“He Descended To The Dead”: The Burial Of Christ And The Eschatological Character Of The Atonement -- By: Matthew Y. Emerson

Journal: Southern Baptist Journal of Theology
Volume: SBJT 19:1 (Spring 2015)
Article: “He Descended To The Dead”: The Burial Of Christ And The Eschatological Character Of The Atonement
Author: Matthew Y. Emerson

“He Descended To The Dead”: The Burial Of Christ And The Eschatological Character Of The Atonement

Matthew Y. Emerson

Matthew Y. Emerson is Chair of the Department of Arts and Sciences and Assistant Professor of Christian Studies in the Online and Professional Studies Division at California Baptist University in Riverside, CA. He earned his Ph.D. in Biblical Theology from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and is the author of Christ and the New Creation: A Canonical Approach to the Theology of the New Testament (Wipf & Stock, 2013), along with a number of essays and articles.


Expositions of Christ’s atoning work tend to emphasize the crucifixion and resurrection, and rightly so. Good Friday and Easter Sunday are of paramount importance in what Jesus accomplished, as the Nicene Creed puts it, “for us and for our salvation.” And yet there is more to the atonement than the cross and the empty tomb. There is Christ’s life and ministry, his burial, ascension, giving of the Spirit, and his return. Although each of these other atoning acts of Jesus are significant, the particular focus of this essay will be Christ’s burial, one of the most neglected events in explications of the atonement. As Mark Davis explains,

... even when the burial remains in a church’s reading as part of the Passion Sunday or Good Friday lection, it is overlooked in lieu of the crucifixion itself, or of the hints of the resurrection found in the elaborate detail of the posting of guards and the Chief Priest’s anticipations of foul play with Jesus’ body by the disciples. After all, touching though it is, one is tempted to see Joseph’s burial of Jesus as just a necessary moment along the way from the cross to the empty tomb, as opposed to having meaning in itself.1

This is not, however, the picture Scripture gives us about Christ’s burial. Paul, at least, connects Christ’s burial with the euangelion in 1 Corinthians 15:4 and with the new nature of believers in Romans 6:4. The church has confessed throughout its history that Christ was buried, and in the context of the creeds’ emphasis on Jesus’ work, this implies atoning significance. Therefore this paper will argue that this neglected act in the theo-drama of salvation, the burial of Christ, is vicarious and can be considered salvific in a variety of ways.

I do not wish to stop, though, at only showing how Christ’s burial is atoning, but also hope to establish how Christ’s time in the tomb demonstrates ...

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