What do you make of the creedal statement that Jesus ‘descended to the dead’? A bit weird and rather irrelevant; something to be safely ignored as a bit of a diversion from other more important doctrines? Ever heard a sermon on this ‘descensus’ clause?
The idea that Jesus, after his death, ‘descended to the dead’ is found in two Western Creeds, both written in Latin: the Apostle’s Creed (probably mid 4th C) and the Athanasian Creed (probably mid 5th C).
The Latin inferna meant the underworld, the realm of the dead or Hades (equivalent to Sheol in Hebrew). Later translations said that Jesus ‘descended to hell’, but the more accurate way of putting it is that he ‘descended to the dead’.
Catherine Ella Laufer’s very good book on this is Hell’s Destruction: an exploration of Christ’s Descent to the Dead
The NT texts from which the idea is derived are fascinating and often contentious. She surveys the evidence:
1 Peter 3:18b-20a: He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit. 19 After being made alive,he went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits— 20 to those who were disobedient long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built.
Clement of Alexandria (late 2nd Cent) was the first to link this passage with Hades. There has been little consensus on it ever since and especially whether it is talking about Christ descending to the dead at all. While there is long tradition linking it with descent, the sway of modern scholarship is that it may actually be referring to his ascent the ‘lower heavens’, the place of imprisonment for fallen angels. The cosmology here being a series of ‘heavens’ from the lower to the higher.
1 Peter 4:6: For this is the reason the gospel was preached even to those who are now dead, so that they might be judged according to human standards in regard to the body, but live according to God in regard to the spirit.
Another text that has spawned a myriad of interpretations. She comes down on Dalton’s view that is refers to the normal preaching of the gospel to those who have since died – fitting in with Peter’s context of a suffering marginal and persecuted church.
Ephesians 4:9: What does “he ascended” mean except that he also descended to the lower, earthly regions (or depths of the earth)
A descent is in view here, but from where and when? Is the descent the incarnation, or a descent into Hades after death or something else like the descent of Christ’s Spirit at Pentecost? Tertullian and Irenaeus and others go for Hades, as do Reformation voices. Other patristic and later voices go for incarnation – Theodore of Mopsuestia (5th Cent) and many modern interpreters. I’d go for incarnation but as Laufer says, the jury is still out.
Acts 2:24-27:But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him. 25 David said about him:“‘I saw the Lord always before me.
Because he is at my right hand,
I will not be shaken.
26 Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices;
my body also will rest in hope,
27 because you will not abandon me to the realm of the dead [Hades],
you will not let your holy one see decay.
Peter applies Ps 16:10 to Christ – through the resurrection he is not abandoned to Hades and thus fulfils the prophecy of David. Jesus is shown to be God’s anointed Messiah. This implies that Jesus had been in Hades [Sheol] and God had raised him up. Or could it suggest Jesus is freed from death and the fate of going to Hades? (Laufer does not include this possibility).
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.
What is the sign of Jonah to which Jesus refers? Is it an allusion simply to the grave? Is it a reference to a limited time in Sheol before resurrection? It seems to be likely to be the latter – Jonah’s own experience is of going to Sheol (2:1, 6). This verse is so far the best evidence for Jesus’ descent to the dead.
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) 7 “or ‘Who will descend into the deep?’” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead).
Paul is quoting Deut 30:11-14 which talks about the nearness of the word of God which is not ‘beyond the sea’ nor ‘up in heaven’. The depths of the sea was a place of chaos and death, synonymous with Sheol [Hades]. Does this suggest Paul believed that Jesus descended to Hades? The evidence is thin here – Paul’s stress is on the nearness of the word for all who believe that the resurrected Jesus is Lord. He likely isn’t making any point about the descent of Jesus to the dead.
So there is some limited NT evidence that Jesus ‘descended to the dead’ but you wouldn’t be wanting to wager your house on it.
It is a strong theme in Patristic writings, the ‘harrowing of hell’, the idea that at his resurrection and ascension, Jesus rescued and took with him the saints of the old covenant who had been in Hades. This is a major theme in Eastern Orthodox theology.
Laufer traces the history and meaning of the doctrine through this period into Medieval theology, the Reformation and up to contemporary debates. Along the way, all sorts of fascinating stories and characters emerge, as well as significant theological issues such as hell, conditional immortality, universalism, theodicy and so on, discussed in reference to people like Calvin, Barth, Balthasar and Moltmann.
She argues that
‘the descensus clause is essential to Christology, specifically to the doctrine of the incarnation. If we are to affirm that in Christ God became truly human, then we must affirm not only that Jesus was born and died but also that he descended into Hades, that is, he shared in the state of being dead that is the ultimate consequence of being human. He was incarnate to death. In the words of Gregory of Nazianzus: ‘that which He has not assumed He has not healed’. (2-3)
While there is limited biblical support for Christ’s descent, it is not absent. And more, she proposes that without the descent of Jesus to the realm of the dead we are left with an incomplete incarnation and the possibility of a pseudo-resurrection. Jesus is not really ‘one of us’ in other words, the Apollinarian heresy rewritten.
I’m not altogether convinced by the necessity argument: the NT emphasis is on the fact that Jesus, a real man, really died ‘for our sins’ and was really raised from the dead. It doesn’t seem essential theologically to his full humanity, real mortality and real resurrection that Jesus had to descend to the realm of the dead. But I can’t see huge objections to the descent clause either – as long as it is understood as the realm of the dead [Hades] rather than ‘hell’.
Laufer summarises it this way: it is in Hades that Jesus suffers separation from the Father. It is through the Spirit that the Father raises Jesus from the dead and exalts him to his right hand. At the resurrection “the souls of the faithful departed share in Christ’s resurrection life in the communion of the saints but await the fullness of the resurrection of the body at the parousia.” (190).
In other words, the victory of God in Christ witnessed at the resurrection, affects the faithful dead who are brought into the presence of Christ as he ascends from the realm of the dead. This gives hope for all who die in Christ – they join this communion with Christ prior to the future resurrection.
So her closing words on the implications of this neglected doctrine,
We can truly sing the words of the eucharistic affirmation, ‘dying you destroyed our death, rising you restored our life’, for our hope is in the atoning work of Christ our Saviour who, for us and our salvation, not only died and rose, but also descended to the dead. (213)