The theologian Michael Bird has passed along the words of probably the goriest hymn ever composed or sung!
Romanos the Melodist [5th-6th century] has a charming chorale piece called “The Victory of the Cross,” featuring a musical dialogue between the devil and Hades about the cross. The devil tells Hades that there is nothing to worry about, while Hades panics that he is about to have his stomach ripped open and all the peoples inside him let out. In the hymn we hear:
Hades saw the Lord, and said to those in Hell:
“O my priests and O my powers,
who has driven a spike into my heart?
A wooden lance has just pierced me; I am being torn in two
I feel it terribly; my breath is a whirlwind.
My insides burn. My belly churns in pain.
I am forced to vomit forth Adam and Adam’s people,
who were deposited with me because of a tree.
But a tree is now leading them
on the return to paradise.
We all love the old hymns, but, I mean…
What is happening here? Romanos the Melodist’s depiction of Hades being concerned about losing her inhabitants is actually a very biblical notion, though in Protestant Evangelical circles we sometimes do not know this. In fact, the line in the creed, “he descended to the dead,” touches on these ideas. However, this is also likely the most confusing and controversial line in the entire creed for modern Christians to understand.
What does it mean that Christ “descended”? And what does this have to do with Hades and the dead and Sheol and all the rest? Let us unpack this fascinating and misunderstood doctrine.
What do the New Testament writers mean by “the dead”?
To understand what is happening here we must first understand the thought-world of first century Judaism and of the first Christian writers concerning where the dead go. And to do this, we will consider one way that they spoke of this, namely through the phrase, “the dead.” The New Testament contains numerous references to this phrase. 1 Corinthians 15 provides us with one clear example.
20 But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.
What we need to understand is that when Paul spoke of Jesus being “raised from the dead” he was speaking of more than just Jesus’ tomb. He was speaking instead of “the place of the dead.” Theologian Matthew Emerson explains.
In other words, when the New Testament speaks about “the dead,” it has a specific background, one that affirms “the [place of the] dead” as a location containing the disembodied souls of both the righteous and unrighteous (albeit in separate compartments). This lends credence to the idea that when the NT writers and later the creeds speak about Christ’s resurrection “from the dead,” they mean not only from the state of being dead but from the place of the dead and from among the dead ones (disembodied souls).
So what was this “place of the dead” of which the New Testament speaks? The following image is from Matthew Emerson’s tremendous book, He Descended to the Dead.
When first century writers spoke of the dead, they were envisioning a place where all the dead go, but a place with different levels or compartments.
- The uppermost compartment was where the righteous dead went. For instance, the Old Testament saints. This place was called “paradise” or “Abraham’s bosom” by the Jews. So when a child of God before the resurrection of Jesus died, they went to paradise, the uppermost level of the place of the dead.
- Then there was the place where the unrighteous dead went, those condemned souls. In the first century, this was called “Hades” or “Sheol” or “Gehenna.”
- Then they spoke of a place called “Tartarus,” which was a place where disobedient and fallen angels were held in prison.
We must think rightly about this. When we do, a number of texts open up to us. For instance, think about the fact that Jesus tells the repentant thief, “This day you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). Jesus was saying that the thief on the cross would join Jesus in the uppermost compartment of “the place of the dead,” called Paradise. They would, in other words, descend to Paradise before ascending to Heaven. Or with the parable of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16, we are now better able to understand the layout of the scene that is described. Listen:
19 “There was a rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 20 And at his gate was laid a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21 who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover, even the dogs came and licked his sores. 22 The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried, 23 and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side.
Both Hades and “Abraham’s side” were in the place of the dead, though they were separate and uncrossable places.
What this means is that Jesus’ body was placed in the tomb and His soul with to the place of the righteous dead—Paradise of Abraham’s Bosom—which was the uppermost compartment of the place of the dead. He descends to the dead before He ascends to Heaven.
Does the New Testament teach that Jesus “descended to the dead”?
The question is, does the New Testament teach this idea, that Jesus descended to the place of the dead? It does. We must understand that the New Testament used different words to explain this reality. Consider Peter’s sermon in Acts 2 and how he makes use of Psalm 16.
24 God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it. 25 For David says concerning him, “‘I saw the Lord always before me, for he is at my right hand that I may not be shaken; 26 therefore my heart was glad, and my tongue rejoiced; my flesh also will dwell in hope. 27 For you will not abandon my soul to Hades, or let your Holy One see corruption. 28 You have made known to me the paths of life; you will make me full of gladness with your presence.’
Here, Peter is quoting from Psalm 16. Peter says that David is speaking of Jesus when David wrote that God “will not abandon my soul to Hades.” That language is very specific. In the Old Testament, Hades was used more generally to refer to the place of dead and not to the compartment for unredeemed souls per se. Thus, in applying this to Jesus, Peter was saying that Jesus had descended to the place of the dead.
Paul, in Ephesians 4, Paul says something most interesting about what happened after Jesus died on the cross.
8 Therefore it says, “When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men.” 9 (In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower regions, the earth? 10 He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.)
Paul says that Jesus “descended into the lower regions” of “the earth” before ascending to heaven with the captives He set free. Emerson notes that “the lower regions of the earth” is “a phrase that is synonymous with the underworld, or place of the dead, in the OT and ANE [Ancient Near Eastern] cognate literature.” What is more, the Old Testament text that most parallels Ephesians 4:8–9 is Isaiah 14. It does so both conceptually and with the ascent/descent ordering. Listen:
14 I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will make myself like the Most High.’ 15 But you are brought down to Sheol, to the far reaches of the pit.
Sheol, in the Old Testament, was a general term for the place of the dead.
Similarly, Paul writes in Romans 10:
6 But the righteousness based on faith says, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’” (that is, to bring Christ down) 7 “or ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). 8 But what does it say? “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim)
Here, too, “the abyss” is a reference to “the place of the dead.” In these passages and others we see the New Testament teaching that Jesus’ soul, when He died, descended to the place of the dead, to paradise. This is what He did between the crucifixion and the resurrection. At the resurrection, He carried the souls of the righteous dead to heaven, where He now sits at the right hand of the Father making intercession for the saints. When we die as followers of Jesus now, we go to heaven, where Jesus is. Consider what Stephen says as he is being stoned to death in Acts 7.
59 And as they were stoning Stephen, he called out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”
Jesus has ascended now to the Father, so to say, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit,” is to say, “Welcome me into heaven.” So, too, in Philippians 1 we read:
23 I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.
When the believer dies in Christ, they go to be with Him in heaven, where He ascended after descending to the dead.
Why does “he descended to the dead” matter?
All of this raises the question, “Why does ‘he descended to the dead’ matter? What was accomplished by Jesus descending to the dead?” There are a few different answers we can give. First, consider what we find in Hebrews 2.
9 But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.
For one thing, Jesus “tasting death for everyone” was one of His ways of truly identifying with us in His great saving work. It was yet one more way of His experiencing the full gamut of human experience. When Jesus descended to the place of the dead, He experienced what it was to have His body buried and His soul in the abode of the dead. His descent, then, stands alongside His crucifixion, His burial, His resurrection, and His ascent as part of the entirety of His saving work. It is also part of his “sympathizing” (Hebrews 4:15) with us. When we approach the grave and death, we can know that our God has gone before us and is with us. He understands!
Secondly, Jesus’ descent was part of His conquering death and hades. In Revelation 1 we read:
17 When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. But he laid his right hand on me, saying, “Fear not, I am the first and the last, 18 and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades.
Jesus descended to the place of the dead and, in doing so, He took the keys of death and Hades by triumphing over them in the resurrection. He tasted death, then destroyed death, and so now has dominion over even death. Death is now defeated in Christ and when He returns it will exist no more.
Thirdly, in Philippians 2, Paul uses a phrase for the place of the dead when he writes:
10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Those “under the earth” include all those in the place of death, the righteous, the unrighteous, and the imprisoned angels. Because Jesus descended, all in the place of death know that He is Lord. This is likely what is happening in those enigmatic verses from 1 Peter 3, where Peter writes that Jesus preached to the disobedient spirits.
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, 19 in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison
In other words, Jesus proclaimed His victory over the damned and the fallen angels of the place of the dead. Then, in 1 Peter 4, we see that He likewise proclaimed His Lordship to the righteous dead in paradise.
6 For this is why the gospel was preached even to those who are dead, that though judged in the flesh the way people are, they might live in the spirit the way God does.
In other words, in His descent, Jesus took a preaching tour of the place of the dead. To the condemned, He announced that He is Lord. To the saved, He set them free from the domain of death and carried them to Heaven.
“He descended to the dead” is no irrelevant doctrine, even though it can be a difficult doctrine to understand. But once we understand it, we now understand why Romanos the Melodist wrote that gory hymn about Hades being upset. Through Christ’s descent, the righteous dead were set free and the condemned dead were made aware that Jesus Christ is Lord.
The descent was Jesus’ way of triumphing over even death. He tasted death for us so that He could defeat death and set us free.
Truly the gates of Hell tremble and fall before the good news that Jesus is Lord and that, through Him, death itself has been defeated.
 Bird, Michael F. What Christians Ought to Believe. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Academic, 2016), p.149.
 Emerson, Matthew. He Descended to the Dead. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, ), p.29 (Kindle).
 Ibid., p.42 (Kindle).