“I believe he descended to the dead.”
The descent of Jesus Christ to the dead has been a fundamental tenet of the Christian faith, as indicated by its inclusion in both the Apostles’ and Athanasian Creeds. Falling between remembrance of Christ’s death on Good Friday and of his resurrection on Easter Sunday, this affirmation has been a cause for Christian worship and reflection on Holy Saturday through the centuries.
At the same time, the descent has been the subject of suspicion and scrutiny, perhaps especially from evangelicals, some of whom do not find support for it within Scripture and have even called for it to be excised from the creeds.
Against this conflicted landscape, Matthew Emerson offers an exploration of the biblical, historical, theological, and practical implications of the descent. Led by the mystery and wonder of Holy Saturday, he encourages those who profess faith in Christ to consider the whole work of our Savior.
“In sum, these texts teach that when Christ died, he experienced death as all humans do: his body was buried, and his human soul went (‘descended’) to the place of the dead. He descended to the righteous compartment of the dead (‘paradise,’ Lk 23:43), but he could also communicate with all the dead. In this way, he proclaims his victory to those ‘under the earth’ (Phil 2:10).” (Page 33)
“In other words, when the New Testament speaks about ‘the dead,’ it has a specific background, one that affirms ‘the [place of the] dead’ as a location containing the disembodied souls of both the righteous and unrighteous (albeit in separate compartments).32 This lends credence to the idea that when the NT writers and later the creeds speak about Christ’s resurrection ‘from the dead,’ they mean not only from the state of being dead but from the place of the dead and from among the dead ones (disembodied souls).” (Page 30)
“The hope that is more immediate, and one that is descriptive of our departed loved ones’ eternal state right now, not just some distant day, is that Christ, too, has experienced death. He did not just experience dying only to rise again moments later, but he actually remained dead in the grave. He did not simply have his breath expire and then immediately rise to glory, but his body was buried and his soul departed to the place of the dead. And because he is God in the flesh, he defeated the place of the dead and the grave by descending into them and then rising again on the third day. In the Christian tradition, this hope is known as the doctrine of Christ’s descensus—his descent to the dead.” (Page xi)
Matthew Emerson has ably recovered a theology of Holy Saturday, Christ’s descent into the place of death, for churches that are normally suspicious about ancient creeds. He shows that it is biblical, theologically necessary, integral to the work of Christ, and even intrinsic to the very identity of the God we worship. A concise and convincing account of a contested topic.
—Michael F. Bird, academic dean and lecturer in theology at Ridley College in Melbourne, Australia
It would be an understatement to say the descent of Christ is overlooked in the evangelical tradition. Emerson puts our eyes back on this important event and demonstrates how it is biblical, historical, and clarifies and informs other doctrines. Once you see the descent, it is hard to go back to neglecting it. This book shines a helpful light on this derelict doctrine. Tolle lege.
—Patrick Schreiner, assistant professor of New Testament language and literature, Western Seminary
Matthew Emerson has given us here a major study of the historic, but too often distorted and neglected, doctrine of the descent of Jesus Christ to the dead. In doing so, he demonstrates the coinherence of biblical and historical theology and their relevance for the Christian life.
—Timothy George, founding dean of Beeson Divinity School of Samford University and general editor of the Reformation Commentary on Scripture
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