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.
The icon is a picture of the Descent into Hades, detail of the Resurrection fresco from Serbian 14th century monastery Visoki Decani, Kosovo-Metohija, Serbia.
I will probably leave this post as the lead post on the site through part of Monday. I think its content is worth some maximum viewing and comment and only time can give it that exposure.
The icon (an observation): Adam looks weak and literally just risen from the grave. His head is tilted back (he lacks the strength to hold it up) and his legs are wobbling. Christ has grabbed him by the wrist to pull him out of the grave– Adam is too weak to even clasp the Lord’s hand.
And yet, weak, helpless, and defenseless as he is, Adam’s gaze is still on Christ. Perhaps Adam’s gaze turned to Christ when Christ grabbed him to pull him out, thus giving him hope? Perhaps that’s theologically murky. Would it be better to say that Adam was always waiting in expectation, weak in the grave though he was?
In any caseI’ve never seen any of that imagery of Adam in a Descent into Hades icon before. Thank you for posting the icon.
I located the icon on a google image search. It accompanied a Paschal letter of Patriarch Pavel to the Serbian Orthodox faithful this year. It is, I should add, an icon in great danger through its location in Kosovo where Orthodox Churches have been steadily demolished by the anti-Orthodox – a tragedy no matter where your sympathies lie.
Mary, your analysis of the icon is spot on and truly worth meditating on. Remembering that icons do with color what Scripture does with words, as the 7th Ecumenical Council stated.
You may not have intended it, but this explains at least to me why the descent into hell animates our lenten and paschal liturgies. I thought it was more accidental than anything else; with a profound but quaint theology that really expressed some theologian’s or hymnwriter’s idiosyncrasic devotion to a metaphor. If I read you aright, you’re saying that our Savior’s decent into one “hades” –where all human death was slain– was once very prominent teaching and popular theology in the church. Wow. And that’s why it’s still in our liturgies where the church still carries forward the simple truth that Christ slew death when he died for ALL. Amen!
Indeed that is the case. If you read through the Anaphora (the main prayer) in St. Basil’s liturgy, for instance, you will see that this is largely the metaphor of that liturgy.
The entering into Hell for our salvation is inherently part of the doctrine of Kenosis – that Christ as God emptied Himself and became subject to death. It is this event that St. Paul alludes to when he says that Christ “led captivity captive.”
It is absolutely the dominant metaphor of the first four centuries in the Church, East and West, and only begins to be supplanted in the West during the developments of the 4th-5th and later centuries.
Some writers, such as JND Kelly, refer to the East has never having developed a doctrine of the atonement – which is absurd.
My wife and I were discussing the posting earlier today, and thought that were we to have an icon of the resurrection that fit the model that many Christians outside the East imply in their teaching – it would have Christ emerging from the tomb, surrounded by lawyers and signing legal documents. I know that’s silly, but it was a Saturday morning, after all.
I hope my Christian friends in Western Churches do not take this posting or my jest as an attack. It is simply to say, “Watch your Metaphor,” and to ask, “Do you really mean to have the metaphor you have as the dominating image of Christ’s saving work.”
It is interesting that although St. Paul makes excellent use of Adam and the Fall in some of his argumentation – it does not figure at all in the Gospels themselves (I’m not using an argument of silence here) but there is reference to “binding the strong man” and “despoiling his house.” The imagery of the Descent into Hades is inherent in the Gospels themselves, whereas the later legal metaphor really has no particular grounding there at all.
Christ’s only particular reference to early Genesis that I can recall off hand is to that of Adam and Eve becoming one flesh. Genesis was not a prominent book in Judaism contemporary to Christ (I am told). It is only raised to such an absolute position as the metaphor of original sin and forgiveness as a forensic action develops in the West.
Think of Orthodoxy’s treatment of our forefathers. They get a Sunday of commemoration (or 2 depending on your understanding of the pre-Christmas Sundays). We also will pray for “those in Hades from the beginning of the world til now” at Kneeling Vespers of Pentecost Sunday.
The imagery of the event of Christ’s Descent into Hades positively echoes throughout our celebration of the Christian year.
you write: “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.”
So are they re-inventing the wheel so to speak?
Personally, I went and read Fr. Al’s site, once and couldn’t get past his sniping comments towards the Orthodox and his disatisfaction with us. I found that sad, and it didn’t make me want to visit again. Apologetics is interesting, not for everyone, certainly not for me, I am unqualified to speak only to learn and discern as they say.
I enjoyed this post, thank you Father Stephen for making it easy to understand.
Christ is Risen!
Fr. Al is a good man, and doesn’t dislike the Orthodox (he likes me), but he defends his Catholic faith strongly and will take us Orthodox to task in his efforts. Love covers a multitude of sins, which means I hope he loves me!
“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.”
This quote seems problematic for me as a believer and follower of Christ in the Catholic tradition. Perhaps I’m misunderstanding it, but to me it seems to be a kind of universalism. If hell was emptied, are we simply repopulating it now? Or does the atonement of Christ keep it empty? And can one be saved in a sense that is not “happy”?
I’m sorry for all the questions, I’m simply not sure exactly what the East means by the emptying of hell.
Also, I would concur with you on our need to be careful with our metaphors. It is important to note that while the dominant metaphor in Protestantism is forensic, that is not the case for Catholicism – though it is a metaphor for the atonement in Catholicism. Or let me put it this way: In some segments of evangelicalism it is the only acceptable metaphor, but the Catholic Church recognizes it as one of many metaphors for atonement – none of which can plumb its depths or comprehend its riches.
We also must be careful not to deny the metaphors that the Scriptures give us of the atonement. And the forensic metaphor is one of those metaphors – certainly, however, not the only one.
Yes the metaphor does contain a certain inherent universalism, which though denied in the East, naturally comes up in theological exploration because the controlling metaphor is indeed the Descent into Hell.
Also, as is noted in Bishop Hilarion’s article, the Orthodox, unlike many in the West, do not necessarily limit Christ’s descent as a one day event, but something which (like the Cross) has effect for all time.
By the way, I am not entirely convinced of the forensic metaphor’s place in Scripture. It is more often read into Scripture than read from Scripture.
The Catholic Church is becoming much richer in its depiction and language of salvation since Vatican II, I agree.
On the matter of a not “happy” salvation, I meant by that a deliverance from hell, etc., and yet not wanting to be in the Light and loving darkness. The general teaching of Orthodoxy on our state after death, is that all are given the same – the Grace and Love of God. But as Christ says in St. John’s gospel: “And this is condemnation, that Light has come into the world and men prefer darkness to the Light because their deeds are evil.”
Thus in some sense, “Hell” is being in the presence of God and hating it. But it is not God’s punishment, it is our own wicked heart that makes us suffer.
I can say much more about this at another time, along with some patristic notation.
A quick note on universalism:
As I understand it, Orthodoxy may come across as universalist at times because the vision of an empty “hell” is aspirational, and quite realistic. I think Bishop Hilarion mentioned in his essay that the soul is not static after death. The Fathers and contenmporary saints advise us to pray even for the salvation of the demons. Contemporary Athonite elders, for instance, have related stories concerning the efficacy of prayer for the dead, beyond what some may read as a shortening of one’s time in purgatory.
And didn’t St. Gregory the Theologian (among others, I think) express the hope, even confidence, that even Satan would be saved? A lot can happen in eternity, right? C.S. Lewis has a wonderful literary exposition on the idea of hell as not-loving-God’s-Loving-Presence. But who’s to say that’s forever?
Various strains of what we might call “Western” thought seem to disagree. The soul either experiences the Beatific Vision right off the bat, is damned for all eternity, or experiences purgation of some sort to prepare it for the Vision. But in some sense, the lines have been drawn after death.
So while hades may not have exactly been emptied during those three earthly days when Christ was in the tomb, there’s good reason to think that Creation will be healed eventually. That, out of many, we may be one. Indeed.
Forgive me if I’ve said anything wrong and foolish.
Christ is Risen!
I could not go so far as to say the fathers and contempary saints advise us to pray even for the salvation of demons. This is rare in the fathers and though not unknown among contemporary elders, it is more a mark of their own faith than an encouragement for us to do the same. The majority opinion of Orthodox teaching is that some are lost (not that we should not therefore pray for them).
One should pray with compassion. If your heart is filled with compassion for even the reptiles (as St. Isaac of Syria said) then pray for them.
But it is nowhere included in the official prayerbooks of the Church.
It’s just that it’s not surprising to find it in Orthodoxy.
Chrsit is risen, and Hell is overthrown!
A truly excellent summary. I wish I’d had it when I was writing my doctroal thesis, when wrote my thesis, and used more words to say less.
You wrote: “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.).”
I can attest to that. I was raised in the Church of Christ, and when studying St. Paul’s epistle to the Ephesians, we would always pass over the verses in chapter 4 where St. Paul alludes to the descent into hell. “We’re not sure what that means,” someone would say. Then another person would cite St. Peter, who acknowledged that St. Paul can be hard to understand. (We weren’t sure what it meant, but if the Catholics had a position on the matter, then we took the opposite position.)
I’ve been studying Orthodoxy for two years now, and I’m just now starting to get my head around some of these basic concepts that are all but unknown in modern protestantism.
Thank you for posting this, Fr. Stephen.
Christ is risen!
Having read our dear Pontificator’s comments about recent statements by the Vatican concerning “limbo” and his insistence that the Roman view of the atonement, as well as “original sin”, isn’t that far removed from the Orthodox view, I wonder if the above post could be a way for us to discuss in a loving manner the appearance that, in fact, there are some notible differences in howe the thinking of the East and West differ significantly concerning the atonement.
I ask in hopes of avoiding Fr. Kimmel’s dislike for Orthodox arguments that seem to him to want to argue forever.
But also in hope that this might be a time to point out that there are sustantive differences. Such differences that it stands in the way of unity at the Cup. Tragic as that is, it is.
Or perhaps this simply isn’t the time.
Thank you for the post. It has given me better tools to understand the Orthodox metaphor of salvation and eternal life.
“What if heaven and hell are the same place?”
Is there a signficant difference between Hades and Hell?
Some make a distinction so that Hell refers to the Lake of Fire and Gehenna, and that Hades is the eqivalent of Sheol and means only the place of departed spirits.
This is made more confusing by the English usage of the King James where hell is used to translate all of these things.
I’m sure some would insist on making a difference. But in the icon of the Descent in Hades (Hell) the devil seems to have been the guy you needed to deal with, to lock in chains, and break his gates. So I’m not really one to make a big or any distinction in the long run.
For the sake of preaching, Hell is much more effective, particularly when I speak of the private hells we create for ourselves by cutting ourselves off from God, hardening our heart towards our neighbor, et.
I’m not sure that I know if to engage in a fruitful discussion of differences between East and West. Actually, I think the differences are almost obvious, and I think Bishop Hilarion’s description is very accurate.
But by the time Rome gets through citing various authors it always sounds like there is little to no difference. But I do not buy that.
The Latins create false distinctions as well as paper over actual distinctions depending on context created by whomever their current pontiff happens to be.
Fr. Stephen, your remarks about the situation in Kosovo are correct. Interestingly, Pat Robertson and other evangelicals are stepping up to the plate in supporting Bishop Artemije, unlike the “friendly” Latins.
Dear Fr. Stephen:
I must admit of some confusion on this (I will, of course, also take it up with my priest) . . . but am I wrong in understanding (I think from St. Athanasius and from St. Nicholas Cabasilas) that the descent of Christ into Hades destroyed death for all mankind generally – that is that there is/will be resurrection for all, for this is the natural result of his destruction of death. However, those who are illumined (St. Nicholas)or have done good the resurrection is to Life, but otherwise to judgement or condemnation (κρισεως). John 5:29.
In other words, I’ve come to understand (perhaps incorrectly) that Christ has already gifted all of us with resurrection and this is truly universal, but we still can remain by our own will blind participation in the life of Christ. I guess I ‘get’ that all of Hades is/will be emptied, but I don’t see where this leads necessarily to a universalist view of salvation, while also not negating the possibility of it either. Am I missing something here?
No, I think you get it. Indeed resurrection is for all, death is destroyed. There is no universalism ever endorsed within Orthodoxy. But the “hell” is not of God’s making for us, but our own hatred of God and His love. So I think we are understanding the same thing.
It’s just that there has always been an undercurrent of the possibility of universal salvation within Orthodoxy, simply based on the love of God. The few Fathers who ever spoke in such a manner were either condemned (Origen) or were relegated to sort of an “interesting” status as in the case of Isaac of Syria.
My observation was simply to note that the destruction of death and hades by Christ, carries in it a care for all that is not found particularly in the metaphors of the more forensic West.
Thus, if I make a point again, I think that the adherence generally to the Descent into Hades and the metaphor of salvation that it carries is much more positive than various legal metaphors that came to prominence in the West.
For instance, there are no Orthodox theologians meeting today to discuss whether unbaptized babies go to hell or limbo, etc. We simply do not believe such things – and neither would the Roman Catholics except for the directions that developed under other dominant metaphors. Thus my admonition: watch your metaphors.
Thank you, Father . . . and I should have said ‘blind to partcipation in the life of Christ’ in my second paragraph.
And I confess I am willing to leave most of this as it is – a great mystery. But recently my wife, who is not generally interested in Orthodoxy, asked me about Christ’s descending into hell and commented that she thought that hell was a place where God wasn’t – where He wouldn’t go. We talked through the idea that for those for whom the very idea of there being a God or Christ is hateful, being in the presence of such a being would be, indeed, pure hell. That lead to a conversation about these things and I found your post timely.
I do understand. I was often told in my protestant childhood that hell is the absence of God. Then I saw Psalm 139 “Lo, if I descend into hell Thou art there.”
Of course, this is the Hebrew, sheol. I do not think any word for “hell” as distinct from sheol exists in the Old Testament.
That’s one of the good things I’ve taken from the Nazarene Church I was raised in: the story of Christ’s descent into Hell. My dad told me about it when I was a preteen or teenager, and I’ve always believed it. When I was learning about the Evangelical Free church and somebody asked the pastor what happened to people who died before Christ–I was surprised to hear, “We don’t know. Maybe they were judged based on their belief in the coming Messiah.” ????? I was so glad to discover that the Orthodox Church believes in the Descent Into Hell!
That’s pretty neat that some believe in praying for the salvation of demons and perhaps even Satan himself. Talk about love. Very encouraging to hear that, even if it is a minority thing. It isn’t like the Church has an official view on Hell, or much of the afterlife for that matter, anyways.
The Church has a very decided view on Hell and the afterlife. They differ somewhat from Western Christianity and focus far more on the actual condition of the human heart. This we take quite seriously.
Oh? From what I am reading, in an effort to spend time wisely instead of moping about the fact that I cannot come visit your parish, there isn’t a set view. Toll houses, River of Fire, whether hell is a “place” or not – everything I have read has been very undecided and vague.
Could you perhaps clear things up, for perhaps give me a few links? I probably have just been reading in the wrong places.
There are certain kinds of things one should be vague about (like toll houses, etc.) and things we should not be vague about (like the importance of the state of our heart before God). The details and mechanics of our life beyond this are of little importance. What matters is the state of our heart before God. Not paying attention to that can make for problems now and forever, no matter the details.
There are not, to my knowledge, great links on the details, because most details are not revealed in Scripture nor in the dogmatic canons of the Church. But the Scripture tells us much about the heart’s relationship with God. And it is that we must pay attention to. The other stuff, in my opinion, is a distraction.
For What Its Worth:
“Return to OZ” (1985)
This is long (and takes long to load the first time) AND is the climax of the film (hence a spoiler for those who have not seen it), which is why I hesitate to post it here. Also, it is not an icon. However, I noticed something at 3:10-5:08.
Set-Up: The Gnome King has promised Dorothy and her friends freedom if she can guess which objects in a room full of objects are actually her enchanted friends.
The Gnome king is a liar.
Is it just me, or is there Christian imagery of Christ’s Descent into Hades here?
Seemed clear to me, Mary. It made me think of the Red Eggs of Pascha. My daughter, Mary, would love this – you know she’s a fan of the Oz books (or was as a young girl).
A wonderful commentary Father, on the deeper meaning of our glorious salvation. Holy Fire is one such metaphor – of course it is much more than that!
The iconography of Christ’s Descent and simultaneous Ascent into Hades is a most effective mechanism for exposing the fatal flaw in the literalist position.
Well done, whoever thought that one up!