Four Myths About Christ’s Descent to the Dead

The doctrine of Christ’s descent to the dead, expressed by the clause “He descended to the dead” in the Apostles’ Creed, might be one of the most unpopular doctrines in evangelical churches today. I haven’t done a scientific poll to support that, but I’m pretty sure if I took one the descent would be down at the bottom with angelic metaphysics (“how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?”). Instead of a biblically supported and Christologically important doctrine, many view the descent more like a medieval myth. But when I encounter opposition to the descent, the reasons given are more accurately called myths, since they don’t accurately describe the doctrine. Below I want to address four myths about the descent that are commonly (and incorrectly) employed to reject this doctrine.

1. The descent means Jesus was tormented in Hell.

Many evangelicals reject the descent because they believe it means that Jesus experienced torment and separation from the Father in Hell. This just isn’t true of the early Christian and medieval views of the doctrine. For the early Christians, Jesus’ descent to Hell (a term which was synonymous for them with “the place of the dead”) was victorious and the beginning of his exaltation. He was not tormented there, but rather went to the righteous place of the dead (Paradise) in his human soul. In other words, the doctrine first affirms that Jesus experienced death as all humans do: his body was buried in a grave, and his soul dwelt in the (righteous portion of the) place of the dead. But, second, by virtue of the hypostatic union, he descended as the God-Man, and so his descent is not just vicarious but also victorious. In experiencing death as the God-Man, he defeats it. Thus it is not a part of his humiliation, which culminated in the crucifixion, but is the beginning of his exaltation, which culminated in his ascension.

2. The descent entails either inclusivism or universalism.

A second reason evangelicals reject the descent is because they believe it necessarily supports a universal, or at least inclusivist, understanding of salvation. Some of this suspicion is, admittedly, warranted. The Eastern Orthodox view has developed along these lines, understanding the descent as the complete of Death and Hell and thus the completed rescue and healing of Adam’s race. Roman Catholicism, on the other hand, came to view the descent as the inaugural event for the existence of Purgatory, so while they would deny universalism, they still see the descent as the means for their doctrine of inclusivism. We should acknowledge that these are problematic elements of the doctrine as held by Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches. But the myth here is that the EO and RC understandings of the descent are equal to the early Christian understandings of it and the meaning of the creedal clause. On the contrary, while outliers like Origen saw the descent in universalist terms, giants like Augustine, Jerome, and Chrysostom are explicit that the descent’s effects (and Christ’s work generally) are only for the faithful. Neither inclusivism nor universalism are integral to the descent; they arose as aspects of the doctrine much later in the EO and RC traditions and are rightly rejected by the Reformers and now by (most) contemporary evangelicals. But rejection of aberrations of a doctrine doesn’t mean we have to reject the doctrine itself. In other words, don’t throw the descent baby out with the inclusivist/universalist bathwater.

3. The descent clause is a late addition to the Apostles’ Creed.

Often evangelicals cite the lack of attestation of the descent clause in the earliest version of the Apostles’ Creed in support of their rejection of it. Again, there’s a hint of truth to this objection; myths tend to have at least a tenuous connection to reality. But once again this objection distorts the historical facts. The descent clause is found as early as 390 AD in the confession of the Council of Sirmium, only nine years after the Council of Constantinople affirmed the Niceno-Constantinopolitan (Nicene) Creed. There are a few other clear attestations in the textual history of the Apostles’ Creed, but many point to its inclusion in a 650 AD version as the clear demarcation of when it is clearly and finally inserted.

There are two ways to interpret this. First, we could argue, as this myth does, that the clause is just a later addition that was inserted as this doctrine was invented toward the end of the sixth century. The other option is that the early church did not dispute this doctrine or doctrines related to it and so felt no need to explicitly include it. We are not left without evidence in this regard. The famous quote of Rufinus, that “he descended to the dead” is synonymous with “he was buried,” clarifies the situation. Contrary to the misinterpretation of this Rufinian prooftext by Erasmus, Calvin, Schaff (great historian as he was), and Grudem, Rufinus does not mean here that the descent is just a reference to bodily burial. On the contrary, what he means is that the phrase “he was buried” was understood by the early church to contain within it not only an affirmation of bodily burial but also an affirmation of the descent doctrine.

The descent was ubiquitously affirmed from the second century. In other words, it is one of the earliest and least contested views of the ancient church. It didn’t need to be parsed out in a creed because it wasn’t contested, but it was also implicitly included in the Apostles’ Creed from its inception in the clause, “he was buried.” The probable reason for its explicit inclusion at the places where we see it further clarified (i.e. 390 AD, 650 AD) is that it is at precisely these moments that the church is combatting Apollinarianism. This heresy maintained that the Logos assumed only a human body, not a human soul, or mind. What better way to combat this doctrine than to bring out in an explicit clause an ancient belief of the church that necessitates that Christ have a human soul? Far from a situation in which the church gradually came to believe this doctrine, the history of the creedal clause is one in which an ubiquitous and ancient doctrine was implicitly affirmed in “he was buried” but then explicitly brought out in “he descended” in order to combat a persistent and pernicious heresy. [1]

4. The descent has no biblical support.

Of course, for evangelicals, the most important critique of the descent is that it has no biblical support. Many would point to Augustine’s rejection of 1 Pet. 3:18–22 as teaching the descent, and, assuming that this is the only text on which the descent stands, see it as warrant for rejecting it wholesale. The problem is, again, twofold. First, the descent does not stand or fall on 1 Pet. 3:18–22.[2] It wasn’t even cited in support of the doctrine until 200 AD, and at that point the descent was already being affirmed by the likes of Ignatius, Polycarp, Melito, Irenaeus, and Justin Martyr. These second century theologians, along with ones throughout the early Christian period, did not turn primarily to 1 Pet. 3:18–22 to understand and support the descent. Instead, they turned to texts like Matt. 12:40; Luke 23:53; Acts 2:27; Rom. 10:7; Eph. 4:9; and Rev. 1:18. 1 Pet. 3:18–22 certainly wasn’t ignored, but it also wasn’t the crux of the doctrine either.

It would take longer than we have space for here to exegete each of these texts. Suffice it to say that they all refer to Jesus going to the place of the dead. In Second Temple Judaism, this had a clear meaning – the place of the dead was a compartmentalized (at least two, righteous and unrighteous) place where all human souls went upon death, waiting for the universal judgment and general resurrection. When these texts talk about Jesus in Hades, the lower parts of the earth, the abyss, Paradise, and the like, they aren’t just references to the grave. They’re references to the place of the dead, where human souls reside. And in fact, at this point, we could add a biblical pattern in support – Christ in the incarnation assumed our entire human nature and experience, including our composition as body and soul and our experience of death. The descent affirms this and that, in doing so, Jesus defeated death. Praise God!

There are, of course, other topics to discuss with respect to the descent, such as what it would mean for Christ to “preach” to the dead, what it would mean for him to “release” Adam and Eve, how the descent is connected to other dogmatic loci, and why this doctrine matters for believers. I’m hoping to address those in my forthcoming book on the doctrine. In the meantime, Justin Bass’ The Battle for the Keys is an excellent resource for a biblical and historical explanation of Christ’s descent to the dead.

[1] The argument made in this section is in many ways a summary of an excellent article published last year, Jeffrey L. Hamm, Descendit: Delete or Declare? A Defense Against the Neo-Deletionists,” WTJ (2016): 93 – 116.

[2] The argument in this section is dependent upon Justin W. Bass, The Battle for the Keys: Revelation 1:18 and Christ’s Descent into the Underworld (Paternoster Biblical Monographs; Wipf and Stock, 2014), especially 45–96.

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