by Matthew Y. Emerson
We Protestants don’t talk a lot about Holy Saturday, the day between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. There are quite a few reasons for this, but chief among them, I think, is that we just don’t know what to do with it. Its association with implicit universalism in many Eastern articulations of the doctrine, its connection with Purgatory in Roman Catholicism, and the uncertainty among contemporary systematic theologians about its importance has led many Protestants, and especially many evangelicals, to simply ignore the doctrine known as Christ’s descent to the dead. Despite modern ambivalence toward it, the descent was vital to early and Medieval Christian faith, and it is my belief that we can retrieve its importance today.
I define the descent this way in my forthcoming book:
Christ, in remaining dead for three days, experienced death as all humans do: his body remained in the grave, and his soul remained in the place of the (righteous) dead. He did not suffer there, but, remaining hypostatically united to the divine nature of the Son, proclaimed the victory achieved by his penal substitutionary death to all those in the place of the dead – fallen angels, the unrighteous dead, and the OT saints. Christ’s descent is thus primarily the beginning of his exaltation, not a continuation of his humiliation.
I’d also add that his presence necessarily changes the nature of Paradise, from one of expectation for the coming Messiah to the reality that he is present, which is why the early church describes the descent as “release” from Hell (Sheol, particularly and only the righteous compartment, Paradise). Finally, the descent is not an opportunity for post-mortem salvation: Christ’s declaration of victory is good news for those who awaited his coming and a sign of judgment for those who rebelled against him.
So, with that definition in mind, here are four reasons why Holy Saturday matters to the Christian faith.
1. Jesus really died. Jesus experienced death as all humans do: his body was buried and his soul departed to the place of the dead. He wasn’t faking it, he didn’t die and rise immediately, he didn’t time warp past the intermediate state. He was really, truly dead (Matt. 12:40; Acts 2:27; Rom. 10:7). This matters because he experienced death like all of us will who die before his return – in the expectation but not the reality that one day God will raise us from the dead to dwell with him bodily forever. He has gone before us through the valley of the shadow of death, lighting our way by virtue of his resurrection on the third day. His resurrection gives us hope that the intermediate state is not our final destination, and his descent gives us hope that he, too, has experienced it for us and with us.
2. Jesus is king. In the classical understanding of the doctrine of the descent, this is the beginning of Jesus’ exaltation. He isn’t tormented in Hell, but rather proclaims his penal substitutionary victory achieved on the cross to all dead, righteous and unrighteous, and to the fallen angels in Tartarus (1 Pet. 3:18-22). Thus “every knee . . . under the earth” (Phil. 2:10) bows to Jesus in the descent, as those on the earth bow to him in his resurrection and those in heaven bow to him in his ascension. While Paul is speaking ultimately of eschatological realities in Philippians 2, the exaltation of Jesus in his descent, resurrection, and ascension brings those future realities into the present.
3. Jesus is victorious. Jesus can proclaim victory to the dead in the descent because in his crucifixion, his descent, and his resurrection he is actually victorious. He achieves victory over sin, death, and Satan in his death, descent, and resurrection. In the descent, he has already canceled “the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him” (Col. 2:14-15).” And in the coming resurrection, God will seat Jesus “at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all” (Eph. 1:20-23). During the descent, Jesus experiences death as all humans do, but he does so as the God-Man, his human nature still hypostatically united to his divine nature, and so defeats Death and Hades. In experiencing death, he defeats it and now stands as the one with the keys to Death and Hades (Rev. 1:18).
4. Jesus is present. Ultimately, the descent means that Christ was present with the OT saints who had waited for him for so long, but he is also now bodily present with all those who die before his second coming and the resurrection of the dead. In his descent to the dead and resurrection from it, he “led a host of captives,” changing the nature of Paradise from the place where the righteous dead await the Messiah to the place where the resurrected Messiah is present with his people even in their death. And his bodily presence reminds those departed saints, even while they cry “How long, O Lord?” that, “Behold, I am coming soon.”
Maranatha! Come, Lord Jesus!