Recently a relatively neglected doctrine in Protestant thought, Christ’s descent to the dead, has received some renewed attention. There was an ETS paper devoted to this (Jeffrey L. Hamm, “Descendit: Delete or Declare? A Defense Against the Neo-Deletionists”), and Reformation21 has published three separate posts on the doctrine in the last 5 days. Rick Phillips, leaning on Nick Batzig’s articulation of Vos’ position, started the conversation by arguing for omitting “He descended to the dead/hell” from the Apostles’ Creed, to which both Mark Jones and Eric Hutchinson have responded by saying that the phrase should be retained. For my part, I am presenting a paper at the Los Angeles Theology Conference next week which in part seeks to demonstrate the eschatological implications of Christ’s vicarious burial.
The descent clause is tricky because there are so many options for how to interpret it. Greek Orthodox Christians confess this doctrine to say that Christ descended to Hell to liberate all of death’s captives by healing Adam’s sin and leading he and his progeny (all humanity) out of the grip of Death and Hades. Roman Catholics see a similar liberating motif in the doctrine, but instead of Christ leading out all humanity he leads out only those in the supposed limbus patrum, inhabited by virtuous pagans and faithful Jews who lived and died before Christ’s first advent. The Roman Catholic version, often referred to as the Harrowing of Hell, has a more substitutionary and legal basis than the Orthodox “healing” view. Christ suffers the pains of Hell, the final judgment, on behalf of those who repent and believe.
Protestants have by and large rejected both the implied universalism of the Orthodox view and the delineated stages of the afterlife in the RCC view, but they have not rejected the doctrine altogether. Calvin (and later, Barth) viewed this phrase as articulating Christ’s endurance of the Father’s judgment on behalf of those united to him, but for Calvin this occurs on the cross and not during Jesus’ time in the grave. Luther, on the other hand, believed that the phrase denoted Christ’s conquering of Hades after his resurrection but before he exited the tomb. His interpretation of the clause focuses solely on liberation, in that by his descent Jesus conquered Death, Hell, and the Grave.
More recently the Roman Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar has attempted to synthesize the RCC view and the Calvinian position, arguing that Christ’s descent occurs on Holy Saturday and that in it Jesus in his hypostatically unified divinity and humanity experiences the final judgment, separation from the Father, on behalf of humanity. This has been met with serious opposition from many fronts, but has also been argued by at least one RCC theologian to be a legitimate interpretation of Catholic doctrine.
As an evangelical Baptist, what am I to do with this phrase?
Given my understanding of the atonement and of the afterlife, I do not see the Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, or Balthasarian (new word!) views as compatible with the biblical data. Further, as much as I appreciate Calvin’s substitutionary emphasis and his distinction between the suffering Christ endured in his humanity and what he experienced in his divinity, I do not think that relegating the descent to the cross makes sense of the Creed’s order. Every other phrase in the Creed occurs in chronological order, so I don’t think it makes sense to go with Calvin here.
Luther’s interpretation seems the most appealing to me because I think it is the most biblical. Passages in the New Testament like Acts 2:24; Eph. 4:8, and Rom. 10:7 seem to refer to Christ’s descent as a descent to the place of the dead. Many Protestants prefer to interpret the Ephesians and Romans passages as referring to the incarnation, but in those texts Paul appears to be relying upon Old Testament texts that are clearly speaking of Sheol or the place of the dead (e.g. Job 28:22; Ps. 68:18; 71:20; 107:15-16). Additionally, Jesus’ statement about the sign of Jonah (Matt. 12:40) is a clear reference to a descent to the place of the dead, and in Jonah 2 this place is called the abyss, or Sheol. You could also point to Jesus’ statement in Luke 23:43 about Paradise as an indication that upon his death he descends to the place of the righteous dead, i.e. Paradise, a view of the afterlife corroborated by Luke 16:19-31. Jesus in descending is not passive, but defeats Death through his own death (Heb. 2:14-15; cf. Col. 2:15). Christ’s burial is thus victorious, part of his atoning work that stretches from his birth to his second coming and that includes not just his crucifixion and resurrection but his life, teaching, ministry, burial, ascension, and gift of the Spirit.