Bibliographic info: 230 pp.
Publisher: Ashgate, 2013.
With thanks to Ashgate for the review copy.
The author, Catherine Ella Laufer, is an Anglican priest and adjunct lecturer in theology at Charles Sturt University in Australia, teaching at St Francis College in Brisbane.
This study explores the creedal assertion (found in both the Apostles’ Creed and the Athanasian Creed) that Christ “descended to hell”, with “hell” coming from the Latin inferna (in the phrase descendit ad inferna) and should be understood in the sense of the place of the dead (like Sheol/Hades), rather than the place of fire and brimstone that one’s imagination usually conjures up when hearing the word.
Laufer understands Christ’s descent into Hades to mean that once he died, he went to the same place where all the dead go – a place of separation from God due to sin. When God raised Jesus from the dead, this affected the faithful dead who were brought up with Christ as he ascended from Hades. This, in turn, gives hope to all those who die in Christ from now on, as they too will find themselves sharing in Christ’s resurrection life in the communion of saints prior to the fullness to be found in the future bodily resurrection at the parousia. Going further, Laufer contends that this descent into Hades is a critical part of the makeup of the Christological doctrine of the incarnation. Why? Because death is an important part of being human and if God is truly to be found in Jesus, then he had to have experienced death fully as any human would.
Chapter 1 provides an examination of key New Testament verses that are usually brought to bear in a discussion on Christ’s descent into Hades: 1 Pet. 3:18b-20, 4:6; Eph. 4:9; Acts 2:24-27; Matt. 10:40; and Rom. 10:6-7. Of course, these texts hardly make it explicit that Christ descended into Hades, but they can be read as to imply such a doctrine. She compares the scriptural evidence for the descent doctrine to that of the Trinity. The New Testament does not explicitly spell out the three-persons-in-the-one-being-of-God doctrine, but there are many verses that, when seen together, can be interpreted so as to wind up at such a position. I’m not really convinced by the analogy, however, because while the descent doctrine may be mentioned in a lot in patristic writings, it isn’t as intricately woven into the fabric of the New Testament writings as the doctrine of the Trinity is.
Chapters 2–7 then examine the descent doctrine in the history of theology. I particularly enjoyed the discussion of contemporary theological thinkers, which included Barth, Moltmann, and Balthasar. Chapters 8–9 then discuss the implications of such a doctrine, some of which I found to be helpful (such as the pastoral implications), but others were less convincing, such as the claim that Christ’s descent into Hades is “vital to Christian faith in an incarnate, crucified and risen Lord”, and “vital to the gospel” (seems like a bit of an overstatement considering it isn’t deemed worthy in some of the key statements in the NT on the gospel, such as 1 Cor. 15:1-5 and Rom. 1:1-4). One possible implication of this descent doctrine that I did find appealing is that it may suggest universalism, though Laufer is (understandably) not dogmatic on the issue, instead seeing it as a basis for a hopeful universalistic outcome: “If [Christ] has truly gone through death and hell for each and every soul ever created, and been raised from thence, then we can hope that ultimately, his work will be complete. This is the significance of the affirmation, descendit ad inferna” (bold emphasis mine).
While I don’t think the descent doctrine carries as much theological import as Laufer does, the book provides some valuable reading on the doctrine for anyone interested, particularly from a historical theological perspective. Anyone interested in theological issues such as hell, the nature of the afterlife, universalism, and the incarnation will find this study a valuable read.