He Descended to the Dead

As we approach Easter week, the Christian’s thoughts turn to those epic events of Christ’s passion week: his triumphal entry, his betrayal, his unjust trial, his crucifixion, his burial, and his resurrection. Now what is missing from that list? Did I forget any major events? At least one evangelical theologian says yes, and he argues that most of us skip over the events of what has historically been referred to as Holy Saturday: that full day where Jesus laid in the tomb between his death and resurrection.

And what were those events? Just what exactly happened on Saturday? The Apostles’ Creed summarizes the Easter weekend with these unforgettable words:

     He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
      was crucified, died, and was buried;
      he descended to hell.
      The third day he rose again from the dead.

All Christians have heard or repeated those words: “He descended to the dead” or, “He descended into hell.” But what the Sheol does that really mean? Sounds like some spooky hocus pocus stuff, right? Well, not quite. Enter Matthew Y. Emerson’s helpful book:

Dr. Emerson has written this book in order to metaphorically hold the hands of confused evangelicals and introduce them to this classic doctrine of the ‘descent.’ No, not the classic PC video game by the same name – though many a happy hour did I there spend.

Not this. But if you were into video games in the 90’s, you probably remember this.

Back to our topic. So what is the argument of the book, in a nutshell? From page 103:
“… the confession that Christ ‘descended to the dead’ can be summarized like this:

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.”

Elsewhere, he expands on this a bit and claims that:
“Christ ‘releases’ the OT saints, by which we mean simply that, rather than dwelling in Abraham’s bosom (or paradise) awaiting the Messiah, they now dwell in the presence of the risen Christ.”

One of the interesting aspects of this doctrine is the metaphysical discomfort it brings. It’s one thing to believe in a far-away heavenly realm. But it smacks of an embarrassing medieval credulity to say that Jesus descended through the earth to the realm of the dead, wherever that is. This embarrassment is in part due to the stranglehold that modernity has had on even faithful evangelical theology for the last hundred years or more. Such is the incredible power of the dominant materialistic assumptions that underpin our age. This is what I meant by metaphysical discomfort. This doctrine means agreeing more with the ancient Greeks and Israelites about the existence of Hades or Sheol than with the respectable materialist metaphysics of modernity.

But this so-called respectability is really a house of cards, a mirage, like the ethos of ‘cool’ that hung around certain people in high school. It’s not worth fighting for because it is built on a foundation of weaponized doubt and unbelief.

By and large I found this book compelling, fascinating, and edifying. This was especially true for the first three or four chapters, which form the heart of his biblical and historical work. I wish I could delve into these details more substantially, but I’ll leave you with this link where you can hear a 25-minute interview where the heart of the book’s teaching is really laid out.

In later chapters I sometimes found it a bit tedious, and I confess I even skipped a few footnotes. The author takes to time to interact with many academic journal articles and historical arguments related to this and it had a tendency to get a bit overly technical for a non-scholar such as myself. The book is clearly aimed at pastors and Bible college or seminary students. But the author won me back by always keeping an eye on the practical implications both personal and corporate of the truths he was dealing with.

The author states his hope at the very start of the book: “My goal… is simple: to recover the doctrine of the descent for evangelicals today.” I think he is successful in that regard. In most cases, evangelicals have no real argument against the doctrine except for the intuitive metaphysical discomfort that it brings. It’s not like there is some other firmly held belief that Jesus spent Holy Saturday playing Uno with Abraham. There is simply nothing there at all. We don’t have a theology of the descent; and we don’t know what to do with it. We usually just avoid it.

The book therefore serves to cure our ignorance historically, Biblically, and theologically. There are riches and truths to gain and grow from here that we ought not miss out on any longer. And as for that temptation to feel even a little bit embarrassed about believing such a thing? Let it go. I was embarrassed of my parents in High School, but it was I who was wrong. I had breathed that nauseous atmosphere too deeply and it had distorted my view of reality. Likewise, we’ve been living with a truncated and distorted materialistic worldview for far too long already.