Metaphors are very important when thinking about any aspect of our salvation. People can sometimes state what they believe as doctrine very precisely without thinking about what their beliefs imply about God, the world, or themselves. Metaphors can work in a very hidden way – particularly those that are referred to as “root metaphors.” A root metaphor is the over-arching imagery that generally governs how a train of thought goes. It provides the logical or image-driven framework upon which later thought will be built.
Excellent illustrations of this are found if you look at the doctrines related to the Descent of Christ into Hades. The article by Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev, Christ Descent into Hades, which was recently referenced here, notes contrasts in how the understanding of Christ’s Descent into Hades developed in both East and West. The development, starting in the 4th or 5th centuries eventually resulted in very different understandings. But the underlying issue was not the Descent into Hades but the metaphors which came to dominate the thought of Christian teachers, East or West.
Bishop Hilarion cited a passage from Cyril of Alexandria’s Paschal Homily (7th Paschal Homily, 2) and noted:
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’.
This imagery is also found in St. John Chrysostom’s famous Catechetical Homily: “And not one dead is left in the grave.”
Bishop Hilarion contrasts this with the Descent into Hades’ development in Western Christianity:
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 [emphasis added]. 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.
An excellent example of the sort of development in the West which Bishop Hilarion describes is found in the work of Thomas Aquinas. Bishop Hilarion offers this observation:
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.
What is of interest to me is looking at what is happening on the metaphorical level in these two treatments of Christ’s Descent into Hell. In St. Cyril’s preaching, as well as in other Fathers of the Eastern Church, the root metaphor of Christ’s Descent into Hell is literally that – Christ’s Descent into Hell. Gustav Aulen, the Swedish Lutheran theologian, would later dub this imagery the “Christus Victor” model of the atonement. It is placing Christ’s defeat of Satan and destruction of Hell as the dominant image that is pressed throughout its preaching and its use in doctrine. The East never broke the metaphor up (nor did it ever offer an analysis of Hell itself as in Aquinas’ four distinctions). A number of Eastern Fathers, indeed the majority, will labor somewhat to state that not everyone will be saved in a “happy” sense, but they have to labor to reach that conclusion because the overarching metaphor of Christ Descent into Hades can easily lead one to see Hell as empty – and if Hell is empty, then all are saved. (I personally love Cyril’s description of Satan being left “abandoned and lonely.”)
In the West, it is not the metaphor created by the Descent of Christ into Hades that controls the development of thought on the subject, but an alternative metaphor – that of the forensic, or legal world, as Bishop Hilarion noted. Thus Christ’s Descent into Hades is analyzed by reference to a metaphor outside the event and made to conform, ultimately, to that metaphor.
Thus it is today that we find the Roman Catholic Church re-examining the doctrine of limbo. My dear friend Fr. Al Kimel has posted an article on the current work of Catholic theologians on Pontifications. It is worth a read – but I would note to any reading it, that from an Orthodox perspective, what is going on is a reexamination of the legal metaphor and the possibility that some other approach might yield different results. It did in the Eastern Church – and will in the West if theologians there will let the event speak for itself.
I will add as an additional observation, that the controlling or root metaphor in the West was not simply drawn from the legal world itself. Rather, an analysis of the Adamic fall and the use of some of St. Paul’s imagery with that fall, come to be the dominant metaphor. Original sin therefore plays a role in the West that it never did in the East. It is worth noting that the thinking and doctrine concerning salvation which followed or were driven by that metaphor come to see the Descent into Hell as problematic. Rome treated the problem by subjecting it to scholastic analysis. For much of the Protestant tradition, the Descent becomes so problematic that it is virtually forgotten. Anglican Prayerbooks (even in 1928) offered optional versions of the Apostles’ Creed in which you could say, “He descended into Hell,” or “He went into the place of departed spirits.” At the most, the Descent into Hell was limited to a freeing of the “righteous.” The alternative metaphor of original sin and juridical salvation gave little or no room for a salvation from Hell from within Hell itself. For a large number of modern Evangelicals, it is no exaggeration to say that there is no awareness at all that Christ ever descended into Hell (Hades, etc.). The metaphor which dominates their thoughts on salvation gives no room nor necessity for such a descent. This absence is similar to the absence of sacramental understanding in which Baptism and Eucharist play a role in salvation. They are reduced to memorials or ordinances because the controlling metaphor in modern Protestant thought has no room nor necessity for either.
The ending of Chrysostom’s Catechetical Sermon is a fitting end to these thoughts:
O Death, where is thy sting?
O Hell, where is thy victory?
Christ is risen, and thou art overthrown!
Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen!
Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice!
Christ is risen, and life reigns!
Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in the grave.
For Christ, being risen from the dead,
Is become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep.
To Him be glory and dominion
Unto ages of ages.