“He Descended to the Dead”: The Burial of Christ and the Eschatological Character of the Atonement
Expositions of Christ’s atoning work tend to emphasize the crucifixion and resurrection, and rightly so. Good Friday and Easter Sunday are of paramount importance in what Jesus accomplished, as the Nicene Creed puts it, “for us and for our salvation.” And yet there is more to the atonement than the cross and the empty tomb. There is Christ’s life and ministry, his burial, ascension, giving of the Spirit, and his return. Although each of these other atoning acts of Jesus are significant, the particular focus of this essay will be Christ’s burial, one of the most neglected events in explications of the atonement. As Mark Davis explains,
… even when the burial remains in a church’s reading as part of the Passion Sunday or Good Friday lection, it is overlooked in lieu of the crucifixion itself, or of the hints of the resurrection found in the elaborate detail of the posting of guards and the Chief Priest’s anticipations of foul play with Jesus’ body by the disciples. After all, touching though it is, one is tempted to see Joseph’s burial of Jesus as just a necessary moment along the way from the cross to the empty tomb, as opposed to having meaning in itself. ((Mark Davis, “Matthew 27:57–66,” Interpretation 60.1 (2006): 76–77.))
Eschatological Implications of Christ’s Atoning Burial
The Burial of Christ and the Descent to the Dead: Historical Perspective
While Christ’s burial has been somewhat neglected in both soteriology and eschatology, it has not been completely abandoned. In recent years there has been a renewed interest in the doctrine most associated with Holy Saturday—Christ’s descent to the dead. There are numerous historical and exegetical problems with this particular creedal affirmation, including how early it was included in any creed or formula, the change from inferos to inferna in the Apostles’ Creed, ((I have chosen to retain the more ancient inferos, thus the title of the paper: “He Descended to the Dead” (as opposed to using inferna, “He Descended to Hell”). See, for instance, Martin F. Connell, “Descensus Christi Ad Inferos: Christ’s Descent to the Dead,” TS 62 (2001): 264, n. 3.)) and the exegetical basis for it. Passages used in exegetical support by a particular theologian or commentator are almost as varied as the explanations they give for what exactly descensus ad inferos means. Over time ((On the history of the descent, including the relevant passages used in support of various understandings of the doctrine, see J. A. MacCulloch, The Harrowing of Hell: A Comparative Study of an Early Christian Doctrine (London: T&T Clark, 1930).)) 1 Peter 3:18–21, many times in conjunction with 1 Peter 4:6, became a popular plank in building a theology of the descent. ((See, for example, A. T. Hanson, The New Testament Interpretation of Scripture (London: SPCK, 1980), 122–34.Recently, though some contemporary evangelical theologians have called this interpretation of 1 Peter 3 into question. See, John Feinberg, “1 Peter 3:18”–20, Ancient Mythology, and the Intermediate State,” WTJ 48 (1986): 303–36; Wayne Grudem, “Christ Preaching Through Noah: 1 Peter 3:19 – 20 in the Light of Dominant Themes in Jewish Literature,” TrinJ 7 (1986): 3–31; and idem, “He Did Not Descend Into Hell: A Plea for Following Scripture Instead of the Apostles’ Creed,” JETS 34.1 (1991): 103–113.)) Ephesians 4:9–10, ((William Bales, “The Descent of Christ in Ephesians 4:9,” CBQ 72 (2010): 84–100.)) Romans 10:7, ((Bales, “The Descent,” 98.)) and Revelation 20:6 ((Hanson, The New Testament Interpretation of Scripture, 127.)) are also texts upon which supporters of the descenus doctrine rely heavily. Other passages utilized include Jesus’ reference to Jonah in Matthew 12:40, ((John Woodhouse, “Jesus and Jonah,” The Reformed Theological Review 43.2 (1984): 33 – 41; and Dominic Rudman, “The Sign of Jonah,” The Expository Times 115.10 (2004): 325–28.)) Peter’s reference to Jesus’ mortem state in Acts 2:24–28, a possible allusion to the gates of Hades in John 10:1–5 ((Adele Reinhartz, “The Shepherd and the Sheep: John 10:1–5 Reconsidered,” Proceedings 9 (1989): 161–77.)) and Psalm 24, ((Allen Cabaniss, “The Harrowing of Hell, Psalm 24, and Pliny the Younger: A Note,” Vigiliae Christianae 7.2 (1953): 65–74; and Milton McCormick Gatch, “The Harrowing of Hell: A Liberation Motif in Medieval Theology and Devotional Literature,” Union Seminary Quarterly Review 36 (1981): 79.)) Jesus’ parable of Lazarus and the rich man in Luke 16, and a host of OT texts that discuss Sheol and perhaps imply the Messiah’s journey there (e.g., Pss 16:10; 18:4–5, 16–20; 71:20; 107:15–16). Later, in ancient Christian writings such as the Odes of Solomon ((See, for example, William Romaine Newbold, “The Descent of Christ in the Odes of Solomon,” JBL 31.4 (1912): 168–209; and, more recently, Ute Possekel, “Expectations of the End in Early Syriac Christianity,” 160–74 in Apocalyptic Thought in Early Christianity (Holy Cross Studies in Patristic Theology and History; ed., Robert J. Daly, SJ; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009), 169–71.)) and the Gospel of Nicodemus, ((See MacCulloch, The Harrowing of Hell, 152–73.)) the authors rely heavily on these same OT and NT texts in their explanation of the descensus. Although the doctrine, and even the event itself, is questioned today, it is clear that the early Christian theologians, and subsequently most of historic Christianity, have affirmed that Jesus descended to the dead and accomplished something there. The question throughout the history of doctrine has been what exactly Christ accomplished in his descent.
The Patristic and Orthodox View
There are at least five possible interpretive options found in the history of the doctrine. First, there is the Patristic and subsequent Orthodox view of the descent, ((Here I am not attempting to equate fully Patristic views with subsequent Orthodox understandings, but am simply a) discussing them together because of similarities and b) acknowledging that Orthodox views on the descent are largely reliant on the Patristic, and especially Eastern Patristic, sources covered in this section.)) which is primarily understood as Jesus’ healing of the first Adam through his role as the second Adam. Jesus descends to the dead in order to conquer Death and Hades ((One reason that such a wide variety of views exist on the descent is that there are an equally wide variety of views on the meaning of Hades, Sheol, Gehenna, Hell, and Death, as well as into which of these places Jesus descended. On the biblical language about death and the afterlife, see Dimitris J. Kyrtatas, “The Origins of Christian Hell,” Numen 56 (2009): 282–97; and Gary Yamasaki, “Jesus and the End of Life in the Synoptic Gospels,” Vision (5.1): 40–47.)) and, in doing so, to liberate all those held captive. ((See, for example, William Romaine Newbold, “The Descent of Christ in the Odes of Solomon,” JBL 31.4 (1912): 168–209; and, more recently, Ute Possekel, “Expectations of the End in Early Syriac Christianity,” 160–74 in Apocalyptic Thought in Early Christianity (Holy Cross Studies in Patristic Theology and History; ed., Robert J. Daly, SJ; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009), 169–71.)) In his discussion of the early church’s view on the descent, Jared Wicks summarizes Origen’s view thusly: “Christ broke death’s oppressive power once and for all, for the benefit of all humankind, including death’s prisoners, and so Paul rightly says in the passage being explained, ‘death no longer has dominion over him’ (Rom 6:9).” ((Jared Wicks, S.J., “Christ’s Saving Descent to the Dead: Early Witnesses from Ignatius of Antioch to Origen,” Pro Ecclesia 17.3 (2008): 306.)) There is here a strong sense of Christ as victor, but victory is combined with liberation. Cyril of Alexandria, for example, combines these two motifs in his understanding of the descent, arguing that Christ defeats both Hades and Adam’s sin and its effects, which thereby liberates the entire human race from its captivity to Satan and death. ((Daniel Keating, “Christ’s Despoiling of Hades: According to Cyril of Alexandria,” St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 55.3 (2011): 253–69.)) Similarly, Syrian theology, represented most notably by Ephrem, affirmed that “… Christ, through his saving work, has undone the consequences of the fall and removed the curse from humanity [see, e.g., Nisbene Hymn 36:1].” ((Irina Kukota, “Christ the Medicine of Life,” Road to Emmaus 6.1 (2005): 47.))
The Roman Catholic View
A related view is the traditional Roman Catholic understanding of the descensus, also referred to as the Harrowing of Hell. ((See, for example, Martin Connell’s summary of Aquinas’ view, for a representative Roman Catholic understanding. Connell, “Descensus Christi ad Inferos,” 271–75. See also Alyssa Lyra Pitstick’s summary of the “traditional” Roman Catholic view in Light in Darkness: Hans Urs von Balthasar and the Catholic Doctrine of Christ’s Descent into Hell (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), 1–86. Note, though, Paul J. Griffiths’ rejoinder concerning Pitstick’s alleged overreach in “Is There a Doctrine of the Descent into Hell?” Pro Ecclesia 17.3 (2008): 257–68.)) Here, Christ descends to the uppermost part of Hades (and not to the supposed lower three regions), the limbo of the fathers. Its inhabitants are virtuous pagans and faithful Jews who died before Christ’s first advent and therefore did not have the opportunity to respond to the gospel. Christ’s descent, understood as the referent of 1 Peter 3:18, is for that very purpose—to preach the good news to those who have already died. In response to that proclamation by Jesus, inhabitants of the limbus patrum can respond with faith or unbelief. If the former, they are taken out by Christ. In distinction from what became standard in Orthodoxy, Jesus does not in this view lead every human being out, but instead saves those who were prepared for it in the era before Christ. There is less emphasis on universal possibilities (although that is certainly not excluded) ((See Thomas Joseph White, “On the Universal Possibility of Salvation,” Pro Ecclesia 17.3 (2008): 269–80; and See Steffen Lösel, “A Plain Account of Christian Salvation? Balthasar on Sacrifice, Solidarity, and Substitution,” Pro Ecclesia 13.2 (2004): 153.)) and more on providing salvation to virtuous pagans and faithful Jews who lived and died before Jesus’ advent. ((“The typical ‘Catholic’ position, at least since the time of the Catechism of Trent, has been to define Christ’s descent into hell as simply the triumphal rescue of the dead awaiting the Messiah’s advent, resulting in an enumeration of different hells, where the ‘hell of the damned’ is that designated for those without faith in Christ (as either coming or having come).” Joshua R. Brotherton, “Hans Urs von Balthasar on the Redemptive Descent,” Pro Ecclesia 22.2 (2013): 168.))
The Reformers: Martin Luther and John Calvin
In Luther, Christ’s descent is almost solely couched in victorious terms. Jesus, in descending to the dead, has broken the gates of Sheol and triumphed over the devil. According to Richard Klann, “Luther taught that after Christ’s burial, after He became alive again in the grave and before His emergence from the grave, the God-man descended to hell in a supernatural manner, conquered the devil, destroyed hell’s power, and took from the devil all his might (Article IX, Tappert ed., p. 610).” ((Richard Klann, “Christ’s Descent into Hell,” Concordia Journal (1976): 43. Also Martin Luther, “The Third Sermon, on Easter Day,” Logia 12.3 (2003): 37–50.)) Notice that for Luther the Patristic perspective on Christ’s victorious descent is decoupled from their liberating motif, at least in the sense that it universally liberates humanity from Adam’s bonds. Luther does not seem to draw on either the Orthodox or Roman Catholic liberating overtones. Notice also that Luther places Christ’s spirit in Hades after his resurrection; this is rare in terms of timing.
Hans Urs von Balthasar’s View
Balthasar’s explanation of the descent has provided an opportunity for much reflection and debate. Depending on one’s perspective, he has either radically departed from Roman Catholic orthodoxy ((That is, Pitstick, Light in Darkness. For another critical view of Balthasar’s position, see Gavin D’Costa, “The Descent into Hell as a Solution for the Problem of the Fate of Unevangelized Non-Christians: Balthasar’s Hell, the Limbo of the Fathers and Purgatory,” IJST 11.2 (2009):146–71.)) or provided a legitimate explication of the doctrine that furthers the Roman Catholic Church’s understanding of it. ((Edward T. Oakes, “The Internal Logic of Holy Saturday in the Theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar,” IJST 9 (2007): 184–99. See also his response to critics of Balthasar, including Pitstick and D’Costa, in “Descensus and Development: A Response to Recent Rejoinders,” IJST 13.1 (2011): 3–24.)) In any case, Balthasar combines many of the themes in Patristic, Medieval, and Reformation theology and provides a unique picture of Christ’s descent. Balthasar desires to unite some of the disparate models of the atonement in his understanding of soteriology, especially victory, liberation, and substitution. ((Hans Urs von Balthasar, Theo-Drama: Theological Dramatic Theory, Part IV: The Action (trans., Graham Harrison; San Francisco: Ignatius, 1994), 317–19.)) The climax of Christ’s atoning work, especially in terms of substitution, comes for Balthasar on Holy Saturday. Unlike Calvin (and later, Barth ((Karl Barth Church Dogmatics IV/1(trans., G. W. Bromily; ed., G. W. Bromily and T. F. Torrance; Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2010), §59.2, esp. 244–56. See also David Lauber, Barth on the Descent into Hell: God, Atonement and the Christian Life (eds., John Webster, Hans Anton-Drewes, and George Hunsinger; Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2004), who notes that Barth “… basically endorses Calvin’s position” (80).)) ), Balthasar places Christ’s descent on Saturday in the tomb instead of on Friday on the cross. Like Calvin, though, the purpose of the descent is to stand for humanity, experiencing the pains of hell with them and for them. ((There is some shifting in language in Balthasar between “solidarity” with humanity and “substitution” for humanity. See Lösel, “A Plain Account of Salvation?” esp. 150–54.))
Contemporary Evangelicals and the Descent
Finally, there are some evangelical theologians who abandon the descensus doctrine altogether, most notably Wayne Grudem. ((Grudem, “He Did Not Descent into Hell.” See also Grudem, “Christ Preaching through Noah,” and Feinberg, “1 Peter 3:18–20.”)) Grudem’s primary arguments are exegetical in the first place—he disagrees that 1 Peter 3:18–21 teaches a descent to the dead—and theological in the second place, in that he ties it almost exclusively to the harrowing of hell, and thus to a view of justification and the salvation of Old Testament saints alien to Protestant theology. It is unclear, though, how Grudem deals with Jesus’ burial apart from denying particular views about it.
Atoning Significance and Eschatological Impact
Judgment and Victory
We can see a number of different soteriological and eschatological threads running through the various interpretations of the Jesus’ burial. First, there is a strong sense of victory and liberation. One also finds substitution well represented specifically in explications of the descensus, especially in the Roman Catholic view and in Balthasar. ((Substitution is also a major implication for Calvin and Barth, but their view of the descent is that it occurs on the cross, not in the burial.)) Thus for these theologians the burial of Jesus, specifically seen through the lens of the descent, is as much a part of the atoning work of Christ as are the cross and the resurrection. What we have also seen, though, is that for the Roman Catholic tradition the atoning work accomplished on Holy Saturday is eschatological, specifically with respect to the final judgment and to the defeat of God’s enemies. Typically, victory and judgment are left to discussions of the empty tomb and the cross, but, for Roman Catholics, the descent highlights both of these accomplishments in Jesus’ burial.
Another possible eschatological implication derived from Jesus’ descent comes with respect to the millennium of Revelation 20. On the one hand, if Satan is defeated and thrown into the abyss through Christ’s victorious descent, this may point to an amillennial reading of Revelation 20:1–6. In the LXX, the word for “abyss” is used on occasion to speak of the place of the dead or as a parallel to Sheol, and in Revelation it is used to speak of the realm where God’s enemies dwell and from whence they arise (e.g., Rev 11:1). If Jesus has already descended to the place of the dead and defeated it, it may lead readers of Revelation 20 to assume that Jesus has already cast Satan into the abyss in that eschatologically atoning act. So, perhaps, affirming the descent may lead to affirming a more spiritual or idealistic reading of Revelation 20:1–6.
Universalism and Cyril of Alexandria
Finally, as seen especially in the early church and Orthodox understandings of the descent, ((Of course, there is a strong universalist strain running through Balthasar and his subsequent interpreters as well. See Oakes, “Internal Logic” and “Descensus and Development,” as well as D’Costa, “The Descent into Hell.” Both Oakes and D’Costa focus on the creation of purgatory and its implications for the solution to the problem of world religions and the unevangelized.)) there is the question of universalism. Origen’s doctrine of apokatastasis is many times linked in the secondary literature to his understanding of the descent, ((Wicks, “Christ’s Saving Descent to the Dead,” 304. Connell, “Descensus Christi ad Inferos,” 269.)) and Cyril of Alexandria likewise notes the universal implications of Jesus’ work on Holy Saturday. As Keating argues, though, Cyril is not a strict universalist. ((Keating, “Christ’s Despoiling of Hades,” 261–69.)) Yes, Christ’s descent accomplishes something with universal atoning consequences, but that does not mean, for Cyril, that all will experience life with God in eternity. That is still left to whether or not one is united to Christ in faith. One possible via media is that Christ’s burial is universally atoning only in the sense that it defeats death for all humanity. In other words, the reason that all are raised to life prior to the final judgment (Rev 20:4–5, 12–15; cf. Dan 12:2) is that Christ’s defeat of death does in fact defeat what Revelation calls “the first death” for all humanity. But that would not negate final judgment, where one either experiences eternal life or eternal death. Further, the recognition of Jesus’ burial as eschatologically atoning may provide a solution to the problem of the resurrection of all the dead, believing and unbelieving, at the final judgment that does not necessarily entail a strict universalism. This view of the burial may also have implications for the tension in Calvinism and Arminianism between unlimited and limited atonement. If Jesus’ burial defeats death for all humanity, then it is universal. But if, as Cyril argued, one still only receives eternal life on the basis of faith in Christ, then the atonement is also limited in its application. In any case, the question of universalism, an eschatological question, is raised many times in direct response to the atoning work of the burial of Jesus.
Other Eschatological Atoning Aspects of Christ’s Burial
The Intermediate State and Christological Anthropology
There are a number of other eschatological atoning aspects of Christ’s time in the tomb. One of the intriguing connections between eschatology and the atonement as seen in Christ’s burial is the intermediate state. While much has been said on this issue regarding theological anthropology, the burial of Jesus is hardly mentioned in any discussion. ((I am here excluding those who affirm some form of the descensus doctrine that includes rescuing people from Hades or Hell, since those views are necessarily applicable to the interim state (so notes 58 and 59). Those who do not affirm either the Roman Catholic or Orthodox versions of the doctrine, though, do not usually mention Christ’s burial as normative for the anthropological makeup in the interim state. For example, the following theologians make no mention of Jesus’ time in the tomb in their discussion of the intermediate state: Millard Erickson, Christian Theology (2nd ed.; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005), 1179–90; Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996; rev. ed., 2000), 810–27; Anthony Hoekema, The Bible and the Future (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979), 92–108; Michael S. Horton, The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), 910–15; John Polkinghorne, The God of Hope and the End of the World (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002), 66–92, 103–112; and Helmut Thielicke, Death and Life (trans., Edward H. Schroeder; Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1970), 213–17. Although Erickson and Horton do note that Jesus “commends his spirit” to the Father in Luke 23:46, they do not connect this with the burial of Jesus in any way or speak to its anthropological and eschatological implications.)) And yet in Christ we see the firstfruits not only of the resurrection but also of the intermediate state. Jesus experiences death vicariously for humanity, not only in his descent but also in his simply being dead. His body lying in the grave is atoning, not only because it evokes Day of Atonement imagery, seen especially in John’s echoes of the Holy of Holies in his description of Jesus’ tomb, ((Nicholas P. Lunn, “Jesus, the Ark, and the Day of Atonement: Intertextual Echoes in John 19:38–20:18,” JETS 52.4 (2009): 731–46.)) but also because by it he redeems the state of death for all those who united to him. Death for Jesus is not the final word, and thus it is not the final word for those united to him (more on this in the “Already/Not Yet” section below).
Another eschatological implication of Christ’s burial is that it is, is in some ways, his Sabbath rest. ((One recent theology of Holy Saturday is Alan E. Lewis, Between Cross and Resurrection: A Theology of Holy Saturday (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001). Lewis is heavily dependent upon Balthasar and, to a lesser extent, Moltmann, and focuses on Holy Saturday as Jesus’ Sabbath. In doing so, however, Lewis focuses on Jesus’ time in the tomb as a “dark” and “atheistic” Sabbath rather than a positive rest. See ibid., 31, 56, 78.)) Although his ascension also should be characterized thusly, because Jesus is crucified on the sixth day and in the tomb on the seventh, the burial does have sabbatarian symbolism. ((Paul L. Redditt, “John 19:38–42,” Interpretation 61.1 (2007): 68–70.)) Jesus finishes his work of salvation on the cross on the sixth day, rests on the seventh, and then on the eighth day rises again, inaugurating the new creation. The Sabbath for which the people of God hope (Heb 4:1–11)—the eschatological rest promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—is inaugurated in Christ’s burial. Jesus’ Passion inaugurates the last days in many ways, but the eschatological Sabbath rest is inaugurated specifically in Christ’s burial.
Embodiment of Already/Not Yet
Finally, Jesus’ burial is eschatologically vicarious for all who are united with him because in it he embodies the already/not yet tension ((Note that this tension is inherent in the rest of the eschatological implications we have already mentioned. See, for example, Lösel, “A Plain Account of Salvation?” 155, on the already/not yet tension in Christ’s victory through the descent.)) inherent to believers in the church age. He sleeps, and in sleeping takes on the inevitable state of all those who live and die before his return. Although those who are buried with him are also raised to new life (Rom 6:1–4), they still “fall asleep” (1 Thess 4:14) if they die before Jesus’ return. There is thus a tension in their hope for the resurrection promised to them. There is hope in that because Christians are united to Christ in his death, they also anticipate that they will be united to him in his bodily resurrection (Rom 6:5; also Paul’s language of sowing and reaping in 1 Cor 15:48–49). Because Christ has already experienced death, and experienced it pro nobis, Christians have hope that death is not the final experience. Rather, “since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep” (1 Thess 4:14). Still, though, this hope is “not yet.” Those united to Christ have yet to experience physical resurrection. Christ’s burial embodies this same tension, with the OT promises of resurrection standing in apparent (but not real) conflict with Christ remaining in the grave. There is much here in common with the previous point about Christ’s death being victorious, although here the specific point is that the death believers experience, and the subsequent tension between death and a promised resurrection, is experienced vicariously by Christ. This already/not yet character of Jesus’ burial thus demonstrates yet another way in which Christ’s burial is both atoning and eschatological.
The burial of Jesus, although neglected in the doctrines of atonement and eschatology, proves to be both more important to each than is often acknowledged and also a nexus between them. By understanding how the burial of Jesus is atoning, in that by it he defeats God’s enemies, vicariously experiences the intermediate state, experiences and brings Sabbath rest, and embodies the already/not yet tension, we see also how it is thoroughly eschatological. Like the rest of Jesus’ work, his burial inaugurates the last days, brings victory over Satan, sin, and death, and is vicarious for those united to Christ. The burial of Jesus is thus an integral piece of his vicarious work and helps to demonstrate the eschatological character of his full work of atonement.