The descent of Jesus (part 6)

This post continues a series exploring Raising Adam, Why Jesus Descended into Hell by Gerrit Dawson. For other posts in the series, click a number: 12, 3, 4, 5, 78.

Last time, we looked at the steps in Jesus' journey of descent on Maundy Thursday evening and Good Friday. Now we'll explore what happened to him on Holy Saturday and why it matters. 

The Descent into Hell by Tintoretto (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Scripture declares that on Holy Saturday (which, by Jewish reckoning, began at sunset Friday), the human body of Jesus lay dead in the tomb. Scripture then suggests that Jesus' human spirit, now departed from the body, descended into the realm of the dead (Hades in Greek; Sheol in Hebrew). Like the other steps in Jesus' great transit of mercy, Our Lord's descent into Sheol has great significance in salvation history. Though some object to the implication that something needed to be added to Jesus' death on the cross to accomplish our salvation, Dawson reminds us that  
the cross was not a single moment, but a series of agonizing moments....[each] vital to the sacrificial work of Jesus on our behalf.... Every moment of Jesus' sinless life of perfect fidelity to the Father and filial love to all whom he encountered are the only reason the cross can 'work' as an atoning sacrifice. (pp. 75, 76, emphasis added)
In the rest of this post, we'll explore what happened to Jesus in Sheol, and the salvific value thereof. Key to our understanding is remembering that Jesus descended into death as our representative and substitute. On our behalf, Jesus experienced human death to the full, and in so doing he conquered death for us. But there is more to the story, as we will see.

Death after dying

As is true of us all when we die, Jesus' human spirit separated from his body at death. As we saw in earlier posts in this series, there is significant (though not uncontested) evidence in Scripture and early  Christian teaching that Jesus' spirit descended into Sheol -- the realm of departed spirits. But what was Jesus' spirit doing while in Sheol? Resting? Cowering in shame? Dawson answers that though Jesus died in defeat, his death "was also his triumph." Indeed, "the paradox of victorious defeat lies at the heart of the gospel" (p. 77). 

The apostle Paul tells us that Jesus, at the cross. "disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame" (Col. 2:15). The author of Hebrews says essentially the same thing (Heb. 2:14). Thus, at the cross we see a startling reversal -- what appeared to be Jesus' ignominious defeat turned into stunning victory. But was Jesus immediately aware of his triumph? Some say no, for there is no awareness in death. Others say Jesus' human spirit ascended immediately from the cross into heaven, there to await the resurrection of his body. But Dawson asks us to consider the possibility advanced by some of the patristic fathers and others that Jesus' spirit descended into Sheol, where our Lord experienced not victory, but the pains of death -- the pains of being really dead. Dawson comments:
In descending fully into our death, Jesus on Holy Saturday was not yet restored to experiencing the joy of his relationship with the Father. Three reasons undergird my conjecture: 1) His death meant being dead. 2) Jesus [had] predicted a sojourn among the dead akin to that of all people. 3) [The idea of] Jesus rejoicing on Holy Saturday contradicts the despair in which he left his disciples. (p. 78)  
Dawson goes on to unpack these three reasons (read the details in his book), including offering the thought (related to reason #1) that in Sheol, Jesus experienced "something other, indeed worse, than he did on the horrible cross" (p. 78).

Was Sheol a hell for Jesus?

Might Jesus' time in Sheol have been one of experiencing a continuing sense of forsakenness? Dawson thinks that might be the case, and for support cites the writing of theologian Urs von Balthasar who suggests that on Holy Saturday Jesus "entered into solidarity with all the dead because he became like them," though Jesus' experience of death was even more intense, for as the God-man his experience of Sheol exceeded that of anyone else:
[Jesus] underwent a deeper fall beneath the power of death, knowing a loneliness, darkness and despair beyond that experienced by even the most sinful soul. He went to the place of death, the ultimate solitary confinement, in which... through his own utter aloneness, he brothered all the dead. (p. 81) 

The vision of death

Balthazar also suggests that Jesus, in his humanity, did not become aware of his victory on the cross until the resurrection of his body on Easter Sunday. On Holy Saturday in Sheol, all Jesus was able to see was the specter of unending death. As a result, "the absolute loneliness that is the result of sin-in-itself gripped the soul of Jesus" -- a condition described in Psalm 143:3-4. David Lauber summarizes Balthazar's perspective: "It is only by genuinely experiencing the utter hopelessness of the abandonment, forsakenness, and separation from God, which is the consequence of sin, that Jesus can destroy sin and restore hope to humanity.... Holy Saturday was the day when it was profoundly not all right for Jesus...." (p. 83).

Deeper and farther: comprehending our death

It needs to be pointed out that there is much we do not know concerning Jesus' experience of death in Sheol. But Dawson suggests that by descending to the place of the dead, Jesus shared our death to the fullest extent. In his descent into Sheol, Jesus went to "the very roots not only of the earth but of the spiritual realm in order to extinguish the fire [of sin and its degradation] at its source" (p. 84). Dawson continues:
To be cleansed from the root up, to have our heart recreated and life restored, we needed a redemption that plumbed to the foundation, the beginning, of our creation. We required the quenching of the fires burning under all our death as, left unchecked and to our own devices, our in-turned souls would consume themselves forever.... In Sheol [Jesus] comprehended our death. He got all the way around it. He died "beneath" our death and thereby got his "hands" around our lethal problem. (p. 84)
As a result of his time in the place of the dead, Jesus now "holds the entire depths of Sheol... and has brought light into it for all who will trust him. He has gathered up all our dying, He has swallowed all our sinning. He has made them his own that we might be made his own" (p. 85).

No further suffering than the cross 

Some biblical scholars object to Balthasar's perspective, seeing it as stating that Jesus' further suffering beyond his death on the cross was necessary to accomplish our salvation. But Dawson asks us to consider that part of dying includes the state of being dead. That, he believes, is why God did not resurrect Jesus directly from the cross on Good Friday. Jesus' "sojourn in Sheol was... a necessary, foreknown component of his dying" -- the "outworking of the fundamentally finished sacrifice on the cross" (p. 86).


Though we are not given to know without question exactly what happened to Jesus on Holy Saturday, 
by following the trajectory of Jesus' descent from his incarnation, we can trace with some confidence his path to the dead.... [Jesus] went further away from our Father than we can go in order to bring us back filially and legally, forensically and relationally, to be reconciled eternally to our Father. He let death pile him deeper than any soul had gone, in order that no soul now need sink so low." (p. 87)