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What are the lower parts of the earth?

Submitted: 3/5/2009
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Question: In Ephesians 4:8-9, what is the meaning of He led captivity captive? And what/where is the lower parts of the earth?

Answer: Ephesians 4:7-10 says, “But to each one of us grace was given according to the measure of Christ's gift. 8 Therefore He says: “When He ascended on high, He led captivity captive, and gave gifts to men.” 9 (Now this, “He ascended”—what does it mean but that He also first descended into the lower parts of the earth? 10 He who descended is also the one who ascended far above all the heavens, that He might fill all things.)” Paul is quoting from Psalms 68:18 in this passage.

First of all, the phrase “when He ascended on high,” is clearly speaking of the ascension of Jesus when He was received up in glory. It says that when this happened, He “led captivity captive.” Some say this is referring to Jesus leading those who had been held captive by Satan in Hades out of the underworld and into glory. Some say He is leading them into the Paradise part of Hades. Others say He was leading all of His adversaries captive. This is closer to the truth.

The word “captivity” means a “band of captives” or literally “those taken captive by the spear.” It therefore indicates that the captives have been taken forcibly. It can even refer to prisoners of war. But we make a mistake if we picture this too literally. Jesus did not literally march the devil and a bunch of demons into some kind of heavenly prison camp. We need to understand this in terms of what Jesus accomplished legally by His resurrection and ascension.

If we looked at 1 Peter 2:21-22, we have a very good description of what leading captivity captive means. It talks about how we were saved by baptism: “Through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven [the ascension] and is at the right hand of God [the place of rule], angels and authorities and powers having been made subject to Him.” This is what it means that He led captivity captive. As God in flesh, He was given authority over every spiritual force in heaven and on earth that has warred against the kingdom and people of God. He exercised this authority during the days of His flesh, but through the resurrection and ascension He completely vanquished his adversaries and stepped into the place of total victory.

We read something similar in Colossians 2:12, 15: “Buried with Him in baptism, in which you also were raised with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead... 15 Having disarmed principalities and powers, He made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them in it.” And 1 John 3:8, “For this purpose the Son of God was manifested, that He might destroy the works of the devil.”

What does the passage in Ephesians 4 mean when it says that before He ascended, “He also first descended into the lower parts of the earth”? I think we can say that it does not mean He descended from the surface of the earth down into a subterranean habitation of Satan and souls. It simply refers to His coming out of heaven into the world in human flesh. All this passage is saying is that the Messiah, God in flesh, walked the earth, and then, having accomplished His purpose in redeeming man and destroying the works of Satan, ascended into glory. Now He reigns over all creation and is working His plan until the time of His return to the earthly realm when His victory will be fully realized.

When Paul says that the One who ascended is the One who first descended into the lower parts of the earth, he is simply emphacizing the Deity of Jesus Christ. The ascended One had His origins in heaven, not earth. He is the eternal God in flesh.

Another possible explanation is that the phrase 'the lower parts of the earth' is an Hebraic metaphor for the grave. It is used this way in Ezekiel 32:24.

The idea that after His death, Jesus descended into Hades and took the keys of the kingdom from the devil is utter rubbish. It is a complete perversion of biblical doctrine, which arose when Christian philosophers began interpreting the Bible through the filter of Greek and Jewish philosophy and mythology. Hades is not a chamber within the earth; it is the realm of death. Man does not have an immortal soul that exists apart from the body; man is a soul, formed of the dust of the earth and made alive by the spirit of life given by God. Jesus did not descend into the underworld; He descended from heaven when He became a man. Jesus did not lead the souls of the righteous dead into Paradise; He took authority in the flesh over His spiritual adversaries and brought them into complete submission as prisoners of war.