In the great Paschal Homily of St. John Chrysostom, we hear the golden-mouthed preacher say this about the encounter of Christ with Hades (or Hell):
He embittered it when it tasted of His flesh. And Isaiah, foretelling this, did cry:
Hell, said he, was embittered, when it encountered Thee in the lower regions.
It was embittered, for it was abolished.
It was embittered, for it was mocked.
It was embittered, for it was slain.
It was embittered, for it was overthrown.
It was embittered, for it was fettered in chains.
It took a body, and met God face to face.
It took earth, and encountered Heaven.
It took that which was seen, and fell upon the unseen.
Hades or Hell?
Some chafe at the use of the translation Hell and prefer Hades instead, saying that people have an idea of Hell as this fiery place of torment where demons stick the damned with pitchforks, while they don’t have as defined of an idea of Hades, so it’s better for us to use the latter term. But the problem with that analysis is that it fails to see that Hell and Hades are really the same thing but from two different mythological viewpoints.
In Greek myth, Hades is the name of the underworld, the place of death. But it is also the name of the god who rules over death and has death as his power over mankind. He rules there because he was flung there by some power greater than his own. He is able to swallow up the living and keep them in bondage.
In Germanic myth, Hell (or Hel) is also the name of the underworld, the place of death. And it is also the name of the god (or, in the Norse version, the goddess) who rules the underworld.
In short, these are two names from two different ancient cultures for both a place and the god who rules that place. And if you start looking into the names and general character for the underworld in numerous ancient cultures — all over the world, not just the Indo-European cultures that include Germanic and Greek mythology — you will discover that the name of the underworld and the name of the god who controls it are usually either the same name or closely related. The Aztec Mictlān is ruled by Mictlāntēcutli, for instance. The details are not identical across cultures, of course, but the general concept of a god who rules the underworld and has death in his control is almost universal, and in many cases, they do have the same or similar names.
The problem with the “Hades not Hell” crowd is that they’re ignoring the god and thinking only of the place.
You can find some scholarly analyses of mythology that say that the divine beings who rule the underworld are later “personifications” of the location concept, but this viewpoint assumes that mythologies are the product of human imagination and not of encounter with actual divine beings. In other words, they presume materialism and therefore treat narratives about gods as being useful fiction, invented by people who never actually saw a god but came up with the idea to “explain” things.
But even though we do not think and see the world as ancient people did, it is hard to imagine that any human being would start constructing claims about encountering divine beings without any prior experience of something divine. We tend to treat ancient people as though they were just gullible and saw gods in everything, yet somehow they also came up with the concept of gods on their own without having encounters with such beings.
God Meets the Gods
In any event, when Chrysostom says that Hades/Hell was “embittered,” he is referencing this passage from the Prophet Isaiah:
Hades from below was embittered meeting you; all the giants ruling the earth were risen up together against you, the ones rising from their thrones, all the kings of the nations. All shall answer and shall say to you, “You also are captured as even we; and are you reckoned among us? Your glory went down into Hades, your great gladness; underneath you they shall make a bed of putrefaction, and the work shall be your covering. O how fell from out of the heaven the morning star — the one by morning rising — was broken unto the earth, the one sending to all the nations.” (Isaiah 14:9-12, LXX)
So we see here a whole cast of spiritual beings being embittered and surprised at meeting God in the underworld — Hades himself, the giants ruling the earth, the rulers over the nations. These are not politicians and kings and so on, but rather spiritual beings who control the earth and are thrown into an uproar at meeting God there. Why? It is because the realm of death was the last place where they truly had control. And that “morning star” who fell down into the earth was the evil one, who was sent to the underworld and stripped of every power except death after he tempted mankind into joining his rebellion in Eden.
But then God enters into death itself, that last power and last realm left to the evil one, and defeats it. And if we understand death and Hades as fundamentally being about not just a “personified” location or even a state of being medically brain-dead, etc., but rather about being under the power of malevolent spiritual beings, then we can begin to understand what it means that Hades could be embittered (or, in my favorite translation, vexed) at being dethroned and rendered impotent.
God Without the Gods
Because of the worldwide pandemic, our Great Lent, Holy Week and Pascha here in 2020 have been really difficult to endure, so difficult that many simply refuse to accept that we must endure it, demanding that we find some way to distribute holy communion as a kind of drive-up commodity — grocery stores and Starbucks are open, right? — or that we simply open the doors to the churches and just accept that many of us might die as a result of being infected — after all, is not life and death in the hands of God? Why shouldn’t we engage in behaviors that might kill us or others, if we truly believe that we belong to God? Or some just refuse to believe that a virus could get transmitted during a church service (despite mounting evidence to the contrary) or that churches have ever closed in response to pestilence (despite numerous historical examples).
Setting aside for the moment the many other problems with such an attitude, much of this makes the same mistake as the “Hades not Hell” argument. It treats the problem of death as being a matter simply of a physical state that of course God has control over.
But we might forget that death and Hades can be embittered because, not just according to the Bible but even according to nearly every ancient culture, the realm of death is bound up with spiritual beings — gods — who are the enemies of God. These spiritual powers rose up against Him and are now being judged by Him. Their realm is being justified, that is, being set in order. And that means that these demons are getting what comes to them and being driven out.
I believe that our task in this moment — as witnessed to by the nearly universal consensus not just of governments and medical authorities, but nearly all Orthodox bishops and pastors and even some holy elders who have spoken out — is to experience the embittering of death for ourselves, including even the death of what we expect our spiritual lives to look like. But if we are the Lord’s then we have nothing to fear from this experience, because the judgment of God is wrath to the wicked but refinement to the righteous. Refinement is not an easy or comfortable process, but it is necessary if we are to become purified.
We have been thrown into an embittering exile not because of some vast, worldwide conspiracy that has led to massive apostasy of even holy elders and monastics and the good-hearted pastors of the Church, but because in this age in which Christ rules in the midst of His enemies, even though Hades has been (past tense) embittered, he is still being (present tense) embittered. And inasmuch as we are still loyal in any way to death by means of our sins, then we also are being embittered.
It is not easy to accept this exile and embitterment. But I think our task is clearer if we understand that we are being wrested by God from the hand of His adversary the evil one, who had the power of death. Are we really willing to say that we will not do — for a little while — what is needed to preserve life? The life we have in this world is not nothing. It is the opportunity for each of us to repent, to renounce our alignment with the lord of death and to pledge allegiance to the Lord of Life.
It is true that God can control everything, but He does not actually exercise that level of control. We have free will. And the evil one and the demons have free will. We don’t have full freedom of action because we are not omnipotent. But there are at least three “factions,” as it were, in play in the balance of mankind between life and death. On the side of life is God and the heavenly hosts, and on the side of death is the evil one and the other demons. And then mankind may align himself with either.
The Refinement of Embitterment
Inasmuch as we are aligned with death, we need to repent, and that repentance will include being embittered, because when sin is burned away by God’s presence and action, it is not comfortable. But if we will accept this embittering with grace and patience, then we will find in our rising with Christ that the victory of the arising of God is in us, as well. We will find that the demons tremble and flee at our coming, as well.
Let us think beyond our momentary difficulties and ask how this present bitterness is for our purification and salvation. This means that we have to accept this as from the Lord, including the decisions of people we do not agree with.
I have been criticized a number of times recently because my approach to this pandemic has not been “How do we keep doing business as usual in face of all these obstacles?” but rather “Given that we have this problem, what do we do in the midst of it?” To me, though, the question is whether I believe this present state of things is given to me for my salvation.
After all, it is not as though I can single-handedly alter the near unanimity of leaders both civil and ecclesiastical on our response to COVID-19. So even if I disagree with them, what do I do?
I can rage against them or I can accept that even this is from the Lord, even decisions I may disagree with, even decisions that mean agony for me, like telling my parishioners to stay home, like telling a fellow priest that I cannot let him come and serve with me, like telling my own wife and children to stay home.
One of the most profound things that my spiritual father ever told me and that I keep coming back to is this (and I am paraphrasing a little here): This life that you now have, with all of its difficulties, all of its pain, all of its inconveniences and obstacles, that you see as being so often in the way of the holy life that you want to live — this is God’s answer to all your prayers. He knows what you need for your salvation, and He gave you this. It is not in the way — it is the way.
We will not experience the benefits of refinement if we do not accept what God weaves into the tapestry of our lives — even as it looks like the threads of life and death sometimes are in diabolical hands — if we do not accept them as from the Lord. And I believe that we can accept even this present embitterment if we will remember that this is part of a rebellion being put down by God.
Trampling Down Death by Death
In this rebellion, the evil one seeks to hold on to his last power, which is death. And he seeks to ensnare us in it, to become deathly like him and remain so for eternity.
But how did Christ undo his power? How did Christ embitter Hades and overthrow him? He did it by accepting even the embitterment of death for Himself. It was the most wrong and unjust thing ever to happen, that the Lord of Life should be taken even for a moment by the lord of death. But in the end, it was Hades who was fooled and undone. It was Hades who lost his kingdom. It was Hades who took a body and met God.
Sometimes, I think we want Christ to trample down death by His death but not with our death. It is as though we somehow expect to have resurrection for ourselves without death for ourselves. So we do not accept to die in this present life by accepting impingement upon ourselves. And so when we die (physically), we may end up dying (spiritually).
But if we will accept death with Him even now by accepting to be embittered even now, then we will emerge with Him in life, trampling down death with Him by death. We can’t escape that death has to be trampled by death. Death will not be escaped, but it can be transformed into life, destroyed completely.
The only way to accept this present embittering death so that we are refined for life is through patience and humility, through repentance. There is no other way.
For in the end, even this present Pascha is revealed to be the Pascha of the Lord, the Pascha on which we celebrate the death of Death, the Pascha which crashes into the gates of the underworld, wrests the dead away from Death, and gives them life forevermore.
This has nothing to do with the current state of affairs, but I love your input into my life. That being said, I know how much you love Emmaus and I wondered if you ever heard the song “On the Way to Emmaus” by the gospel family the Gaithers. This song makes me smile every time I play it and it inspires me to be a better person and love my town every day.
No, it’s not one I know.
“He knows what you need for your salvation, and He gave you this. It is not in the way — it is THE way.” Again, thank you for being a shepherd who continually calls us to repentance.
Christ showed us the Way, by His Life, Death and Resurrection.
May He give us the strength to follow Him.
I find it deeply troubling how this crisis has caused so much anger and division -even among the faithful. That is the true tragedy here I feel. We are seeing draconian levels of abuse of power and while some are resisting that, others are supporting it- out of fear I suppose.
But, I agree that there is a reason for all this and we must trust God. I like the idea that this crisis is here for a reason, “not in the way, but it IS the way”. And if we can all learn something about ourselves, something God is trying to tell us, then it will be worth it. We all just need to relax and stop fighting among ourselves, be quiet so we can hear what we need to hear.
I keep reading this article over and over and over again, because, finally someone is talking about what happened between the Crucifixion and the Resurrection. This bit was missing for me, the disappointment of death, being defeated! What a wonderful, loving and strong God we have.
….”It took a body, and met God face to face.
It took earth, and encountered Heaven.
It took that which was seen, and fell upon the unseen….”
Hades, Hell, or Helvetet, as we say in Sweden (Hell – Underworld; …Vete ie vite – a fine, or punishment), seemed to be just a place, used by those who wanted to rule and subdue the people, by putting the ‘fear’ of God, a harsh and punishing God in the minds of the faithful.
That Luther, has a lot to answer for!
From New Zealand it seems odd to see on the news that people in the United States are angry that they must stay away from each other to stop the spread of a new virus which has new unexpected effects on many people. We in New Zealand have had a strict lockdown for weeks and the spread of the virus has declined. Next week we will have a less strict lockdown.
Things happen in life Awful things happen. unexpectedly. But people find they have the resources within them to get through! They did not expect they had the backbone, perhaps but when push comes to shove, as they say, its amazing what people can do in an emergency.
The Queen said we have to recover the wartime spirit which got Britain and the Commonwealth through incredibly tough times and for the most part people have kept their social distance from each other and bided their time. I hope people in the U S can see the usefulness of keeping apart . When needed God raises up leaders in all departments of life in a miraculous way. Look around you! Appreciate those you have who are doing their best in unprecedented circumstances.
I was a wartime child and my attitudes were affected by my early education. I hope I have not been to strict in my remarks.
Thank you Father. I attended online services this Holy Week. Holy Thursday has always held a special place in my heart, seeing my Lord crucified. Approaching Him crucified on the cross. This year, we were told to hold a cross in our hands as we watched the service. I did. And I felt such a heartbreaking intimacy with my Lord, as I was holding Him in my arms, cradling Him. In His suffering. I cried out in grief and mourning. Tangible pain. I have held the dying in my arms on hospice. I have been witness to suffering and to the peace of passing. And I have always known, but it was so very clear – that to walk with our Lord is to walk with Him in both His suffering and joy. As He is with us in our suffering and joy. My comment that night on our church chat was: I am holding you as you hold us. I am not unaccustomed to suffering – personal and in service – and all can be used to as you say “refined for life”. For me, in the furnace of fire with His love and mercy. Yet, the evil and darkness in the world is tangible and real. We, as the holy saints and martyrs attest to – are fighting principalities. These things from the bowels of Hades that are not of God. Torture, abuse, rape, violence, cruelty, disease and the exploitation of innocents. Yet – we can draw nearer to God in our suffering. So, I may have misunderstood the words of your spiritual father – as you said – God allows free will and for that we are held accountable, not God. I read often the writings of St. Paisios of Mt. Athos. The Lord can heal us and not only heal but magnify and restore what we have lost. But – the darkness and evil that covers the world and moves its way into men’s hearts – is spiritual warfare of which we must always be aware. All can work for the good – if we give our suffering to God’s hands. “The Way” that you mentioned. We are told to rebuke the darkness and to heal in Jesus’ name. As He did in scripture. I felt such evil warfare in the many dark nights when I stayed at an Orthodox monastery – the adverse powers knew to attack holy places. Just as they attacked a church where I live, Charleston, South Carolina. I did prison ministry to the young man who murdered nine people in that church, and I saw and felt evil. Behind his beautiful smile. And Hades (Hell) is real. As an aside, I studied “Hades” and Persephone and the Eleusinian Mysteries for one year as a scholar to Greece. Yet – our Lord as we celebrated and you reminded us – defeated Death with Death. It is embittered. Thank you for speaking to that in depth. Yet – the spiritual warfare is ongoing. I have encountered it in the prisons, in the places where people suffer. He is our hope, our healer, our redeemer – especially to the lost sheep. To those He told us to serve. Paradoxically, this pandemic has not put me in exile – in many ways – as an Orthodox Christian, I am always in exile from this world. Though I work, live, and serve God’s children. Prayer, contemplation, solitude, is not an afterthought. It is a way of life. Forgive, the possible lack of cohesion of my message – but it is strange to write when I cannot see the full text of my writing. Thank you for your thoughtful and thought provoking message. Jackie Morfesis
Thank you for this article. I thought some of the “hades vs hell“ argument stemmed from there needing to be a distinction between “hades vs Gehenna” where in some English translations both are translated as hell? I get your point that essentially the term hell comes from a Germanic version of hades- it seems the modern concept of “hell” may be more consistent with Gehenna, maybe due to the KJV translations affecting the western Christian worldview.
For some reason it seems to me the concept of hades even in modern times still conveys a “realm of dead” sort of place (perhaps because of the popularity of the Disney version of Hercules? Haha)
Fr Thomas Hopko talked about Christ’s descent into Hades in one of his “Speaking the Truth in love” podcasts, and was against the idea of Christ entering hell (because hell is the presence of God experienced by those who do not “want” him – he references 2 Thess 1:8-9 [compare ESV to NKJV]). But based on this article, he may have been using hell in the more modern use of the term, conveying Gehenna.
Wasn’t sure if you were already aware of any of this, but figured I would throw in my 0.2 ¢.
I saw Father Thomas Hopko speak at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Seminary many years ago. I was in my 20s I believe. It was a Lenten Retreat – Sin: Primordial, Generational, Personal. It focused on Amartia, as “missing the mark”, the distance we move away from God is the severity and magnitude of our sin. So that God is the perfect, single, center point – and it is we who draw near to Him or choose (have the free will) to move away from Him. I do not personally know of the physical reality and realm of Hades, Hell. But I do know that the soul suffers in many “private hells” when we move from the Lord by our thoughts, actions, and lifestyles. I have encountered the adverse powers in my work in the prisons and in my faith walk. I have also had unspeakable comfort, protection and mercy from the Lord and the Holy Spirit. An Archimandrite of the Greek Orthodox Church once told me that we must be very conscious of where the thoughts arise in our minds that torment us. So often – even the faithful forget or dismiss that indeed we are living in constant spiritual warfare and nothing delights the darkness as much as bringing the faithful away from God. We must always be awake and aware. And as St. Paul instructs us – to put on the armor of God every morning when we awake. If we love the Lord, we are in His army. I suppose – that I am saying – that the battle is not just in the Book of Revelations – the battle is right here, right now.
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