Holy Saturday is an oft-forgotten day in Holy Week. On this day, we confess the doctrine of Christ’s descent (decensus). Here are seven things you should know.
1. “He descended into hell” is included in the Apostle’s Creed and the Athanasian Creed. Christ’s descent is a matter of consensual Christian teaching. It is based on texts like Ephesians 4:8-9, Acts 2:27, Matthew 12:40, Luke 23:53, Romans 10:7, Revelation 1:18, and 1 Peter 3:18–22.
2. This line could also be translated, “he descended to the dead.” Before John Calvin, the word “hell” was understood in the most generic sense of referring to the place of the dead, sometimes called Sheol or Hades.
3. Christ did not suffer in hell; rather, he joined the righteous dead. Jesus did not go to hell to be tormented. It’s most likely that Jesus went to one of at least two compartments in Sheol called Paradise or Abraham’s Bosom. In Luke 16, the rich man and Lazarus are both dead, in the same general location, and even able to communicate, but they are separated by a great chasm. Likewise, Christ and the repentant thief on the cross joined the righteous dead in a place of peace separate from the wicked dead who were in torment, awaiting the final judgment.
4. While Christ’s body was buried, his soul departed to Hades or Sheol. In Acts 2:27, Peter cites Psalm 16:10 and applies it to Jesus: “For you will not abandon my soul to Hades, or let your Holy One see corruption.” God would not allow Jesus’s body to see corruption (decay in the grave) nor would he allow his soul to stay in Hades (the place of the dead) forever. In “He Descended to the Dead”: An Evangelical Theology of Holy Saturday, Matthew Emerson summarizes the doctrine in positive terms:
The decensus 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 doing so, by virtue of his divinity, he defeated death and the grave.
5. In the place of the dead, Christ proclaimed his victory. According to 1 Peter 3, Christ was “made alive in the spirit, in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison.” Adam, Noah, Abraham, and David heard the good news of Christ’s finished work. Christ’s preaching in Hades did not provide another opportunity for the wicked dead to be saved, since Scripture is clear that one’s fate after death is final.
6. Christ’s descent was part of his exaltation and secured his victory over death and Hades. Because of his divine nature, Christ’s descent to the realm of the dead on our behalf secured his victory over its power. In Revelation 1:18, Jesus declares, “I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades.”
7. Christ rose from the dead—that is, the place of the dead—to deliver us from the fear of death. In the resurrection, Christ put death and the grave under his feet forever. Since Christ experienced human death to its fullest and was victorious, we do not need to fear death any longer. In Classic Christianity, Thomas Oden explains,
The descent became an experiential component of the doctrine of assurance. “Why ‘descended into hell’?” The Heidelberg Catechism teaches the confirmand to answer in a highly personal way: “That in my severest tribulations I may be assured that Christ my Lord has redeemed me from hellish anxieties and torment” (Q 44, BOConf. 4.044). Where the Lord has been, I may go without terror.
In closing, meditate on this passage from John Chrysostom’s Easter sermon:
Do not fear death; the Savior’s death has brought freedom.
He endured death and thus destroyed it.
He descended into Hell and destroyed it.
Even as Hell tasted his flesh he threw it into chaos.
All this was foretold by Isaiah, who said,
“Hell below is moved to meet you at your coming.” [Isaiah 14:9]
Hell was in chaos because it was annihilated.
It was in chaos because it was cheated.
It was in chaos because it was done away with.
It was in chaos because it was defeated.
It was in chaos because it was led away captive.
Hell swallowed humanity and discovered divinity.
It swallowed earth and experienced heaven.
It swallowed the visible and was defeated by the invisible.
O death, where is your sting? O grave, where is your victory?