Book Reviews

Book Review: “‘He Descended to the Dead’ – An Evangelical Theology of Holy Saturday” by Matthew W. Emerson

Matthew Y. Emerson’s ‘He Descended to the Dead’ An Evangelical Theology of Holy Saturday explores the doctrine of the descent of Christ to the dead (sometimes translated “descended into hell”) from an evangelical perspective. In doing so, Emerson offers a biblical, theological, systematic, and historical defense of the doctrine.

Creedal authority is, of course, a major question. Unfortunately, Emerson’s brief survey of the topic shows just how freely many evangelicals dismiss any kind of authority of the historical creeds of the church. Emerson proceeds to a biblical defense of the doctrine of the descent, noting that a holistic view of what the Bible teaches about Sheol and the dead lends additional support to the doctrine. Additional texts that can be seen as directly supporting the Descent are also mustered (Acts 2:25-28 and Psalm 16:8-11). Additional Pauline allusions to the descent, which are often ignored in the evangelical pushback against the doctrine, are of note as well (eg. Ephesians 4:9 and Romans 10:7). These (and many other) texts supplement the discusion of the clearest text, 1 Peter 3:18-22. The total sum of the evidence leads Emerson to conclude that dismissing the doctrine as unbiblical is unwarranted.

Emerson then moves to an historical defense of the doctrine of the descent. Though there are some deviations in exactly how the descent to the dead is read by some theologians (notably some Reformers as well as Hans Urs von Balthasar), the general point is broad historical consensus affirming the doctrine of the descent. This section is particular interesting because Emerson draws out the differing ways various strands of theology have read the descent, while noting the broad agreement that the doctrine itself is to be affirmed.

Moving along, Emerson then surveys how the doctrine of the descent can impact various aspects of Christian dogmatics for the next 6 chapters, closing with a brief note about how the descent can impact Christian life. These chapters outline numerous parts of Christian theology and how the doctrine of the descent can be seen to inform them in constructive ways. Another important feature of Emerson’s discussion is his tying the descent into broader Christological questions. This already happens early on in the discussion of the biblical evidence for the descent, where Emerson notes that Christ’s death had to be a real death instead of a kind of simulated one in order to satisfy Christ’s full humanity as well as the atonement (see page 64 for a brief summary of this). This helps show that the doctrine of the descent cannot be so blithely dismissed with potentially deleterious problems for the whole of Christian theology.

With ‘He Descended to the Dead,’ Matthew Y. Emerson has written a watershed book on the doctrine of the descent. As a Lutheran reading evangelical critiques of historical creeds, I’m often surprised by how swiftly some major evangelical theologians move to dismiss parts of the creed as unbiblical or even simply mistaken. Emerson’s book helped show why evangelicals ought to be moving to affirm the doctrine of the descent rather than moving towards such a swift dismissal. I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in historical theology, as well as anyone who wonders about the historical Christian Creeds.

(All Amazon links are affiliates links.)

Disclaimer: I was provided with a copy of the book for review by the publisher. I was not required to give any specific kind of feedback whatsoever.


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About J.W. Wartick

J.W. Wartick is a Lutheran, feminist, Christ-follower. A Science Fiction snob, Bonhoeffer fan, Paleontology fanboy and RPG nerd.


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