Combating Creedal Amputations of the Descent Clause

Tomorrow is Holy Saturday, that liminal temporal space between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. For many evangelicals, Holy Saturday has lost all meaning, while for others it is associated with Catholic and Orthodox notions of the Harrowing of Hell. Because of this latter association, where Christ goes into Hades (Hell) and brings out either virtuous Jews and pagans (Roman Catholic) or all humanity (Orthodox), some evangelical theologians have even argued that we should cut the line referencing it from the Apostles’ Creed (“he was crucified, dead, and buried. He descended to the dead. On the third day he rose…”).

Aside from the methodological problem that is one individual attempting to surgically dismember an ecumenical creedal clause, I want to suggest here four reasons why we should avoid cutting the descent clause from the Apostles’ and Athanasian Creeds.

1. It is historically important.

While I agree with evangelical theologians that a Roman Catholic or Orthodox understanding of the descent clause should be rejected, this has not been what the clause has always meant. The “Harrowing of Hell” view arose toward the middle of the Medieval period, but before that the early church simply affirmed ubiquitously that Christ descended to the dead – that is, in his human nature he experienced death as all humans do, his body in the grave and his soul in the place of the (righteous dead), and in doing so by virtue of the hypostatic union the God-man conquered death. He also announced (“preached”) his victory to all the dead – good news for the righteous, bad news for the unrighteous. In other words, Jesus in his humanity experiences human death, and by virtue of his divine nature he conquers it. He also lets all the dead know he’s the conqueror.

2. It is biblically important.

Of course, as a Protestant the key to affirming any doctrine is not ultimately its historicity, no matter how ancient, but its foundation in Scripture. And the understanding of the descent outlined above is thoroughly biblical (as the ancient Christians also understood it to be). Jesus is said to have experienced human death in both body and soul in e.g. Matt. 12:40; Acts 2:24; Rom. 10:7, and, I’d say, Eph. 4:9-11. He also conquers death through this experience in Rev. 1:18, and I’d also say 1 Pet. 3:18-22 teaches the same thing. I realize Grudem’s exegesis of that latter passage is influential, as is Augustine’s, but as Augustine recognized, the doctrine of the descent does not rise or fall with the interpretation of 1 Pet. 3:18-22 (see on this Justin Bass, The Battle for the Keys, who presents the most compelling biblical and historical case for the descent from an evangelical in print).

3. It is theologically important.

The descent is not a minor doctrine. For the early church, it was one of the most important ones, in fact. This is because much hinges on it – our nature as human beings and Christ’s full redemption of it; the beginning of Christ’s exaltation as the Lord over all things, even the last enemy, Death; the communion of saints; and the nature of Paradise as dwelling in the presence of God in Christ. It impacts our understanding of doctrines like soul sleep (and whether its even a viable possibility), the Sabbath and Jesus’ fulfillment of Israel’s hope, ownership of the Promised Land, the millennium, and the extent of the atonement.

4. It is pastorally important.

My Aunt Jane passed away last month. At her funeral, my most comforting thought was that, because she trusted in Christ’s atoning work for forgiveness, I know that Christ is with and for her, and in more ways than one. First, yes, our deceased Christian loved ones are now in the presence of the risen Christ, and yes that is comforting. We should acknowledge that this soul-ish life in the presence of Christ is due in part to Christ’s own soul-ish descent, a descent that, while the end point of his suffering, is also the beginning of his exaltation in his resurrection and ascension. This is a pastoral implication of the descent, to be sure.

But another often overlooked pastoral implication is that Christ, too, experienced death as we do on Holy Saturday. His body lay in the grave, beginning to rot. He experienced the ultimate sting of death, the body’s failure and the soul’s departure from it. He experienced the liminal space between death and resurrection pro nobis – for us. We can thus tell those who have lost Christian loved ones not only that there is light at the end of the tunnel in the resurrection of the dead, and not only that they experience Christ’s presence now – both supremely comforting, to be sure! – but also that Christ himself experienced what they experienced now and conquered it. And they, too, will be conquerors one day with all of us who live by faith in the died-yet-risen Son of God.

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6 thoughts on “Combating Creedal Amputations of the Descent Clause

  1. It seems to me that the harrowing of hell view significantly predates the medieval period. Gregory of Nazianzus wrote, “He goes down to Hell, but he brings up the souls” (http://thinktheology.co.uk/blog/article/behold_the_god_man). For my part, if we’re going to affirm that Christ went to Hades, I can’t tell why we would not also affirm that he took the souls of the righteous dead with him up to heaven. It seems odd to say that Christ was present with the righteous dead in Sheol for awhile, but then left them there and went up to heaven alone. Besides, Heb 13 locates the “spirits of the righteous made perfect” in the heavenly Zion, and Revelation likewise places them in God’s presence in heaven. I don’t think we have to affirm that Christ suffered in Hades to affirm that he brought the saints who were there back up with him when he ascended. Joe Rigney argues for this view here: http://www.desiringgod.org/articles/he-descended-into-hell. Thoughts?

    • No doubt that the nature of Paradise is changed by Christ’s presence, and that therefore we can speak of Christ bringing up the righteous dead into this new (renewed) place of the dead.

      But the Harrowing view of RCC/EO entails more than that, namely a state of at least sadness if not torment for pre-NT believers and at least hints of universalism (and strong ones at that in EO). That’s why I don’t want to use the Harrowing language or say that it was early; those ideas weren’t early (e.g. Cyril of Alexandria among many others explicitly states that it’s only righteous dead who accompanied Christ).

  2. Pingback: Recommended Reading: April 29 | Pursuing Veritas

  3. Just seeking understanding here.

    Calvin rejects this view in the Institutes and ops for belief that Christ suffered torment for those three days. His reasoning is unsatisfactory to me. He doesn’t accept alternate explanations (such as “descended to the grave” and a harrowing of “limbo”) and offers no Scriptural support. Basically, he accepts it since it’s in the Creed (unless I’m reading him wrong, which is entirely possible).

    But one objection he poses to the “descended to the grave” explanation is: if the grave is the only thing in view in the phrase “descended to hell,” why would the Creed repeat this idea? It already affirmed that “he died and was buried.” What’s more, why use more obscure, easier-to-misinterpret, language?

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