Editors’ note: 

This series explores key doctrines of the Christian faith and their practical ramifications for everyday life. Earlier in this series:

Every Sunday morning millions of Christians confess from the Apostles’ Creed that Christ “was crucified, died, and was buried; he descended into hell; on the third day he rose again from the dead.” Have you ever wondered what it means to say that Christ “descended into hell”?

Earlier this year at the 2015 Los Angeles Theology Conference, Matt Emerson delivered a helpful paper on this topic, “He Descended to the Dead: The Burial of Christ and the Eschatological Character of the Atonement.” I corresponded with Emerson, assistant professor of Christian ministries at California Baptist University, about how Christians should think about this part of the early creeds.

Where does the phrase “he descended into hell” occur? Should it be “into hell” or “to the dead”?

The phrase occurs in both the Apostles’ Creed, which many churches recite every Sunday, and in the Athanasian Creed. In the Apostles’ Creed, the phrase was originally “descended to the dead” in Latin (descendit ad inferos) but was later changed to “descended into hell” (descendit ad inferna).

Why can’t we just ignore this phrase, since it occurs in creeds rather than Scripture?

As a Protestant and an evangelical, I believe the creeds are secondary to Scripture in their authority. But this does not mean that they have no authority at all in Protestant churches. It means, rather, that Scripture and its authority is the ground for the creeds’ language and secondary authority. As long as the creeds exhibit a biblical foundation and fidelity to what Scripture says, then they function authoritatively for us.

What are the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic views on this phrase? What problems do you see with them?

The Eastern Orthodox view, which comes out of the Patristic view, emphasizes Christ’s defeat of Hades and his liberation of Adam and all his race from sin’s penalty, death. There is a strong emphasis on victory, as well as on liberation. In the Orthodox view, when Jesus defeats death through his own death, he heals Adam and Eve of their sin. Because Adam stands as the head of the human race, by healing him Jesus also heals and liberates all humanity from Hades.

In the Roman Catholic view, sometimes referred to as the Harrowing of Hell, Jesus descends only to the supposed “first level” of hell, the limbo of the fathers, preaches the gospel to its inhabitants (virtuous Jews and pagans who lived and died before Christ), and takes out all who repent and believe.

One other recent development along both of these lines comes from Hans Urs von Balthasar, a 20th-century Roman Catholic theologian, who believed that Jesus descended into hell and was thereby separated from the Father not only in his humanity but also in his divinity. In doing so the love of the Father and Son expressed in the Spirit swallowed up death and destroyed it.

There are a number of issues with each of these views. For Protestants, the idea that Old Testament saints were consigned to some form of hell prior to Christ’s death and resurrection, present in both the Orthodox and Roman Catholic views, is not acceptable. Neither is the Roman Catholic view of different levels of hell. Perhaps most problematic for Protestants is the implied universalism of both of these views. Neither one explicitly states that Jesus’s death saves all humanity without distinction, but, especially in the Orthodox view, it is hard to escape that implication.

What are Calvin and Luther’s views on this phrase? What are the strengths and weaknesses you see in them?

Calvin believed that the phrase referred to Jesus’s vicarious suffering of the Father’s wrath on the cross for those who repent and believe. Unlike the Orthodox and Roman Catholic views, Calvin saw Jesus’s descent occurring on the cross instead of in his burial.

Luther, like the early church, emphasized Jesus’s victory on Holy Saturday over death and Hades, but he departed from the subsequent Orthodox tradition by ignoring the liberating element. In other words, he did not discuss Jesus liberating Adam and all of humanity from Hades and leading them out.

While Calvin’s view is probably a popular pick for Protestants, I don’t see how placing the descent on Good Friday makes sense of the creeds’ narrative structure. Both the Apostles’ and the Athanasian Creeds structure their statements on the incarnation of Jesus in a chronological, narrative order. Each clause follows on the previous one, so to make a chronological leap backward from “died and buried” to Christ still alive on the cross in “he descended to the dead” doesn’t make much sense.

Some evangelicals think this clause should be excised from the creed. What would you say in response?

By and large, evangelicals such as Wayne Grudem and John Feinberg reject this clause because many of its proponents point to 1 Peter 3:18-22 as the biblical support. Grudem and others don’t see the exegetical warrant from that passage. There are at least two ways to respond to this critique.

First, the biblical warrant for this doctrine does not stand or fall with 1 Peter 3:18-22. Perhaps the Roman Catholic view, where Jesus preaches to the dead, is compromised, but Protestants are not bound to this interpretation of the phrase anyway.

Biblical references to Jesus’s time in the tomb abound in the New Testament, and they are filled with theological significance. In Matthew 12:40, Jesus compares his burial to Jonah in the belly of the whale (which is, in Jonah 2, also a reference to the abyss, the place of the dead). In Acts 2:24-28, Peter speaks of Christ in the grave and God’s power and victory over death. In Ephesians 4:9-10 and Romans 10:7, Paul makes theological use of Christ’s descent to the place of dead.

All of this suggests that Christ’s burial has theological significance. After all, if the only thing that matters is Jesus’s death, then why have a burial at all? Further, why the burial for three days? These passages and others indicate that Jesus’s prolonged state of death is vicarious, in that by it Jesus experiences and defeats death for us.

Second, and derivative from the biblical language about Jesus’s death, are the authority of the creeds and the importance of the history of doctrine. Two of the three ecumenical creeds affirm this doctrine, and the early church theologians all discuss Jesus’s descent to the dead and see great importance in it. We cannot simply throw out creedal language and ignore the history of doctrine. That is our heritage and, to the extent that it is faithful to the biblical witness, it is authoritative for us. In my judgment “he descended to the dead” recognizes an important biblical teaching, namely that in his death, and specifically in his prolonged state of death, Jesus gains victory and frees those united with him from death’s grip.

What would you encourage evangelicals to think of when they hear or recite this phrase in worship services?

Jesus defeats all of God’s enemies, including the last enemy, death, in his death, burial, and resurrection. By taking on death for us, he defeats it for us. Death has been swallowed up in death, because the one who died for us is life. There is no indication here of a Harrowing of Hell or an emptying of Hades, as in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox views, but instead a simple affirmation that Jesus has taken away death’s sting by experiencing it for us and thereby conquering it.

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