus apart from his body after the crucifixion. The price for sin was paid on the cross, not after the cross, as indicated by Jesus’ own words in John 19:30: “It is finished.” (The suggestion that Jesus was declaring that the old covenant was now finished has nothing in the context of John 19 to support it. In the context Jesus’ words most naturally mean that he had completed the suffering on the Cross.).[1] (The Spiritual Dimension of Jesus’ Death, unpublished manuscript, Holy Spirit Research Center, Oral Roberts University at Tulsa, OK, p. 7)

Matthew 12:40 compared Jonah’s three days and nights in the “sea monster” with Christ’s time in the tomb, but said nothing about what happens during that time or that Jesus was in hell. Even if 1 Peter 3:22 and Colossians 2:14-15 are understood to teach that Christ proclaimed His victory over the demonic host during the three days after His death, it says nothing about Christ suffering in hell.

Ephesians 4:7-10 is used by the WFM to support Jesus suffering in hell. This passage says:

But to each one of us grace was given according to the measure of Christ’s gift. 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, that He might fill all things.)

Many believe that before the cross Hades had a bliss side where the Old Testament believers went to “Abraham’s bosom” (Luke 16:22) when they died and the wicked would go to the torment side (Luke 16:23). Ephesians 4:9 (“…descended into the lower parts of the earth….”) could be interpreted that Jesus descended into Hades after His death and took those Old Testament believers, in the bliss side of Hades, to heaven with Him. The proper understanding of Ephesians 4:7-10 depends upon how one understands the Greek genitive phrase “into the lower parts of the earth.” Dr. Harold Hoehner explained the ex­egetical options.

(1) “Into the lower parts, namely, the earth” (a genitive of apposition). This would refer to Christ’s incarnation, His “descent” to the earth. (2) “Into the parts lower than the earth (a genitive of comparison). This would mean that Christ descended into hades between His death and resurrection. (3) “Into the lower parts which belong to the earth” (a genitive of possession). This would refer to Christ’s death and His burial in the grave. The third view best fits the context because in His death Christ had victory over sin and redeemed those who would be given as “gifts” to the church. (Bible Knowledge Commentary, Vol. II, p. 634)

Even if one agrees with option #2, Ephesians 4:7-10 does not say that Christ suffered in Hades under the hands of the demonic host. Again, this understanding is foreign to the context and to the theology of the New Testament. Therefore, this passage gives little help to the WFM’s doctrine of atonement.

In my next article I will deal with Isaiah 53:9. If someone wants to review the biblical understanding of the substitutionary death of Christ, they may read my article on “Substitu­tion,” written in November 1999.



  1. Many of the WFM teachers try to strengthen their support for Jesus Christ entering into hell by appealing to the Apostles’ Creed and the Athanasian Creed. However, this phrase did not appear in the Apostles Creed until the 4th century. Philip Schaff helped surface the truth:Descendit ad inferna (other Latin copies: ad inferos, to the inhabitants of the spirit-world; so also in the Athanasian Symbol), katelthonta eis ta katwtata (other Eastern creeds: eis adouis, viz., topon, or eis ton adhn) he descended into Hades. This clause was unknown in the older creeds, though believed in the church, and was transferred into the Roman symbol after the fifth century, probably from that ofAquilcia, A.D. 390, where it first appears among Latin creeds, as we learn from Rufinus. In the East it is found before in Arian creeds (about 360). After this we meet it again in the Creed of Venantus Fortunatus, A.D. 590 who had the Creed of Rufinus before him. The words katwtata ?and inferna, taken from Eph. iv.9, correspond here to the Greek Haidhs, which occurs eleven times in the Greek Testament, viz., Matt. xi.23; xvi.18; Luke x.15; xvi. 3; Acts ii. 27,31; 1 Cor. xv.55; Rev. i.18; vi.8; xx.13,14 and is always incorrectly translated hell in the English Version, except in 1 Cor. xv.55. Hades signifies, like the Hebrew Sheol, the unseen spirit-word, the abode of all the departed, both the righteous and wicked; while hell (probably from the Saxon word helan, to cover, to conceal), at least in modern usage, is a much narrower conception, and signifies the state and place of eternal damnation, like the Hebrew gehenna, which occurs twelve times in the Greek Testament and is translated in the English Bible, viz…. (Creeds of Christendom, Vol.II, p. 46)



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