Resurrecting an Age-Old Conversation

He Descended To The Dead: An Evangelical Theology of Holy Saturday | Matthew Emerson | Intervarsity Press

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By Sean Hadley

Years ago, while having coffee with a Southern Baptist pastor, Jesus’s “descent into Hades” on Holy Saturday came up in the midst of a larger conversation. However, at the mention of this concept, he changed rapidly from an affable and sociable interlocutor to a dismissive one. Though I do not recall his exact wording, his perspective has stayed with me: no intelligent Christian could possibly believe that the soul of the Messiah descended in any way. A few years later, I found myself at a dinner table where discussion was underway regarding a present-day theological controversy embroiling Presbyterian churches. A Catholic lay leader, a Greek Orthodox priest, a Presbyterian pastor, and a Presbyterian educator were all unified in their rejection of the “new doctrine” in question. One of them invoked the Apostle’s Creed as a kind of end to the discussion, and promptly began reciting it. Everyone nodded their heads in agreement untilthe line “He descended to the dead.” All of a sudden, the previous harmony shattered as all four participants began arguing over what this ancient clause meant. Even the two Presbyterians took different positions on the matter. So much for creedal unity.

These two stories represent the same sort of debate that is at the heart of Matthew Y. Emerson’s book, “He Descended To The Dead:” An Evangelical Theology of Holy Saturday. Not meant to settle the debate for all time, Emerson lays out a plan for reviving the doctrine among Evangelical Christians based on historical and theological arguments. As he makes plain throughout, Emerson believes that there is a benefit for the Evangelical Church to retain this doctrine, for there are practical matters at stake. Emerson notes that the doctrine of Christ’s descent influences one’s understanding of “universalism, purgatory, the extent of the atonement, the millennium,” and more. He accomplishes this, initially, through a thorough reading of Scripture. 1 Peter 3:18-22 acts as the main text for those who repudiate the concept of Jesus’ descent, many following in the footsteps of the renowned theologian Wayne Grudem. Grudem’s 1991 essay, “He Did Not Descend into Hell: A Plea to Follow Scripture Instead of the Apostle’s Creed” represents the kind of dichotomy adhered to in this debate. But as Emerson deftly points out, there is substantial Scriptural evidence beyond 1 Peter 3 to support the idea that Christ physically died, was buried, and that His human soul left His human body to proclaim His kingship to all other Spirits. Acts 2:25-28, Ephesians 4:9, and Romans 10:7 are just some of  the texts Emerson selects to make this point.

But if the Scriptural texts were not enough to persuade the reader, Emerson digs through an impressive number of Early Church writings to demonstrate that the teaching of Christ’s descent was something accepted throughout the first four centuries of the Church. There are occasional pushbacks, such as Augustine’s interpretation of 1 Peter 3:18-22, but Emerson presents a strong case that the doctrine was standard fare for most of the early theologians and pastors. It is interesting to note that the implications of the doctrine were a bit more disputed, though. The Eastern Orthodox Church tiptoed around the issue of universalism from the fifth century A.D. onward, though even there most Orthodox writers seemed to hold to the orthodox interpretation of Christ’s descent. Once things picked up in the Roman Catholic Church, with the doctrine of purgatory specifically, the views begin to vary. The Reformation then takes that variation and runs with it all the way to a rejection of the concept altogether. But as Emerson shows, even with this historical development, there remained a strong Biblical and historical argument in all three primary branches of the Church for preserving at least a token place for the doctrine in the Christian life.

It is in this area of Christian living that Emerson stakes much of his claim. There are doctrines at stake, including Trinitarian theology, the doctrine of creation, Christological anthropology, soteriology, ecclesiology, and eschatology. Each of these concepts receives a briefer treatment than his research-related surveys in the first half of the book, but he is not giving them short shrift. Emerson’s earlier foundation allows him to connect the dots between the concept of Christ’s human soul descending into the underworld and the Sunday morning processional. Yes, Christ’s descent even matters in understanding Church liturgical life. Pastoral and practical implications spillover from Emerson’s retrieval project, which is precisely what he hopes will happen. He appeals to Evangelicals to reinstate the Creeds in church services, overcome lingering Catholic suspicions, and to reclaim a theology of the body which is rooted in Christian hope.

All of this is accomplished in a quickly paced, academic yet accessible book. The footnotes adorning almost every page might intimidate some, but Emerson has worked hard to use his citations as support mechanisms; reading the body of the text will communicate the core elements needed to read and digest his argument. And I would argue that every Christian ought to do just that. Emerson has done a great service for many outside the halls of seminary or the traditions of Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism. He has provided a thoughtful, easy to read, intelligent, and charitable case for rethinking how the Evangelical world approaches those pesky days between Christ’s death and His resurrection. It is a welcome contribution to a much-needed conversation.

Sean C. Hadley is a graduate of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary and a doctoral student in Faulkner University's Great Books program. He currently teaches humanities and research at Trinitas Christian School in Pensacola, FL.