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Hell’s Destruction: An Exploration of Christ’s Descent to the Dead

Author: Catherine Ella Laufer
Published By: Ashgate with Burlington (Surrey and Vermont)
Pages: 230
Price: £60
ISBN: 978 1 4094 519 45

Reviewed by Christopher Palmer.

In this stimulating work, Laufer investigates the clause in the Apostle’s creed, ‘he descended to the dead’ - the ‘Descensus Clause’. The majority of the work is a survey of thinking from the earliest church to the late twentieth century. She examines key biblical texts, particularly the ambiguous 1 Peter 3.18-20 and Jesus’ words to the penitent thief in Luke 23.43. She describes the ideas of the Fathers, the Reformers, and modern theologians, and embraces theologies of both western and eastern churches.

A constant theme is that interpretations of Christ’s descent view it either as the final step of his humiliation or the first stage of his exaltation, and this categorisation is the basis of a helpful diagrammatic summary of readings of the Descensus Clause. Laufer goes on to evaluate these theologies and to offer her own understanding: to say that Christ descended to the dead means that he was ‘incarnate unto death’, that he shared fully in our humanity, including experiencing death in body and soul. Consequently, there is no place from which God is absent; even ‘hell’ is simply the way ‘heaven’ is experienced by the unredeemed.

The subject matter of the book is just narrow enough to allow a thorough treatment in a single book, but broad enough to remain significant and interesting, particularly as Laufer’s study touches on wider issues of salvation, heaven, incarnation, judgement, and universalism.

The final chapter asks how the discussion is relevant to preaching and pastoral ministry, aware that any academic discourse “must impact upon the daily lives of Christians in some way.” This chapter is by no means the major part of the work, but is insightful in pointing to paths readers might take in harnessing this neglected part of the creed in parochial life.

Christopher Palmer

Team Vicar of All Saints, East Sheen and Area Dean of Richmond and Barnes.

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You are reading Issue 60 of Ministry Today, published in April 2014.

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