Book Review: “He Descended to the Dead” An Evangelical Theology of Holy Saturday By Matthew Y. Emerson
About the Author
Matthew Y. Emerson received his PhD. From Southeastern Baptist theological Seminary and is an associate professor of religion at Oklahoma Baptist University.
For the sake of space, each chapter cannot be dealt with in equal weight. As a result, I have chosen to highlight and discuss topics that Emerson writes on that are most relevant to the topic of conditional immortality and the survival of the soul after bodily death. Ultimately, Emerson does not have the time or space to contend with all of the arguments for or against either dualism or monism. His argument rather, is that if he can show Biblically that Jesus descended to Hell between death and resurrection, we must accept dualism to be the best understanding of human nature.
Part One: Biblical, Historical and Theological Foundations
1. “I Believe”: Evangelicalism, Creedal Authority, and the Descent
In the first chapter of the book, Emerson says that his study of this topic has attempted to approach the doctrine with a recognition that scripture should have authority over tradition. While he does appeal to scripture throughout the book, he also repetitively appeals to the authority of tradition as the main reason why the descent should be received as true. Emerson then states that “the question at hand is whether or not the creeds, particularly the Apostles’ and Athanasian, have accurately ministered biblical teaching on what happened to Jesus between his death and resurrection.” Emerson clarifies the goal of his book is to reclaim the recitation of the creed including the section on the descent, to once again teach the importance of the event of Holy Saturday.
2. “He Descended to the Dead”: A Biblical Defense of the Descent
In the second chapter Emerson recognizes the work of Philip S. Johnston and his book Shades of Sheol, but counters with the claim that Richard Steiner has provided evidence that the Hebrew understanding of nephesh may mean more than just “life”. He continues by arguing that the general term “the dead” or “from the dead” used in the New Testament is proof for the belief in an immaterial afterlife. Emerson attempts to connect Luke 16 with Jesus words to the thief on the cross by equating Abrahams bosom with paradise. This is a shift from many evangelicals that deny the descent of Christ and instead place paradise in heaven with God. Emerson does not discuss the parable of the “Rich man and Lazarus” in detail but he does acknowledge it is a parable. I found this interesting because he very much wanted to literalize the parable. The question then becomes does he do that with all parables, and if so why not? Are we also to understand people to be sheep, or goats, or weeds in Jesus other parables? I highly doubt it.
One of the foundational texts appealed to for the descent is found in Acts 2:25-28 where Peter quotes Psalm 16:8-11. This text is unique because it shows Peter translating the Hebrew word nephesh as the Greek word psyche, as well as translating the Hebrew word Sheol as Hades. This could either be used to show that Peter believed that a nephesh was something that left the body and went to an underworld of the dead, or it could reveal that nephesh and psyche mean life. Likewise, it would also mean that both Sheol and Hades refer to the grave and not a location for disembodied souls. The answer is found I believe, in Peters comparison of Jesus and David in Acts chapter two. Paul also makes this same comparison in a sermon in Acts 13. Both disciples place king David dead in the grave, in comparison to Jesus who has risen. This seems to be a drastic oversight in Emerson’s argument. He states that Jesus’ soul left his body and rejoined it three days later. What is interesting, is that the language of resurrection is not articulated that way in the New Testament. The promise of a reunion of body and soul does not exist, but rather the arising and awakening of the whole person back to life. Here I think he relies too heavily on both tradition and philosophy and ignores the Biblical evidence.
Emerson goes on to argue that Jesus words about his death help clarify that he was alive between death and resurrection. For Emerson, Jesus words about Jonah are proof of this. He also cites Ephesians 4:7-10 as proof that Jesus descended to hell and led a host of captives out from it. Emerson additionally cites Romans 12:7 as support for his belief in the descent comparing and contrasting it to the Ephesians text. One of the last texts he uses in support of his view is Revelation 1:18 in which he again wants to literalize something that I believe is intended as a metaphor. Emerson says that Jesus literally went to hell and robbed Death and Hades (personified) of the keys. He closes the chapter with a return to 1 Peter 3:18-22 in which he addresses the texts various historical interpretations. The biggest problem I see with his exegesis is his attempt to want to take the Greek words pneuma and psyche as synonyms. Emerson says on multiple occasions that it was Jesus’ soul that separated from his body upon death as seen in Acts. At the same time, he wants to force 1 Peter to work for him taking “spirit” to mean the same thing as Jesus soul. He does this in a few places confusing the language of soul and spirit trying to make a coherent narrative work.
3. “On the third Day He Rose from the Dead and He Ascended into Heaven”: A Historical Defense of the Descent
Emerson states that the descent is made possible by the hypostatic union. Christ’s human body remained in the grave while his divine/human soul separated from his body and descended to Hell. This is the historical Christology affirmed by the Council of Chalcedon in 451. The biggest problem with this doctrine, in my opinion, is that it rearticulates the incarnation of Jesus in non-biblical language. The Biblical authors use the language of transformation or “becoming” in describing Jesus incarnation. The Chalcedonian model, however, explains the incarnation as an addition to Jesus. The remainder of the chapter explores some of the historical views of the; Eastern Orthodox, Catholic, and Reformed views. Emerson supplies a graph of the views on page 98 which shows that these views all rely on a dualist approach to Biblical Anthropology.
Part Two: The Descent and Christian Dogmatics
4. God the Father Almighty…. Jesus Christ, His only Son Our Lord… and the Holy Spirit”: Classical Trinitarianism and the Descent
This chapter is a brief exploration of the doctrine of the trinity which continues to affirm the hypostatic union of Christ and explores how we might understand the descent from a trinitarian understanding.
5. “Maker of Heaven and Earth”: The Descent and the Doctrine of Creation
In this chapter, Emerson appeals to the idea of progressive revelation, in some ways I presume, to bypass or ignore what the Old Testament says and does not say about the topic. This allows him to ignore the descriptions of Sheol that associate it with death, decay and lifelessness and move forward to a Greek philosophical view of Hades. What I did appreciate, is that Emerson states multiple times that the ultimate hope for Christians is in the resurrection and that any potential intermediate state is unnatural. He also places the ultimate Christian hope in the return of Christ and embodied life in the restored heaven and earth described in Revelation 21.
6. “Conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary”: Christological Anthropology in Descent Perspective
Chapter six is where Emerson makes his most pivotal argument for dualism as a whole. His argument is essentially this:
- Christ’s human life, death, descent and resurrection are paradigmatic for how we understand what it means to be truly human.
- He believes he has shown that Jesus descended to the underworld as an immaterial soul between his death and his resurrection
- All of humanity will also experience death as the separation of the body and soul and will exist as a soul in an intermediate stated between death and resurrection.
- We should, therefore, read the Bible as a text that supports a dualist anthropology.
I agree with Emerson that Christ should be understood as paradigmatic in understanding what it means to be a human. What I don’t agree with is his secondary premise which says that he has proven the descent to be true. My appeal to Emerson would be to examine how Jesus himself used the Greek word psyche in his own teaching. This would reveal what Jesus thought a psyche is, and if it dies when the body dies. Emerson claims that the biggest problem a non-reductive physicalist faces in regards to the topic is the continuance of identity over time between death and resurrection. In contrast, he states that the issue for the holistic dualist is how the person can be said to be whole when body and soul separate and leave the person with a truncated existence in the intermediate state.
7. “Forgiveness of Sins”: The Descent and the Doctrine of Salvation
This chapter is an exploration in which Emerson attempts to reconcile the atonement theories of penal substitutionary atonement with Christus Victor in regards to the descent narrative.
8. “The Holy Catholic Church and the Communion of Saints”: The Descent and Ecclesiology
In this chapter Emmerson investigates what the descent might have to say in regards to the practice of baptism, the communion of saints, and our Sabbath rest.
9. “The Resurrection of the Body and Life Everlasting”: The Descent and Eschatology
In chapter nine Emerson ultimately rejects the teaching of soul sleep citing Luke 16:19-31, 23:43, 46, Phil 1:23 and Rev 6:9 as “indicators that soul sleep is not in accordance with biblical language about death.” First, it should be noted that the Biblical language of death as sleep permeates the entire Bible. Death is metaphorically described as sleep by a multitude of Biblical authors and characters including Jesus himself. Again, Emerson wants to appeal to texts like Luke 16:19-31 which he admits is a parable, to justify his view of the afterlife. He also sees Jesus words to the thief on the cross as support of his view but does not address any alternative understandings of the text. Emerson appeals to Jesus breathing out his pneuma upon death as support, once again mixing the Biblical language of spirit with soul. Emerson sees Paul’s desire to be with Christ as support for his view, but a further examination of Paul’s letters reveal that he expects to see Christ when he is resurrected, not immediately upon death. In a sense, it will be immediately however from Paul’s perspective because dead people don’t experience the passing of time. Switching back to the language of souls, Emerson sees the “souls under the altar” in the book of Revelation as supporting his view but does not address other languages in the book where souls are the things being resurrected from the dead. (See Revelation 20:4-6)
Part Three: The Descent and the Christian Life
10. “Amen”: Pastoral and Practical Implications of the Descent
Emerson states that the doctrine of the descent shapes the way we approach death as Christians. For him, death has been overcome already in Jesus resurrection. However, Paul in 1 Corinthians 15 states that victory over death will not come until Christ’s return and the bodily resurrection of the dead. Emerson quotes the Westminster Short Catechism as support for his view which also confuses the language of spirit and soul stating that Jesus spirit returned to God at death but then later states that Jesus “human spirit, or soul” departed his body and went to the underworld. This becomes very problematic in my opinion when we start using either or statements in regards to the spirit and soul and what they are. (See Corinthians 15 specifically verse 50-58 for the timing of this victory)
While I wholeheartedly agree with Emerson that Jesus is paradigmatic for our understanding of human nature, I disagree with him that the Bible provides ample evidence for the support of the doctrine of the descent of Christ. What I found interesting and lacking, was the fact that he never addresses the Gospel of Nicodemus, a pseudepigraphal writing that tells the narrative story of Christ’s descent in detail. In summary, here are a list of some of my concerns in regards to the doctrine of the descent.
- It requires a confusion of the Biblical language of spirit and soul. This is seen with the contrasting texts found in Acts 2 and 1 Peter as support for the doctrine.
- Emerson takes parables literally and using them to create a geography of the underworld. (see Luke 16)
- Emerson uses metaphorical language in the book of Revelation literally in regards to keys and souls. The question then arises which language is metaphorical in the book of Revelation and which language is to be read literally?
- Peter and Paul both place David physically and personally in his grave in contrast to the resurrected Jesus.
- Scripture speaks of the resurrection as a rising and awakening and not as a reunion of body and soul.
- The language of Chalcedon deviates from the Biblical language of Christ becoming human.
- Emerson seems to use the idea of progressive revelation to bypass the Old Testament language in regards to discussion of Sheol and the understating of what a nephesh is.
- We should take seriously Jesus teaching and use of the word psyche to help us determine what a “soul” is and if it survives death.
- Emerson seems to ignore the overwhelming use of the metaphor of “death as sleep”, used by Jesus himself.
- Emerson never addresses the fact that both nephesh and psyche are used to describe animals and dead bodies.