Ephesians 4:9 speaks of Jesus’ descent into the lower regions of the earth.
“In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower regions, the earth?”
Interpreters over the centuries have argued about what this is in reference to. The Apostle’s Creed speaks of Jesus “descending into hell.” It says, “Jesus Christ…who …was crucified, died, and buried; he descended into hell.”
Protestants are sometimes uncomfortable with this phrase of “descending into hell” because it does not seem to be a doctrine taught in the Scriptures. Therefore, some have responded with a view that looks at the descent in Ephesians 4:9 as the incarnation of Jesus. Another option, through Calvin’s influence accounts for the so-called ‘figurative’ view, which understands Christ’s descent as the torments he suffered on the cross in his substitutionary death.
The Historical Argument
The Apostles’ Creed was not written or approved by a single church council at one specific time. It gradually took shape from about A.D. 200 to 750. The phrase, “He descended into hell,” was not found in any of the early versions of the Creed. In the Apostles’ Creed, the phrase was originally “descended to the dead” in Latin (descendit ad inferos) but was later changed to “descended into hell” (descendit ad inferna). Eric Hutchinson notes.
In a pronouncement of an Arian council held at Sirmium in 359, there is no statement about Christ’s “burial”; in its place, there is only the statement of His “descent”: “And He went down to the subterranean regions, and ordered the things there–upon seeing whom the gates of Hades shuddered” (presumably referring to Matt. 16:18). This suggestive substitution of “descended” for “buried…descended” is found again in the Creed of Venantius Fortunatus in sixth-century Gaul (he in fact proceeds directly from “crucified” to “descended”). In most versions, however, both clauses were included in subsequent centuries.
In any case, what is clear from these and other early uses, by the Arians as well as by the orthodox, is that “hell” as they were using it referred to the “abode of the dead,” represented in the Old Testament by “Sheol,” rather than the “abode of the damned, which is to say, “Gehenna.”
The Canonical Argument
Both the Old and the New Testament have texts which speak of the the theme of descending to the dead. In Matthew 12:40, Jesus compares his burial to Jonah in the belly of the whale (in Jonah 2 it is also a reference to the abyss, the place of the dead). Jonah itself is filled with this imagery and Jesus picks up on this theme and relates it to his life. In Acts 2:24-28, Peter speaks of Christ in the grave and God’s power and victory over death. In Ephesians 4:9-10 and Romans 10:7, Paul makes theological use of Christ’s descent to the place of dead.
Many Protestants prefer to interpret the Ephesians and Romans passages as referring to the incarnation, but in those texts Paul appears to be relying upon Old Testament texts that speak of Sheol or the place of the dead (e.g. Job 28:22; Ps. 68:18; 71:20; 107:15-16).
Elsewhere in the Scriptures it seems that Jesus’ descending to death as part of his work on the earth. He defeats Death through his own death (Heb. 2:14-15; Col. 2:15).
The Grammatical Argument
The debated phrase in Ephesians 4:9 is “τὰ κατώτερα μέρη τῆς γῆς” which can be translated “the lower regions of the earth.” τὰ κατώτερα μέρη are in the accusative case while τῆς γῆς is in the genitive case. There are multiple ways one could take the genitive here.
Genitive of Comparison: parts lower than the earth or under the earth = Christ’s descent into Hades
Epexegetical Genitive/Appositional Genitive: lower parts, namely the earth = Christ’s incarnation
Partitive Genitive/Possessive Genitive: the earth’s lower parts = the grave
While all of these are grammatically possible I think the grammar points away from it being the incarnation because of the extra phrase joining “the earth.” If the incarnation was only meant then why describe it as “the lower parts?” It could be in contrast to ascending, but the earth by itself could communicate that. Choice implies meaning, and the author of Ephesians chose to be more specific than simply the earth.
That Christ is descending to the dead makes good sense of the cosmic scope of the letter to the Ephesians. God the Father has not only blessed us in times past, but also in the heavenly realms (Ephesians 1:3). The plan was to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 1:10). The triumph of Christ over the evil powers demonstrates that he has authority over all space, and his body is going to fill all spaces (Ephesians 1:23).
Christ is the key to the universe according to Ephesians; his body is going to fill all things, it will complete all things, and it will explain all things. Christ fills, completes, controls, rules, and determines the filling of heaven and earth.
In the image to the right it makes sense that for Christ to fill all things he must descend to “the lower parts” to conquer.
While many Protestant’s argue “descend into Hell” should be removed from the Apostle’s Creed or understood as Jesus experiencing Hell on the cross (in line with Calvin) I think it is best to follow the earliest version of the Creed that speaks of Jesus descending to the dead.
1 Corinthians 15 describes the Gospel as, (1) Christ died, (2), he was buried, and (3) he was raised. Many times our Gospel presentations lacks the substance of his burial, but one of the earliest Creeds understood the consequence of his burial. It is through his burial that Christ triumphs over all the heavens and the earth. He conquered the earth, Sheol, and he now is seated in the heavens. His burial is an important part of Ephesians 4:9, the theme has echoes in the Old Testament, and its significance is confirmed in the Creeds.
Also see Matt Emerson’s excellent articles on this subject.
Here is a chart of options for how to take Jesus’ descent (you could also take descended into the dead as a reference to Sheol/Hell).