The Apostles’ Creed is one of the signature statements of the Christian faith. At church services around the world, believers recite it without reservation. But there’s one part of the creed that’s apt to generate confusion and suspicion. Sandwiched between its rendering of the events of Good Friday (“He was crucified, died, and was buried”) and Easter Sunday (“The third day he rose again from the dead”) is a perplexing affirmation: that Christ “descended to hell.” Because of their discomfort with this language, evangelicals have often neglected the importance of what Christ accomplished on Holy Saturday.

Matthew Emerson, a biblical theologian teaching at Oklahoma Baptist University, wants to refocus our attention on the time frame between the Crucifixion and the Resurrection. In his book, “He Descended to the Dead”: An Evangelical Theology of Holy Saturday, he gives a multifaceted defense of the doctrine of Christ’s descent and answers some common objections. Brad East, a theology professor at Abilene Christian University, spoke with Emerson about what did (and didn’t) happen on Holy Saturday—and what it all means for our faith.

How would you sum up what happened to Christ, and what he accomplished, during his descent on Holy Saturday?

In the book, I argue that Christ dies a human death, as all humans do. His body is buried, and his soul departs to the place of the dead. So he experiences death just like any human being does. But because he is not only a human being but God in the flesh, his descent to the place of the dead is victorious. While he is there, he proclaims his victory over the powers of death. Then, in his resurrection, he achieves victory over death itself.

Another element of Christ’s victory comes in his releasing of the Old Testament saints from captivity. It’s not that they were in torment or separated from God—only that the object of their hope had finally arrived in the form of the Messiah.

What are some common misconceptions about the doctrine of the descent?

The biggest one is probably the idea that Christ, during his descent, went to hell and was tormented there. A lot of people balk at the language in the Apostles’ Creed, since it seems on the surface to suggest this. But when you take a closer look at history behind the development of the creed, it’s abundantly clear that this was never the intended meaning.

There are two other important cautions to make. First, in no way does Christ’s descent to the dead imply anything like universal salvation. It doesn’t provide a way for everybody in hell to escape it. And second, it doesn’t speak to the creation or perpetuation of purgatory, as the Roman Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar has suggested. It’s not related to the idea of purgatory in any way.

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So often, when I hear evangelicals rejecting the idea of Christ’s descent, what they really want to reject are some of the conclusions and implications that other traditions have drawn. And so it’s important to emphasize: The descent doesn’t mean Christ was tormented in hell, it doesn’t mean universalism, and it doesn’t mean the Roman Catholic view of purgatory, whether we’re talking about the traditional view or the innovative way that Balthasar connects the descent to it.

In the book, you critique John Calvin’s understanding of Christ’s descent. Where, in your view, did Calvin go astray?

It pains me to say this, because among the three magisterial Reformers—Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli—Calvin is one with whom I have the greatest affinity. But Calvin is entirely novel, and I think unpersuasive, in his understanding of Christ’s descent.

According to Calvin, the descent clause refers to Jesus’ physical and spiritual torment on the cross on Good Friday—not to what he accomplished between his death and resurrection. Now, to be clear, as someone who affirms penal substitution as the correct model of atonement, I do believe that Jesus experienced physical and spiritual torment on the cross. He was bearing the wrath of God on behalf of sinners. I’m glad, then, to see Calvin affirming penal substitutionary atonement, but I don’t believe it’s what the descent clause is referring to.

In the book, I mention some possible reasons for Calvin’s innovation in this area, although I admit these are mainly speculative. My hunch is that he’s nervous about affirming the kind of cosmology that includes the notion of an underworld, which can lead in the direction of Roman Catholic ideas about purgatory. But I think he’s guilty of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Another, more contemporary figure you critique is the theologian Wayne Grudem. Where would you take issue with his understanding of the descent clause?

In 1991, Grudem wrote an article for the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society called “He Did Not Descend into Hell: A Plea to Follow Scripture Instead of the Creed.” From the title alone, you get some sense of his objection. Grudem seems to be saying that the Apostles’ Creed has something in it that has misunderstood Scripture or masked what it is really saying.

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His main concern, of course, is that people have been misled into thinking that Jesus was tormented in hell on Holy Saturday. I agree with Grudem, of course, about this point. There is no biblical basis for supposing that Jesus was tormented in hell on Holy Saturday. I would argue, however, that the creed was never interpreted to mean this until the 20th century, when Balthasar’s view was influential. Put briefly, Balthasar believes that the descent clause refers to the fact that Christ experienced the visio mortis, the very opposite of the beatific vision. In other words, he’s saying that Christ experienced a kind of existential separation from God, above and beyond the suffering he experienced in his human nature on Good Friday as a substitute for sin.

Like Grudem, I find that view biblically and theologically problematic. Where I disagree with Grudem is in matters of historical interpretation. I believe he is wrong to confuse Balthasar’s 20th-century innovation with the church’s traditional understanding of the Apostles’ Creed and its descent clause.

Another difficulty I have with Grudem’s position is his overreliance on 1 Peter 3:18–22 in understanding Christ’s descent. This passage—in which Peter states that Christ was “put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit” (v. 18), after which he “went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits” (v. 19)—is notoriously difficult to figure out. Some have even taken it to mean that Christ preached in hell, either before his resurrection or afterward.

For what it’s worth, in my book I say that this passage probably refers to Christ’s descent in some way, although I admit I could be wrong. In any event, this is hardly the only passage in Scripture attesting to the fact that Jesus actually died a human death. There’s no reason to understand Christ’s descent through the lens of 1 Peter alone.

Apart from 1 Peter, then, what are some of the passages that help round out the biblical picture of what Christ accomplished in his descent?

The first set of texts to remember are those that discuss Jesus experiencing death as all human beings do. This would include passages like Matthew 12:40 [“For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.”], Acts 2:27 [“Because you will not abandon me to the realm of the dead, you will not let your holy one see decay.”], and Romans 10:6–7 [“But the righteousness that is by 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 deep?”’ (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead).”]. You could also include the parable of Lazarus and the rich man from Luke 16:19–31 or Jesus’ statement to the thief on the cross: “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise” [Luke 23:43]. In his own statements about his death, Jesus indicates that he will go to the place of the dead—specifically to the righteous portion of it, paradise.

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A second set of verses concerns Jesus proclaiming victory over the powers of death. The main passage in this category is Revelation 1:18, in which Jesus is said to “hold the keys of death and Hades.” The idea is that Jesus, in his descent to the realm of the dead, has invaded enemy territory and come out victorious, taking possession of the powers that death used to hold. You could also mention Matthew 16, which promises that the “gates of Hades will not overcome” the church [v. 18].

A third set of verses speaks of releasing the captives. These are probably some of the toughest to interpret correctly. We’ve already mentioned 1 Peter 3:18–22. Another instance is Ephesians 4:8–10, when Paul quotes from Psalm 68:18, saying that when Christ “ascended on high, he took many captives” [v. 8]. He then asks, “What does ‘he ascended’ mean except that he also descended to the lower, earthly regions?” [v. 9]. In the book, I acknowledge that scholars disagree about the exact meaning of these verses, but I believe there’s a strong argument to be made that Paul is talking about liberating these captives from the underworld or place of the dead, rather than the earth itself.

Let’s emphasize, again, that this isn’t a “second chance” or a “post-death conversion opportunity.” It’s simply a proclamation that Jesus’ victory extends all the way to the lowest regions in the place of the dead, so that everyone “in heaven and on earth and under the earth” might bow before him, as Philippians 2:10 puts it.

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As we’ve discussed already, evangelical unease with the doctrine of descent is often a product of unease with the specific wording of the descent clause in the Apostles’ Creed. How do you understand the authority of the historic creeds? Is it possible that parts of them could be in error?

Ultimately, creedal authority is derivative. In other words, the church’s creeds have no authority in and of themselves. They are only authoritative to the extent that they are faithful to Scripture itself. The creeds can be wrong. They are not inerrant and infallible. Yet because of their rootedness in Scripture they have stood the test of time, in different places and across different traditions, and so we’re obliged to give them a certain weight. They’re not one-off events like a pastor’s sermons, which, even if they are faithful to Scripture, don’t bear the weight of the church’s long history.

We should be very cautious, therefore, about wanting to overturn any particular creedal phrase. The better response is to search the Scriptures again, to make sure we’re not missing something.

How does the doctrine of descent help shed light on other essential areas of Christian doctrine?

Christ’s descent has important implications for our doctrine of Christology. Historically speaking, the descent clause was stated in the creeds most explicitly when the church was facing the threat of Apollinarianism. This is the heresy that God the Son assumed a human body but not a human soul. (There’s more to it, of course, but that’s the basic gist.)

But if Christ descended to the place of the dead via his human soul, which is what the descent clause is affirming, then Apollinarianism collapses. When we downplay the descent clause, then, we risk missing out on how the church has understood the human nature of Christ throughout its history. We risk missing out on how the church has understood the Incarnation as a redemption of the whole person, body and soul.

There are implications for the doctrine of humanity as well. If Christ in his humanity is body and soul, then human beings must be body and soul. And if Christ’s descent reveals what death is like for all humans, then it must involve the cessation of life in the body and the departure of the soul to the place of the dead. I’m not necessarily comfortable calling this a “separation” between body and soul, because I still think there is a connection that remains. But Christ’s descent tells us that when we die, we enter into an intermediate state, wherein the soul remains conscious.

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Speaking of this intermediate state, you’ve referred before to ancient notions of cosmology that would have influenced people in Bible times as they pondered what happens to the souls of the dead. How do you see Scripture drawing on that cosmology as it depicts where people “go” when they die?

In the ancient world, around the time the New Testament was written, there was an understanding that the world—or, in our terms, the universe—existed in three tiers: the heavens, the earth, and the underworld. The gods live up in the heavens. Human beings live here on earth. And the dead reside in the underworld.

There’s a lot of spatial language attached to this understanding of the world. Different traditions of ancient thought believed that you could enter the underworld through certain access points. A lot of times we have this impression that ancient people were ignorant and unsophisticated about such matters, whereas we are enlightened and scientific.

But I think it’s a mistake to draw this conclusion. I’m far from convinced that a Jewish person of this period would have believed, for instance, that you could literally dig a hole to the underworld. Both the Old and New Testaments use plenty of figurative language to describe where the underworld exists, and the variety of examples leads me to believe that the Jews in this era weren’t imagining it as a “place” in the customary sense of somewhere you can go to by ordinary human means.

Old Testament writers often use metaphorical language to describe invisible spiritual realities. God, who is spirit, is said to have a particular dwelling place, in the heavens or in the temple. In the same way, human souls are thought to “dwell” somewhere particular after death, even though souls don’t take up any physical space. I believe the Scriptures are truthful in how they describe these things, but we need to be careful not to take figurative language as evidence of a belief in physical realms that correspond to the figurative language.

By the time of the New Testament, there is a clear affirmation of an afterlife with different “compartments,” so to speak, for the righteous and the unrighteous. The righteous go to paradise (or Abraham’s bosom), while the unrighteous go somewhere variously described as Gehenna, Hades, Sheol, and the abyss. The righteous are separated from Israel and God physically because their bodies are dead. They can’t praise God in the temple. But that doesn’t mean they are separate from God spiritually. He remains present in the righteous compartment of the place of the dead.

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That place is not yet what it will become, because the Messiah isn’t there yet. But that’s precisely what happens in the descent. The Messiah descends in his human soul, and then he rises from the dead in his resurrected body, which necessarily changes the nature of paradise. Those righteous saints from the Old Testament are no longer waiting and hoping, because now the object of their hope—the resurrected Messiah—is present with them in bodily form.

The Old Testament saints have often been pictured, after death, as languishing in a kind of prison, even if they aren’t suffering the pains of hell. What do you make of this rendering?

I certainly believe that death is a prison. There is no escape from that prison apart from Christ’s redemptive work. And so until that work is actually accomplished, the dead remain imprisoned in some sense.

In the book, I tend to play this down somewhat, mainly because evangelicals so often associate Christ’s descent with Roman Catholic notions of purgatory. Catholics use the term Limbus Patrum (or “Limbo,” in common usage) to describe a place where Old Testament saints were kept until Christ came to liberate them. But I’m somewhat uncomfortable with this concept, because it seems to me that this separates those saints from God in more of an existential sense, as if they are in torment while they await the Messiah.

And so, in the book, I’m trying to say, “Look, this is not torment. This is not separation from God.” But yes, death is a prison. And the Old Testament saints are in bondage in some sense until Christ releases them from captivity.

Is there anything else you’d like to say, in closing, about Christ’s descent?

I want to emphasize that the descent clause is an incredibly pastoral clause. It tells us that Jesus experienced death, just like we do. It tells us that Jesus has walked through the valley of the shadow of death, and that he leads the way for us to the other side. He’s risen from the dead and is victorious over death itself. Death has no hold over us. Death isn’t king—Jesus is King. When we understand Christ’s descent, we can see that it’s an incredibly hopeful doctrine.

"He Descended to the Dead": An Evangelical Theology of Holy Saturday
IVP Academic
272 pp., 29.01