Matthew Emerson | He Descended to the Dead
8:06PM Oct 23, 2020
Jonathan J. Armstrong
Today we are delighted to be speaking with Dr. Matthew Emerson. Dr. Emerson is Associate Professor of religion at Oklahoma Baptist University, and the author of the texts that we'll be discussing today he descended to the dead. And Evangelical theology of Holy Saturday. Dr. Emerson, thank you so much for joining us today.
Yeah, thanks for having me.
Dr. Emerson to jump right in. The traditional translations of the apostles creed reads "He descended to hell" speaking of course of Christ, is there any substantive difference between he descended to the dead and he descended into hell
depends on what you mean by Hell. So in our modern terminology, hell means place of torment. And that is absolutely not what the original line of the creed meant. It wasn't what people meant when they confess that Jesus descended into hell, in the early church, the issue and I'm not sure how technical you want to get here, but I'll just nerd out a little bit for a second. So in the original Latin, there is a set of synonymous terms Inferos and Infernus that are used interchangeably in the line and the creed. And so Inferos just means to place the dead, whereas Infernus, also, originally, in early medieval Latin, meant place of the dead as well. But it came to be a more technical term used to describe the place of torment refer to the place of torment. So that's where we get our word infernal, from, or Dante's Inferno, right. But that was a later development in Latin. So in the early, early, medieval Latin, Inferos and infernus were synonymous. And this was just a reference to the general place of the dead, the place where all human souls go upon death. It contained as we can get into this later, but there's just a general place of the dead. And that's what as a reference to
when did there become confusion about whether Christ descended to the place of hell the place of torment?
Yeah, actually, the early church and even the medieval church, they're very clear that Jesus doesn't descend into the place of torment. And even when, say, Agustine kind of toyed around with his idea, he's very clear that he was not actually tormented, even if he, quote unquote, went there, it was just a proclamation of victory that would have happened. So the early church, the medieval church, they're very clear that Jesus did not experience the torments of Hell in his descendants of the dead. The confusion arises really, during the reformation, and afterwards, especially in the modern period, with this notion that, you know, Calvin, in his Institute's, he doesn't really like the idea that this refers to something that's going on on Saturday. And so and there's a number of reasons for that, if we want, if you want to follow up, we can. But Calvin says, No, this doesn't refer to anything that happened on Saturday. This actually refers to Jesus experiencing the torments of hell on the cross on Friday. And I you know, I have firm penal substitutionary atonement, I'm happy to affirm what Calvin says there that Jesus experiences the torments of hell on the cross. But I just don't think that's what the line and the creed means. And so with Calvin, and then subsequently after that, those who follow him on this, especially the reformed traditions, the creedal line changes from what the descent originally was intended to convey, which is that Jesus and his human soul, proclaimed victory to those in the place of the dead, changed from a victorious notion to this notion of torment on Friday rather than Saturday with Calvin
was Calvin. John Calvin aware of the innovativeness of his interpretation of that line of the creed?
Yeah, that's unclear. I think this is an area for further study. You know, there's been some recent work done on this. So Russ, Leo, yeah. Leo, Russ. Russ. Leo has an article that came out in 2018 on Calvin's dependence on Erasmus, actually, for some of this. And so it would be, you know, I think an area of research that's needed right now is to ask that question. And to follow that rabbit trail and the book, I was just trying to give a survey of historical beliefs about this line. And so I couldn't dig in to every century or even every major thinker. I just have to kind of summarize, but it definitely is a question worth answering.
Thank you. Dr. Emerson. For some evangelicals. This line he descended to the dead seems to be in conflict with Scripture. you cite Wayne grudem. In 1991 article, quote, he did not descend into hell a plea for following scripture instead of the apostles creed. That's the title of that 1991 article. Is the creed in conflict with Scripture on this clause?
No, I don't believe it is. grudem's argument is that the Bible doesn't support this notion that Jesus experienced the torments of hell on Saturday. And I agree with him on that point. The problem is that in Grudem's article, he doesn't go on to do the historical research to say, Oh, this wasn't actually what the credo clause meant. It's, it's what some people today think it means. But that's not actually what it meant in the earlier medieval church, even even in some reformation, post reformation context. It's not what it meant, this creedal clause. And so again, in this original meaning of the creedal clause, that Jesus experienced human death, just like every human does, his human body is buried, his human soul goes to the place of the dead, because he's the God-man, going to the place of the dead is also victorious. He proclaims victory there, and then rises victoriously in his resurrection. That's what the dissent meant. That is affirmed in Scripture. And we can sort of dive into any of these more deeply if you want. But, you know, the fact that Jesus died, and experienced a fully human death, including the fact that his human soul would have departed to the place of the day, we can go to Matthew 12:40. For that, or Jesus says he spends three days and three nights in the heart of the earth, which in Jonah is parallel to is equated with the Abyss or the place of the dead, we can go to Acts chapter two, where Peter says that God would not abandon Jesus to Hades, which is again a reference to the place of the dead. It's not just a burial. And we can go to Romans 10, where Paul affirms that Jesus descends into the abyss, which again, is a technical term, referring to the place the dead, so in these three ways, just affirming that Jesus experiences death as all humans do, and particularly, and experiencing death as as human soul departing the place of the dead. We can affirm that from Scripture, and we can especially affirm it from
Jesus's own lips.
And Luke and Luke 23, Jesus says to the thief on the cross, today, you'll be with me in paradise in a first century, in the first century context of Jesus paradise would have been clearly a reference to the righteous compartment of the place of the dead. So I think, you know, in all in all those ways, scripture affirms that Jesus, this descends to the place of the dead and experiences death as all humans do. There's there's some other things to say, but I'll leave it at that for now.
We're really privileged today to be speaking with Dr. Matthew Emerson, author of he descended to the dead and Evangelical theology of Holy Saturday. Dr. Emerson, what else does this clause, "he descended to the dead" mean? And what are some of the Scriptures that help us understand that what's happening there? theologically?
Yeah, so a really helpful book. And that's regards. I mean, there's a chapter in my book on the biblical data. But if you want to go even further than that, there's a really helpful text by a guy named Justin bass, all the battle for the keys. And so he goes into even more exegetical detail than I have space for in my book, if you want to follow it up. And and I rely on him for this point here, which is that in the early church, in addition to affirming that Jesus experiences death, like all humans do. The dissent clause also affirms three other things. So it affirms that Jesus is victorious over the place of the dead in his dissent into it. It affirms that during his dissent, Jesus proclaimed his victory to all those in the place of the dead. And the credo clause affirms finally that upon His resurrection and ascension, Jesus released those in the righteous compartment that is paradise. I'll come back to that release point. But just to kind of briefly summarize those three things and back it up with Scripture for a minute. In terms of victory over the place of the dead. The early church relied on especially revelation 118 in this regard that Jesus now possesses the keys to death and Hades. And without getting into all the nitty gritty, exegetical details. The idea here is that this is a possessive genitive and revelation 118 that Jesus has taken the keys from those who formerly held them Death and Hades and now and now holds them through, going into their realm. And coming back out, kicking the doors down kicking the gates down, coming out with the keys.
Early Church also in that
regard would have seen texts like Matthew 16, the gates of hell will not prevail as a reference to the gates of hell being the gates of the underworld. That was just kind of a common perception of what gates referred to the the doors of hell are locked, and nobody can come out of them but Jesus can And he does in his dissent in resurrection, they also would have gone to text about Jesus talking about the binding of the strong man. And so where does Where is Satan's realm? Well, in many Second Temple Jewish notions that Satan is around was in the place of the dead. And so Jesus is referring to going into the strong man's house and binding him, would have been taken by the early Christians as a reference to the descent. So victory is this first element. Secondly, the early church affirm that during the descent, Jesus proclaimed his victory to everybody in the place of the dead. And so before I kind of jump in on exactly how they would have affirmed that it's important to come back to what is included in the place of the dead, just very briefly, in the first century, in Jesus's context, many people would have affirmed the underworld as having two, maybe three compartments to it. So there's the general place of the dead. Everybody who dies goes to the place of the dead, but it's nevertheless differentiated between the righteous compartment, the unrighteous compartment, and then in many articulations of it, there's also a third and lowest tier, which is the prison for evil angels Tartarus. And so paradise would have been this upper upper compartment for the righteous did, Hades Sheol, some gahanna, would have been the second tier of the unrighteous dead, who are awaiting final judgment and torment. And then Tartarus would have been that third tier where the evil angels reside. And you can see, you can see this in Jesus's parable in Luke 16, about Lazarus and the rich man, Lazarus from the rich man both die, and both go to the place of the dead, but nevertheless, they are in differentiated compartments. Lazarus is in Abraham's bosom, which is synonymous with paradise. He is he's experiencing. It's not the final beatific vision of God's presence. But he's, he's in a blessed state. And the rich man, on the other hand is experiencing sort of the the precursor to eternal judgment. And in in Hades or Gehenna, and but even though they're separated, there's a great chasm
that separates them, they can still communicate with one another.
And so there's this idea that everybody is in the place of the dead. And therefore, we can all talk to each other. But nevertheless, there's this differentiated department. And so in First Peter three,
which is a very contested text.
And again, you know, anything we need to dive into more we can, but first Peter three very contested texts. Nevertheless, I think that this is a reference when it says, during which time he wouldn't preach to the spirits in prison. First, Peter 3:18-19 is a reference to the time between Jesus's death and resurrection. And he's preaching to the spirits in prison spirits in prison would have been a reference to that third tier Tartarus, Jesus is proclaiming his victory over everybody in the place of the dead, for the righteous, that's good news. For the unrighteous and evil angels. that's a that's a terrible Proclamation. But it's nevertheless nevertheless good news for the world that Jesus has defeated. These enemies. We can also look at in that regard, Philippians, two, especially the very end of Paul's, Christ him there,
where he says that,
at the name of Jesus, every knee, in heaven, and on the earth, and then under the earth, will bow at Jesus's name. And so there's this idea that in the dissent, everybody knows in the place of the dead, that Jesus is king. That's, that's really what's going on in that information. So he's victorious. He proclaims his victory makes it known. And then the third aspect of the early church would have affirmed out of this credo clause is that in Jesus's dissent, but especially in his resurrection, and ascension, so this kind of three tiered movement upward, from the underworld, to the earth to heaven, that in that he is releasing the captives. So this would be a reference to Ephesians 4:9, where Jesus descends to the lower parts of the earth. And that's the phrase that Paul uses there. And by the way, Frank Thielemann has done some great work on Ephesians, four and the Greco Roman background for catabasis. There, which is the term he descended. It's very clearly a reference to this underworld aspect of the cosmos. So he descends to the lower regions of the earth, and then he ascends and releases the captives. So what does that mean? Well, I don't believe the Bible affirms a kind of second chance after death. So I don't think this is Jesus sort of preaching the gospel to everybody and then taking out those who respond positively. I don't think this is an implicit universalism, where Jesus is destroying every every aspect of hell, therefore it no longer exists there for everybody save rather, I think that the captives here are those who even though they had faith until the Messiah came, they were captive to death. This is just true of humanity in general, right? The great enemy is death. And prior to Christ coming, we were all waiting, if you were alive part of Christ coming in, even if you died prior to Christ coming, you were waiting for the Messiah to come and break the bonds of death to defeat death, through the resurrection. And in Jesus, his descent, and resurrection and ascension, he actually does that. And so I think this release of the captives is referring to the fact that for the Old Testament saints, those who prior to Christ coming had died. But who died in faith, that is, they were waiting for the Messiah to come and save them. What they were waiting for is now reality. The Messiah has actually come. He's there with them in the descent, he hasn't risen yet, but he's with them. Then in the resurrection, they see evidence that he really is the Messiah, even though he's already been there talking to them about it, they believe it, but he shows it to them bodily resurrection, and his ascension there with him in his bodily ascended state. And so you have this idea of release. It's not as if they were being tormented in prison, and now they're not being tormented? No, it's the fact that their faith has now become sight. And that's really what I think Ephesians four is after.
So, you know, with affirming that
Jesus really experienced human death, and then with affirming victory, proclamation and release. That's the biblical basis for the credo clause. And that's what it would have originally meant in the framers of the apostles creed and the athanasian Creed, which also includes the clause.
Yep, like Dr. Emerson, thank you so much for that survey. And what I find so fascinating about your work here is you survey the biblical data with the question is this clause in the creed biblical, and throughout the process, you discover all of this other richness to the biblical data that most of us have never encountered or reflected on? So not only are you explaining the this particular creed in the particular clause in the creed, but you're explaining so much of our other biblical passages and making so much better sense of them. Thank you. Dr. Emerson, what does this clause he descended to the dead mean for our understanding of Trinitarian theology? Is the son separated from the father when he is in the place of the dead?
No, he's not. This, you know, in the 20th century, the person who has done the most work in this area on the descent is Honduras Juan Baltazar and he's a Roman Catholic theologian, very influenced by by Carl Bart, but also by Roman Catholic mysticism, especially a mystic named Adrian bond spire. And he actually takes this doctrine to mean that on Holy Saturday, the son experienced the abandonment of hell. And by experiencing this abandonment, that is separation from the Father, he takes it on himself. But through the uniting bond of the love of the Holy Spirit, father and son take in to their inner life, this abandonment and therefore defeat it. Now, that's a really roughshod survey. I mean, I'm not using quotes from him go, you know, go read the original sources for that. But the idea is that the Son is abandoned by the father, that he experienced, he experiences the Vizio mortis this this vision of death, he experiences the torments of hell, by his own will, he does this. And that spirit reunites father and son now baltizar in some places tries to be clear that this is experiential, and not ontological. In other words, that the Son merely experiences a feeling of separation, rather than ontologically being separated. But in other points, he's not clear at all on this, this, this particular aspect of it. Milan actually goes further than that, and says, No, this is a real divide. In any case, this is the this is the notion of the descent that's popular these days. And and it's this idea that the son is somehow abandoned on Saturday, when we experience abandonment, we can know that the son was abandoned by the father, etc, etc. Even if it's not ontological, it's only experiential. And, you know, I think that's problematic on a number of levels. First of all, I don't To get accounts for what the credo clause meant, I only get accounts from Google support. But also they has problems in terms of Trinitarian doctrine. I think that the idea that the Father and son could somehow even experientially be separated, is, it gets you close to if not directly into partialism. So is the Father, the only one who has wrath and is able to pour out wrath? Is he doing something distinct from the son and his activity. So it's partial ism, both with respect to attributes and with respect to activity. And so I think that's highly problematic. And with respect to the doctrine of the Trinity, and really the, you know, the technical terms that we would use here, ob, it's violating and separate operations. And it's violating the the the simplicity of the Godhead, that somehow there are different parts that accord with the different persons. And again, you know,
if you go and read,
proponents of Baltazar view, they they would adamantly deny, that Baltazar ar is, is somehow denying the classic doctrine of the Trinity. And, to be fair, that that very well may be true, Baltazar may have wanted to maintain a classical view of the Trinity. And this view of the dissent, I just don't think it works out in practice, I don't think it's possible to do that. Because I think it's violating and separate operations and simplicity at the same time. So I think that in affirming the dissent, we have to maintain the unity of the Godhead, and also the unity of the person of Jesus, we have to say the Father, Son, and spirit are three persons, but they're one God, that they act as one, their attributes are one, while also maintaining the unity of the person of Jesus, that he is still in the descent of the hypostatically united God, man, his divine nature, his remains hypostatically, united the human nature of Jesus, and they're not separated. And that gets funky in all desire as well. So there's there's some christological issues as well, in this view the dissent. And so I think there are a number of reasons why the classical view holds up in terms of trinitarianism and Christology, and more modern views don't necessarily hold up in that regard.
Dr. Emerson, thank you very much for that reflection. Dr. Emerson, you state that this clause from the creed he descended to the dead is a source of comfort for you, how does understanding that clause more deeply comfort you and your spiritual life?
Yeah. So to go back to one of the aspects of the creed, the credo clause, this this clause affirms that Jesus is king, not just in heaven, and not just on Earth, but he's king over the realm of death, he's king over the realm of the last enemy. He's in charge, he has the keys. And so for all of us, who face death, our own or somebody else's. This is a an eminently pastoral doctrine, it were able to say, because of this doctrine, that Jesus not only died, he didn't just die. And then A moment later rise again, Jesus actually experienced what it means to be dead, he remained dead for three days. And so he knows what it's like to be a resident in what we might call the intermediate state. And so for those of us who are facing death, whether it's our own or somebody else's, we can say, with confidence that Jesus has walked through the valley of the shadow of death. And he's with us as we go into that same Valley, and it no longer is dark, but it is full of light because Jesus has gone before us. And he's with us. Those of us who have faith in Christ, when we die, we're with him, even even though not bodily, we're still with him in his bodily presence. And that's, that's comforting news, that Jesus has gone before us, and is with us as we die. I think it's also comforting to know and maintain that Jesus is king. He's in charge that doesn't have the last word, Jesus's resurrection and ascension, prove that. But he started to proclaim that in his dissent, and so it's just this, again, this affirmation of kingship. And so I think those are those are comforting ways that this doctrine really speaks to us.
Dr. Emerson, we are really grateful for your willingness to join us for this conversation. And I'm personally really grateful for the way that you've untangled a very difficult problem for us evangelicalism as we appropriate the tradition of the apostles creed in our own theology. If I can close with a question that I've been asking all of the interviewees on this program, and that is this, what would it mean for the church today to be united? How would we know? It's okay? How would we recognize this unity? And what is it that we can do to pursue the Unity for which Jesus pray to john 17?
Sure. So, you know, unity is in part,
and really, honestly, the principle of catholicity is adherence to the Word of God. So catholicity can take take on a number of different avenues it can it can be, it can be found through a number of different means, but ultimately catholicity, that is, the visible unity of the church is grounded in our adherence to the Word of God. And so, when we're talking about unity, especially doctrinal unity, which is what we're talking about here, we need to be we need to be saying this is affirmed in Scripture. This is a line this affirmed in Scripture. And that that's really the first place that we need to go, if we're going to be talking about unity in the church, with respect to doctrine, at the end of the book offer a number of different ideas for pursuing this kind of visible unity with respect to this doctrine. One of them would be for people in my own tradition, which is basically, I'm Southern Baptists, conservative, evangelical. And so both of those camps, which are often interrelated Southern Baptists, and conservative evangelicals don't like to say this line, not only do they not like to say this line, they don't like to say that creed. And so just sort of a starting point would be for more conservative evangel Christians to be willing to say, we're going to affirm the apostles creed as a faithful summary of scriptures doctrinal teaching. In doing so, sort of one B would be keeping the dissent line in the in the creed as you recite it, because even if some, Evangenicals churches do recite the creed, they often take out this line about he descended to Hell, I think there are a number of other things that I would suggest, you know, I think, tying our baptismal practices to the doctrine of the descent as early church did, I think, you know, thinking through this issue of Calvin's view, and how many reformed churches treat this doctrine, that's another way that we can think about unity in this regard. What would it take for reformed traditions to more explicitly affirm the early churches view as I have a balance for them? But what would it What would it take to instantiate that in their in their practice, and then their doctrinal statements? And, you know, for? I mean, just to be frank, I'm, obviously a Protestant. You know, Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox, have a rich tradition of affirming this doctrine, but there are a number of things about their affirmations of it that I think are extra biblical, and some being willing to come back and say, Okay, these aspects of our affirmation of this doctrine are not actually in Scripture, but we still want to retain this core that I've talked about, I think all those are different avenues of pursuing unity. With respect to the dissent.
We are really grateful today to have spoken with Dr. Matthew Emerson, associate professor of religion at Oklahoma Baptist University and author of the text we've been discussing today. He descended to the dead an evangelical theology of Holy Saturday. Dr. Emerson, thank you so much for joining us.
Absolutely. Thank you for having