Both the Apostles’ and the Athanasian Creeds affirm the belief that Christ “descended to the dead.” Throughout the centuries, Christians have yearly reflected on Christ’s descent on Holy Saturday. But is such language biblical to begin with? Did Christ enter hell or a place of torment following his crucifixion? What are we affirming when we, along with the Church universal, affirm that Christ descended to the place of the dead?
How do the Psalms talk about death?
In the Psalms there seems to be belief about a place where our souls embark upon leaving our bodies. This place is not hell, but is a mysterious realm reserved for our disembodied souls. Matthew Emerson, in his recent He Descended to the Dead, suggests that it is paramount that we pay attention to Old Testament “descriptions of Sheol” when reading texts about Christ’s burial. Such a place, according to Emerson, is likely what the New Testament writers had in mind when writing about Christ’s descent as well as his burial.
Did Christ enter Hell, the place of torment?
Emerson says no. Rather, Christ entered our human and finite situation and faced death head on, like every human will. Christ’s soul, upon departing from his body, went to a place the Psalms make frequent mention of–the place of the dead–but this does not mean he entered hell. Emerson writes, “”he descended into hell” did not mean, until Calvin, “descend into the place of torment” (p. 3).
Emerson notes that today, evangelicals seem to fall into two camps when it comes to this doctrine: some reject it wholeheartedly as un-biblical (“Why the creeds? I have my Bible!”) while others distort the doctrine into something it never really was in Church History. This first camp is often guilty of overreacting to anything that has a Catholic feel, such as the reciting of creeds. Emerson urges evangelicals to not be afraid of reciting creeds, given that this can help better connect us to our roots and edify the local church. However, he finds that the phrase “he descended into hell” ought to be translated “he descended to the place of the dead” and I very much agree.
In this unique and unsure moment in time, I find comfort in the note Emerson leaves us on:
“The most important practical application of the descent, at least in my opinion, is that it means that Christ experienced death in the same way we do and also defeated it. His human body went to the grave and his human soul went to the place of the (righteous) dead. …Jesus became fully human to the point that he experienced the fullness of death. He did not die one moment on the cross and rise the next moment but remained dead for three days. This is a great comfort to those who are facing death or those who have lost loved ones. And those two categories encompass everyone on the planet.”
“…Christ…has experienced death in all its fallen fullness. He really, truly died. His soul was separated from his body for three days. This is just as we will remain dead and just as our souls will remain separated from our bodies until Christ returns. Our Savior has gone before us. Just as the Ark of the Covenant went before the people of Israel through the wilderness for three days to find a place for them to rest (Num 10:33), so Christ has gone before us through the wilderness of Hades to prepare a place for us to rest in him.”
Both quotations taken from He Descended To The Dead p. 219.