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Posts Tagged ‘Sheol’


The descent of Christ is not a topic that receives much attention in evangelical circles. There have been some academic journals that have published articles on the topic. But it has been mostly an academic issue. That is not a good thing.

If you are thinking, what do you mean by “the descent of Christ” then this is an indication it isn’t a good thing. The descent addresses what happened to Jesus while He was dead. This is important and does matter.

He Descended to the Dead: An Evangelical Theology of Holy SaturdayRecently our Session addressed this question in terms of the phrase “He descended to hell” as part of the Apostles’ Creed. After we made a provisional decision on that question, a newer book by Matthew Emerson, “He Descended to the Dead”: An Evangelical Theology of Holy Saturday came to my attention.

In preparation for Resurrection Day this year, I put it near the front of my queue as part of my Virus Crisis reading. It is published by IV Press Academic.

Emerson’s book is widely researched. He is a Baptist but his research includes the Church Fathers, Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic theologians as well as some Reformed theologians. He includes some less than conservative folks like Barth. There is less interaction with Confessions and Catechisms. There is no meaningful interaction with the Reformed Confessions and Catechisms until the final chapter. As a Reformed pastor, I viewed this a weakness. He discounts Calvin’s view (taken by the Heidelberg Catechism) which is a good move. But that is only one approach taken by Reformed theologians (the WCF differs). He addresses the Barthian take on Calvin far more in depth.

Emerson is a Baptist. He also holds to Progressive Covenantalism. This doesn’t seem to affect much, but when he discusses baptism it certainly does. There he displays a misunderstanding of the historic covenantal views of ecclesiology and sacraments.

“This approach to biblical theology argues that, while there is a foundational continuity between the old and new covenants, such that Jesus’ work fulfills all the hopes of OT Israel, there is also a progression from the Abrahamic covenant to the new covenant. This progression is effectively one from inclusion in the covenant people based on ethnicity to inclusion based on faith. This is why the sign of the covenant progresses from circumcision to baptism. The former is related to physical birth in the flesh, while the latter is related to new birth by the Spirit.” (pp. 212)

This denies and/or ignores the distinction Covenant Theology makes between the visible and invisible church. In the OT, we also see Gentiles entering the covenant of faith by profession of faith. Salvation was not by birth, but always by the new birth & faith. Emerson flattens Covenant Theology and thereby passes over the circumcision of the heart, of which physical circumcision was a sign. He also passes over Paul’s affirmation that we receive the promises of the Abrahamic covenant, rather than progressing beyond it (see Gal. 3). We are sons of Abraham because we’re united to Christ the Seed!

I’m just not sure how much this affects his work. I don’t say this to dismiss it, but if he can’t get Covenant Theology correct it makes me wonder at times what else might be misunderstood.

This does not mean I fundamentally disagree with him. Particularly with his criticism of evangelicalism’s neglect of creeds.

He begins there in the first chapter. He offers us a definition of evangelical so we know what he means by the term which is important in the current climate of slippery meanings.

“… I do not mean a particular political voting bloc in the United States but rather the Christian movement that (1) began in the late eighteenth century, (2) is most concentrated in North America, and (3) is characterized by David Bebbington’s quadrilateral of commitment to biblical authority (“Biblicism”), a focus on the cross as the center of Christ’s work (“crucicentrism”), the need for personal conversion (“conversionism”), and the importance of sharing one’s faith in evangelism and engagement with the public square (“activism”).” (pp. 3)

Into this he speaks of a near uniform view on the phrase “descended into hell” until Bucer and Calvin’s novel expression of this as a place of torment. More on this later. There was plenty of variations, but no one thought it referred to hell as a place of torment. This is why he calls his book “He descended to the dead” or Hades, which doesn’t have the baggage of saying ‘hell’.

Recent challenges, based on that interpretation of Calvin’s, are combined with a rejection of creedal formulations and authority. In this, Emerson is very critical of Wayne Grudem. He’s critical not only of Grudem’s conclusions but his methods. Grudem is focused on solely exegetical arguments, not theological arguments. This led him, in the past, to question the eternal generation of the Son on the basis of Proverbs 8:22-31. Emerson is right to affirm theological patterns in Scripture (though he doesn’t always recognize all of them). He notes biblical patterns like that of the Son of Man. We have to see each text within the context of the rest of Scripture.

Emerson wants us to understand the descent in light of the other passages dealing with Sheol, in light of the historical context or the views of the underworld by the nations and second temple Judaism. He also wants us to see the patterns across various doctrines. Like Lints he sees the fabric of theology, not simply the thread of a doctrine. You can’t change one without affecting other doctrines.

His focus on second temple Judaism is also of unknown concern. He seems to see second temple Judaism as uniform in views, much like N.T. Wright, Sanders and other proponents of New Perspective(s) on Paul.

The second chapter is A Biblical Defense of the Descent. He doesn’t want to depend on 1 Peter 3:18-22, for good reason, as the basis for the doctrine. This is a disputed text in terms of interpretation. I’ll lay my cards on the table: I think the text is about the Spirit’s ministry in the time of Noah which seems to fit the larger context in 1 Peter. Emerson’s brief exegesis makes some sense, until I think about the rest of 1 Peter. But you don’t need this text to affirm the doctrine of descent.

“To put is positively, the descensus is a thoroughly biblical doctrine, which teaches that Jesus experienced human death as all humans do- his body was buried, and his soul departed to the place of the dead- and, in so doing, by virtue of his divinity, he defeated death and the grace.” (pp. 24)

His argument is that second temple Judaism and early Christianity had a cosmography similar to the Greeks and Romans (I’d see the Gentiles’ view as a corruption of the biblical view, not an influence upon the faithful community). The underworld had two chambers: the abodes of the righteous dead and the unrighteous dead. In an OT & NT context the righteous were those who believed. We see this in the parable discussing “Abraham’s bosom” or “paradise”. The rich man could not pass over.

Jesus descends to the place of the righteous dead upon His death. He is not suffering there, but His victory is proclaimed and Sheol either transformed for the righteous or emptied of the righteous with Christ’s resurrection and ascension. I would go with the latter, not the former.

He traces the development of this doctrine in various Scriptures referring to Sheol, and Christ being raised “out of the dead” or the place of the dead. He interacts with Psalm 16 and its usage in Acts 2. Jonah 2 is also addressed before he goes on to Pauline statements, like Ephesians 4, Philippians 2 and Romans 10.

“At minimum, then, this text affirms that Jesus experienced human death as all humans experience human death, in body and soul.” (pp. 35)

The next chapter is about the historical defense or interpretations of the doctrine. Here he mentions that Grudem is following Philip Schaff in arguing that the phrase was inserted by Rufinus. Emerson ties its inclusion to the threat of Apollinarianism which believed that the Son did not assume a human soul, but only a body. He shows that many believe Abraham’s bosom was part of the underworld, the place of the dead, and not a heavenly region. It is not a place of torment. Jesus’ torment was finished upon the cross. Jesus entered the place of the dead to conquer death and Hades. Here he looks at a variety of Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Reformation theologians. He brings out some significant differences in views. Emerson looks at Calvin’s idiosyncratic view (not sure I’d use that term) as an over-correction based on a bit of misunderstanding of other views.

There is a large section on Balthasar’s view. He was a Roman Catholic theologian who attempted to combine what he thought was the best of Orthodox, Roman and Calvinist views. He ends up with a view that sees His descent including the torment of hell, particularly in the separation from the Father.

Part two of the book looks at the descent and Christian dogmatics. This is where he examines the fabric of theology. It can seem repetitive at points. He begins with how it affects and is affected by our theology of the Trinity. He gets into the doctrines of inseparable operations and appropriation. The first is that the Trinity acts inseparably. There is no Lone Ranger among the Trinity. They are working with one purpose. Appropriate refers to the fact that each has different roles in that one work, which pertains the distinctions in persons. This formulation seeks to preserve God’s oneness consistent with their mode of subsistence.

“The descent is only victorious because the Son descends as God, and it is only vicarious because he descends as a human being, as the human being.” (pp. 112)

Here he returns to Balthasar in critical fashion. He argues that Balthasar violates both of the doctrines (inseparable operations and appropriation).

The next chapter discusses its impact on our doctrine of creation. This includes cosmography and ANE beliefs. This is where he begins to argue for Christ transforming Hades from the place of the righteous dead awaiting Messiah to where the resurrected and ascended Messiah dwells with His people. This is an idea I’m not sure I’m ready to buy into, at least as how I understand it. The human nature is not ubiquitous and is at the right hand of the Father, meaning reigning and ruling in heaven. I’m thinking, at this point, that Paradise aka Abraham’s bosom has been emptied and heaven is being filled. This is not our “final destination” which is actually the renewed earth.

He then shifts to the incarnation and Christological anthropology. He delves into whether we are a body-soul union, just a body that ceases to exist or a hylemorphic dualism with soul equal to the form of the body. This section is heady and philosophic at points. Then he examines the doctrine of justification and the atonement, the resurrection of believers and ecclesiology.

Part three is one short chapter on the Christian life. He plays out some of the ways it should impact our lives now. Much of it seemed ‘ho-hum’. The key point for me is that Jesus knows not only what it is like to die but to be dead. He is able to comfort us in our grieving as One who tasted death, remained under its power and rose triumphant over the grave.

Overall this was a good book. It was mostly understandable, and does help you think through some of the issues. It is a worthwhile contribution to the discussion of this doctrine. He does not have me convinced of all of his views but I am better prepared to think about this, talk about this and perhaps even preach on this.

Q. 50: Wherein consisted Christ’s humiliation after his death?

A: Christ’s humiliation after his death consisted in his being buried, and continuing in the state of the dead, and under the power of death till the third day; which has been otherwise expressed in these words, He descended into hell. (Westminster Larger Catechism)

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