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.”

He Descended to the Dead

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.