The Biblical Basis for Christ’s Descent to the Dead

I’ve written a few times here, and last week at TGC, on the clause in the Apostles’ Creed, “he descended to the dead.” I also presented a paper on the topic at this year’s Los Angeles Theology Conference. In each of those venues, I’ve concluded similarly that 1) the phrase should continue to be used in the Creed and 2) the theological meaning of the phrase is that Christ experiences death with us and for us in his humanity. His burial is vicarious, victorious, and eschatological, in that in it he experiences death with us and for us, defeats death, and gives us hope for own intermediate state between our death and his second coming. While I believe these conclusions are biblically supported and grounded, my focus in those posts and essays has not been on demonstrating the biblical foundation for the doctrine but instead on articulating the meaning and importance of the creedal phrase. Here I want to address that lacuna and walk through the exegetical rationale for my understanding of what Jesus was doing during his time in the tomb.

First, let’s look at the key New Testament texts that discuss Jesus’ burial and/or death:

Matthew 12:40

40 For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.

Acts 2:25-32

this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. 24 God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it. 25 For David says concerning him,

“‘I saw the Lord always before me,
    for he is at my right hand that I may not be shaken;
26 therefore my heart was glad, and my tongue rejoiced;
    my flesh also will dwell in hope.
27 For you will not abandon my soul to Hades,
    or let your Holy One see corruption.
28 You have made known to me the paths of life;
    you will make me full of gladness with your presence.’

29 “Brothers, I may say to you with confidence about the patriarch David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. 30 Being therefore a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him that he would set one of his descendants on his throne, 31 he foresaw and spoke about the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh see corruption. 32 This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses.

Romans 6:3-4

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.

Romans 10:6-7

But the righteousness based on faith says, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’” (that is, to bring Christ down) “or ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead).

Ephesians 4:8-10

Therefore it says,

“When he ascended on high he led a host of captives,
    and he gave gifts to men.”

9 (In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower regions, the earth? 10 He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.)

Hebrews 2:14-15

14 Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, 15 and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.

1 Peter 3:18-22

18 For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, 19 in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, 20 because they formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water. 21 Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, 22 who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him.

I realize that 1 Peter 3:19 is usually dismissed by evangelicals today as not referring to Christ’s burial but instead to the pre-incarnate Son preaching through the Spirit to Noah. I find Grudem and Feinberg’s exegesis unconvincing on that point, but nevertheless for the sake of argument let’s move on and grant their point. What do these other texts teach about Christ’s death, and particularly his being dead/burial?

1. Christ goes to the place of the dead.

Christ’s human body is in the grave; on that all Christians agree. What is sometimes not articulated, though, is that Scripture indicates that Christ’s human spirit goes to the place where all human spirits go upon death – Sheol. This is taught particularly in Matt. 12:40; Eph. 4:8; and Rom. 10:6-7. In the Gospel text, Jesus compares his time in the tomb – “the heart of the earth” (cf. Ps. 71:20) – with Jonah’s 3 days in the belly of the great fish. In Jonah 2:1-2, the prophet explicitly links “the belly of the fish” (v. 1) with “the belly of Sheol” (v. 2). Jonah views his time in the fish’s belly as synonymous with being in Sheol. He is, in his piscene prison, experiencing what all humanity experiences in death. When Jesus in Matt. 12:40 says he will be in the “heart of the earth,” he is equating the grave with Jonah’s travel in the fish’s gut, just as Jonah did. To say it another way, Jonah equates the fish’s belly with Sheol, and Jesus, in comparing himself to Jonah, is saying he is going to Sheol.

Perhaps even more explicit are Eph. 4:8 and Rom. 10:6-7. These verses have been explained away as referring to the incarnation, but their allusions to the Old Testament make it clear that the “descent” language is a reference to a descent to the place of the dead (“Sheol”), not to the Son taking on flesh. Eph. 4:9 alludes to both Ps. 63:9 and Isa. 44:23, each of which use “the depths of the earth” as a synonym for the grave, or Sheol (remember Jesus’ “the heart of the earth” in Matt. 12:40?). Rom. 10:6-7 conflates “abyss” and “the place of the dead” – the latter of which ought to make the reference explicit enough! – and “abyss in the OT many times is synonymous with the Sheol.

Jesus goes to the place of the dead. By this the NT means that his body is in the grave and that, therefore, his human spirit also is in the place of the dead. Notice the twofold division of Acts 2:27-28 that supports this – Jesus’ soul is not abandoned, and his flesh does not see corruption.

I won’t get into the divisions of Sheol in this post. Suffice it to say that when Jesus says to the thief on the cross “Today you will be with me in Paradise” (Lk. 23:43) I take it to be a reference to the side of Sheol that is for the righteous dead (e.g. Luke 16:19-31). Hades is typically used to refer to the side of Sheol that is for the unrighteous dead.

In any case, the point is that Jesus’ human body and spirit experience death in the same way that all human bodies and spirits experience it – the body goes to the grave, the soul goes to  Paradise (or Hades if one is not justified before God – which is not true of Jesus, obviously).

2. Christ conquers death by experiencing death.

This seems to be the clear point of Acts 2:24-25 and Heb. 2:14-15 (and Col. 2:14-15). Death and the devil are defeated by Christ, the second person of the Triune God in flesh, touching death and thereby swallowing it up in life.

3. Christians are united to Christ in his death.

This is the point of Rom. 6:3-4. Just as Jesus died and was buried, thereby putting to death Death, Satan, Sin, and the Grave, so we now are united to him in his death that we might put to death our own indwelling sin.

This is what I mean when I recite the Apostles’ Creed and affirm that “we believe in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord, who…descended to the dead.”

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2 thoughts on “The Biblical Basis for Christ’s Descent to the Dead

  1. What would you say that phrase in the creed meant to the fathers when they set it forward and continued reciting it? I don’t really know the background here, but I’m wondering if it meant something a little more specific in their minds than “Christ experienced death with us and for us?”

  2. Pingback: Jesus’ Descent in Ephesians 4 | Ad Fontes

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