The Descent of Christ: Why It Matters


“For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.”

Matthew 12:40

In the Apostles’ Creed, we confess many crucial and timeless truths of the Christian faith. The vast majority of them are far from controversial… until about halfway through.

We confess that Jesus is the only son of God, conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontus Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. These are all well-known doctrines that are only controversial to heretics.

But then we get this: He descended into Hades. What in the world are we talking about here?

It’s the right and historical doctrine of the Descent of Christ.

Perhaps we should begin with a question: what do we think Jesus was doing while he spent all of Saturday in the grave? He didn’t cease to exist. After all, God cannot die, and people don’t cease to exist when they die. So, then, where was He before He was resurrected?

Since the earliest times, the answer has been that Jesus’ soul went to the place of the dead, Sheol in the Hebrew mind, and Hades in the Greek mind. He was celebrating His finished work of redemption among the saints in Abraham’s Bosom, declaring His victory to all the cosmic traitors across the chasm.

As with all doctrines, we must test them against scripture. The first place to go is a parable of Jesus from Luke 16:19-31, where Jesus talks about a poor man named Lazarus who dies and goes to a place called Abraham’s Bosom. The rich man who showed him no mercy during his life also ends up in the place of the dead, in a burning fire separated from Lazarus’ abode by a wide chasm.

Even though this geography isn’t the point of the parable, the level of detail leads one to take the distinction of spaces into account. There is a place for the righteous dead called Abraham’s Bosom, simply called Paradise, and another place for the wicked dead. And there is no bridge between them and no way out.

In Matthew 12:40, Jesus makes a more concrete reference to His descent: “For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.”

Jesus draws a particular conclusion from the events of Jonah’s stay in the belly of the great fish. He would also spend three days in the deep places of the world. The Jews believed that Sheol was actually in the center of the earth, and Jesus uses that to His advantage in this prophecy.  He is using the well-known story of Jonah to tell the crowd that He will be going to Sheol, and that he would be coming back.

On the cross, speaking to the repentant thief, Jesus promises that he will be with him in Paradise, referring to the one that existed prior to Jesus’ death and resurrection. That man met Jesus on the cross, repented of his sins, and believed in Him. He then met Him again in Abraham’s Bosom, and rose to Heaven at Jesus’ ascension.

So Why Is This Important?

We have an assurance from Paul, as inspired by the Holy Spirit, that “We are of good courage and prefer rather to be absent from the body and to be at home with the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:8). We can only be present with the Lord before the Final Judgement because of Jesus’ Descent into Hades.

He cleared out Abraham’s Bosom at His ascension, marking it “closed.” This way, every saint who died in faith after the Resurrection immediately enters YHWH’s presence, rather than the waiting room.

We can’t say the same thing for the wicked, because they still await the White Throne Judgment. They remain where the rich man was – in the fire –  before being finally consigned to the lake of fire.

Now I hear at least one protest to this idea: “Isn’t this just a simplified form of Purgatory?” To this, I would say, “Absolutely not.”

To answer this, I would simply return to the parable of Lazarus and the rich man. Recall that Abraham himself tells the rich man, “There is a great chasm fixed, so that those who wish to come over from here to you are not able, and none may cross over from there to us (Luke 16:26).

The point of purgatory is to burn off your sins that remained in you in life until you’re finally sinless enough to go to heaven. The Biblical doctrine of the descent of Christ could not be more opposed to that idea.

The Descent guarantees that Jesus, our Savior, has the power to keep every promise He has made to His people. He always intended to dwell in the midst of His people, and the Descent began that process. By joining with the saints in the grave, carrying them to heaven, and welcoming every saint immediately in His presence after that, He fulfills that promise. And he promises an ultimate fulfillment still to come.

So every time a Christian loses a saved loved one, we can be comforted by the rock-solid fact that he or she is in the unmediated presence of YHWH because of the work Jesus did in Hades.

For further reading
Crux, Mors, Inferi: A Primer and Reader on Christ's Descent by Samuel D. Renihan
In Defense of the Descent: A Response to Contemporary Critics by Daniel Hyde
Concise Theology by J.I. Packer
He Descended to the Dead: An Evangelical Theology of Holy Saturday by Matthew Y. Emerson
Lee Jones

Lee Jones

Lee Jones is a lay elder at Redemption Bible Church in Bellefontaine, OH. He is a podcaster with The B.A.R. Network, hosting Redemption Meditations and cohosting The Literary Baptists. Jones is fanatic for his Savior, sound theology, the Regulative Principle of Worship, and also pencils.

January 12, 2024

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