Matthew Emerson’s book newest book, He Descended to the Dead, is fantastic! Matthew is a professor at Oklahoma Baptist University and the newly appointed dean of the Hobbs College of Theology and Ministry. Emerson is also the executive director at The Center for Baptist Renewal and blogger at Biblical Reasoning.
Emerson’s chief aim with the book is to “show the biblical and historical warrant for the descent so that, in turn, we can see how vital this doctrine is for the confession and ministry of the church” (xiii). The descent to which he is referring is the line in the Apostles’ and Athanasian creeds that read, “he descended into hell.” This line in both of these historic creeds, Emerson argues, has been distorted from its original meaning. As the title lays out, and Emerson contends late in the book, he prefers for the lines to be translated, “he descended to the dead” as to avoid confusion about where exactly Jesus went on Holy Saturday.
To argue his case, Emerson breaks the book up into three parts. Part one lays the biblical, historical, and theological framework for why we ought to understand that Jesus actually went to the portion of the departed reserved for the faithful (Abraham’s bosom, paradise, etc.) on Holy Saturday. Further, he shows, rather convincingly, how we have come to have a common misunderstanding about the creedal descent clause. He does this by interacting with current scholarship as well as looking at the church fathers, reformers, and icons. This was extremely helpful and laid an excellent base for the issues dealt with later in the book.
Part two moves into the theological implications for such an understanding of the clause. Here he discusses how a proper understanding (or misunderstanding) informs how we understand classical Trinitarian theology, the doctrine of creation, Christology, soteriology, ecclesiology, and eschatology. As he notes early on in the book, Christian theology is a fabric, and if you pull on even one thread, it will have implications for the rest of the work (16). This section was my favorite of the three. I had no idea just how formative Calvin’s (wrong) teaching on this issue had been on Christian thought (and by association, my thought). After reading this section, I have a more in-depth and more holistic appreciation of baptism than I did previously. And, in about a page, Emerson convinced me to be buried when I die–prior, I did not have strong feelings one way or the other.
Part three consists of one chapter and provides practical Christian life and pastoral implications of a proper understanding of the descent. If I can offer any critique (outside of minor theological squabbles here and there), this is the section in which I was left wanting. In my view, this is part of the pitfall of many theological works. Admittedly, in a footnote at the outset of the chapter, Emerson points readers to the work of Alan Lewis, who has taken up the implications a bit more thoroughly. However, as a Christian, and particularly a pastor, I’m always interested in the advice for how academic theology can be applied to the sheep in the pasture. Although, I suppose that’s my job as the reader (to take the theology and apply it), so I won’t complain too loudly.
General Notes and Observations
This book has an academic feel (because, why not? Matt is an academic), but it’s also written very accessibly. Even the parts of the book that were very technical were written and explained so well that most anyone that picks it up will benefit from it. I also found it hilarious that, at least three times, Emerson felt the need to state, explicitly, that he fully affirms penal substitutionary atonement. He expected, and probably rightly that people were going to misread him (particularly while he contradicted Calvin). Finally, the book is exceptionally well written. I constantly came to the end of chapters or sections with questions, just to find those questions taken up in the very next section. This is the type of writing every reader wants to read.
My ultimate recommendation is: get the book! This was an excellent read, and I expect that you’d benefit from it as well.
Here are 20 of my favorite quotes. Enjoy!
1. Page 16
Christian theology is a fabric, and when we pull on one thread–the descent, for instance–it impacts the other doctrines and the way we formulate them.
2. Page 33
In sum, these texts teach that when Christ died, he experienced death as all humans do: his body was buried, and his human soul went (“descended”) to the place of the dead. He descended to the righteous compartment of the dead (“paradise,” Lk 23:43), all the dead. In this way, he proclaims his victory to those “under the earth” (Phil 2:10).
3. Page 52
Since Revelation 1-3 and 20-22 are so conceptually and lexically similar, it is not hard to imagine that John intends revelation 1:18 and Revelation 20:13-14 to parallel one another.
4. Page 64
This means that the preaching that occurred was, again, not a proclamation that could result in a postmortem salvation, but, as in 1 Peter 3:19, a proclamation of Christ’s victory. This is what the righteous dead would have been waiting for, to see what they had trusted in come to tangible fruition.
5. Page 65
We might say that, while it is one sense the denouement of his humiliation in that he remains dead, it is primarily the beginning of his exaltation, as having descended to the lowest part of human existence, he begins his ascent by proclaiming to those in those lower regions the news that he is their victorious king.
6. Page 75
Another important aspect of the early church’s view is that Christ’s victory in his descent implies that he releases the first Adam and all others who have awaited him by faith through his role as the second Adam.
7. Page 77
While this latter affirmation concerning the liberation of Adam’s race may sound close to universalism, it is important here to note that, except for Origen and perhaps Clement of Alexandria, Christians in the first four centuries of the church were careful to clarify that Christ’s descent is only liberating for the faithful.
8. Page 112
Thus the continuity of the incarnation is crucial to the descent as well; only as the God-Man can the Son descend, and do so both victoriously and vicariously. The descent is only victorious because the Son descends as God, and it is only vicarious because he descends as a human being, as the human being.
9. Page 117
In classic Trinitarianism and classic Christology, theologians have been very careful to discuss the crucifixion in such a way that it does not posit a breach either in the Trinity or the hypostatic union.
10. Page 154
First, YHWH is the God of the living. This is not an indication that he ceases to be Abraham’s God upon Abraham’s death; quite the opposite. It means, rather, that God’s being provides the ground for eternal life for human beings.
11. Page 167
It may seem odd to speak about Christ’s descent as part of his exaltation, especially since exaltation implies an ascent, not a descent. Indeed, Christ’s entire exaltation is an upward movement…The descent is the first of three stops on Jesus’ victory tour: first he proclaims victory in the realm of the dead, then he proclaims it in the realm of the living, and then finally and universally he proclaims it in the heavenly realm. In other words, the descent begins in Christ’s exaltation through the universe’s three tiers: the underworld, the earth, and the heavens…
12. Page 170
We could say, in fact, that it is precisely because Christ’s death is penal and substitutionary that his life, death, descent, resurrection, and ascension are vicarious and victorious. And, vice versa, we can also say that Christ’s penal, substitutionary death is only ultimately effective because of his victorious resurrection. Victory and substitution go hand in hand.
13. Page 183
The general resurrection, rather, is the means by which God restores persons to life in an embodied state in preparation for their eternal fate.
14. Page 184-185
The answer is, therefore, that Christ’s descent is effective in both an unlimited and limited manner. It is effective in an unlimited sense in that it is the beginning of Christ’s resurrection, the first fruits for the general resurrection prior to the final judgment. But it is effective in a limited sense in that Christ’s resurrection is only salvific, and only the salvific first fruits, for those who believe.
15. Page 188-189
This may sound predominantly soteriological, but sola fide is not only an affirmation concerning how an individual might be saved. It is also an affirmation about how Christ’s body is constituted, and who belongs in it. Unlike the old covenant, which was ethnically restricted but included both believers and unbelievers within the Abrahamic genealogical line, the new covenant is not restricted ethnically, but it is reserved for only those who believe (Rom 9-11; Eph 2:11-22).
16. Page 192
Christ’s immersions into water are explicit identifications with our humanity–in his incarnation, he identifies with Adam’s seed in general; in his baptism, he identifies with Israel in particular; and in his descent to the dead he identifies with and experiences vicariously the result of the first Adam’s fall. Christ’s descent is therefore the climax of his experience of a fully human life, from birth to vocational baptism to death.
17. Page 194
Baptism, then, is connected to the descent both in the sense that it is a symbol of our union with Christ’s death and also in the sense that it is a symbol of our participation in the benefits of Christ’s victory over Death and Hades.
18. Page 204
His body lying in the grave is redemptive, 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, 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.
19. Page 207
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.
20. Page 217
There is a reason Luther urged Christians to remember their baptism when faced with temptation: not only does it remind us of our identity in Christ, but it also visually pictures for us Christ descending to defeat the enemies of Death and Hades. Christ achieves victory in his death and proclaims it in his descent. By faith and the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit, we participate in and reap the benefits of that victory. Baptism is victorious, a declaration that Christ has defeated our enemies and so we, too, live in victory over sin, death, and Satan.
21. Page 219
Just as the Ark of the Covenant went before the people of Israel through the wilderness for three days to find a place for them to rest (Num 10:33), so Christ has gone before us through the wilderness of Hades to prepare a place for us to rest in him.