Christ’s Descent to the Dead

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March 24, 2022

1 Peter 3:18-22 NIV

18 For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. 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. In it only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water, 21 and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also—not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a clear conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ, 22 who has gone into heaven and is at God’s right hand—with angels, authorities and powers in submission to him.

CONSIDER THIS

For today’s Daily Text I want to do something a little different. I have frequently hosted one of my friends and mentors, Dr. Timothy Tennent (President of our Parent Company), on the Daily Text. In fact, over the years, he has written entries on all 150 Psalms here. One of the very first books Seedbed ever published was his brilliant little book titled, This We Believe, on the Apostles Creed. His chapter on Jesus’ descent to the dead is masterful. 

You know by now, the Daily Text is not a normal daily devotional. Today I will break our normal convention and share this short reflection from Timothy Tennent. It will inform our understanding of a complex issue while inspiring our worship.

The phrase “He descended to the dead” or, in some versions, “He descended into hell” has troubled some modern Christians who have not taken time to study the history or meaning of this phrase. Several United Methodist hymnals actually omitted this phrase from the Creed, though in the current United Methodist Hymnal the traditional, ecumenical version is given alongside of the modern, amended one (881, 882). However, every word and phrase of the Creed was carefully chosen. No phrases can be jettisoned as unnecessary. More importantly, no single denomination or group has the authority to change or amend a creed because the historic, ecumenical creeds (Apostles’ and Nicene) belong to the entire Church throughout the world and back through time. Denominations can write and adopt, should they choose, particular statements of faith which affirm beliefs or practices specific to a denomination. But there is an important distinction between a creed and a statement of faith. On the one hand, a creed is an historic statement that is affirmed by Christians all across time and applies to all churches everywhere. On the other hand, a statement of faith might include more specific views regarding baptism, speaking in tongues, church government, rapture and so forth, which would not necessarily be shared by churches all over the world.

The phrase, “He descended to the dead” refers to the period between the death of Christ and His resurrection. The early Church did not understand the death of Christ on Friday and His resurrection on Sunday as two separate events (as they are often understood and thought of by modern Christians). Rather, they understood the entire drama to unfold as one continuous event. For most Christians, Good Friday and Easter Sunday have great meaning, but we are not so sure how these events are connected by Holy Saturday. The biblical understanding, however, is that after Jesus died upon the cross for our sins, He descended to the place of the dead, and important, redemptive events unfolded throughout the time subsequent to His death, culminating in His resurrection on Sunday morning.

According to Scripture, there are three key events which took place in Sheol, the Jewish name for the place of the dead.

First, Jesus proclaimed the gospel to people throughout time who are awaiting their full deliverance. Sheol is a very general term and is the designation both for the place of torment as well as for paradise. Jesus descended into Sheol, or the place of the dead. Sometimes the Creed translates this phrase as “He descended into hell” or, more generally, “He descended to the dead.” This latter, more general, translation is probably preferred because the word “hell” is associated only with the place of torment for the unbelieving dead. However, Sheol contained both the righteous and the wicked. There in the place of the dead, Jesus preached the gospel. 1 Peter 3:18–20 describes this descent and proclamation by Jesus Christ on Holy Saturday between His death and His resurrection:

For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive by the Spirit, through whom also He went and preached to the spirits in prison who disobeyed long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built.

After the crucifixion Jesus descended to the place of the dead and preached. The text makes specific reference to those dead who lived prior to the flood, but the Church has generally understood this as indicating how Jesus preached to people all throughout time, not just those who had recently died. It is a way of saying “even the ancient people” heard this proclamation.

In later Christian tradition (though not mentioned in the Scriptures) a great emphasis was placed on Jesus coming into Hades as the second Adam and rescuing the first Adam as a way of symbolically demonstrating the power of Jesus’ redemption of the human race and the decisiveness of His victory over Satan. St. Ephrem the Syrian (306–373) was one of the great hymn writers of the early Church, writing hundreds of Christian hymns.

Several of his hymns celebrate Jesus’ descent into hell and His confrontation with Satan. One of Ephrem’s hymns says that Satan refused to release Adam because he had not been baptized, nor was he covered by the shed blood of Jesus. At that moment back on earth, the soldier who wanted to prove that Jesus was truly dead stuck a spear into His side and “at once there came out blood and water” (John 19:34). The blood and water that poured out, sings Ephrem, baptized Adam and the blood covered Adam’s sins. This is, of course, not intended to be any literal description of what happened or a proper interpretation of the water and blood that came from Jesus’ side. Rather, Ephrem is drawing on the rich symbolism of this event to make the larger, and accurate, theological point that Jesus’ death had a cosmic reach that affected the entire human race.

Second, the descent to the dead expresses the full victory of Jesus Christ over Satan and all the principalities and powers of evil. This is known in Christian tradition as the “harrowing of hell.” Satan thought that the crucifixion of Jesus was his greatest victory over God and His redemptive plan. At the moment of Jesus’ death and the descent to the dead, Satan first realizes that the death of Jesus was actually God’s plan. In Colossians 2, the Apostle Paul describes this when he declares that at the death of Jesus, He “disarmed the powers and authorities” and “made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross” (2:15). This verse is not a reference to human, political authorities, but to the spiritual forces of evil (Eph. 6:12).

Third, the descent to the dead unites Jesus with the saints from all time in His glorious ascension. Ephesians 4:8 declares, “When He ascended on high He led captives in His train and gave gifts to men.” This idea of leading “captives” is actually a positive reference to those who have been “captured” by Christ and brought into His victory train or victory celebration. Paul goes on to say, “What does He ascended mean except that He also descended to the lower earthly regions?” (Eph. 4:9). When Jesus ascended into Heaven, He did not arrive alone, but with all the redeemed over all time with Him, declaring, “Here am I, and the children God has given me” (Heb. 2:13).

It is clear that although this is one of the most neglected aspects of Jesus’ ministry, the descent into the place of the dead is crucial to our overall understanding of the way the death and resurrection of Jesus is able to have such far-reaching implications in redeeming the world and defeating Satan and his cosmic forces. We should view Holy Saturday, which falls between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, as a kind of hinge that joins these two great acts of God into a single glorious event of power and redemption.

To the dead He then descended, entering to claim His own;
Leading forth a host of captives, casting Satan from his throne.

For the Awakening,
J.D. Walt
Sower-in-Chief
seedbed.com

P.S. Get some of Timothy Tennent’s most important writings in this collection of his work, Foundations of the Christian Faith: A Resource for Catechesis and Disciple-Making. Included you’ll find This We Believe. You can watch a video interview and preview the book in our store.

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Farmer. Poet. Theologian. Jurist. Publisher. Seedbed's Sower-in-Chief.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Although the complexity of Christ and His work is beyond human comprehension and explanation, He makes my heart soar with joy and fills me with an astounding awareness of His presence.

  2. J D, thank you for sharing this excerpt from Dr Tennent’s little book on the Apostle’s Creed. I was totally surprised and pleased as I was sharing it with an adult SS class that I was facilitating a while back. I think it’s a shame that this way of understanding the crucifixion/resurrection event within Protestantism is so generally overlooked. Seeing the whole picture has strengthened me in my faith.

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