I’ve written a few times at my personal blog, and at TGC, on the creedal clause, “he descended to the dead.” The phrase occurs in both the Apostles’ Creed, which many churches recite every Sunday, and in the Athanasian Creed. In the Apostles’ Creed, the phrase was originally[1] “descended to the dead” in Latin (descendit ad inferos) but was later changed to “descended into hell” (descendit ad inferna).[2] I also presented a paper on the topic at this year’s Los Angeles Theology Conference.[3] 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. Here I want to summarize some of the work I’ve already done and also provide what I consider to be a clear biblical-theological rationale for the doctrine and, therefore, for the inclusion of the phrase in the Creed.

Interpretive Options

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.[4] 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.[5]

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.[6] 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.[7]

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.[8] This has been met with serious opposition from many fronts,[9] but has also been argued by at least one RCC theologian to be a legitimate interpretation of Catholic doctrine.[10]

III. Biblical Basis and Theological Meaning

The key New Testament texts that discuss Jesus’ burial and/or death include the following (please do read these before proceeding!):

  • Matthew 12:40
  • Acts 2:25–32
  • Romans 6:3–4
  • Romans 10:6–7
  • Ephesians 4:8–10
  • Hebrews 2:14–15
  • 1 Peter 3:18–22

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[11] and Feinberg’s[12] exegesis unconvincing on that point, but nevertheless for the sake of argument let’s move on and grant their point.

As an evangelical Baptist, given these interpretive options and the biblical texts before us, 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. For me, the most palatable option in the history of interpretation is Luther’s. By way of conclusion, I’ll offer some summarizing thoughts on the biblical passages and then show how Luther’s view fits most closely with them.

A. 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.[13]

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).[14] 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.[15]

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).

B. 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.

C. 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.

Luther’s interpretation, then, seems the most appealing to me because I think it is the most biblical. Christ’s burial is 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. It is also victorious for our sanctification, in that we are united to Christ’s burial in our death to our own sin. And it is victorious for our future, in that Christ experiences the intermediate state with us and shows us that death is not the end – resurrection awaits.

This, then, is what I mean when I recite the Apostles’s Creed and affirm that “we believe in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord, who…descended to the dead.”

  1. n.b. that the phrase was not included in the earliest versions of the Apostles’ Creed.  ↩

  2. Martin F. Connell, “Descensus Christi Ad Inferos: Christ’s Descent to the Dead.” TS 62 (2001): 264, n. 3.  ↩

  3. “He Descended to the Dead: Christ’s Burial and the Eschatological Character of the Atonement.” The essay will be published in the forthcoming issue of The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology.  ↩

  4. See, for example, Malcolm L. Peel, “The ‘Descensus Ad Inferos’ in ‘The Teachings of Silvanus (CG VII, 4).” Numen 26.1 (1979): 39–49. See also John A. McGuckin, “Eschatological Horizons in the Cappadocian Fathers,” pp. 193–210 in Apocalyptic Thought in Early Christianity (Holy Cross Studies in Patristic Theology and History; ed., Robert J. Daly, SJ; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009); Daniel Keating, “Christ’s Despoiling of Hades: According to Cyril of Alexandria.” St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 55.3 (2011): 253–69; Irina Kukota, “Christ the Medicine of Life.” Road to Emmaus 6.1 (2005): 47; and Jared Wicks, S.J., “Christ’s Saving Descent to the Dead: Early Witnesses from Ignatius of Antioch to Origen.” Pro Ecclesia 17.3 (2008): 306.  ↩

  5. See, for example, Martin Connell’s summary of Aquinas’ view, for a representative Roman Catholic understanding. Connell, “Descensus Christi ad Inferos,” TS 62 (2001): 271–75. See also Alyssa Lyra Pitstick’s summary of the “traditional” Roman Catholic view in Light in Darkness: Hans Urs von Balthasar and the Catholic Doctrine of Christ’s Descent into Hell (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), 1–86. Note, though, Paul J. Griffiths’ rejoinder concerning Pitstick’s alleged overreach in “Is There a Doctrine of the Descent into Hell?” Pro Ecclesia 17.3 (2008): 257–68.  ↩

  6. This does not mean, though, that Calvin did not see any victorious elements in Christ’s burial. Rather, Calvin’s interpretation of the descensus creedal affirmation in particular has the substitutionary interpretation. In the previous section, on the phrase “he died and was buried,” Calvin very clearly affirms that Christ’s death and burial is victorious over death and the grave. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, vol. I (The Library of Christian Classics; ed., John T. McNeil; trans., Ford Lewis Battles; Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1960; repr. 2006), 511–20.  ↩

  7. Richard Klann, “Christ’s Descent into Hell.” Concordia Journal (1976): 43. Also Martin Luther, “The Third Sermon, on Easter Day.” Logia 12.3 (2003): 37–50.  ↩

  8. Hans Urs von Balthasar, Theo-Drama: Theological Dramatic Theory, Part IV: The Action (trans., Graham Harrison; San Francisco: Ignatius, 1994), 317–19.  ↩

  9. i.e. Pitstick, Light in Darkness. For another critical view of Balthasar’s position, see Gavin D’Costa, “The Descent into Hell as a Solution for the Problem of the Fate of Unevangelized Non-Christians: Balthasar’s Hell, the Limbo of the Fathers and Purgatory.” IJST 11.2 (2009):146–71.  ↩

  10. Edward T. Oakes, “The Internal Logic of Holy Saturday in the Theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar.” IJST 9 (2007): 184–99. See also his response to critics of Balthasar, including Pitstick and D’Costa, in “Descensus and Development: A Response to Recent Rejoinders.” IJST 13.1 (2011): 3–24.  ↩

  11. Wayne Grudem, “Christ Preaching Through Noah: 1 Peter 3:19–20 in the Light of Dominant Themes in Jewish Literature.” TrinJ 7 (1986): 3–31; and idem, “He Did Not Descend Into Hell: A Plea for Following Scripture Instead of the Apostles’ Creed.” JETS 34.1 (1991): 103–113.  ↩

  12. John Feinberg, “1 Peter 3:18"–20, Ancient Mythology, and the Intermediate State.” WTJ 48 (1986): 303–36.  ↩

  13. John Woodhouse, “Jesus and Jonah.” The Reformed Theological Review 43.2 (1984): 33 – 41; and Dominic Rudman, “The Sign of Jonah.” The Expository Times 115.10 (2004): 325–28.  ↩

  14. William Bales, “The Descent of Christ in Ephesians 4:9.” CBQ 72 (2010): 84–100.  ↩

  15. William Bales, “The Descent of Christ in Ephesians 4:9.” CBQ 72 (2010): 98.  ↩