Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev on the Descent of Christ into Hades

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Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev: Christ the Conqueror of Hell

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 pa