Skip to main content Accessibility help

‘The one who trampled Hades underfoot’: a comparative analysis of Christ's descent to the dead and trinitarian relations in second-century Christian texts and Hans Urs von Balthasar

  • Matthew Y. Emerson (a1)


In both Theo-Drama IV and Mysterium Paschale, Balthasar suggests that the descensus existentially separates the divine hypostases of Father and Son. He also repeatedly argues that his position is faithful to the Great Tradition. While there has been much debate about Balthasar's view of the descensus, this debate has focused mostly on the issues of universalism and penal substitution, leaving the issue of trinitarian relations either to the side or without an analysis of its historical precedent. This article attempts to address this lacuna by asking whether Balthasar's view of the descensus is in fact supported by the Great Tradition, with a specific focus on second-century texts. After surveying the apostolic fathers, second-century Jewish and Christian traditions (e.g. the New Testament apocrypha), second-century apologists and Melito's Peri Pascha, the article concludes that Balthasar's position does not find historical support in the second century. His view may be in line with the Great Tradition elsewhere, but it is not grounded in this seminal century of Christian doctrinal reflection.


Corresponding author

*Corresponding author. Email:


Hide All

1 von Balthasar, Hans Urs, The Action, vol. 4 of Theo-Drama: Theological Dramatic Theory [hereafter TD 4] (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1994), p. 336.

2 Balthasar, TD 4, p. 335 (emphasis added). The end of the first sentence makes clear that the clause ‘between God and … Son’ is a reference to the divine persons of Father and Son and not merely between the triune God and the ‘humanity of Christ’.

3 David Lauber has demonstrated Balthasar's dependence on Barth for his view of the descent, with the exception that for Barth (following Calvin) the descent takes place on Good Friday, while for Balthasar it takes place in the liminal space of Holy Saturday. See Lauber, David, Barth on the Descent into Hell: God, Atonement, and the Christian Life (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2004), esp. pp. 4275, for Balthasar's position and its dependence on Barth; and cf. pp. 1–41 for Barth's position. One will have to evaluate whether or not Balthasar was justified in seeing a radical separation between Father and Son in Barth's position on the descent (for the purposes of the present argument, I remain neutral on the question).

4 Hans Urs von Balthasar, Mysterium Paschale: The Mystery of Easter (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1990), pp. 168–76.

5 See e.g. Balthasar, Mysterium Paschale, pp. 66–70.

6 ‘… if Jesus can be forsaken by the Father, the conditions for this “forsaking” must lie within the Trinity, in the absolute distance/distinction between the Hypostasis who surrenders the Godhead and the Hypostasis who receives it’. Balthasar, TD 4, p. 333. See also Balthasar, Mysterium Paschale, pp. 49–88. Balthasar is clear that this divide is experiential, not ontological (pp. 71–88), but the point here is that there is still a divide between the hypostases of Father and Son.

7 Aidan Nichols, ‘Introduction’, in Balthasar, Mysterium Paschale, pp. 1–10.

8 On this reading of Balthasar, see Pitstick, Alyssa Lyra, Light in Darkness: Hans Urs von Balthasar and the Catholic Doctrine of Christ's Descent into Hell (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2007), pp. 87278, and especially pp. 115–240. Oakes, Edward T., among others, has challenged Pitstick's interpretation of Balthasar in ‘The Internal Logic of Holy Saturday in the Theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar’, International Journal of Systematic Theology 9/2 (Apr. 2007), pp. 184–99; and ‘Descensus and Development: A Response to Recent Rejoinders’, International Journal of Systematic Theology 13/1 (Jan. 2011), pp. 3–24. See also the dialogue between Oakes and Pitstick, ‘Balthasar, Hell, and Heresy: An Exchange’, First Things 168 (Dec. 2006), pp. 25–32. Additionally, Paul J. Griffiths has critiqued Pitstick's reading of Balthasar in ‘Is There a Doctrine of the Descent into Hell?’ Pro Ecclesia 17/3 (2008), pp. 257–68. Finally, Pitstick has summarised her argument in Light in Darkness, and also therefore responded once again to her critics by defending her reading of Balthasar, in Christ's Descent into Hell: John Paul II, Joseph Ratzinger, and Hans Urs von Balthasar on the Theology of Holy Saturday (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2016).

9 Hans Urs von Balthasar, ‘The Descent into Hell’, Expl IV, pp. 411–12. This translation is from Pitstick, Light in Darkness, p. 193. The portion in curly brackets reads in German, ‘so ist Jesus in der Hingabe seiner selbst (Jo 10, 17) bis an Ende seines Menschseins und Menschgewordenseins gegangen, und in seinem Totsein mit den Toten entblößt sich gleichsam jene Haltung und Gesinnung des göttlichen Logos, der in diesem Äußersten ihre[n] adäquaten Ausdruck fand’.

10 Balthasar, TD 4, pp. 290–8. See also Oakes, ‘Descensus and Development’, pp. 8–19. But then see Oakes’ comments in ‘The Internal Logic of Holy Saturday’ regarding the utter uniqueness of Balthasar's position, pp. 192–3.

11 There are ample resources on the descent in the early church, and even in the second century. Some of the most important include Daniélou, Jean, The Theology of Jewish Christianity (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1964), pp. 233–48; Grillmeier, Aloys, ‘Der Gottesohn im Totenreich: soteriologische und christologische Motivierung der Descensuslehre in der alteren christlichen Überlieferung’, Zeitschrift für Katolische Theologie 71 (1949), pp. 153, 184–203; Kroll, Josef, Gott ünd Hölle: Der Mythos vom Descensuskampfe (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1963 [1932]); and MacCulloch, J. A., The Harrowing of Hell: A Comparative Study of An Early Christian Doctrine (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1930), pp. 83173. These works necessarily do not deal with Balthasar's position, since he wrote his major works dealing with the descent after them. And while there has been ample debate about the validity of Balthasar's position, a surprising lacuna in that conversation regards whether or not this idea of divine hypostases being separated can be found in particular in the history of Christian thought. It is this gap that this article seeks to address, albeit only with respect to the second century.

12 Justin Bass notes that by the end of the second century the descent is affirmed ubiquitously: The Battle for the Keys: Revelation 1:18 and Christ's Descent to the Underworld (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2014), pp. 11, 19.

13 For introductions to critical issues and studies for each of the apostolic fathers to be discussed, see Holmes, Michael W., The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations, 3rd edn (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007). I do not intend here to wade into any critical debates surrounding any particular text in the apostolic fathers corpus. Instead, my focus is merely on surveying these texts for any discussion of the descensus.

14 For another survey of the descent in second- and third-century texts, including in Ignatius and other second-century writers covered in this article, see Wicks, Jared, ‘Christ's Saving Descent to the Dead: Early Witnesses from Ignatius to Origen’, Pro Ecclesia 17/3 (2008), pp. 281309, especially pp. 282–94. Wicks does not, however, address the question I am raising, namely, whether or not Balthasar's articulation of the descent as causing existential separation between Father and Son is found in the second century. As his focus is rather on what the descent accomplishes in the doctrine of soteriology, my article should be seen as complementary to his but not redundant.

15 Bass, Battle for the Keys, pp. 29–30; Richard Bauckham, The Fate of the Dead: Studies on the Jewish and Christian Apocalypses (Atlanta, GA: Society of Biblical Literature, 1998), p. 277.

16 ‘… how can we possibly live without him [Jesus Christ, our only teacher], whom even the prophets, who were his disciples in the Spirit, were expecting as their teacher? This is why the one for whom they rightly waited raised them from the dead when he came.’ Notice that here and in Trallians Ignatius speaks of the prophets and the general dead, respectively, as witnesses to Christ's descent to them.

17 On this passage and its interpretation, see Schoedel, William R., Ignatius of Antioch: A Commentary on the Letters of Ignatius of Antioch (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1985), pp. 84–6. Schoedel identifies a parallel with Odes 22.5 (cf. 24.1–4) as well on p. 85.

18 See e.g. Connell, Martin F., ‘Descensus Christi ad Inferos: Christ's Descent to the Dead’, Theological Studies 62 (2001), p. 263; McDonnell, Kilian, ‘The Baptism of Jesus and the Descent into Hell’, Worship 69/2 (1995), pp. 98109; and Oakes, ‘Descensus and Development’, pp. 13–14.

19 On this passage and its interpretation, see Osiek, Carolyn, The Shepherd of Hermas: A Commentary on the Shepherd of Hermas (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1990), p. 238.

20 Ignatius, Ephesians salutation, 1.1, 7.2, 18.2, 19.3; Romans salutation (twice); Smyrnaeans 1.1; Polycarp 3.2.

21 Ignatius Ephesians 9.1; Magnesians 13.1; Smyrnaeans 2.1; possibly Magnesians 7.2.

22 On this passage and its interpretation, see Hartog, Paul (ed.), Polycarp's Epistle to the Ephesians and the Martyrdom of Polycarp: Introduction, Text, and Commentary (Oxford: OUP, 2013), pp. 100102.

23 On the descent in the New Testament apocrypha, see Vitti, A. M., ‘Descensus Christi ad inferos iuxta Apocrypha’, Verbum Domini 7 (1927), pp. 138–44, 171–81. See also the brief but insightful overview of apocryphal ‘tours of hell’ in early Christianity by Bremmer, Jan N. in his ‘Descents to Hell and Ascents to Heaven in Apocalyptic Literature’, in Collins, John J. (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Apocalyptic Literature (Oxford: OUP, 2014), pp. 345–7. The standard work on tours is Himmelfarb, Martha, Tours of Hell: Apocalyptic Form in Jewish and Christian Literature (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1985). Again, though, Vitti's essay is concerned with the soteriological purposes of Christ's descent, while Bremmer's and Himmelfarb's are even more broadly concerned not only with Christ's descent but descents in general. They are not, in other words, concerned with the Trinitarian and metaphysical question we are asking here.

24 For an introduction to the Gospel of Peter, including critical issues, thematic and theological issues, and a translation, see Ehrman, Bart D. and Pleše., Zlatko The Apocryphal Gospels: Texts and Translations (Oxford: OUP, 2011). See also Bockmuehl, Markus, Ancient Apocryphal Gospels (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2017); and Klauck, Hans-Josef, The Apocryphal Gospels: An Introduction (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2004).

25 For an introduction to Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs, including critical issues, thematic and theological issues, and a translation, see de Jonge, M., The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs: A Critical Edition of the Greek Text (Leiden: Brill, 1978). For commentary, see Hollander, H. W. and de Jonge, M., The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs: A Commentary (Leiden: Brill, 1985).

26 For an introduction to the Odes, including critical issues, thematic and theological issues, and a translation, see Charlesworth, James H., ‘The Odes of Solomon’, in Charlesworth, James H. (ed.), The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, vol. 2, Expansions of the ‘Old Testament’ and Legends, Wisdom and Philosophical Literature, Prayers, Psalms, and Odes, Fragments of Lost Judeo-Hellenistic Works (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2015 [1983]), pp. 725–74.

27 On these passages and their interpretation, see Lattke, Michael, The Odes of Solomon: A Commentary (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2009).

28 So Charlesworth's point about the titular ambiguity regarding ‘Lord’ in the Odes: ‘it is difficult to decide when the Odist means God and when the Son by this term [Lord], since he clearly identifies the two’. Charlesworth, ‘Odes of Solomon’, p. 729. See further ibid., n. 34, which notes that 29.6 and 24.1 conflate ‘God’ and ‘Lord Messiah’.

29 A corollary theme to Christ's descent to hell is Christ's descent from heaven to earth; see on this, in the Odes, Newbold, William Romaine, ‘The Descent of Christ in the Odes of Solomon’, Journal of Biblical Literature 31/4 (1912), pp. 168209.

30 Peel, Malcolm L., ‘The “Descensus ad Inferos” in “The Teachings of Silvanus” (CG VII, 4)’, Numen 26/1 (1979), pp. 2349, esp. pp. 30–31.

31 Ibid., p. 34.

32 Ibid., pp. 36–9.

33 For an introduction to Ascension of Isaiah, including critical issues, thematic and theological issues, and a translation, see Bettiolo, P., Kossova, A. Giambelluca, Leonardi, C., Norelli, E. and Perrone, L. (eds), Ascensio Isaiae: Textus (Turnhout: Brepols, 1995); and Norelli, E., L'Ascensione di Isaia: Studi su un apocrifo al crocevia dei cristianesimi (Bologna: Centro editorial dehoniano, 1994).

34 See similar, if truncated, statements about the descent in 4.21; and 9.12–17.

35 ‘And there they all named the primal Father and his Beloved, Christ, and the Holy Spirit, all with one voice …’

36 See also in this respect Gospel of Bartholomew. Because the dating of this text and its different recensions is highly contentious, I have chosen to leave it out of the current analysis. Nevertheless, even more clearly than Ascen. Isa., it presents the descent as an act in which the incarnate Christ invades and defeats Hades through concealing his divine nature. See esp. Gos. Bart. 1.3 (Slavonic), 8, 18, 31 (Greek).

37 On Irenaeus and the descent, see Wicks, ‘Christ's Saving Descent to the Dead’, pp. 294–309.

38 For an introduction to Dialogue including critical issues, thematic and theological issues, and a translation, see Marcovich, Miroslav, Iustini Martyris Dialogus cum Tryphone (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1997).

39 For an introduction to Against Heresies, including critical issues, thematic and theological issues, and a translation, see the following: Rousseau, A. and Doutreleau, L., Irénée de Lyon: Contre le Hérésies, Livres I–III, SC 263–4, 293–4, 100 (Paris: Cerf, 1979, 1984, 1974); and Rousseau, A., Hemmerdinger, B., Doutreleau, L. and Mercier, C., Irénée de Lyon: Contre le Hérésies, Livre IV, SC 210–11 (Paris: Cerf, 1965).

40 For an introduction to the Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching, including critical issues, thematic and theological issues, and a translation, see K. Ter-Mekerttschian and S. G. Wilson, with Prince Maxe of Saxony (eds), Εἰς ἐπίδειξιν τοῦ ἀποστολικοῦ κηρύγματος; The Proof of the Apostolic Preaching, with Seven Fragments (Turnhout: Brepols, 1989 [1917]).

41 Cf. also Against Heresies 4.22.1.

42 For an introduction to Peri Pascha including critical issues, thematic and theological issues, and a translation, see Melito of Sardis, On Pascha and Fragments, revised edn, ed. and trans. Hall, Stuart George (Oxford: Clarendon, 2012).

43 These quotations are from Melito of Sardis, On Pascha, trans. Alistair Stewart-Sykes (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir's Seminary Press, 2001).

44 On the relationship between Paul of Samosata, the Council of Antioch, and the Nicene debates, see Behr, John, The Way to Nicaea (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir's Seminary Press, 2001), pp. 207–36.

45 On second- and third-century impetuses for the Nicene controversies, see Ayres, Lewis, Nicaea and its Legacy: An Approach to Fourth-Century Trinitarian Theology (Oxford: OUP, 2004), pp. 1130.

46 E.g. Ignatius, Ephesians 9.1; Magnesians 13.1; Smyrnaeans 2.1.

47 On generation and procession, see Anatolios, Khaled, Retrieving Nicaea: The Development and Meaning of Trinitarian Doctrine (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011), e.g. pp. 139–43; and Holmes, Stephen R., The Quest for the Trinity: The Doctrine of God in Scripture, History, and Modernity (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2012), pp. 97120, 144–6.

48 For introductions to the extra, see e.g. Willis, Edward David, Calvin's Catholic Christology: The Function of the So-Called Extra Calvinisticum in Calvin's Theology, (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1966); also Oberman, Heiko A., ‘The “Extra” Dimension in the Theology of Calvin’, Journal of Ecclesiastical History, 21/1 (Jan. 1970), pp. 4364.

49 This emphasis on Christ's divinity and humanity and the necessity of that twofold nature for the effectiveness of his work is found throughout these texts. See the references cited in n. 20 above.

50 See Pitstick, Light in Darkness, pp. 1–6.

51 For a critical and contextual introduction to Chalcedon (as well as the latter three ecumenical councils), see Price, Richard and Gaddis, Michael (eds), The Acts of the Council of Chalcedon (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2007).

52 On the development from Nicene-Constantinopolitan trinitarianism to Chalcedonian christology, see Behr, John, The Nicene Faith, parts 1 and 2, Formation of Christian Theology 2 (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir's Seminary Press, 2004); and Young, Frances M., with Teal, Andrew, From Nicaea to Chalcedon: A Guide to the Literature and its Background, 2nd edn (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2010).

53 Balthasar grounds his understanding of separation between Father and Son in the descent in his understanding of the eternal generation of the Son as a kenotic event in the life of the godhead. See TD 4, pp. 333ff.


‘The one who trampled Hades underfoot’: a comparative analysis of Christ's descent to the dead and trinitarian relations in second-century Christian texts and Hans Urs von Balthasar

  • Matthew Y. Emerson (a1)


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed