The doctrine of Christ’s descent to the dead holds that after Christ’s death, his body remained in the grave and his soul remained in the place of the (righteous) dead, until his resurrection, not suffering but proclaiming the victory achieved by his penal substitutionary death to all those in the place of the dead. This 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.
The doctrine of Christ’s descent to the dead is that 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 hypostatically united to the divine nature of the Son, proclaimed the victory achieved by his penal substitutionary death to all those in the place of the dead—fallen angels, the unrighteous dead, and the OT saints. This doctrine should be held because it has both biblical and historic support, although the doctrine was called into question by some during the Reformation. This doctrine allows us to further identify with our incarnated and empathetic Lord, lends additional meaning to the waters of baptism, and helps to remind believers that Christ is now ruling and reigning, holding the keys to death and Hades himself.
The doctrine of Christ’s “descent” is confessed in the Apostles’s and Athanasian Creeds and celebrated by Eastern and Roman Catholic churches, but evangelical churches rarely give it much attention. Indeed, where the Apostles’s Creed is recited at all, many evangelicals just leave out the clause, “he descended into hell/the dead.” So just what is this doctrine?
Biblically and historically, the descent means the following:
“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 hypostatically united to the divine nature of the Son, proclaimed the victory achieved 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.”
Christ’s presence necessarily changes the nature of Paradise, from one of expectation for the coming Messiah to the reality that he is present, which is why the early church describes the descent as “release” from Hell (particularly and only for those in the righteous compartment; see below). Finally, the descent is not an opportunity for post-mortem salvation; Christ’s declaration of victory is good news for those who awaited his coming and a sign of judgment for those who rebelled against him. (For the above definition, see Matthew Y. Emerson, “He Descended to the Dead”: An Evangelical Theology of Holy Saturday.)
The first point we need to make in considering an evangelical theology of Christ’s descent is that it has biblical support. The core belief regarding the doctrine is that Jesus died a truly human death, which, for the biblical authors, meant that his human body was buried and his human soul departed to the place of the dead. In Second Temple Judaism, the common (though not universal) belief about the afterlife was that there is an intermediate state in which all the souls of deceased persons dwell, albeit in different compartments. This common “place of the dead” was referred to as Sheol or Hades, and it was believed to be divided into at least three parts: Abraham’s Bosom (Luke 16:19–31), or Paradise (Luke 23:43), for the righteous dead; Gehenna, or in some instances Sheol or Hades, for the unrighteous dead (again, e.g., Luke 16:19–31); and Tartarus, for the imprisoned rebellious angels or spirits (1 Pet. 3:19; 2 Pet. 2; Jude 6). These compartments were seen as holding places until the general resurrection of the dead, at which the temporary judgment placed upon its inhabitants would become final and eternal (e.g. Rev. 20:11–15). The descent teaches that, between his death and resurrection, Jesus’s human soul continued consciously to exist in this intermediate state, specifically in Paradise or Abraham’s Bosom, the righteous compartment of the dead. This view of the intermediate state and Jesus’ existence in it between his death and resurrection is reflected in texts like Matthew 12:40, Luke 23:43, Acts 2:27–31, and Romans 10:7.
But Jesus didn’t just experience the intermediate state between his death and resurrection; he gained and proclaimed victory over its master, Death, and transformed Paradise. This victory and transformation are by virtue of his penal substitutionary death and his unique nature as the God-Man. First, Jesus gains victory over death by experiencing it on our behalf. In Revelation 1:18, Jesus says, “I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades.” Because he is both the completely righteous Messiah and also God in the flesh, when he enters the place of the dead, he does so as the one that Death cannot hold. His words indicate that he is now in possession of the keys to the realms of Death and Hades, having taken them from their masters in his descent.
Having achieved victory, Jesus also proclaims victory over Death and Hades and their occupants in his descent. First Peter 3:19 tells us that between his death and resurrection Jesus “proclaimed to the spirits in prison.” This proclamation (from kerusso) is not a post-mortem gospel sermon in which the dead are given the opportunity to repent and believe. Instead, it is a declaration of Christ’s victory, which has already been won in his penal substitutionary death and which will be vindicated and made known in his impending resurrection from the dead and ascension into heaven. Jesus thus proclaims to all the inhabitants of the dead that he is Lord over those “under the earth” (Phil. 2:10), just as he will declare himself to be Lord over those on the earth in his resurrection and over those in heaven in his ascension.
Finally, the very presence of Jesus transforms the nature of Paradise, from expectation to reality. Those Old Testament saints who sat waiting in the darkness of death for the coming Messiah in whom they trusted in life now see by sight what they formerly only saw by faith. Jesus is with them and soon he will be raised as a sign of their coming resurrection from the dead. And when he is raised on the third day, he will lead “a host of captives” (Eph. 4:9) those who were formerly captive to Death but 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.
Historical Importance and Creedal Inclusion
This basic threefold importance of Christ’s descent—solidarity in experiencing death as all humans do, proclaiming victory to all the dead, and releasing the OT saints—was virtually ubiquitous in the early church from the second century onward. From Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, and Tertullian to Augustine, Ephrem the Syrian, and Maximus the Confessor, early Christians wholeheartedly, clearly, and repeatedly affirmed the view of the descent described above. It was confessed in the Apostles’s and Athanasian Creeds in the clause descendit ad inferos, which translates to “he descended to the dead.” There is some contemporary confusion here, as many English versions of the Apostles’s Creed read “he descended into Hell,” which comes from a synonymous Latin phrase, descendit ad inferna. What we must understand is that these two phrases in early Medieval Latin would have been synonymous. Inferna, from which we get our English word “infernal” and which today indicates torment, would have simply meant “place of the dead” at the time of its inclusion in the Apostles’s Creed, and it was synonymous with inferos. The Creeds did not mean by descendit ad inferna that Jesus went to Hell, if by Hell we mean “place of torment”; rather, they meant what we said above, that Jesus’s human soul resided in the place of the dead, and specifically the righteous compartment, between his death and resurrection.
There is also some debate over when the descent clause was included in the Apostles’ Creed, with some claiming that it was not included until the seventh century (see Wayne Grudem, “He Did Not Descend into Hell: A Plea for Following Scripture Instead of the Apostles’ Creed). What we now know, however, is that while the phrase descendit ad inferna/inferos does indeed appear only on some occasions in the Apostles’s Creed between its initial appearance and the seventh century, the actual content of the clause was viewed as included in the phrase “he was buried” even when the clause itself was not included in the Creed. As Mike Bird puts it, “The reason for the elasticity of wording is that a burial implies a descent, and the descent presupposes a burial” (Michael F. Bird, What Christians Believe: An Introduction to Christian Doctrine Through the Apostles’ Creed, 148). Where the clause does appear, it is most likely in opposition to Apollinarianism. This heresy states that the divine Logos only assumed a human body, not a human soul (according to this heretical belief the Logos himself is the mind of Christ). The descent clause, which demands a human soul that resides in the place of the dead during the period between Christ’s death and resurrection, would have been the perfect way to combat Apollinarianism’s denial that Christ has a human soul.
During the Medieval period, and particularly after the seventh century, the descent doctrine takes on additional meaning in both the Eastern and Roman churches. In Eastern Orthodoxy, the descent is increasingly associated with an implicit universalism, while in Roman Catholicism the descent becomes the ground to establish both Purgatory and an opportunity for post-mortem salvation for those in Hades prior to Christ’s arrival. At the time of the Reformation, both Calvin and Luther wanted to depart from these unbiblical appendages to the descent doctrine, but they approached theological reform in different ways. Luther essentially affirmed the early Christian doctrine while rejecting the Roman developments related to Purgatory and a post-mortem offer, whereas Calvin reinvented the doctrine in a novel way entirely, claiming that the clause teaches that Jesus at his crucifixion bore the weight of God’s wrath on behalf of sinners. Another Reformer, Martin Bucer, viewed the descent clause as redundant with “he was buried,” where the latter simply meant that Jesus’s human body was buried. This, too, was a novel idea in the 16th century. One final development of the doctrine comes from Hans Urs von Balthasar, who attempted to combine Calvin’s view (via Barth), the Eastern view, and his own Roman Catholicism by positing that the Son experiences separation from the Father on Saturday in Hell and in doing so abolishes Hell and establishes Purgatory.
These six developmental streams—Eastern, Roman, Calvinist, Lutheran, Bucerian, and Balthasarian—continue today. For evangelicals, the most likely positions taken are either Bucer’s or Calvin’s, although Balthasar’s position is popular among those who wish to connect Jesus’s Passion with the psychological experiences of abandonment, loneliness, and the like. Luther’s view seems closest to Scripture.
One of the most important pastoral implications of the descent is that Jesus really, truly died as all humans do. He walked through the valley of the shadow of death before us and for us to rescue those of us who trust in him from it. When Christians are bereaved of believing loved ones, we proclaim the hope that we will see our deceased loved ones again at the resurrection of the dead. That ultimate hope is accompanied, though, by a more immediate one, namely that Christ has gone before our loved ones into the place of death and shines the light of his resurrection there now.
Moreover, Jesus has transformed Paradise from a place of expectation to reality—Jesus is really, truly bodily present with departed saints until his return and their resurrection from the dead. Believers who die do not descend into nothingness and are not alone until Christ returns. Christ is present with them in Paradise, now known as “the third heaven” (2 Cor. 12:1–10). And his bodily presence in heaven reminds departed saints that they will one day, too, be raised from the dead, and heaven will descend to the new earth, the Paradise of God where believers dwell bodily forever with their king.
A third reason the descent is pastorally important is because it is connected to baptism. The early church viewed Jesus’s descent to the dead as the third and final of three descents in the mission of the Son: the first was the descent into the waters of Mary’s womb, the second was his descent into the waters of the Jordan at his baptism, and the third and final descent is his descent into the waters of Sheol, the place of the dead. In these descents, and ultimately through the whole work of Christ, the enemy is defeated. Because chaos waters are so often associated with God’s enemies in the Bible, these aquatically-portrayed descents are important pictures for the victory Christ achieves through his life and work, and particularly his death and resurrection. When new believers enter into the waters of baptism, they are proclaiming that they have renounced Satan and his works and participate in the victory Christ has won for them through union with him by the power of his Holy Spirit.
A final pastoral implication is that, even while death and destruction still wreak havoc in our world, they no longer have the keys to their kingdoms. Jesus holds the keys to Death and Hades. One day, they will be no more as they are thrown into the Lake of Fire along with the rest of Christ’s enemies. Jesus’s descent, and ultimately his resurrection and ascension, bring the victory bought at the cross to reality in all three realms of creation. We therefore have nothing to fear, “neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation” (Rom. 8:38–39).
Jesus’s descent to the dead is good news!
- Joe Rigney, “He Sang in the Belly of the Earth: Holy Saturday in Hades.”
- Matthew Emerson, “Christ’s Descent to the Dead: Four Myths.”
- Matthew Emerson, “Death Has Been Swallowed Up by Death.”
- Matthew Emerson, “The Good News of Holy Saturday.”
- Matthew Emerson, “He Descended to the Dead.”
- Matthew Emerson, “Old Testament Echoes of Holy Saturday.”
- Matthew Emerson, “Why Holy Saturday Matters.”
- Patrick Schreiner, “Jesus’s Descent in Ephesians 4.”
Articles and Essays
- Charles E. Hill, “‘He Descended into Hell’”
- Donald Bloesch “Descent into Hell (Hades),” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology.
- Jeffery Hamm, “Descendit: Delete or Declare? A Defense Against the Neo-Deletionists”
- Justin Bass, “Paradise,” in The Lexham Bible Dictionary.
- Matthew Emerson “‘He Descended to the Dead’: The Burial of Christ and the Eschatological Character of the Atonement”
- Matthew Emerson, “‘The One Who Trampled Hades Underfoot’: A Comparative Analysis of Christ’s Descent to the Dead and Trinitarian Relations in Second Century Christian Texts and Hans Urs von Balthasar.”
- Matthew Emerson, “Mapping Anthropological Metaphysics with a Descensus Key: How Christ’s Descent to the Dead Informs the Body-Mind Conversation,” in The Christian Doctrine of Humanity: Explorations in Constructive Dogmatics.
- Wayne Grudem, “He Did Not Descend into Hell: A Plea for Following Scripture Instead of the Apostles’ Creed.