Christ the Conqueror of Hell

The Byzantine and old Russian icons of the Resurrection of Christ never depict the resurrection itself, i.e., Christ coming out of the grave. They rather depict ‘the descent of Christ into Hades’, or to be more precise, the rising of Christ out of hell. Christ, sometimes with a cross in his hand, is represented as raising Adam, Eve and other personages of the biblical history from hell.
Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev | 10 April 2007

The
Descent of Christ into Hades in Eastern and Western Theological Traditions

A lecture
delivered at St Mary’s Cathedral,
Minneapolis, USA, on 5 November 2002

The
Byzantine and old Russian icons of the Resurrection of Christ never depict the
resurrection itself, i.e., Christ coming out of the grave. They rather depict
‘the descent of Christ into Hades’, or to be more precise, the rising of Christ
out of hell. Christ, sometimes with a cross in his hand, is represented as
raising Adam, Eve and other personages of the biblical history from hell. Under
the Saviour’s feet is the black abyss of the nether world; against its
background are castles, locks and debris of the gates which once barred the way
of the dead to resurrection. Though other motifs have also been used in
creating the image of the Resurrection of Christ in the last several centuries
[1], the above-described
iconographic type is considered to be canonical, as it reflects the traditional
teaching on the descent of Christ to hell, His victory over death, His raising
of the dead and delivering them from hell where they were imprisoned before His
Resurrection. It is to this teaching as an integral part of the dogmatic and
liturgical tradition of the Christian Church that this paper is devoted.

The descent of
Christ into Hades is one of the most mysterious, enigmatic and inexplicable
events in New Testament history. In today’s Christian world, this event is
understood differently. Liberal Western theology rejects altogether any
possibility for speaking of the descent of Christ into Hades literally, arguing
that the scriptural texts on this theme should be understood metaphorically. The
traditional Catholic doctrine insists that after His death on the cross Christ
descended to hell only to deliver the Old Testament righteous from it. A
similar understanding is quite widespread among Orthodox Christians.

On the other
hand, the New Testament speaks of the preaching of Christ in hell as addressed
to the unrepentant sinners: ‘For Christ also died for sins once for all, the
righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to
death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit; in which he went and preached
to the spirit in prison, who formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited’
[2]. However, many Church
Fathers and liturgical texts of the Orthodox Church repeatedly underline that
having descended to hell, Christ opened the way to salvation for all people,
not only the Old Testament righteous. The descent of Christ into Hades is
perceived as an event of cosmic significance involving all people without
exception. They also speak about the victory of Christ over death, the full
devastation of hell and that after the descent of Christ into Hades there was
nobody left there except for the devil and demons.

How can these
two points of view be reconciled? What was the original faith of the Church? What
do early Christian sources tell us about the descent into Hades? And what is
the soteriological significance of the descent of Christ into Hades?

1. Eastern
theological tradition

We come across
references to the descent of Christ into Hades and His raising the dead in the
works of Eastern Christian authors of the 2nd and 3rd
centuries, such as Polycarp of Smyrna, Ignatius of Antioch, Hermas, Justin,
Melito of Sardes, Hyppolitus of Rome, Irenaeus of Lyons, Clement of Alexandria
and Origen. In the 4th century, the descent to hell was discussed by
Athanasius, Basil the Great, Gregory Nazianzen, John Chrysostom, as well as
such Syrian authors as Jacob Aphrahat and Ephrem the Syrian. Noteworthy among
later authors who wrote on this theme are Cyril of Alexandria, Maximus the
Confessor and John Damascene.

Let us look at
the most vivid interpretations given to our theme in Eastern Christian
theology.

The teaching on
the descent of Christ into Hades was expounded quite fully by Clement of
Alexandria in his ‘Stromateis’
[3]. He argued that Christ
preached in hell not only to the Old Testament righteous, but also to the
Gentiles who lived outside the true faith. Commenting on 1 Pet. 3:18¾21,
Clement expresses the conviction that the preaching of Christ was addressed to
all those in hell who were able to believe in Christ:

Do not 
[the Scriptures] show that the Lord preached the Gospel to those that perished
in the flood, or rather had been chained, and to those kept ‘in ward and
guard’?… And, as I think, the Saviour also exerts His might because it is His
work to save; which accordingly He also did by drawing to salvation those who
became willing, by the preaching [of the Gospel], to believe on Him, wherever
they were. If, then, the Lord descended to Hades for no other end but to preach
the Gospel, as He did descend, it was either to preach the Gospel to all or to
the Hebrews only. If, accordingly, to all, then all who believe shall be saved
[4], although they may be
of the Gentiles, on making their profession there…
[5]

Clement
emphasises that there are righteous people among both those who have the true
faith and the Gentiles and that it is possible to turn to God for those who did
not believe in Him while living. It is their virtuous life that made them
capable of accepting the preaching of Christ and the apostles in hell:

…A righteous
man, then, differs not, as righteous, from another righteous man, whether he be
of the Law [Jew] or a Greek. For God is not only Lord of the Jews, but of all
men
[6]… So I think it is
demonstrated that God, being good, and the Lord powerful, save with a
righteousness and equality which extend to all that turn to Him, whether here
or elsewhere
[7].

According to
Clement, righteousness is of value not only for those who live in true faith,
but also for those who are outside faith. It is evident from his words that
Christ preached in hell to all, but saved only those who came to believe in
Him. Anyway, Clement assumes that this preaching proved salutory not for all to
whom Christ preached in hell: ‘Did not the same dispensation obtain in Hades,
so that even there, all the souls, on hearing the proclamation, might either
exhibit repentance, or confess that their punishment was just, because they
believed not?’
[8] According to Clement,
there were those in hell who heard the preaching of Christ but did not believe
in Him and did not follow Him.

In Clement’s
works we find the notion that punishments sent from God to sinners are aimed at
their reformation, not at retribution, and that the souls released from their
corporal shells are better able to understand the meaning of punishment
[9]. In these words lies
the nucleus of the teaching on the purifying and saving nature of the torment
of hell developed by some later authors
[10] . We will come back to
the question of whether the pains of hell can be salutory when considering the
teaching of Maximus the Confessor on the descent of Christ into Hades. An
exhaustive discussion on this question, though, is beyond the scope of this
paper.

Gregory of
Nyssa entwines the theme of the descent in hell with the theory of ‘divine
deception’. On the latter he builds his teaching on the Redemption. According
to this theory, Christ, being God incarnate, deliberately concealed His divine
nature from the devil so that he, mistaking Him for an ordinary man, would not
be terrified at the sight of an overwhelming power approaching him. When Christ
descended in hell, the devil supposed Him to be a human being, but this was a
divine ‘hook’ disguised under a human ‘bait’ that the devil swallowed
[11] . By admitting God incarnate into his domain, the
devil himself signed his own death warrant: incapable of enduring the divine
presence, he was overcome and defeated, and hell was destroyed.

This is
precisely the idea that Gregory of Nyssa developed in one of his Easter sermons
on ‘The Three-Day Period of the Resurrection of Christ’. Judging by its
contents, this homily was intended for Holy Saturday
[12], and in it Gregory
poses the question of why Christ spent three days ‘in the heart of the earth’
[13]. This period was necessary and sufficient, he argues,
for Christ to ‘expose the foolishness’ (moranai) of the devil
[14], i.e, to outwit, ridicule and deceive him[15]. How did Christ manage to ‘outwit’ the devil? Gregory
gives the following reply to this question:

As the ruler of
darkness could not approach the presence of the Light unimpeded, had he not
seen in Him something of flesh, then, as soon as he saw the God-bearing flesh
and saw the miracle performed through it by the Deity, he hoped that if he came
to take hold of the flesh through death, then he would take hold of all the
power contained in it. Therefore, having swallowed the bait of the flesh, he
was pierced by the hook of the Deity and thus the dragon was transfixed by the
hook.
[16]

A very original
approach to the theme of the descent to Hades is found in a book entitled
‘Spiritual Homilies’ which has survived under the name of Macarius of Egypt. There,
the liberation of Adam by Christ, Who descended into Hades, is seen as the
prototype of the mystical resurrection which the soul experiences in its
encounter with the Lord:

When you hear
that the Lord in the old days delivered souls from hell and prison and that He
descended into hell and performed a glorious deed, do not think that all these
events are far from your soul… So the Lord comes into the souls that seek Him,
into the depth of the heart’s hell, and there commands death, saying: ‘Release
the imprisoned souls which have sought Me and which you hold by force’. And He
shatters the heavy stones weighing on the soul, opens graves, raises the true
dead from death, brings the imprisoned soul from the dark prison… Is it
difficult for God to enter death and, even more, into the depth of the heart
and to call out dead Adam from there?… If the sun, being created, passes
everywhere through windows and doors, even to the caves of lions and the holes
of creeping creatures, and comes out without any harm, the more so does God and
the Lord of everything enter caves and abodes in which death has settled, and
also souls, and, having released Adam from there, [remains] unfettered by
death. Similarly, rain coming down from the sky reaches the nethermost parts of
the earth, moistens and renews the roots there and gives birth to new shoots
[17].

This text is
significant first of all in that the author regards the descent of Christ into
Hades as a commonly accepted and undisputed dogma, which he uses as a solid
foundation on which to build his mystical and typological construction. The use
of the images of the sun rising over both the evil and the good, and rain sent
upon both the righteous and the unrighteous
[18], indicates that the
author of the ‘Homilies’ perceives the descent into Hades as a reality
affecting not only the Old Testament righteous, but also entire humanity. Moreover,
it affects every person and inner processes which take place in the human soul.
For the author of the ‘Homilies’, the doctrine of the descent into Hades is not
an abstract truth, nor is it an event which occurred in the days of old 
and which affected only those who lived at that time, but it is an event which
has not lost its relevance. It is not just one of the fundamental Christian
doctrines, not just a subject of faith and confession, but a mystery associated
with the mystical life of the Christian, a mystery which one should experience
in the depth of one’s heart.

The doctrine of
the descent of Christ into Hades occupies an essential place in the works of
Cyril of Alexandria. In his ‘Paschal Homilies’, he repeatedly mentions that as
a consequence of the descent of Christ into Hades, the devil was left all
alone, while hell was devastated: ‘For having destroyed hell and opened the
impassable gates for the departed spirits, He left the devil there abandoned
and lonely’
[19].

In his ‘Festive
Letters’, Cyril of Alexandria elaborates on the theme of the preaching of
Christ in Hades, popular in the Alexandrian tradition since Clement. He views
the preaching of Christ in hell as the accomplishment of the ‘history of
salvation’, which began with the Incarnation:

…He showed the
way to salvation not only to us, but also to the spirits in hell; having descended,
He preached to those once disobedient, as Peter says
[20]. For it did not befit
for love of man to be partial, but the manifestation of [this] gift should have
been extended to all nature… Having preached to the spirits in hell and having
said ‘go forth’ to the prisoners, and ‘show yourselves’
[21] to those in prison on the third day, He resurrected
His temple and again opens up to our nature the ascent to heaven, bringing
Himself to the Father as the beginning of humanity, pledging to those on earth
the grace of communion of the Spirit
[22].

As we can see,
Cyril emphasises the universality of the salvation given by Christ to humanity,
perceiving the descent of Christ into Hades as salvific for the entire human
race. He is not inclined to limit salvation to a particular part of humanity,
such as the Old Testament righteous. Salvation is likened to rain sent by God
on both the just and the unjust
[23]. Putting emphasis on
the universality of the saving feat of Christ, Cyril follows in the steps of
other Alexandrian theologians, beginning with Clement, Origen, and Athanasius
the Great
[24]. The descent of Christ
into Hades, according to Cyril’s teaching, signified victory over that which
previously appeared unconquerable and ensured the salvation of all humanity:

Death unwilling
to be defeated is defeated; corruption is transformed; unconquerable passion is
destroyed. While hell, diseased with excessive insatiability and never
satisfied with the dead, is taught, even if against its will, that which it
could not learn previously. For it not only ceases to claim those who are still
to fall [in the future], but also lets free those already captured, being
subjected to splendid devastation by the power of our Saviour… Having
preached to the spirits in hell, once disobedient, He came out as conqueror by
resurrecting His temple like a beginning of our hope and by showing to [our]
nature the manner of the raising from the dead, and giving us along with it
other blessings as well
[25].

Clearly, Cyril
perceived the victory of Christ over hell and death as complete and definitive.
According to Cyril, hell loses authority both over those who were in its power
and those who are to become its prey in the future. Thus, the descent into
Hades, a single and unique action, is perceived as a timeless event. The raised
body of Christ becomes the guarantee of universal salvation, the beginning of
way leading human nature to ultimate deification.

An elaborate
teaching of the descent of Christ into Hades is found in Maximus the Confessor.
In his analysis, Maximus takes as a starting point the words of St. Peter: ‘For
this cause was the gospel preached also to them that are dead, that they might
be judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the
spirit’
[26]. In Maximus’s view, St.
Peter does not speak about the Old Testament righteous, but about those sinners
who, back in their lifetime, were punished for their evil deeds:

Some say that
Scriptures call ‘dead’ those who died before the coming of Christ, for
instance, those who were at the time of the flood, at Babel, in Sodom, in
Egypt, as well as others who in various times and in various ways received
various punishments and the terrible misfortune of divine damnation. These
people were punished not so much for their ignorance of God as for the offences
they imposed on one another. It was to them, according to [St Peter] that the
great message of salvation was preached when they were already damned as men in
the flesh, that is, when they received, through life in the flesh, punishment
for crimes against one another, so that they could live according to God by the
spirit, that is, being in hell, they accepted the preaching of the knowledge of
God, believing in the Saviour who descended into hell to save the dead. So, in
order to understand [this] passage in [Holy Scriptures] let us take it in this
way: the dead, damned in the human flesh, were preached to precisely for the
purpose that they may live according to God by the spirit
[27].

Thus, according
to Maximus’s teaching, punishments suffered by sinners ‘in the human flesh’
were necessary so that they may live ‘according to God by the spirit’. Therefore,
these punishments, whether troubles and misfortunes in their lifetime or pains
in hell, had pedagogical and reforming significance. Moreover, Maximus stresses
that in damning them, God used not so much a religious as a moral criterion,
for people were punished ‘not so much for their ignorance of God as for the
offences they imposed on one another’. In other words, the religious or
ideological convictions of a particular person were not decisive, but his
actions with regard to his neighbours.

In John
Damascene we find lines which sum up the development of the theme of the
descent of Christ into Hades in Eastern patristic writings of the 2nd¾8th
centuries:

The soul [of
Christ] when it is deified descended into Hades, in order that, just as the Sun
of Righteousness rose for those upon the earth, so likewise He might bring
light
[28] to those who sit under
the earth in darkness and the shadow of death: in order that just as he brought
the message of peace to those upon the earth, and of release to the prisoners,
and of sight to the blind
[29], and became to those
who believed the Author of everlasting salvation and to those who did not
believe, a denunciation of their unbelief, so He might become the same to those
in Hades: That every knee should bow to Him, of things in heaven, and things in
earth and things under the earth
[30]. And thus after He had
freed those who has been bound for ages, straightway He rose again from the
dead, showing us the way of resurrection
[31].

According to
John Damascene, Christ preached to all those who were in hell, but His
preaching did not prove salutary for all, as not all were capable of responding
to it. For some it could become only ‘a denunciation of their disbelief’, not
the cause of salvation. In this judgement, Damascene actually repeats the
teaching on salvation articulated not long before him by Maximus the Confessor.
According to Maximus, human history will be accomplished when all without
exception will unite with God and God will become ‘all in all’
[32]. For some, however, this unity will mean eternal
bliss, while for others it will become the source of suffering and torment, as
each will be united with God ‘according to the quality of his disposition’
towards God
[33]. In other words, all
will be united with God, but each will have his own, subjective, feeling of
this unity, according to the measure of the closeness to God he has achieved. Along
a similar line, John Damascene understands also the teaching on the descent to
Hades: Christ opens the way to paradise to all and calls all to salvation, but
the response to Christ’s call may lie in either consent to follow Him or
voluntary rejection of salvation. Ultimately it depends on a person, on his
free choice. God does not save anybody by force, but calls everybody to
salvation: ‘Behold, I stand at the door, and knock; if any man hear my voice,
and open the door, I will come in to him’
[34]. God knocks at the door
of the human heart rather than breaks into it.

In the history
of Christianity an idea has repeatedly arisen that God predestines some people
for salvation and others to perdition. This idea, based as it is on the
literary understanding of the words of
St. Paul about predestination,
calling and justification
[35], became the
corner-stone of the theological system of the Reformation, preached with
particular consistency by John Calvin
[36]. Eleven centuries
before Calvin, the Eastern Christian tradition in the person of John Chrysostom
expressed its view of predestination and calling. ‘Why are not all saved?’
Chrysostom asks. ‘Because… not only the call [of God] but also the will of
those called is the cause of their salvation. This call is not coercive or
forcible. Every one was called, but not all followed the call’
[37]. Later Fathers, including Maximus and John Damascene,
spoke in the same spirit. According to their teaching, it is not God who saves
some while ruining others, but some people follow the call of God to salvation
while others do not. It is not God who leads some from hell while leaving
others behind, but some people wish while others do not wish to believe in Him.

The teaching of
the Eastern Church Fathers on the descent of Christ into Hades can be summed up
in the following points:

1)     
the doctrine of the descent of Christ into Hades was commonly accepted and
indisputable;

2)     
the descent into Hades was perceived as an event of universal significance,
though some authors limited the range of those saved by Christ to a particular
category of the dead;

3)     
the descent of Christ into Hades and His resurrection were viewed as the
accomplishment of the ‘economy’ of Christ the Saviour, as the crown and outcome
of the feat He performed for the salvation of people;

4)     
the teaching on the victory of Christ over the devil, hell and death was
finally articulated and asserted;

5)     
the theme of the descent into Hades began to be viewed in its mystical
dimension, as the prototype of the resurrection of the human soul.

2. Western
theological tradition

To what degree
did the approach to this theme of the Fathers and Doctors of the Western Church
differ from that of the Eastern Fathers? In order to answer this question, let
us look at the works of the two most significant theologians of the Christian
West, Augustine and Thomas Aquinas.

The Augustinian
teaching on the descent of Christ into Hades is expounded in the fullest way in
one of his letters addressed to Evodius. This letter contains a comprehensive
interpretation of 1 Pet. 3:18¾21. It follows from Evodius’ questions that the
teaching on the evacuation of all in hell and the complete devastation of hell
by the risen Christ was widespread in his time. Augustine begins with the
question of whether Christ preached only to those who perished in the days of
Noah or to all the imprisoned. In answering it, Augustine begins by refuting
the opinion that Christ descended to Hades in the flesh
[38] and argues that this teaching contradicts scriptural
testimony
[39].

Augustine
continues by setting forth the view that Christ led from hell all those who
were there, as, indeed, among them were ‘some who are intimately known to us by
their literary labours, whose eloquence and talent we admire, ¾ not only the
poets and orators who in many parts of their writings have held up to contempt
and ridicule these same false gods of the nations, and have even occasionally
confessed the one true God…, but also those who have uttered the same, not in
poetry or rhetoric, but as philosophers’
[40]. The notion of the
salvation of heathen poets, orators and philosophers was quite popular. In
Eastern patristic tradition it was most vividly expressed by Clement of
Alexandria. According to Augustine, however, any of the positive qualities of
the ancient poets, orators and philosophers originated not from ‘sober and
authentic devotion, but pride, vanity and [the desire] of people’s praise’. Therefore
they ‘did not bring any fruit’. Thus, the idea that pagan poets, orators and
philosophers could be saved, though not refuted by Augustine, still is not
fully approved, since ‘human judgement’ differs from ‘the justice of the
Creator’
[41].

Augustine
neither rejects nor accepts unconditionally the opinion concerning the
salvation of all those in hell. Though very careful in his judgement, it is
clear that the possibility of salvation for all in hell is blocked in his
perception by his own teaching on predestination
[42], as well as by his
understanding of divine mercy and justice:

For the words
of Scripture, that ‘the pains of hell were loosed’
[43] by the death of Christ,
do not establish this, seeing that this statement may be understood as
referring to Himself, and meaning that he so far loosed (that is, made
ineffectual) the pains of hell that He Himself was not held by them, especially
since it is added that it was ‘impossible for Him to be holden of them’
[44]. Or if any one [objecting to this interpretation]
asks why He chose to descend into hell, where those pains were which could not
possibly hold Him… the words that ‘the pains were loosed’ may be understood as
referring not to the case of all, but only some whom He judged worthy of that
deliverance; so that neither He supposed to have descended thither in vain,
without the purpose of bringing benefit to any of those who were there held in
prison, nor is it a necessary inference that divine mercy and justice granted
to some must be supposed to have been granted to all
[45].

While Augustine
also considers the traditional teaching that Christ delivered from hell the
forefather Adam, as well as Abel, Seth, Noah and his family, Abraham, Isaac,
Jacob ‘and the other patriarchs and prophets’, he does not agree to it
entirely, since he does not believe ‘Abraham’s bosom’ to be a part of hell. Those
who were in the bosom of Abraham were not deprived of the gracious presence of
the divinity of Christ, and therefore Christ, on the very day of His death
immediately before descending to hell, promises to the wise thief that he will
be in paradise with him
[46]. ‘Most certainly,
therefore, He was, before that time, both in paradise and the bosom of Abraham
in His beatific wisdom (beatificante sapientia), and in hell in His
condemning power (judicante potentia)’, concludes Augustine
[47].

The opinion
that through the death of Christ on the cross the righteous receive that promised
incorruption which people are to achieve after the end of time is also refuted
by Augustine. If it were so, then St. Peter would not have said about David
that ‘his sepulchre is with us to this day’
[48] unless David was still
undisturbed in the sepulchre
[49].

As for the
teaching on Christ’s preaching in hell contained in 1 Pet. 3:18¾21, Augustine
rejects its traditional and commonly accepted understanding. First, he is not
certain that it implies those who really departed his life, but rather those
that are spiritually dead and did not believe in Christ. Secondly, he offers the
quite novel idea that after Christ ascended from hell His recollection did not
survive there. Therefore, the descent in Hades was a ‘one-time’ event relevant
only to those who were in hell at that time. Thirdly and finally, Augustine
rejects altogether any possibility for those who did not believe in Christ
while on earth to come to believe in him while in hell, calling this idea
‘absurd’
[50].

Augustine is
not inclined to see in 1 Pet. 3:18¾21 an indication of the descent into Hades. He
believes that this text should be understood allegorically, i. e., ‘the
spirits’ mentioned by Peter are essentially those who are clothed in body and
imprisoned in ignorance. Christ did not come down to earth in the flesh in the
days of Noah, but often came down to people in the spirit either to rebuke
those who did not believe or to justify those who did. What happened in the
days of Noah is a type of what happens today, and the flood was the precursor
of baptism. Those who believe in our days are like whose who believed in the
days of Noah: they are saved through baptism, just as Noah was saved through
water. Those who do not believe are like those who did not believe in the days
of Noah: the flood is the prototype of their destruciton
[51].

Augustine is
the first Latin author who gave so much close attention to the theme of the
descent of Christ into Hades. However, he did not clarify the question of who
was the object of Christ’s preaching in hell and whom Christ delivered from it.
Augustine expressed many doubts about particular interpretations of 1 Pet.
3:18¾21, but did not offer any convincing interpretation of his own. Nevertheless,
the ideas expressed by him were developed by Western Church authors of the
later period. Thomas Aquinas, in particular, makes continuous references to
Augustine in his chapter devoted to the descent of Christ into Hades
[52]. During the Reformation, many Augustinian ideas were
criticised by theologians of the Protestant tradition. The teaching that the
recollection of Christ did not survive in hell after His ascent was rejected by
Lutheran theologians who insisted on the reverse
[53].

Thomas Aquinas
was the 13th-century theologian who brought to completion the Latin
teaching on the descent of Christ into Hades. In his ‘Summa Theologiae’,
he divides hell into four parts: 1) purgatory (purgatorium), where
sinners experience penal suffering; 2) the hell of the patriarchs (infernum
patrum
), the abode of the Old Testament righteous before the coming of
Christ; 3) the hell of unbaptized children (infernum puerorum); and 4)
the hell of the damned (infernum damnatorum). In response to the
question, exactly which was the hell that Christ descended to, Thomas Aquinas
admits two possibilities: Christ descended either into all parts of hell or
only to that in which the righteous were imprisoned, whom He was to deliver. In
the first case, ‘for going down into the hell of the lost He wrought this
effect, that by descending thither He put them to shame for their unbelief and
wickedness: but to them who were detained in Purgatory He gave hope of
attaining to glory: while upon the holy Fathers detained in hell solely on
account of original sin (pro solo peccato originali detinebantur in inferno),
He shed the light of glory everlasting’. In the second case, the soul of Christ
‘descended only to the place where the righteous were detained’ (descendit
solum ad locum inferni in quo justi detinebantur
), but the action of His
presence there was felt in some way in the other parts of hell as well
[54].

According to Thomistic teaching,
Christ delivered from hell not only the Old Testament righteous who were
imprisoned in hell because of original sin
[55]. As far as sinners are
concerned, those who were detained in ‘the hell of the lost’, since they either
had no faith or had faith but no conformity with the virtue of the suffering
Christ, could not be cleansed from their sins, and Christ’s descent brought
them no deliverance from the pains of hell
[56]. Nor were children who
had died in the state of original sin delivered from hell, since only ‘by
baptism children are delivered from original sin and from hell, but not by
Christ’s descent into hell’, since baptism can be received only in earthly
life, not after death
[57]. Finally, Christ did
not deliver those who were in purgatory, for their suffering was caused by
personal defects (defectus personali), whereas ‘exclusion from glory’
was a common defect (defectus generalis) of all human nature after the
fall. The descent of Christ into Hades recovered the glory of God to those who
were excluded from it by virtue of the common defect of nature, but did not
deliver anybody from the pains of purgatory caused by people’s personal defects
[58].

This scholastic
understanding of the descent of Christ into Hades, formulated by Thomas
Aquinas, was the official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church for many
centuries. During the Reformation, this understanding was severely criticised
by Protestant theologians. Many of today’s Catholic theologians are also very
sceptical about this teaching
[59]. There is no need to
discuss how far the teaching of Thomas Aquinas on the descent of Christ into
Hades is from that of Eastern Christianity. No Father of the Eastern Church
ever permitted himself to clarify who was left in hell after Christ descent; no
Eastern Father ever spoke of unbaptized infants left in hell
[60]. The division of hell into four parts and the
teaching on purgatory are alien to Eastern patristics. Finally, this very
scholastic approach whereby the most mysterious events of history are subjected
to detailed analysis and rational interpretation is unacceptable for Eastern
Christian theology. For the theologians, poets and mystics of the Eastern
Church, the descent of Christ into Hades remained first of all a mystery which
could be praised in hymns, and about which various assumptions could be made,
but of which nothing definite and final could be said.

The general
conclusion can now be drawn from a comparative analysis of Eastern and Western
understandings of the descent into Hades. In the first three centuries of the
Christian Church, there was considerable similarity between the interpretation
of this doctrine by theologians in East and West. However, already by the 4th—5th
centuries, substantial differences can be identified. In the West, a juridical
understanding of the doctrine prevailed. It gave increasingly more weight to
notions of predestination (Christ delivered from hell those who were
predestined for salvation from the beginning) and original sin (salvation given
by Christ was deliverance from the general original sin, not from the
‘personal’ sins of individuals). The range of those to whom the saving action
of the descent into hell is extended becomes ever more narrow. First, it
excludes sinners doomed to eternal torment, then those in purgatory and finally
unbaptized infants. This kind of legalism was alien to the Orthodox East, where
the descent into Hades continued to be perceived in the spirit in which it is
expressed in the liturgical texts of Great Friday and Easter, i.e. as an event
significant not only for all people, but also for the entire cosmos, for all
created life.

At the same
time, both Eastern and Western traditions suggest that Christ delivered from
hell the Old Testament righteous led by Adam. Yet if in the West this is
perceived restrictively (Christ delivered only the Old Testament
righteous, while leaving all the rest in hell to eternal torment), in the East,
Adam is viewed as a symbol of the entire human race leading humanity redeemed
by Christ (those who followed Christ were first the Old Testament
righteous led by Adam and then the rest who responded to the preaching
of Christ in hell).

3. The
doctrine of the descent into Hades and theodicy

Let us move now
to the theological significance of the doctrine of the descent of Christ into
Hades. This doctrine, in our view, has great significance for theodicy, the
justification of God in the face of the accusing human mind
[61]. Why does God permit suffering and evil? Why does He
condemn people to the pains of hell? To what extent is God responsible for what
happens on earth? Why in the Bible does God appear as a cruel and unmerciful
Judge ‘repenting’ of His actions and punishing people for mistakes which He
knew beforehand and which He could have prevented? These and other similar
questions have been posed throughout history.

First of all,
we should say that the doctrine of the descent of Christ into Hades raises the
veil over the mystery that envelops the relationship between God and the devil.
The history of this relationship goes back to the time of the creation. According
to common church teaching, the devil was created as a good and perfect
creature, but he fell away from God because of his pride. The drama of the
personal relationship between God and the devil did not end here. Since his
falling away, the devil began to oppose divine goodness and love by every means
and to do all he can to prevent the salvation of people. The devil is not
all-powerful, however; his powers are restricted by God and he can operate only
within the limits permitted by God. This last affirmation is confirmed by the
opening lines of the Book of Job where the devil appears as a creature having,
first, personal relations with God and, secondly, being fully subjected to God.

By creating
human beings and putting them in a situation where they choose between good and
evil, God assumed the responsibility for their further destiny. God did not
leave man face to face with the devil, but Himself entered into the struggle
for humanity’s spiritual survival. To this end, He sent prophets and teachers
and then He Himself became man, suffered on the cross and died, descended into
Hades and was raised from the dead in order to share human fate. By descending
into Hades, Christ did not destroy the devil as a personal, living creature,
but ‘abolished the power of the devil’, that is, deprived the devil of
authority and power stolen by him from God. When he rebelled against God, the
devil set himself the task to create his own autonomous kingdom where he would
be master and where he would win back from God a space where God’s presence
could be in no way felt. In Old Testament understanding, this place was sheol.
After Christ, sheol became a place of divine presence.

This presence
is felt by all those in paradise as a source of joy and bliss, but for those in
hell it is a source of suffering. Hell, after Christ, is no longer the place
where the devil reigns and people suffer, but first and foremost it is the
prison for the devil himself as well as for those who voluntarily decided to
stay with him and share his fate. The sting of death was abolished by Christ
and the walls of hell were destroyed. But ‘death even without its sting is
still powerful for us… Hell with its walls destroyed and its gates abolished
is still filled with those who, having left the narrow royal path of the cross
leading to paradise, follow the broad way all their lives’
[62] .

Christ
descended into hell not as another victim of the devil, but as Conqueror. He descended
in order to ‘bind up the powerful’ and to ‘plunder his vessels’. According to
patristic teaching, the devil did not recognize in Christ the incarnate God. He
took Him for an ordinary man and, rising to the ‘bait’ of the flesh, swallowed
the ‘hook’ of the Deity (the image used by Gregory of Nyssa). However, the
presence of Christ in hell constituted the poison which began gradually to ruin
hell from within (this image was used by the 4th-century Syrian
author Jacob Aphrahat
[63]). The final destruction
of hell and the ultimate victory over the devil will happen during the Second
Coming of Christ when ‘the last enemy to be destroyed is death’, when
everything will be subjected to Christ and God will become ‘all in all’
[64] .

The doctrine of
the descent of Christ into Hades is important for an understanding of God’s
action in human history, as reflected in the Old Testament. The biblical
account of the flood, which destroyed all humanity, is a stumbling block for
many who wish to believe in a merciful God but cannot reconcile themselves with
a God who ‘repents’ of his own deed. The teaching on the descent into hell, as
set forth in 1 Pet. 3:18—21, however, brings an entirely new perspective into
our understanding of the mystery of salvation. It turns out that the death
sentence passed by God to interrupt human life does not mean that human beings
are deprived of hope for salvation, because, failing to turn to God during
their lifetime, people could turn to Him in the afterlife having heard Christ’s
preaching in the prison of hell. While committing those He created to death,
God did not destroy them, but merely transferred them to a different state in
which they could hear the preaching of Christ, to believe and to follow Him.

4. The
soteriological implications of the doctrine of the descent into Hades

The doctrine on
the descent of Christ into Hades is an integral part of Orthodox soteriology. Its
soteriological implications, however, depend in many ways on the way in which
we understanding the preaching of Christ in hell and its salutory impact on
people
[65]. If the preaching was
addressed only to the Old Testament righteous, then the soteriological
implications of the doctrine is minimal, but if it was addressed to all those
in hell, its significance is considerably increased. It seems that we have
enough grounds to argue, following the Greek Orthodox theologian, I. Karmiris,
that ‘according to the teaching of almost all the Eastern Fathers, the
preaching of the Saviour was extended to all without exception and salvation
was offered to all the souls who passed away from the beginning of time,
whether Jews or Greek, righteous or unrighteous’
[66]. At the same time, the
preaching of Christ in hell was good and joyful news of deliverance and
salvation, not only for the righteous but also the unrighteous. It was not the
preaching ‘to condemn for unbelief and wickedness’, as it seemed to Thomas
Aquinas. The entire text of the First Letter of St. Peter relating to the
preaching of Christ in hell speaks against its understanding in terms of
accusation and damnation’
[67].

Whether all or
only some responded to the call of Christ and were delivered from hell remains
an open question. If we accept the point of view of those Western church
writers who maintain that Christ delivered from hell only the Old Testament
righteous, then Christ’s salutory action is reduced merely to the restoration
of justice. The Old Testament righteous suffered in hell undeservedly, not for
their personal sins but because of the general sinfulness of human nature and
because their deliverance from hell was a ‘duty’ which God was obliged to
undertake with respect to them. But such an act could scarcely constitute a
miracle that made the angels tremble or one to be praised in church hymns.

Unlike the
West, Christian consciousness in the East admits the opportunity to be saved
not only for those who believe during their lifetime, but also those who were
not given to believe yet pleased God with their good works. The idea that
salvation was not only for those who in life confessed the right faith, not
only for the Old Testament righteous, but also those heathens who distinguished
themselves by a lofty morality, is developed in one of the hymns of John
Damascene:

Some say that
[Christ delivered from hell] only those who believed
[68],

such as fathers and prophets,

judges and together with them kings, local rulers

and some others from the Hebrew people,

not numerous and known to all.

But we shall reply to those who think so

that there is nothing undeserved,

nothing miraculous and nothing strange

in that Christ should save those who believed[69],

for He remains only the fair Judge,

and every one who believes in Him will not perish.

So they all ought to have been saved

and delivered from the bonds of hell

by the descent of God and Master —

that same happened by His Disposition.

Whereas those who were saved only through [God’s] love of men

were, as I think, all those

who had the purest life

and did all kinds of good works,

living in modesty, temperance and virtue,

but the pure and divine faith

they did not conceive because they were not instructed in it

and remained altogether unlearnt.

They were those whom the Steward and Master of all

drew, captured in the divine nets

and persuaded to believe in Him,

illuminating them with the divine rays

and showing them the true light[70] .

This approach
renders the descent into Hades exceptional in its soteriological implications. According
to Damascene, those who were not taught the true faith during their lifetime
can come to believe when in hell. By their good works, abstention and chastity
they prepared themselves for the encounter with Christ. These are that same
people about whom St. Paul says that having no law they ‘do by nature things
contained in the law’, for ‘the work of the law is written in their hearts’
[71]. Those who live by the law of natural morality but do
not share the true faith can hope by virtue of their righteousness that in a
face-to-face encounter with God they will recognize in Him the One they
‘ignorantly worshipped’
[72] .

Has this
anything to do with those who died outside Christian faith after the descent of
Christ into Hades? No, if we accept the Western teaching that the descent into
Hades was a ‘one-time’ event and that the recollection of Christ did not
survive in hell. Yes, if we proceed from the assumption that after Christ hell
was no longer like the Old Testament sheol, but it became a place of the
divine presence. In addition, as Archpriest Serge Bulgakov writes, ‘all events
in the life of Christ, which happen in time, have timeless, abiding
significance. Therefore,

the so-called
‘preaching in hell’, which is the faith of the Church, is a revelation of
Christ to those who in their earthly life could not see or know Christ. There
are no grounds for limiting this event… to the Old Testament saints alone, as
Catholic theology does. Rather, the power of this preaching should be extended
to all time for those who during their life on earth did not and could not know
Christ but meet Him in the afterlife
[73].

According to the teaching of the
Orthodox Church, all the dead, whether believers or non-believers, appear
before God. Therefore, even for those who did not believe during their
lifetime, there is hope that they will recognize God as their Saviour and
Redeemer if their previous life on earth led them to this recognition.

The above hymn of
John Damascene clearly states that the virtuous heathens were not ‘taught’ the
true faith. This is a clear allusion to the words of Christ: ‘Go ye, therefore,
and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the
Son, and of the Holy Ghost’
[74]; and ‘He that believeth
and is baptized shall be saved; but that believeth not shall be damned’
[75]. The damnation is extended only to those who were
taught Christian faith but did not believe. But if a person was not taught, if
he in his real life did not encounter the preaching of the gospel and did not
have an opportunity to respond to it, can he be damned for it? We come back to
the question that had disturbed such ancient authors as Clement of
Alexandria.  

Is it possible
at all that the fate of a person can be changed after his death? Is death that
border beyond which some unchangeable static existence comes? Does the
development of the human person not stop after death?

On the one
hand, it is impossible for one to actively repent in hell; it is impossible to
rectify the evil deeds one committed by appropriate good works. However, it may
be possible for one to repent through a ‘change of heart’, a review of one’s
values. One of the testimonies to this is the rich man of the Gospel we have
already mentioned. He realized the gravity of his situation as soon as found
himself in hell. Indeed, if in his lifetime he was focused on earthly pursuits
and forgot God, once in hell he realized that his only hope for salvation was
God
[76] . Besides, according to
the teaching of the Orthodox Church, the fate of a person after death can be
changed through the prayer of the Church. Thus, existence after death has its
own dynamics. On the basis of what has been said above, we may say that after
death the development of the human person does not cease, for existence after
death is not a transfer from a dynamic into a static being, but rather
continuation on a new level of that road which a person followed in his
lifetime.

* * *

As the last
stage in the divine descent (katabasis) and self-emptying (kenosis),
the descent of Christ into Hades became at the same time the starting point of
the ascent of humanity towards deification (theosis)
[77]. Since this descent the path to paradise is opened
for both the living and the dead, which was followed by those whom Christ
delivered from hell.  The destination point for all humanity and every
individual is the fullness of deification in which God becomes ‘all in all’
[78] . It is for this deification that God first created
man and then, when ‘the time had fully come’ (Gal. 4:4), Himself became man,
suffered, died, descended to Hades and was raised from the dead.

We do not know
if every one followed Christ when He rose from hell. Nor do we know if every
one will follow Him to the eschatological Heavenly Kingdom when He will become
‘all in all’. But we do know that since the descent of Christ into Hades the
way to resurrection has been opened for ‘all flesh’, salvation has been granted
to every human being, and the gates of paradise have been opened for all those
who wish to enter through them. This is the faith of the Early Church inherited
from the first generation of Christians and cherished by Orthodox Tradition. This
is the never-extinguished hope of all those who believe in Christ Who once and
for all conquered death, destroyed hell and granted resurrection to the entire
human race.

Translated from the Russian


[1] In particular, the
image of the risen Christ coming out of the grave and holding a victory banner,
borrowed from the Western tradition.

[2] 1 Pet. 3:18—21.

[3] The critical edition of
‘Stromateis’: Clemens Alexandrinus. Band II: Stromateis I—VI. Hrsg. von
O. Stählin, L. Früchtel, U. Treu. Berlin—Leipzig 1960; Band III: Stromateis
VII—VIII. Hrsg. von O. Stählin. GCS 17. Berlin—Leipzig, 1970. S. 3-102.

[4] That is those who came
to believe while in hell.

[5] Stromateis 6, 6.

[6] Rom. 3:29; 10:12.

[7] Stromateis 6, 6.

[8] Stromateis 6, 6.

[9] Stromateis 6, 6.

[10] In the East it was
developed by Gregory of Nyssa and Isaac the Syrian. In the West it gradually
led to the formation of the doctrine on purgatory.

[11] The Great
Catechetical Oration
23¾24.

[12] The Homily on
the Three-Day Period
(pp. 444¾446). The text of the
sermon in: Gregoriou Nyssis hapanta ta erga. T. 10. Hellenes pateres
tes ekklesias
103. Thessalonike, 1990. Sel. 444—487. Since in this
edition the text is not divided into chapters, we indicate page numbers.

[13] Cf. Mt. 12:40.

[14] Lit. ‘to make a fool of
somebody’ (from moros—fool)

[15] The Homily on
the Three-Day Period
(pp. 452¾454).

[16] The Homily on
the Three-Day Period
(pp. 452¾454). Cf. 1 Cor.
15:26.

[17] Spiritual
Homilies
11, 11¾13.

[18] Cf. Mt. 5:45.

[19] 7th
Paschal Homily
2 (PG 77, 552 A).

[20] Cf. 1 Pet. 3:19¾20.

[21] Is. 49:9.

[22] 2nd
Festive Letter
8, 52¾89 (SC 372, 228¾232)

[23] Cf. Mt. 5:45. See the
same comparison in ‘Spiritual Homilies’ by Macarius of Egypt.

[24] See above quotations
from these authors

[25] 5th
Festive Letter
1, 29¾40 (SC 732, 284).

[26] 1 Pet. 4:6.

[27] Questions-answers
to Thalassius
7.

[28] Is. 9:2.

[29] Lk. 4:18¾19; Cf. Is.
61:1¾2.

[30] Phil. 2:10.

[31] The Exact
Exposition of Orthodox Faith
3, 29.

[32] 1 Cor. 15:28.

[33] Maximus the Confessor, Questions-answers
to Thalassius
59. More on this teaching see in J. C. Larchet, La
divinisation de l’homme selon Maxime le Confesseur
(Paris, 1996), pp.
647¾652.

[34] Rev. 3:20.

[35] Rom. 8:29¾30.

[36] See John Calvin, Instruction
in Christian Faith
, V. II, Book III (‘Concerning the pre-eternal election
whereby God predestined some for salvation while others for condemnation’).

[37] 16th
Discourse on the Epistle to the Romans
.

[38] Concerning the
teaching on the descent of Christ into Hades in the flesh, see: I. N. Karmires,
‘He Christologike heterodidaskalia tou 16 aionos kai eis hadou kathodos tou
Christou’, Nea Sion 30 (1935). Sel. 11—26, 65—81, 154—165. See also: S.
Der Nersessian. ‘An Armenian Version of the Homilies on the Harrowing of Hell’,
Dumbarton Oaks Papers 8 (1954), pp. 201¾224. 

[39] Letter 164, II, 3 (PL 33, 709).

[40] Letter 164, II, 3 (PL 33, 710).

[41] Letter 164, II, 3 (PL 33, 710).

[42] Cf. J. A. MacCulloch, The
Harrowing of Hell
(Edinburgh, 1930), p. 123.

[43] Cf. Acts 2:24.

[44] That is, the pains of
hell.

[45] Letter 164, II, 5 (PL 33, 710¾711).

[46] Lk. 23:43.

[47] Letter 164, III, 7¾8 (PL 33, 710¾711).

[48] Acts 2:29.

[49] Letter 164, III, 7¾8 (PL 33, 711).

[50] Letter 164, III, 10¾13 (PL 33, 713¾714). Elsewhere Augustine describes as
heresy the teaching that non-believers could come to believe in hell and that
Christ led everybody out of hell: See, On Heresies 79 (PL 42, 4).

[51] Letter 164, IV, 15¾16 (PL 33, 715).

[52] See below.

[53] See details in: F.
Loofs. ‘Descent to Hades’, Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics (New
York, 1912), vol. IV, p. 658.

[54] Summa
theologiae
IIIa, 52, 2 (St Thomas Aquinas, Summa
theologiae
. Latin text with English translation. London —New York , 1965.
Vol. 54. P. 158).

[55] Summa
theologiae
IIIa, 52, 5 (Summa theologiae. Vol.
54, pp. 166¾170).

[56] Summa
theologiae
IIIa, 52, 6 (Summa theologiae.
Vol. 54, pp. 170¾1720).

[57] Summa
theologiae
IIIa, 52, 7 (Summa theologiae. Vol.
54, pp. 174¾176).

[58] Summa
theologiae
IIIa, 52, 8 (Summa theologiae.
Vol. 54, pp. 176¾178).

[59] See for instance:
H. U. von Balthasar et A. Grillmeier, Le mystère pascal (Paris , 1972),
p. 170 (where the Thomistic understanding of the descent to Hades is described
as ‘bad theology’).

[60] The teaching on the
fate of unbaptized infants, contained in the work ‘Concerning Infants Who Have
Died Prematurely’ by Gregory Palamas, is opposite to the teaching of Thomas
Aquinas.

[61] The term ‘theodocy’
(literally ‘the justification of God’) was invented by Leibnitz in the early 18th
century.

[62] Innocent, Archbishop of
Cherson and Tauria, Works, vol. V (St-Petersburg—Moscow, 1870), p. 289
(Homily at Holy Saturday).

[63] Demonstration 22, 4—5 in The Homilies of Aphraates, the Persian Sage, ed.
by W. Wright (London—Edinburgh, 1869), pp. 420—421.

[64] 1 Cor. 15:26—28.

[65] Cf. I. N. Karmires, He
eis hadou kathodos Iesou Christou
(Athenai, 1939), sel. 107.

[66] Ibid., p. 119.

[67] Bishop Gregory
(Yaroshevsky), An Interpretation of the Most Difficult Passages in the First
Letter of St Peter
(Simferopol , 1902), p. 10.

[68] That is those who
believed in their lifetime.

[69] That is those who
believed during their life on earth.


Concerning Those Who Died in Faith (PG 95, 257 AC).

[71] Rom. 2:14¾15.

[72] Acts 17:23.

[73] Serge Bulgakov, Agnets
Bozhiy
[The Lamb of God] (
Moscow , 2000), p. 394.

[74] Mt. 28:19.

[75] Mk. 16:16.

[76] Lk. 16:20—31.

[77] Cf. J. Daniélou, The
Theology of Jewish Christianity
(
London , s.a.), p. 233—234.

[78] 1 Cor. 15:28

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