Book Reviews

Book Review: “He Descended to the Dead” (Matthew Emerson)

2,000 years ago, on a Friday, Jesus Christ died on the cross. He rose from the dead on Sunday. His body laid in the ground for three days, but where was his soul? Was his soul in God’s presence? Or was he elsewhere? Matthew Emerson answers this question in his new book, “He Descended to the Dead,” An Evangelical Theology of Holy Saturday (which received the 2019 The Gospel Coalition Book Award in Academic Theology). In the Apostle’s Creed, is the clause that says “he descended into hell” accurate? Emerson argues that Jesus didn’t descend into hell (referred to as the Harrowing of Hell), but “to the dead.” He does this by looking at both biblical texts and biblical patterns. Where else do we see descents in the Bible (think of Jonah in the belly of the whale, for instance)?

Instead of giving us an exhaustive treatment, Emerson aims (and succeeds) at demonstrating “how this particular doctrine fits into and impinges upon other Christian beliefs, and particularly how so for evangelicals” (20). His goal is simply “to recover the doctrine of the descent for evangelicals today” (21).

There are three parts:

  1. Biblical, Historical, and Theological Foundations
    1. Should we, like Wayne Grudem, advocate erasing “he descended into hell” from the Apostle’s Creed? Emerson shows that Sheol was the general holding place of the dead, one which had two compartments: one for the righteous and one for the unrighteous. Jonah describes “the depths of the ocean as Sheol, the abyss, the place of the dead” (36). Paul speaks of Jesus descent to the lower regions of the earth. Jesus became incarnated and lived for his people; he shared in our humanity and redeemed it, even entering into death. (Emerson looks also at Mathew 12:40, Romans 10:7, Philippians 2:10, Revelation 1:18, and 1 Peter 4:6.)
    2. 1 Peter 3:18-22: Essentially, “Jesus ascends to the place of the dead, and while there, he proclaims victory over the evil spirits as well as over death itself through his death, remaining dead, and awaiting resurrection from the dead” (63).
    3. Throughout church history, as Grudem argues, many early version of the Apostle’s Creed leave out the “descent” clause. Does that mean these churches disagreed with the clause? Actually, Emerson points out that the Creed says, “He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried; he descended to hell.” Many understood the phrase “was buried” as referring to Jesus’ burial and descent. Thus, the descent clause was redundant.
    4. Emerson surveys early Christian views of the descent (as well as Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox views). The majority of the early Christian views viewed Jesus as descending to the dead. There was agreement on this even up to Luther. Calvin was one of a few with a very different approach.
    5. The practical implication of this is that there is no part of the earth that Jesus has not visited. He came from heaven to earth, into the dirt, down to the dead, and back up again to us, and then to the Father (and he will again return to us where we will be resurrected just as he was resurrected).
  2. The Descent and Christian Dogmatics
    1. Here Emerson shows the “fabric of theology.” Based on a book by Richard Lints, just as pulling on one thread affects the other threads in a piece of fabric, keeping or throwing out the doctrine of Christ’s ascent affects the others. Emerson lists six different doctrines affected by Christ’s descent to the dead:
      1. The Trinity
      2. Creation
      3. Anthropology
      4. Salvation
      5. Ecclesiology
      6. Eschatology
    2. Under the doctrine of creation, one connection I had never made was the connection between Jesus’ tomb (Matt 27:57-62; Jn 19:28-32) and the Promised Land. Abraham purchased a plot of land with a cave-tomb for Sarah, the first and only part of the Promised Land Abraham actually got. Jesus, who was crucified “outside the camp” (Heb 13:12-13) and deserved “a traitor’s burial in a mass grave,” was “instead buried like a king” in John 19:38-42 (141). In many cultures along with the Hebrew Bible, “burial is understood as a land claim” (142). Not much more can be said right here, but this insinuates that Jesus’ tomb -> Promise Land -> all of creation.
  3. The Descent and the Christian Life
    1. We experience death because of the fall. We have the resurrection to look forward to, but to those who are facing death and those who have lost loved ones, we can find comfort in that fact that Jesus entered into and experienced death’s entirety for us.


Jesus did not suffer “in hell either on the cross or on Holy Saturday” (102). He “experienced death as all humans do, body and soul, and in doing so as the God-Man, defeated death, Hades, and Satan and his angels” (102). He proclaimed his victory of the defeated captives, and rescued those who had placed their faith in God and his promises. I think Emerson argued his points well and deftly shows how this doctrine affects other important doctrines. If you’ve ever wondered what “he descended into hell” means and if you can agree with it, pick up Emerson’s book. You’ll be convinced (probably) that the Creed can be trusted, and God’s word ha much to say about us even in our deaths.


Buy it from Amazon or IVP Academic!

Disclosure: I received this book free from IVP Academic. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255

Amazon Affiliate Disclosure: As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

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