The Descent of Christ - Some Questions and Answers

May 24, 2022

A couple of weeks ago in our Apostles Creed series we covered what I called the 'J-Curve' of Christ's redemptive work. His descent, resurrection, and ascension. The Creed puts it this way:

"He descended to the dead. On the third day he rose again. He ascended to heaven where he is seated at the right hand of the Father almighty."

The first movement of that 'J-Curve' stirs the most controversy. What does it mean the Christ 'descended to the dead'? Or the way some forms of the Creed phrase it, 'he descended to hell'? If you haven't listened to the sermon yet, be sure to check it out here. Below are some common questions I've received since. Hopefully these answers bring clarity and encourage you - which is what this doctrine is meant to do. If you still have questions, don't hesitate to reach out to us!

What does the Bible say about Sheol / Hades?
Sheol (Hebrew) and Hades (Greek) are the biblical terms uses to describe the place of the dead. When a person died their physical body descended to the grave, while their soul descended spiritually to Sheol. In the Old Testament, Sheol is where all departed souls go to await the resurrection.

The Psalms in particular, use the language of Sheol to describe where a person goes in death:

Psalm 18:5 - "The cords of Sheol entangled me; the snares of death confronted me."
Psalm 89:48 - "What man can live and never see death? Who can deliver his soul from the power of Sheol?"
Psalm 88:3 - "For my soul is full of troubles, and my life draws near to Sheol."

It's important to note that in the Old Testament, Sheol is the postmortem destination for both the righteous and the unrighteous. Psalm 49 speaks to this:

"Like sheep they ("those who have foolish confidence" - v. 13) are appointed for Sheol; death shall be their shepherd, and the upright shall rule over them in the morning. Their form shall be consumed in Sheol, with no place to dwell. But God will ransom my soul from the power of Sheol, for he will receive me." 
Psalm 49:14-15

While Sheol is the destination for both the righteous and the unrighteous, the ancient Hebrew worldview was that Sheol consisted of different ‘compartments’ for the faithful and unfaithful.

This way of seeing things is hinted at in Jesus’ parable of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16. Lazarus dies and is carried to “Abraham’s bosom,” a term synonymous with the righteous compartment of Hades. The rich man, however, is in ‘torment’ in Hades, a much different experience. Though there seems to be communication between these two compartments, there is no passing between them. A person cannot go from one place to the other.

The New Testament portrays Jesus’ death and descent as a conquering of Sheol/Hades. In Peter’s sermon at Pentecost, he quotes the words of David in Psalm 16 in reference to Jesus’ work, that Jesus was “not abandoned to Hades,” but instead was raised up out of death. In Ephesians 4, Paul sees a relationship between Jesus’ ascent and his descent into the grave. Both happened in order that “he might fill all things” (Eph. 4:10). Finally, Jesus says of himself in Revelation 1:17-18:

“Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades.”

Through his death, descent and resurrection, Jesus now possesses authority over Sheol/Hades and will one day destroy death forever (1 Cor. 15:26).

Is Sheol like purgatory?
No. The Roman Catholic doctrine of purgatory is not the same as the biblical concept of Sheol. In Roman Catholic teaching, purgatory is where the souls of believers go to be further purified from sin until they are ready to be admitted into heaven. The sufferings of purgatory are part of how sins are atoned for. This is unlike Sheol, which is simply the place of the righteous and unrighteous dead. A place that no longer holds any power for those who have trusted in Christ (see below).

Where did Jesus go in his descent to Sheol?
Though the Scriptures seem to speak to Jesus' descent to Sheol/Hades, nowhere does the Bible insinuate that Jesus experienced torment or sufferings there. It seems best then to say Jesus descended to the 'righteous compartment' of Sheol.

What happened to Sheol through Jesus’ death, descent and resurrection? If Jesus conquered Sheol and has authority over it, what does that mean for faithful Old Testament saints who were there?
The Bible isn’t completely clear on these questions. What is clear when you read through the New Testament is that Old Testament saints are no longer in Sheol, but in the presence of God enjoying his goodness. Hebrews says that we who are alive are now surrounded by a "great cloud of witnesses" (Heb. 12:1), and that the new covenant is marked by "the souls of the righteous made perfect" (Heb. 12:23). Revelation pictures the gathering of all God's people before his throne (Rev. 7:9). But how did things move from the Old Testament postmortem reality of Sheol to the New Covenant blessing of paradise?

There are three main positions on what happened to Sheol for this change to occur:
  1. Transformation: Jesus’ descent to the ‘righteous compartment’ of Sheol transformed it into paradise. The righteous compartment of Sheol is now the place of God’s presence and blessing.
  2. Release: Jesus’ descent conquered Sheol/Hades and broke its power. It released Old Testament saints from the captivity of Sheol/Hades and transferred them into heaven, where they are in God’s presence. Ephesians 4 may hint at this in Paul's quotation from Psalm 68: "When he ascended on high he led a host of captives" (Eph. 4:8a).
  3. Does it matter? The geography of whether Old Testament saints ‘went up’ or ‘stayed down’ doesn’t matter. These terms use physical language to capture what are spiritual realities. What matters is that they are now in paradise. It doesn't matter 'where' that is, what matters is that it is the place of God’s presence. 

What happened to the unrighteous in Sheol?
The Bible is clear that the unrighteous who rejected God remain separated from his blessings and goodness in the ‘unrighteous compartment’ of Sheol. There they wait for the final resurrection and judgment.

Do Christians today go to Sheol?
When a Christian dies, their soul is separated from their body, and that immaterial part of them is immediately brought into the presence of God. This is a conscious experience! This is part of the good news of Jesus’ death, descent and resurrection. Sheol is conquered! For the Christian, to be "away from the body" is to be "at home with the Lord" (2 Cor. 5:6). Jesus' promise to the thief on the cross was that he would that day "be with [him] in paradise" (Luke 23:43). Though this paradise is not our final destiny (we still await the resurrection and restoration of our bodies in a physical new creation), nonetheless we enter a place of joy and gladness as we wait. The theological term for this is the ‘intermediate state’.

What is the ultimate final state for Christians?
The ultimate final state for believers in Jesus will be consummated finally when Jesus returns. There will be a final resurrection where our souls will reunify with our physical bodies. God will both judge and remake this world into what it was originally meant to be and we will live forever with him in a physical new heavens and earth (Rev. 21:1-4; 1 Pet. 3:13; Rom. 8:19-25).

What about those who die rejecting Jesus? Where do they go now? Where do they go ultimately?
The souls of those who die rejecting Jesus will descend to Sheol, apart from the presence and blessing of God. There they will await the final judgment. When Jesus returns, they will also be raised and reunited with their bodies, after which they will spend eternity separated from God and his goodness in hell (Matt. 25:41-46; Rev. 20:11-15). The horrible reality of hell should compel us to share the good news of the gospel with our friends, family and neighbors.

What other places in Scripture teach or relate to Jesus' descent?
  1. 1 Peter 3:18-20 - This text is very difficult to interpret, so we should approach it with incredible humility. At the very least however, it shows us that Jesus did something after his death that demonstrated his victory through the cross. 
  2. Hosea 13:14 Paul quotes from this passage in 1 Corinthians 15 showing how Jesus' resurrection fulfilled the promises made through Hosea.
  3. Matthew 12:39-40 - Jesus discusses what he calls "the sign of Jonah". That sign is that "just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth." In Jonah chapter 2, the language of Jonah's deliverance song echoes language of descending to Sheol.
  4. The Psalms are full of references to Sheol that are worth re-reading with the framework of Jesus' descent and victory over Sheol. (Psalm 6:5, 9:17, 30:3, 31:17, 86:1`3, 116:3) 
  5. Other worthwhile passages to check out (Prov. 7:27; Ecc. 9:10; Is. 38:10, 18).

Remember that the details of this doctrine are not 'first-order' issues. Faithful followers of Jesus who love the Scriptures can come to different conclusions on what the Bible teaches about the descent. This doesn't mean that it is unimportant, just much less important than the clarity of doctrines like Jesus' death and resurrection. 

Other resources to check out:
If you want to learn more, check out the following articles.
Charles Hill, "He Descended Into Hell" 
Gavin Ortlund, "Death Has Been Swallowed Up By Death" 
Matt Emerson, "Christ's Descent to the Dead"
If you really want to bite off more, Matt Emerson's recently released book on the topic is excellent:
Matt Emerson, He Descended to the Dead: An Evangelical Theology of Holy Saturday 

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