Christ’s Descent to the Dead is Good News

While the Apostles’ Creed is the most basic and universally accepted summary of the Christian faith, the phrase “He descended into hell” has caused much confusion and concern. For those who grew up without ever learning about or reciting the ancient creeds of the church, it is likely that not much thought has been given to this strange sounding doctrine. But since this creed took form organically in the second century, the Christian church—Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant—has believed and declared that the Bible teaches Christ’s descent into hell (better translated “to the dead”) after his crucifixion, death, and burial.

He Descended to the Dead by Matthew Emerson

So what does Christ’s descent mean? Why all the confusion and concern? Should we continue to confess Christ’s descent, or should we jettison the doctrine and delete the phrase from the creed, as many churches and evangelical scholars have proposed?  In his new book, ‘He Descended to the Dead’: An Evangelical Theology of Holy Saturday, Baptist scholar Matthew Emerson persuasively argues that we should continue to confess the doctrine of Christ’s descent because it is faithful to Scripture, historically supported, and relevant for us today.

Clearing Up Confusion and Misconceptions

Before we get to what exactly Christians mean when they confess that Jesus descended into hell, we need to clear up some common misconceptions about this doctrine.

First, Jesus did not suffer the flames and torment of Hell. This idea resulted from many modern English versions of the Creed using the phrase “he descended into Hell” (descendit ad inferna), which is rather unfortunate since by Hell we mean “place of torment.” Originally, however, Christ’s descent was confessed with the phrase, “he descended to the dead” (descendit ad inferos). Emerson explains that these two words—inferos (“the dead”) and inferna (“hell”)—were considered synonymous until the time of the Reformation (3-4), which is why both words were used as the Creed was developed and transmitted over time. In other words, regardless of the phrase used, the early church did not confess experienced suffering in the place of torment.(cf. John 19:30).

Second, the descent clause also does not simply mean that Christ was buried or that Christ bore our sins and suffered under the wrath of God on the cross, which was the novel view John Calvin. Now before anyone throws down the heresy card, we at ECC heartily affirm the glorious truth that Jesus Christ paid the penalty for sin and bore the wrath of God on behalf of sinners on the cross, delivering us from the torments of hell (cf. Rom. 3:25; Heb 2:17; 1 Jn 2:2; 4:10). But the descent clause is not about Christ’s humiliation on the cross; rather, it’s about what Christ did after his penal-substitutionary death and before his resurrection.

Third, the descent does not teach universalism (that Hell was emptied and all humanity was liberated) or that people who died before Christ came received a second chance to be saved, as some Christian traditions hold. These ideas sprang up in the Medieval period but were not part of what the early church confessed.

So if the descent doesn’t mean that Jesus suffered torment in hell, or that Hell was totally emptied after the dead got a second shot at salvation, then what does Christ’s descent mean?

Christ’s Descent to the Dead Explained

Matthew Emerson provides us with a comprehensive definition, that is supported both biblically and historically, of what it means to confess that Christ “descended to the dead:”

Christ, in remaining dead for three days, experienced death as all humans do: his body remained in the grave, and his soul remained in the place of the (righteous) dead. He did not suffer there, but, remaining the incarnate Son, proclaimed the victory procured by his penal substitutionary death to all those in the place of the dead—fallen angels, the unrighteous dead, and the OT saints. Christ’s descent is thus primarily the beginning of his exaltation, not a continuation of his humiliation (103).

The place of dead, known as Sheol/Hades in the Old Testament was generally believed to be a place for all the dead as well as a place of torment specifically for the unrighteous dead. It was broken into different ‘compartments’ which served as holding places until the final judgment:

  1. “Abraham’s Bosom” or “Paradise”: for the righteous OT saints (Luke 16:19-31; 23:43)
  2. Sheol, Hades, or Gehenna: for the unrighteous dead (Luke 16:19-31);
  3. Tartarus: for evil spirits/fallen angels (2 Pet. 2:4 cf. 1 Pet. 3:19; Jude 6).

What the Creed confesses is that Jesus, after he died, went to “Paradise” in the place of the dead, rather than being tormented. This is supported from passages such as Matthew 12:40, Luke 23:43, Acts 2:27–31, and Romans 10:7. Jesus is the true and better Jonah, who spends three days and nights in the place of the dead (Matt. 12:40; Jon. 2), and the true and better David, whose body did not see corruption and whose soul was not abandoned to the place of the dead (Acts 2:27-31; Ps 16:10). So when we say Christ was resurrected “from the dead,” we not only mean from the state of being dead, but he was raised from the place of the dead and from among the dead ones.

In addition, Christ also proclaims victory over Death and Hell to all the dead there. His descent to the dead is not primarily part of his humiliation but his exaltation (Phil 2:9). In other words, Christ’s death is not only vicarious (in our place, on our behalf), but victorious (Rev 1:18). As Emerson notes in a separate essay on the subject, Christ’s proclamation of victory “did not extend the offer of salvation to those who had already died, but it was a sign of hope to the righteous and a sign of judgment to the unrighteous.”

Furthermore, Christ doesn’t simply experience death and descend to the place of the dead, but he actually transforms Paradise. This means that, rather than dwelling in Abraham’s bosom awaiting the Messiah, deceased saints now dwell in the glorious presence of the risen Lord Jesus. In his essay, Emerson explains that, “Those who were formerly captive to Death…now by virtue of their faith in the Messiah who has defeated death are in his resurrected presence until they, too, are raised on the last day.”

Christ’s Descent is Good News

Just like every other aspect of Jesus’ life and death, his descent matters to us today. Jesus not only died, but was dead for three days, experiencing death like all humans do. He knows what it’s like to die and go to the place of the dead. Our great Shepherd has gone before us through the Valley of the Shadow of Death and opened up the way out of it! Through the first Adam, sin and death reigned in the world, but God in Christ has swallowed up Death forever in victory (Isa. 25:8; 1 Cor 15:54-56). Now all those who trust in him alone will be with him, in his presence, where there is fullness of joy and pleasures forevermore (Ps 16:11).

His proclamation of victory to the dead in Sheol also encourages us today, in a world riddled with sin and death. This doctrine reminds and comforts us that, no matter what we face in this life, no matter how much death and suffering we may face, we know that Christ Jesus is forever victorious over Death, Hell, and the Dragon. One day, sin and death will be no more, as all of Christ’s enemies are thrown in the Lake of Fire. The descent also reminds us that our deceased loved ones who were united to the risen Christ by faith are in his presence even now, and that we will see them one day if our faith is in Christ Jesus as well. And his bodily presence reminds all the departed saints that they too will be raised to newness of life fully and finally on the last day, to enjoy the new heavens and earth with God and the Lamb.

Not only does Emerson show how the descent is a biblically supported and historically confessed doctrine, but he reminds us that Christ’s descent to the dead is gloriously good news that should continue to be confessed and cherished by Christians today.