Death is a Thief and a Robber. Death is a Glutton and a Plague. Death is the Last Enemy and the one that every human being faces. In our own power, that confrontation is entirely futile, and yet we’re each forced to enter into the fray. Pastors preach funeral sermon after funeral sermon, loved ones pass away unexpectedly, cancer and heart disease and a host of other illnesses cut life short day after day.
But the great hope of the Christian faith is that this seemingly insurmountable enemy, Death, has also already been defeated and his fortress has been plundered. Death and his kingdom, Hades, will be thrown into the lake of fire when Jesus returns in judgment. And during his first advent, Jesus descended to the place of the dead after his death on the cross and remained there three days until his resurrection, and by doing so declared that Death no longer has dominion over those in Christ’s kingdom. Christians have historically confessed this victorious descent in one line of the Apostles’ Creed: “He descended to the dead.”
Christ’s descent to the dead, rather than a doctrine that confuses or misleads, is a beautiful, hopeful, celebratory aspect of Christian theology.
These days, though, this line is mostly misunderstood, ignored, or left out entirely (if the creed is recited at all) in many evangelical churches. Unfortunately, I think this means that many evangelical churches miss out on confessing a thoroughly biblical, historically important, theologically orthodox, and pastorally relevant doctrine. Christ’s descent to the dead, rather than a doctrine that confuses or misleads, is a beautiful, hopeful, celebratory aspect of Christian theology.
Defining Christ’s Descent
In my view, we should define the descent this way:
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 [Old Testament] saints. Christ’s descent is thus primary the beginning of his exaltation, not a continuation of his humiliation. (Emerson, 103)
In other words, when we say that Jesus “descended to the dead,” we’re simply confessing:
(1) Jesus really died a truly human death and really remained dead,
(2) that his human soul departed to the place of the dead, and particularly to the righteous compartment—Paradise, or Abraham’s Bosom—due to his uniquely righteous life,
(3) that he proclaimed his victory to all those in the place of the dead, and
(4) that his presence, and especially his resurrected and ascended presence, necessarily changes the place of the righteous dead from one of faithful expectation for the Messiah’s coming to one where the Messiah is actually present among them.
Here’s what we’re not confessing when we say that Jesus “descended to the dead”:
(1) that he was tormented in hell,
(2) that he gave a “second chance” gospel proclamation to those in hell,
(3) that prior to Jesus’s descent the Old Testament saints were cut off from God’s presence, or
(4) that he brought everyone out of hell and/or destroyed hell forever so that no one now inhabits it (so, a form of universalism).
Pastoring in Light of Christ’s Descent
At its core, then, the descent is a doctrine that proclaims Christ’s solidarity with us in death and his victory over it. Jesus has already walked through the valley of the shadow of death and come out victoriously on the other side. As the God-man, he has defeated death in his experience of and resurrection from it. Jesus proclaims his victory over sin, death, and hell—not only in heaven and on the earth but also under the earth. Jesus is King everywhere, including the stronghold of the enemy, the place that only exists in the world because of rebellious sinners, the place of the dead.
As Christians face their own or a loved one’s death, we can do so with the hope that Christ is with us and for us.
So what does this mean for us? It means we can have hope, as we cross that final river, that Jesus has gone before us, has defeated the grave, and will one day raise our bodies from death’s dominion.
In other words, as Christians face their own or a loved one’s death, we do so with the hope that Christ is with us and for us. The descent is, in other words, an incredibly pastoral doctrine. Jesus has fully experienced death—just all of us will unless Jesus returns in glory first—and because of that, he’s victorious over it.
The Last Enemy, Death, has already been defeated. Jesus has taken the full brunt of its sting and in doing so destroyed its power and dominion. He has broken down the gates of Death’s stronghold. And because of what he has done, we can face our own deaths and those of our loved ones with hope, hope in this conquering King who has bound the strong man and broken down his doors.
Preaching Christ’s Descent
If you’re ready to confess the descent, how can you also preach it from the pulpit? Here are a few suggested passages that teach one or more aspects of Christ’s descent.
1. “For you will not abandon my soul to Hades, or let your Holy One see corruption” (Acts 2:27).
This passage, along with others (Matt. 12:40; Luke 23:43; Acts 2:27; Rom. 10:9), simply affirms that Jesus died a truly human death. Luke—as well as these other authors—draws on the Old Testament’s and Second Temple Judaism’s understanding of death, in which the body is buried and the soul departs to the place of the dead (either to the righteous or unrighteous compartment). This text and others therefore teaches Jesus’s solidarity with us in death—he’s already walked through the valley of the shadow of death before us. He knows what it’s like to remain dead, and is with us even in our own deaths, during the intermediate state while we await the resurrection of the dead.
Here’s an example of how you might outline a sermon—maybe a funeral sermon—from this passage:
Christians can have hope in the face of death because:
- Jesus experienced the same thing we do when we die.
- Jesus wasn’t abandoned in death, and neither are those united to him.
- Jesus’s resurrection proves his victory over Death, Hell, and the Grave.
2. “Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades” (Rev. 1:17b–18).
Not only did Christ experience what it’s like to remain dead, he conquered death in the process. Jesus in his descent and subsequent resurrection has paved the way for us to escape Death’s gates through his penal substitutionary death, his victorious descent to the dead, and his glorious resurrection from the dead. He has smashed Sheol’s gates, and now he holds the keys to Death and Hades. This passage and others (e.g., Eph. 4:8–10; 1 Pet. 3:18–22) all emphasize this victorious aspect of Christ’s descent, and so push us to see it as the beginning of his exaltation. In the descent, he is and declares himself King over enemy territory, the underworld, and those “under the earth”; in his resurrection, he is and declares himself King over the earth, and all those “on the earth”; and in his ascension, he is and declares himself King in heaven and over all those “in heaven” (cf. Phil. 2:10–11).
So how might we preach this text? Here’s a suggestion:
- Jesus is King over Death and Hades.
- Jesus holds the Keys to Death and Hades.
- Jesus rescues those who trust in him from the dominion of Death and Hades.
These are hopeful and evangelistic texts. They give us an opportunity, either on Sunday morning or at something like a funeral, to proclaim Jesus’s victory on our behalf and call people to repent of their sins and submit to his lordship. Preaching the descent is thus simply a matter of declaring that Christ is with us and for us even in death. Jesus has already confronted our Last Enemy in the latter’s own territory and come out the victor. We can have hope facing death because Jesus has experienced it with us and defeated it for us through his death, descent, and resurrection.
When we confess and preach the descent, we confess and preach the hope that is found in verse two of a favorite Advent hymn, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”:
O come, Thou Rod of Jesse, free
Thine own from Satan’s tyranny;
From depths of hell Thy people save,
And give them victory o’er the grave.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.