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Did Jesus Go to Hell? - Matthew Emerson

Phoenix Seminary
April 27, 2021

Dr. Arnold interviews Dr. Emerson on the topic of where Jesus went after he died.

Topics of conversation include:

  • Why did Jesus descend to the realm of the dead?
  • How do we understand controversial passages, such as 1 Peter 3 and Philippians 2?
  • What doctrines are connected to our understanding of Jesus’s descent?
  • How do we explain some of the verses people use to dispute the fact that Jesus descended to the dead?

Dr. Matthew Emerson is professor of Religion and dean of Hobbs College of Theology and Ministry at Oklahoma Baptist University. He is the author of He Descended to the Dead”: An Evangelical Theology of Holy Saturday (IVP Academic, 2019). Dr. Emerson holds a PhD from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.


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Intro (00:01):

Welcome to Faith Seeking Understanding, a podcast from Phoenix Seminary—helping Christians grow in their understanding of the faith, hosted by Dr. Brian Arnold, president of Phoenix Seminary,

Brian Arnold (00:17):

The Apostle's Creed, one of the most ancient of the creeds and the church, reads as follows: "I believe in God the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth, I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin, Mary, who suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried, he descended to hell the third day, he rose again from the dead, he ascended to heaven, and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty, from there he will come to judge the living and the dead. I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy Catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen." It is the phrase "he descended to hell" that has caused no shortage of controversy. What happened to Jesus after he died on Friday and rose from the dead on Sunday? Where did he go? Well, to help us understand this we have with us today, Dr. Matthew Emerson. Dr. Emerson is the Dean of the Hobbs College at Oklahoma Baptist University. He's the author of numerous books, including "He Descended to the Dead": An Evangelical Theology of Holy Saturday. And I have the privilege of calling Matt a friend. Matt, welcome to the podcast.

Matthew Emerson (01:32):

Yeah, thanks very much for having me, Brian.

Brian Arnold (01:34):

So today our big question is this—did Jesus go to hell? And let's just go straight at it—Matt, where did Jesus go when he died?

Matthew Emerson (01:44):

Yeah. So if we mean by "hell" the place of torment where we experience God's wrath in the intermediate state and then for eternity for those who aren't in Christ, then the answer is no. He didn't go there. Hell, though, in the ancient world, and really the Latin term for that would have meant something more like "the place of the dead." So ancient peoples believed that in various ways your body was buried or disposed of and your human soul departed to the place of the dead. And Jewish persons believed that, early Christians believed that. And so when the early Christian writers said "he descended to hell," or "he descended to the dead," that's what they meant. They meant that Jesus experienced death like all human beings do. His body was buried and his soul departed to the place of the dead.

Brian Arnold (02:36):

So some Christians may not have kind of put this together before, but the New Testament even speaks of this place of the afterlife in several different ways, using some different terms, whether it be paradise, or the abyss, or Gehenna, even Jesus says. So how do we differentiate some of these, if we will, compartments of the afterlife?

Matthew Emerson (02:57):

Right. So like you said, the New Testament uses a few different terms to refer to the place of the dead. What we would call probably the intermediate state. Sometimes it's a general term, where it's just referring to the place where everyone who dies goes, in their human soul. Like in Romans 10, it makes reference to the abyss. That's just a general term to talk about the place of the dead. And it doesn't differentiate between righteous and unrighteous, but in other places it uses specific terms. Like some of the ones that you mentioned, so paradise would be one of those, the place of the righteous dead. Another term for that is Abraham's bosom that we find in Luke 16. And then you have terms that refer to the place of the unrighteous, or the compartment, if you want to put it that way, of the unrighteous dead. And that would be terms like Gehenna or even Hades. And so the New Testament talks about the intermediate state in a lot of different ways, but the basic idea is that there's—and this is true in the Old Testament as well—there's one place of the dead, and that's divided into at least what you might call the righteous compartment, paradise, Abraham's bosom, and the unrighteous compartment, which can be referred to as Gehenna, or Hades, or Sheol, in a negative sense.

Brian Arnold (04:12):

And so you mentioned Luke 16, just for those listening, that's the parable, or the story, of the rich man and Lazarus. Where both of them die and Lazarus finds himself in Abraham's bosom. The rich man finds himself more in what we would consider a place like hell. And they have this interchange, and it does kind of show us some of this cosmology of the underworld

Matthew Emerson (04:38):

That's right. And you know, a lot of people want to pass over that text and say, "well, it's not intending to teach eschatology or cosmogony," and I mean, that's true. I mean, actually Jesus's point in that parable is—read the Old Testament christologically. So it's not, you know, it's not trying to teach us eschatology per se, but it still shows us the common eschatology of the time, the common cosmogony of the time. There is this place of the dead, it's divided between righteous and unrighteous, that chasm is impassable. And even though the place...even though the dead are together in a sense, so that Lazarus, or at least the rich man and Abraham, can speak to one another, they're together, therefore, it's also divided into these two spaces, where the righteous are blessed and the unrighteous are tormented.

Brian Arnold (05:33):

So you said at the very beginning, if we think of the phrase in the Apostle's creed, even of "he descended to hell," and we think about a place of torment, that's a wrong way to conceive of this. But Jesus, after he dies, a lot of people probably think he ascends back to heaven. We'll talk about that in a little bit. But you say he goes to the place of the dead. I want to talk about some passages that you use, even in your book, to help explain this. And let's begin with 1 Peter 3 to say—why is Jesus descending to the place of the dead? And I'm going to read it to give people some context of this passage. 1 Peter 3, beginning in verse 18: "for Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God. Being put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the Spirit, in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, because they formerly did not obey when God's patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is eight, persons were brought safely through water. Baptism, which now corresponds to this, saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven,

Brian Arnold (06:47):

and is the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him." Well, I don't know of many other passages that are as quite controversial as this text is in 1 Peter 3. So what is happening in this text? How do we understand the descent through it?

Matthew Emerson (07:05):

Yeah. So this text, I think fairly simply, is dealing with what happened to Jesus between his death and resurrection. And I think that Peter has in mind, really, the whole course of Christ's obedience here. So he's not just talking about the descent, he's talking about his life, his crucifixion, his resurrection. But then there's that phrase, "by the spirit, in which he went and preached." And that's what we're talking about—what's happening in between his death and resurrection. And other interpreters have taken this differently. This is a really—as you mentioned—this is a really contested passage in terms of how to take it, but I take it as referring to, what's going on, what Jesus is doing in between his death and resurrection, and he's proclaiming, according to—if you read that phrase "in which he went and preached"—if you read that as a reference to that time period, then he's going and preaching or proclaiming his victory through his substitutionary death, over Satan, death, evil, evil angels. And therefore his victory for the righteous dead.

Matthew Emerson (08:21):

And so it's just really kind of like a, "Hey, what's up everybody? I win!" moment that's going on in the descent. And he's preaching or proclaiming his victory to everyone in the place of the dead. And I didn't mention this earlier, but in general, the underworld, or the place of the dead, was not just viewed as the place where the dead reside, but also the place where the evil angels reside as well. Satan and the evil angels. And so, in proclaiming his victory, he's proclaiming it to—and this is Philippians 2 language—he's proclaiming it, or he will proclaim it, in his resurrection to those on the earth, and he'll proclaim it in his ascension to those in heaven. But here in 1 Peter 3, he's proclaiming it to those under the earth. And that's how Philippians 2 puts it as well—that he'll be Lord, recognized as Lord, by all those in heaven and on earth and under the earth, that is, in the place of the dead. So he's proclaiming, "What's up, I win."

Brian Arnold (09:16):

Yeah. That's great. You take Philippians 2, as a past event, of things that happened? Or do you take that as a future? Or both?

Matthew Emerson (09:25):

Yeah, I'm not...well, I'll say it this way—I don't know that the temporal frame is what's in reference there. I think what's being referenced there is the fact that Jesus is Lord over every part of creation, because of his death and resurrection. And that includes the heavens, the earth, and under the earth—the underworld. And so, you know, I'm not saying that Philippians 2 has the descent in mind in particular, like in a narrative sense. But I do think it gives credence to the idea that Jesus's victory is declared, not just to those who are alive now, or to those in heaven—and by that, I mean, you know, basically the angels—but also to those under the earth. That Jesus is known as King there, too. And I think that 1 Peter 3 is describing how that happened. How is he known as King? Well, he went down and proclaimed his victory there.

Brian Arnold (10:30):

Well, and it's fulfillment, in many ways, to the promise made in Genesis chapter 3, the first gospel, where the Lord Jesus Christ, the seed of the woman, will crush the head of the serpent. And proclaiming his victory to those who thought they may have toppled God.

Matthew Emerson (10:47):

Yeah, that's right. And I don't affirm everything in this book that I'll mention here, but I think it has a good insight in this regard—Michael Heiser's The Unseen Realm. He makes the argument that this place of the dead, really, is the kingdom of the serpent in the Old Testament. And so what Jesus is doing in his descent is going and kicking down the gates of the kingdom of the serpent, and showing that he's King there too. And this is completely in line with sort of the plot line of the Old Testament. That Jesus, that Yahweh, isn't just King in Israel, he's King over everything. And that includes over even the kingdom of death. And so here's God, in the person of Jesus, entering into that kingdom, the kingdom of death, and declaring his victory in his descent.

Brian Arnold (11:42):

I think that's a really beautiful picture of that. And Christ is Lord over all. There's nothing outside of his Kingship. And to see that even over the realm of the dead, through the descent, is important. So let's even pivot from there, to the doctrines that are involved in this. So even the sovereignty of God over all things, including hell and the place of the dead itself, as he is proclaiming his kingship, even there. What other doctrines do you see connected to the descent? So if we...and I think a lot of evangelicals today don't hold the descent. They think Jesus died, went to heaven, came back, rose again, and then ascended 40 days later. And this might be a bit earth-shattering for them, even though it is the position that's been held throughout most of church history. So what are we losing if we lose the descent? How is this tied to other doctrines?

Matthew Emerson (12:39):

Yeah. The biggest thing that we're losing, I think, in terms of how it coheres with other systematic doctrines, is a really clear vision for why we're not Apollinarian.

Brian Arnold (12:56):

You're going to have to define that.

Matthew Emerson (12:57):

Yeah. So Apollinarianism posits or believes that when God the Son became incarnate, he only took on a human body, and not a human body and a human soul. And so, you know, you're talking about a situation in which Jesus is just—in term of his human nature—he's just materiality. He's only in his physical body and the processes by which that body functions. He's not a human body and a human soul. And what better doctrine to combat that heresy, than the doctrine that says that Jesus, according to his human soul, consciously descended to the place of the dead and declared victory there?

Matthew Emerson (13:45):

And that's really the importance of it in the early church—is in that regard. As a defense against Apollinarianism. And I think there's evidence that suggests that when the descent clause in the creed in particular is emphasized in various iterations of it, it's because the church is fighting Apollinarianism at that moment so fiercely. The other thing that the early church emphasized with this doctrine is what we just talked about, which is that Jesus is King over everything, including the kingdom of death. And in that regard, it's important with respect to soteriology. It tells us something about what Jesus's work accomplishes. And so those are the two big ones. I mean, there are other ways that we can connect the descent to different systematic doctrines. You know, in the book, I talk about how it's related to the doctrine of the Trinity as well, how it's related to anthropology, doctrine of creation, ecclesiology, eschatology, I mean, there's things we could say about all those. But just in terms of the descent, in a unique way, what it's contributing, it certainly is a big part of the fight against Apollinarianism. And it's also a key doctrine in relation to—especially the victory motifs—with respect to the doctrine of salvation.

Brian Arnold (15:04):

And let's hang out on the Apollinarianism piece, briefly. This is a way that is sloppily handled by some pastors, who they're not trying to be heretical, but they'll say "God in a bod." This idea, right? You've heard this? Basically God just taking over a human body, but not really being fully human, is kind of an implication of that. Well, if Jesus doesn't descend to the place of the dead, like every other human does, is he actually fully human? And I think that's what Dr. Emerson is really driving at is—to skip that step would be to say that he did not fully become human. One of the early church fathers said, "That which he did not assume, he did not heal." Which meant Jesus had to become fully everything that we are. And if that meant he had the full human soul, then he must experience the things that the full human soul must experience, even in death, which is the descent of the dead. Is that how you would say it?

Matthew Emerson (16:00):

Yeah, that's exactly right.

Brian Arnold (16:02):

Well, let's even talk about some of these other ones. You mentioned the word soteriology. That just means the doctrine of salvation, and how does it particularly impact? Because I know a lot of people, when we think about Christianity, soteriology is one of those places we go to first. What does it mean for me to be in a right relationship with God? How can I be saved? How can I be with God forever? So how does the doctrine of the descent impact somebody's salvation?

Matthew Emerson (16:28):

Well, Jesus, in his descent, is defeating the kingdom of the enemy. And he does that because of the work he's already accomplished. It's not as if he's doing something new. But rather he's taking what he's already accomplished, and applying it into the realm of the dead. So because he has already died the death that we deserve for sin—on the cross, in his penal-substitutionary death—because he's already done that, death has no power over the righteous, that is, those who are in Christ. And because of his death on the cross, he's victorious over death itself. He's victorious over the realm of the dead. And so it's a doctrine that says, yes, the key action of Jesus in salvation is substituting himself for sinners in his crucifixion. That substitution has effects that include his victory over the realm of the dead, and therefore his ability to bring us up from the dead and into new life in him.

Brian Arnold (17:46):

Well, it makes me think of a passage like 1 Corinthians 15, where we hear about the resurrection, and because Christ is raised, we'll be raised. And Paul ends it with this beautiful idea—death is swallowed up in victory. "Oh, death, where is your victory? Oh, death, where is your sting? The sting of death is sin. And the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ." And part of that victory is the descent of the Lord to the realm of the dead, to proclaim his kingdom and his victory, and to experience everything that we, as ensouled people, would experience. So that we can really say death has no power or sting,

Matthew Emerson (18:26):

Right. Amen.

Brian Arnold (18:29):

Well let's talk about some counter-arguments to this, because it's pretty popular out there right now that Jesus did not descend to the place of the dead.

Brian Arnold (18:39):

And some of the verses that are used are words that come from Jesus on the cross. There's seven of them, famously, that he said while paying the price for sins. And in John 19:30, Jesus says these three words—"it is finished," coming across in the Greek in just tetelestai, the one word, "it is finished." Well, was it finished when Jesus died, or was it not yet finished? Because I think some people would say, if it was really finished when he said so, then why does he need to descend? If it wasn't finished yet, then why aren't those words said after the resurrection, or even better yet, after the ascension and the session, him sitting down at the right hand of majesty? So why is Jesus saying "it is finished" on the cross if it's not yet finished?

Matthew Emerson (19:24):

Yeah. So when Jesus says that, he's saying that his active obedience is done. He's lived the perfect life that we can't live, and he's died the death that we deserve, for us. And there's nothing else left to do. What happens in his descent and resurrection and ascension, is the application of that work to reality. So in his descent, he's really dead, he really...I mean, that's part of the penalty for sin, is being dead. So I affirm penal substitution, so I affirm that Jesus experienced God's wrath on the cross. So I don't want to...I want to make very clear that I affirm penal substitution. Jesus took our place. He took our punishment. He took God's wrath on the cross. But it's not just that he took God's wrath, it's that in taking God's wrath,

Matthew Emerson (20:21):

he also experienced the punishment for sin, which is ultimately God's wrath, but there's also a physical death. So he dies, but he applies his finished work to the realm of the dead in his descent, declaring victory that he's already won. He's not doing anything new. He's saying, "hey, as a result of what I've already done, guess what everybody in here—I win." His resurrection is an application of his finished work to—of course both his bodily life, but then also in his post-resurrection teaching and ministry, he's also applying the results of his finished work on the cross and in his life to the realm of on the earth. And then in his ascension, the same thing—his rule, his bodily ascension, and then his rule, is a result of what he's already done. And because of his perfect life and his atoning death, he now rules over all things. So these are not new things, in terms of actions that he has to do to save. They're applications of what he's already done to save, in every realm of reality—under the earth, on the earth and in the heavens. And so, no, he's not doing anything new in the descent is the short answer to that question.

Brian Arnold (21:37):

Well, I think that's a really great response, that even thinking in terms of active obedience being completed at that point, and these other things as the result of them. I think is a really helpful way to think through it. And then let me ask you the other one that that trips people up on this, as Jesus turns to the thief on the cross and he says, "today you'll be with me in paradise." We've kind of answered this a little bit already, but let's knock this one right on the nose, and address this in terms of—where's paradise?

Matthew Emerson (22:06):

Yeah. So paradise was viewed, or was a term to refer to the righteous compartment of the place of the dead. And the place of the dead is...this is all metaphorical language. I mean, there's can't dig down in the dirt and find the place of the dead where human souls reside. Okay? So we need to be careful about how we say this, but when the dead are waiting for the resurrection, they're waiting in the place of the dead, which is down, in kind of the spatial, metaphorical language. And so Jesus, quote unquote, "goes down to paradise." Now, because of his resurrection, the nature of paradise has changed. The righteous dead are no longer waiting for the Messiah, but the Messiah is in their midst. And so now we talk about going up to heaven, because that's where Jesus is, and therefore that's where the righteous dead are. But going down, in terms of his death on the cross and what he says to the thief, and that being related to Old Testament language and New Testament language about the place of the dead—that would have been normal. Everybody would have thought, "yeah, he's going down to the place of the dead, paradise, righteous compartment, because he's a good dude. I mean, he's perfect."

Brian Arnold (23:25):

A good dude, okay, great.

Matthew Emerson (23:27):

But it's changed now. And so the spatial language changes. And it changes because he's there. He wasn't there before—they were waiting on him, they were faithful. That's why they were in the righteous compartment, not the unrighteous compartment, because they're faithful saints waiting for the Messiah to come. But now he's come. He's here, and he's in their midst. And he's in the throne room of heaven. And so they're up with him. And so, when we die, we go up. Or we talk about going up to heaven, rather than down to the place of the dead, because the nature of the place of the dead has changed.

Brian Arnold (23:59):

And so we can both see the Lord descending to the place of the dead in paradise on Holy Saturday, and then believers having full assurance and confidence that they will be with the Lord as soon as they fall asleep in Jesus here on earth. And be with him in heaven, awaiting the new heavens and the new earth. Well, I think it's been really important today to think through this lost doctrine, I think, for a lot of evangelicals. Of the fact that Christ dies for sins, he descends to the place of the dead, he proclaims his kingship, proclaims his kingdom, and then he leads us triumphantly in victory so that we do not have to fear death. There is no sting of death for those who are in Christ, because Jesus not only paid it all, but even in his descent, we see the fact that he is fully human like us—so that he can, as he rose from the dead, raise us from the dead and take us to glory with him. Well, Matt, thank you for helping us think through this important doctrine today.

Matthew Emerson (24:56):

Yeah. Thanks very much for letting me come on. I've enjoyed it.

Outro (25:00):

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