He Descended to the Dead: Hope and Comfort on Holy Saturday

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Holy Saturday lies in obscurity, its mysterious silence drowned out between the cry of dereliction and the joyful sound of “He has risen!” Many churches gather on Good Friday and worship on Easter Sunday, but most forget Holy Saturday. This sacred day, however, is essential to Christ’s atonement. On Holy Saturday, Christ descended to the dead for us and for our salvation. In light of the biblical and creedal doctrine of Christ’s descent (decencus), Holy Saturday is full of hope and comfort.

A Creedal Doctrine

The Apostles’ Creed teaches us to confess that Christ was both “buried” and “descended to the dead.” Paul calls the burial a matter of first importance (1 Cor. 15:4), and the Church has understood Christ’s descent as implicit in his burial. As a man with body and soul, Jesus died a fully human death: his body was buried in the grave, and his human soul descended to the place of the dead. The Creed is sometimes translated as “He descended into hell,” but this does not mean that Jesus suffered in a place of torment. The original meaning of “hell” was “covered or hidden depth,” and could be used to refer more generally to the place of the dead—Hades or Sheol (Ps. 16:10).

“He descended to the dead.” (The Apostles’ Creed)

The story of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16 provides insight into how the Jews conceptualized Sheol: it had at least two “compartments,” one for the righteous dead (Abraham’s bosom or Paradise) and one for the wicked dead (a place of torment). In Paradise, Jesus preached the good news to the righteous dead and, like Lazarus and the rich man, shouted across the void to proclaim his victory over the wicked dead who had mocked God’s people in former times: “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, because they formerly did not obey” (1 Pet. 3:18–20; cf. Php. 2:10; Jn. 5:25).

When Scripture says that Christ “ascended,” what does it mean “except that he also descended to the lower parts of the earth?” (Eph. 4:8–9; cf. Rom. 10:7; Acts 2:31). At Pentecost, Peter preached that even the Old Testament prophets “foresaw and spoke about the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh see corruption” (Acts 2:31; cf. Ps. 16:10; 139:8). Christ’s human soul was not abandoned to the place of the dead, and his body did not remain in the grave long enough to decay. In Crux, Mors, Inferi: A Primer and Reader on Christ’s DescentSamuel Renihan quotes Athanasius:

Where the body of man used to rot, thither Jesus cast his body. And where the soul of man was held in death, there did he exhibit his human soul. That he, being in no way to be conquered by death, might both show himself there present as man and yet break the chains of death as God. That where corruption was sowed, thence incorruption might rise and where death reigned over men’s souls there, he being present as a mortal man, might demonstrate his immortality, and so make us partakers of his incorruption and immortality by the hope of the resurrection from the dead.

In He Descended to the Dead”: An Evangelical Theology of Holy Saturday, Matthew Emerson provides a robust defense of the classic Christian doctrine of the descent. Emerson summarizes:

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.

Do Not Fear Death

Since death has been filled with the Life of God, it has lost its power over us. In his famous Paschal Homily, John Chrysostom personifies Death as a hungry monster who swallowed the man Jesus, thinking that he had conquered him, only to find that he had swallowed God himself. While digesting the God-man, Death became sick and was destroyed by his divine power. Jesus arose victorious from Death’s belly on the third day, as Jonah had before him, a type of the resurrection: “For 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” (Mt. 12:40). John preached,

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.” [Isa. 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? [1 Cor. 15:55]

The Father sent the Son ahead of us to defeat Death by filling the dark domain with the Light of Life.

A child is afraid to go into a dark room until his father goes ahead of him and turns on the light. Children of dust, and feeble as frail, find assurance on Holy Saturday that the Father sent the Son ahead of us to defeat Death by filling the dark domain with the Light of Life. Jesus has experienced human death to the fullest, and we do not need to be afraid to go where he has been. 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.

A Victor From The Dark Domain

My fascination with Christ’s descent began when a lecture by Ben Myers drew my attention to Christ holding the “limp wrists” of Adam and Even in a famous Eastern Orthodox icon of the resurrection (see the header image). Myers explains,

Eastern Orthodox iconography is especially attentive to this aspect of Christian hope. In Orthodoxy, the icon of the resurrection portrays a glorified Christ standing over the broken doors of hell. Beneath his feet, the chains and locks that have held the dead are all broken. The doors of hell have come unhinged. The grave has been emptied. An old man and an old woman are depicted on either side of Christ. They are Adam and Eve. Christ has seized them by the wrists and raised them up from the shadowy underworld.

Ben Myers wrote an excellent little book on the Apostles’ Creed for the Lexham Press Christian Essential series, as well as a children’s version for the FatCat series. Illustrator Natasha Kennedy depicts Christ with Adam and Eve, and Myers writes these beautiful words:

Where will I go when I die?
Where do all the dead go?
Wherever it is, Jesus went there too.

He went down as far as we had fallen.
He took death’s keys to free the captives.
He overcame death with his life.

He took Eve and Adam, our first parents, by the hand.
He is God’s strong Son, my strong Brother.

Is anything stronger than death?
Yes—Jesus!

That’s what I believe.

Christ has conquered death, putting it under his feet in the resurrection. As Charles Wesley said, He arose a victor from the dark domain.” When we confess that Jesus rose from the dead, we mean that he arose from the place of the dead. His soul rejoined his body, rose, and later ascended into heaven. The descent to the dead is the hinge point of Christ’s descent and ascent, the beginning of his exaltation.

While Jesus descended to the dead, the disillusioned disciples mourned his death, and Roman soldiers stood guard to keep his body secure. The waiting on “Silent Saturday” was excruciating. But a new day was about to dawn. God would not abandon his Son’s soul to Sheol (Ps. 16:10). “I died, and behold I am alive forevermore,” declares the Lord, “and I have the keys of Death and Hades” (Rev. 1:18).

Image attribution: Anastasis at Chora | © José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro / CC BY-SA 3.0. Adapted from an article originally published on April 2, 2021.

Johnathan Arnold
Johnathan Arnold
Johnathan Arnold is a husband, father, and aspiring pastor-theologian, as well as the founder and president of holyjoys.org. You can connect with him on Twitter @jsarnold7.