Compendium: The Descent of Christ to the Dead

Between the lowest point of our Lord’s humiliation and the beginning of His glorification there was, there could be, no interval. In fact, the critical instant of His death was at the same time the critical instant of His commencing triumph. Here we must consider what the Descent into Hades imports, and how it belonged to the exaltation of Christ: but in few words, as the light of Scripture here soon fails us.

1. The phrase Descent into Hell, Descensus ad Inferos, is not in the New Testament. St. Peter, bearing witness to the Lord’s resurrection, quotes the words of David: “Thou wilt not leave My soul in hell; neither wilt Thou suffer Thine Holy One to see corruption” (Acts 2:30, 31). The Greek Ἅδης Hades (Psalm 15:10), answering to the Hebrew Sheol, signifies the Unseen State; which again corresponds with the English Hell, according to its simple original meaning of Covered or Hidden Depth, and without reference to punishment endured in it.

Into the State of the Dead our Lord entered: as to His body it was buried and concealed in the sepulchre or visible representative of the invisible Hades into which He entered as to His soul.

Into this State of the Dead our Lord entered: as to His body it was buried and concealed in the sepulchre or visible representative of the invisible Hades into which He entered as to His soul. It is observable, however, that St. Paul, making the same use of the Psalm, does not distinguish between the grave and Hades. He speaks only of the body: they “laid Him in a sepulchre”; and thinks it enough to quote, “Thou shalt not suffer Thine Holy One to see corruption” (Acts 13:29, 35). Undoubtedly the entombment of our Lord, and His passing into the condition of the dead, are the one meaning of these passages; and they signify that His death was a reality, and that so far His burial belonged to His humbled estate.

2. But that this descent into Hades was at the same time the beginning of His exaltation is evident from the following negative and positive considerations:—

(1.) Negatively, when our Lord cried “It is finished!” (John 19:30) the abasement of the Representative of mankind ended.

The expiation of sin demanded no more: it did not require that the Redeemer should be kept under the power of death. After the tribute of His voluntary expiation death had “no more dominion over Him” (Rom. 6:9). He triumphed over all the enemies of salvation on the cross. Death was at once His last sacrifice, His triumph, and His release; “it was not possible that He should be holden of it” (Acts 2:24; 3:15): not only because He was “the Prince of Life,” but because the law had no further claim.

When He offered up His holy spirit, wrath to the uttermost was spent upon human sin; but He Himself was never the object of wrath, and the Father received the spirit commended to Him as a sufficient sacrifice. The Holy One could not endure the torments of the lost: the thought that He could and did is the opprobrium of one of the darkest chapters of historical theology. Not in this sense did He make “His grave with the wicked” (Is. 53:9).

(2.) Positively, He triumphed in death over death.

First, in His one Person He kept inviolate His human body, which did not undergo the material dissolution of its elements: not because, as it is sometimes said, He was delivered from the grave before corruption had time to affect His sacred flesh; but because the work of death was arrested in the very instant of the severance of soul and body. As His spirit “dieth no more” (Rom. 6:9), so His body “saw no corruption” (Acts 13:37). The unviolated flesh of our Lord was, till the moment He was quickened, a silent declaration of perfect victory: His Divinity never left His body, any more than it forsook His spirit in its passage to the world of spirits.

He declared His triumph in the Descent.

Secondly, according to the testimony of two Apostles, our Lord triumphantly descended into the lower world, and took possession of the kingdom of the dead. “To this end Christ both died, and rose, and revived, that He might be Lord both of the dead and living” (Rom. 14:9): these words indefinitely distribute the mediatorial empire over man into its two great provinces. He died, and in death took possession of the Dead; He revived, and ruleth over the Living. “Who shall descend into the deep? (that is, to bring up Christ again from the dead)” (Rom. 10:7): here the deep, or the abyss, must refer to the great Underworld. “Now that He ascended, what is it but that He also descended first into the lower parts of the earth?” (Eph. 4:8, 9) whence, in the strong figure of Scripture, “He led captivity captive.” “Triumphing over” (Col. 2:15) all the enemies of our salvation—sin, death, and Satan—”in it,” the cross, He declared His triumph in the Descent. “Quickened by the Spirit” (1 Peter 3:18, 19, 21) of His Divinity, “by which also He went and preached unto the spirits in prison”: the historical sequence—”He went, by the resurrection, Who is gone into heaven”—indicates, and will allow no other interpretation, that in the Interval the Redeemer asserted His authority and lordship in the vast region where “the congregation of the dead” (Prov. 21:16) is the great aggregate of mankind, the vast assembly to which also we may apply the words, “In the midst of the congregation will I praise Thee” (Ps. 22:22).

This excerpt is from William Burt Pope’s Compendium of Christian Theology (London: Beveridge and Co., 1879). Read more in Logos Bible SoftwareGoogle Books (links via Society of Evangelical Arminians), or PDF (scans from Fred Sanders).