I am knee deep in research for my LATC paper in January on the relationship between the burial of Jesus and eschatology. The day between Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, or Holy Saturday, was until recently, in my experience and thought, relatively unimportant. Mark Davis’ words capture my, and perhaps many Christians’, view of this middle day.
. . . even when the burial remains in a church’s reading as part of the Passion Sunday or Good Friday lection, it is overlooked in lieu of the crucifixion itself, or of the hints of the resurrection found in the elaborate detail of guards and the Chief Priest’s anticipations of foul play with Jesus’ body by the disciples. After all, touching though it is, one is tempted to see Joseph’s burial of Jesus as just a necessary moment along the way from the cross to the empty tomb, as opposed to having meaning in itself (Int 60.1 : 76, emphasis mine).
My own opinion, though, is that there is much redemptive activity, theo-drama (to borrow a phrase from von Balthasar and Vanhoozer), going on. It may be behind the scenes and invisible to our fallible physical eyes, but I’m increasingly convinced that it is not arbitrary that Jesus spent three days (rather than 3 hours or 3 minutes or even no time at all) in the tomb.
There have been a number of options put forth throughout church history, and many are probably most familiar with the idea of the harrowing of hell. In this view Christ descends to the supposed limbo of the just (righteous Jews and pagans who lived before Christ) to release them into heaven, or maybe purgatory. Von Balthasar innovated on this traditional Roman Catholic doctrine and said Christ descended, in Catholic cosmology, to the very depths of hell, where his whole person experienced the full wrath of God, separating him from the Father and the Spirit. I find this traditional Roman Catholic doctrine to be a late medieval development and relying on unbiblical positions regarding covenantal continuity, justification, and cosmology, and von Balthasar’s innovation seems to me to be a Trinitarian impossibility.
Both of these positions, however erroneous they may be (and I find them both to be biblically unjustifiable), do still bring out an important part of Christ’s work, namely his defeat of death and Hades. Christians historically have confessed that this is the purpose of Christ’s time in the tomb on Holy Saturday. Luther captures what I think is the more biblical position on this matter when he says in his Sermon at Torgau (1533) that Christ descended to Hades and ” . . . destroyed the power of hell and stripped the devil of all his might.” Christ in his death – not only in his crucifixion but in his burial – defeated death, Hades (the place of the dead), and the devil. This is part of the meaning of Holy Saturday. We of course cannot separate the cross from the resurrection, and we also ought not to separate Holy Saturday from Good Friday and Easter Sunday. They are each part of the one work of Christ, which stretches from his life, death, burial, and resurrection to his ascension and sending of the Spirit and ultimately to his return. Each piece accomplishes the unified but still distinct parts of redemption. While Christ’s crucifixion vicariously substitutes and his resurrection inaugurates the new creation, his burial is the defeat of death and Hades. While he is sealed in the tomb he is binding the strong man.