The Apostles’ Creed is one of the signature statements of the Christian faith. At church services around the world, believers recite it without reservation. But there’s one part of the creed that’s apt to generate confusion and suspicion. Sandwiched between its rendering of the events of Good Friday (“He was crucified, died, and was buried”) and Easter Sunday (“The third day he rose again from the dead”) is a perplexing affirmation: that Christ “descended to hell.” Because of their discomfort with this language, evangelicals have often neglected the importance of what Christ accomplished on Holy Saturday.
Matthew Emerson, a biblical theologian teaching at Oklahoma Baptist University, wants to refocus our attention on the time frame between the Crucifixion and the Resurrection. In his book, “He Descended to the Dead”: An Evangelical Theology of Holy Saturday, he gives a multifaceted defense of the doctrine of Christ’s descent and answers some common objections. Brad East, a theology professor at Abilene Christian University, spoke with Emerson about what did (and didn’t) happen on Holy Saturday—and what it all means for our faith.
How would you sum up what happened to Christ, and what he accomplished, during his descent on Holy Saturday?
In the book, I argue that Christ dies a human death, as all humans do. His body is buried, and his soul departs to the place of the dead. So he experiences death just like any human being does. But because he is not only a human being but God in the flesh, his descent to the place of the dead is victorious. While he is there, he proclaims his victory over the powers of death. Then, in his resurrection, he achieves victory over death itself.
Another element of Christ’s victory comes in his releasing of the Old Testament saints from captivity. It’s not that they were in torment or separated from God—only that the object of their hope had finally arrived in the form of the Messiah.
What are some common misconceptions about the doctrine of the descent?
The biggest one is probably the idea that Christ, during his descent, went to hell and was tormented there. A lot of people balk at the language in the Apostles’ Creed, since it seems on the surface to suggest this. But when you take a closer look at history behind the development of the creed, it’s abundantly clear that this was never the intended meaning.
There are two other important cautions to make. First, in no way does Christ’s descent to the dead imply anything like universal salvation. It doesn’t provide a way for everybody in hell to escape it. And second, it doesn’t speak to the creation or perpetuation of purgatory, as the Roman Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar has suggested. It’s not related to the idea of purgatory in any way.
So often, when I hear evangelicals rejecting the idea of Christ’s descent, what they really want to reject are some of the conclusions and implications that other traditions have drawn. And so it’s important to emphasize: The descent doesn’t mean Christ was tormented in hell, it doesn’t mean universalism, and it doesn’t mean the Roman Catholic view of purgatory, whether we’re talking about the traditional view or the innovative way that Balthasar connects the descent to it.
In the book, you critique John Calvin’s understanding of Christ’s descent. Where, in your view, did Calvin go astray?
It pains me to say this, because among the three magisterial Reformers—Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli—Calvin is one with whom I have the greatest affinity. But Calvin is entirely novel, and I think unpersuasive, in his understanding of Christ’s descent.
According to Calvin, the descent clause refers to Jesus’ physical and spiritual torment on the cross on Good Friday—not to what he accomplished between his death and resurrection. Now, to be clear, as someone who affirms penal substitution as the correct model of atonement, I do believe that Jesus experienced physical and spiritual torment on the cross. He was bearing the wrath of God on behalf of sinners. I’m glad, then, to see Calvin affirming penal substitutionary atonement, but I don’t believe it’s what the descent clause is referring to.
In the book, I mention some possible reasons for Calvin’s innovation in this area, although I admit these are mainly speculative. My hunch is that he’s nervous about affirming the kind of cosmology that includes the notion of an underworld, which can lead in the direction of Roman Catholic ideas about purgatory. But I think he’s guilty of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
Another, more contemporary figure you critique is the theologian Wayne Grudem. Where would you take issue with his understanding of the descent clause?
In 1991, Grudem wrote an article for the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society called “He Did Not Descend into Hell: A Plea to Follow Scripture Instead of the Creed.” From the title alone, you get some sense of his objection. Grudem seems to be saying that the Apostles’ Creed has something in it that has misunderstood Scripture or masked what it is really saying.
His main concern, of course, is that people have been misled into thinking that Jesus was tormented in hell on Holy Saturday. I agree with Grudem, of course, about this point. There is no biblical basis for supposing that Jesus was tormented in hell on Holy Saturday. I would argue, however, that the creed was never interpreted to mean this until the 20th century, when Balthasar’s view was influential. Put briefly, Balthasar believes that the descent clause refers to the fact that Christ experienced the visio mortis, the very opposite of the beatific vision. In other words, he’s saying that Christ experienced a kind of existential separation from God, above and beyond the suffering he experienced in his human nature on Good Friday as a substitute for sin.
Like Grudem, I find that view biblically and theologically problematic. Where I disagree with Grudem is in matters of historical interpretation. I believe he is wrong to confuse Balthasar’s 20th-century innovation with the church’s traditional understanding of the Apostles’ Creed and its descent clause.
Another difficulty I have with Grudem’s position is his overreliance on 1 Peter 3:18–22 in understanding Christ’s descent. This passage—in which Peter states that Christ was “put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit” (v. 18), after which he “went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits” (v. 19)—is notoriously difficult to figure out. Some have even taken it to mean that Christ preached in hell, either before his resurrection or afterward.
For what it’s worth, in my book I say that this passage probably refers to Christ’s descent in some way, although I admit I could be wrong. In any event, this is hardly the only passage in Scripture attesting to the fact that Jesus actually died a human death. There’s no reason to understand Christ’s descent through the lens of 1 Peter alone.
Apart from 1 Peter, then, what are some of the passages that help round out the biblical picture of what Christ accomplished in his descent?
The first set of texts to remember are those that discuss Jesus experiencing death as all human beings do. This would include passages like Matthew 12:40 [“For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.”], Acts 2:27 [“Because you will not abandon me to the realm of the dead, you will not let your holy one see decay.”], and Romans 10:6–7 [“But the righteousness that is by faith says: ‘Do not say in your heart, “Who will ascend into heaven?”’ (that is, to bring Christ down) ‘or “Who will descend into the deep?”’ (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead).”]. You could also include the parable of Lazarus and the rich man from Luke 16:19–31 or Jesus’ statement to the thief on the cross: “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise” [Luke 23:43]. In his own statements about his death, Jesus indicates that he will go to the place of the dead—specifically to the righteous portion of it, paradise.
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Source: Christianity Today