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He Descended to the Dead: An Evangelical Theology of Holy Saturday : Matthew Emerson - Part 1

Updated: Mar 8

Video from Unitas Fidei

He Descended to the Dead: An Evangelical Theology of Holy Saturday : Matthew Emerson - Part 1

There has been debate for some time about the validity of the line in The Apostles Creed concerning Christ descending to Hell after his death on the cross. Much research has been done in the past that presents many extrapolations. If we put aside the Apostles Creed and look at scripture what do we find?

The answers we are seeking are what happened to all people, all the souls that died before the Cross of Christ? Where did they go? Those who were evil? Those who were serving God? And what about the Fallen Angels or the Nephilim?

I have provided an excellent video and links for further reading.

Two passages in the New Testament would seem to indicate Christ descended to the Place of the dead. One is in Ephesians 4:9 where it says that Christ descended into the lower parts of the earth. In the language of the gospel, he came to bind the strong man (the devil) and loot his house, the treasure of Satan being the Souls of Men.

Paul states that upon his death Jesus descended into the place of the dead, not hell. The Deity of Christ descended to the place of the dead (which is as best we understand 3 compartments- see illustration) His body went to the grave and his human spirit went to the place of the righteous dead which is where all of those that were saved before Christ went.

Ephesians 4:7-10 English Standard Version

7 But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ's gift. 8 Therefore it says, “When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men.”[a] 9 (In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower regions, the earth?[b] 10 He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.)

Verse 8 says he ascended which implies you must descend first. Arguments are made that this could refer to Christ's incarnation, his descent to the dead, or his descent at Pentecost via the Holy Spirit. Evidence is found in the allusions by Paul to the LXX Psalm 62:10 (63:9) and Psalm 138:15 (psalm 139:15). In both the psalmist refers to "the lowest regions of the earth". The Hebrew phrase used in the Masoretic texts also means "lowest regions of the earth". The texts in Ephesians 4:9 refer to the underworld and Paul does not allude to passages that refer to the incarnation.

The other text is 1 Peter 3:18-20 where it says that Christ went to speak to the spirits who are now in bondage or in prison. That is, they have previously died having lived in the days of Noah and they are now in bondage, and Christ went to speak to them. They are in bondage, they can't leave a place made by God in the past or when the cosmos was created that is divided into areas or compartments.

Another verse to look at is Romans 10:7

7 “or ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead) So it appears that Paul equates the abyss with the place of the dead.

Said Cyril of Alexandria, “When the gatekeepers of hell saw him, they fled; the bronze gates were broken open, and the iron chains were undone” (Ancient Commentary on Scripture 11.107).

As fourth-century Spanish poet Prudentius painted the scene, “The door [of hell] is forced and yields before Him; the bolts are torn away; down falls the pivot broken; that gate so ready to receive the inrush, so unyielding in face of those that would return, is unbarred and gives back the dead. . .” (The Daily Round 9).

The Harrowing of Hell describes the victory of Christ over all his enemies as a part of his exaltation which touches on every aspect of creation. Contemporary theology does not want to understand this doctrine perhaps because of our aversion to the idea of an unseen realm. I am more or less convinced that the Harrowing of Hell did occur although like many things in God's word, the details are few. I have provided links to some articles and two books that would be good to read.

The Battle for the Keys by Justin W. Bass (link)

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