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The Battle for the Keys: Revelation 1:18 & Christ’s Descent in the Underworld

Author: Justin W Bass
Published By: Paternoster (Milton Keynes)
Pages: 149
Price: £12.54
ISBN: 978 1 84227 847 5

Reviewed by Richard Dormandy.

This is fascinating and surprisingly relevant study of one verse in Revelation and one fairly obscure doctrine: Christ’s descent to the dead. The book is in Paternoster’s “Biblical Monograph” series, so it is written from an academic point of view - but don’t let the footnotes put you off! It is exceptionally readable.

In Revelation 1:18, Christ says, “I am alive for ever and ever and have the keys to death and Hades.”  The ‘battle’ referred to in the title of this book is not described as such in the Bible, but Bass places this verse in the context of contemporary Jewish and pagan beliefs about the afterlife and the underworld.

He begins by showing how Death and Hades were frequently personified in the world of the Bible. They were not always thought in either purely conceptual terms, or in terms of an event and a place. As personifications, they could be personally defeated by a personal Saviour, who would then hold the keys that they once held. This is Jesus.

Bass goes on to describe the ‘compartmentalisation’ of the Underworld. A study of the texts (both biblical and extra-biblical) reveals a belief in various underworld locations. Some of these may be the same place called by multiple names, but nonetheless, Bass is able to identify three key “compartments”: Paradise, the Abyss, and Gehenna. 

Following this, he surveys the New Testament background of Christ’s descent to the dead - and there is a surprising amount of it. Bass doesn’t extrapolate what the doctrine ‘really’ means. He describes what he thinks the original writers meant at the time. Occasionally, I got the impression that he might be of the opinion that “if it was good enough for them, it’s good enough for him” or that “if this is what the Bible means, then this is what we have to believe” - but such intrusions are rare. A helpful feature of this kind of book is precisely that it is academic. The writer is presenting the evidence of ancient texts as he sees it. He is not saying “this is actually what it is like below ground, so be careful of how you drill for gas!” The reader is left to draw their own conclusions about how to make the hermeneutic leap to our context.

There are four reasons why this book is relevant.  First, it deals succinctly with an obscure topic sometimes raised by church members following their own reading of the Bible. Second, it deals in an interesting fashion with an often mystifying line of the Apostles’ Creed. Third, it gives a biblical perspective on what happens after death, even though we might need to reframe this today. Fourth, it gives insight into what we mean by the victory of Christ.

To prove its accessibility, I read much of this volume on trains and buses. It was worth marking throughout because the detail is not subject matter I will readily retain. However, I can imagine wanting to consult it rapidly and whizz through the many paragraphs and sentences I have underlined.

In brief, it is a short, informative and interesting book that will not only plug a gap for many ministers, but also stimulate you to think further. Excellent for a retreat, study day, or moments of replenishment.

Richard Dormandy

Vicar, Holy Trinity, Tulse Hill, South London

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You are reading Issue 63 of Ministry Today, published in April 2015.

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