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.

Trinity Sunday

Today is Trinity Sunday, the day the Church celebrates the triunity of God. It’s also the day that begins Ordinary Time, the time between Pentecost and Advent. In the cycle of the church year, we now await Advent. In terms of the church calendar, we wait for the celebration of the first advent, Christ’s incarnation, but this also reminds us that we are expectantly waiting for the second advent, his arrival on the clouds and return in salvation and judgment.

Below are the three ecumenical creeds, each of which is at pains to assert the triunity of God and the second person of God’s, the Son’s, incarnation in the person of Jesus Christ, who came for us and for our salvation.

Christian, this is what we believe. This is the foundation of our faith. Celebrate today!

The Apostles’ Creed

I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth.

And in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord; who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary; suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried; He descended into hell; the third day He rose again from the dead; He ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence He shall come to judge the quick and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Ghost; the holy catholic* Church, the communion of saints; the forgiveness of sins; the resurrection of the body; and the life everlasting. Amen.

* catholic means “universal” and is not a reference to the Roman Catholic Church.

The Nicene Creed

I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father; by whom all things were made; who for us men, and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, and was made man, and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; He suffered and was buried; and the third day He rose again according to the Scriptures; and ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of the Father; and He shall come again with glory to judge the quick and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end.

And I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of life, who proceedeth from the Father and the Son; who with the Father and the Son together is worshiped and glorified; who spake by the Prophets. And I believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.I acknowledge one Baptism for the remission of sins; and I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.

The Athanasian Creed

Written against the Arians.

Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the catholic faith. Which faith except every one do keep whole and undefiled, without doubt he shall perish everlastingly.

And the catholic faith is this, that we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; Neither confounding the Persons, nor dividing the Substance. For there is one Person of the Father, another of the Son, and another of the Holy Ghost. But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost is all one: the glory equal, the majesty coeternal. Such as the Father is, such is the Son, and such is the Holy Ghost. The Father uncreated, the Son uncreated, and the Holy Ghost uncreated. The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, and the Holy Ghost incomprehensible. The Father eternal, the Son eternal, and the Holy Ghost eternal. And yet they are not three Eternals, but one Eternal. As there are not three Uncreated nor three Incomprehensibles, but one Uncreated and one Incomprehensible. So likewise the Father is almighty, the Son almighty, and the Holy Ghost almighty. And yet they are not three Almighties, but one Almighty. So the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Ghost is God. And yet they are not three Gods, but one God. So likewise the Father is Lord, the Son Lord, and the Holy Ghost Lord. And yet not three Lords, but one Lord. For like as we are compelled by the Christian verity to acknowledge every Person by Himself to be God and Lord, So are we forbidden by the catholic religion to say, There be three Gods, or three Lords.

The Father is made of none: neither created nor begotten. The Son is of the Father alone; not made, nor created, but begotten. The Holy Ghost is of the Father and of the Son: neither made, nor created, nor begotten, but proceeding. So there is one Father, not three Fathers; one Son, not three Sons; one Holy Ghost, not three Holy Ghosts. And in this Trinity none is before or after other; none is greater or less than another; But the whole three Persons are coeternal together, and coequal: so that in all things, as is aforesaid, the Unity in Trinity and the Trinity in Unity is to be worshiped. He, therefore, that will be saved must thus think of the Trinity.

Furthermore, it is necessary to everlasting salvation that he also believe faithfully the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ. For the right faith is, that we believe and confess that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is God and Man; God of the Substance of the Father, begotten before the worlds; and Man of the substance of His mother, born in the world; Perfect God and perfect Man, of a reasonable soul and human flesh subsisting. Equal to the Father as touching His Godhead, and inferior to the Father as touching His manhood; Who, although He be God and Man, yet He is not two, but one Christ: One, not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh, but by taking the manhood into God; One altogether; not by confusion of Substance, but by unity of Person. For as the reasonable soul and flesh is one man, so God and Man is one Christ; Who suffered for our salvation; descended into hell, rose again the third day from the dead; He ascended into heaven; He sitteth on the right hand of the Father, God Almighty; from whence He shall come to judge the quick and the dead. At whose coming all men shall rise again with their bodies, and shall give an account of their own works. And they that have done good shall go into life everlasting; and they that have done evil, into everlasting fire.

This is the catholic faith; which except a man believe faithfully and firmly, he cannot be saved.

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.”