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"Today the concept of truth is viewed with suspicion, because truth is identified with violence. Over history there have, unfortunately, been episodes when people sought to defend the truth with violence. But they are two contrasting realities. Truth cannot be imposed with means other than itself! Truth can only come with its own light. Yet, we need truth. ... Without truth we are blind in the world, we have no path to follow. The great gift of Christ was that He enabled us to see the face of God".Pope Benedict xvi, February 24th, 2012

The Church is ecumenical, catholic, God-human, ageless, and it is therefore a blasphemy—an unpardonable blasphemy against Christ and against the Holy Ghost—to turn the Church into a national institution, to narrow her down to petty, transient, time-bound aspirations and ways of doing things. Her purpose is beyond nationality, ecumenical, all-embracing: to unite all men in Christ, all without exception to nation or race or social strata. - St Justin Popovitch

BENEDICTUS MOMENTS

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Tuesday, 15 September 2015

ST ISAAC THE SYRIAN AND HIS UNDERSTANDING OF UNIVERSAL SALVATION by Dr SEBASTIAN BROCK (plus) CHRIST THE CONQUEROR OF HELL by Bishop, now METROPOLITAN HILARION ALFEYEV



St Isaac the Syrian and his understanding of universal salvation

by Sebastian Brock



1
St Isaac the Syrian and his understanding of universal salvation and of ‘the mystery of Gehenna (Hell)’
 by Dr Sebastian Brock 

Isaac the Syrian, who is also known as Isaac of Niniveh, belongs to the late seventh century, and was thus roughly a contemporary of St Mildred and the Venerable Bede. He originated from the region of Qatar, on the west side of the Gulf, which at that time was an important intellectual centre for the Church of the East. For a brief period he was bishop of  Niniveh (modern Mosul, in north Iraq), but retired to live as a hermit in the mountains of western Iran, where he was connected with the monastery of Rabban Shabur, famous at that time. His extensive writings belong to the end of his life and come down to us in three ‘Parts’, the first of which was translated into Greek at the Greek Orthodox Monastery of St Sabbas, south of Jerusalem, in about AD 800; from Greek his monastic discourses reached Latin and Slavonic (where, in later Russian translations, they have proved very influential). The Second and Third Parts have only recently come to light, and are available in French translations by the late Fr. André Louf in the series Spiritualité orientale
. At present only about half of the Second Part is available in English. Isaac’s teaching lays great emphasis on the love of God, and of the need for human response to this, by way of reflecting this divine love. For Isaac, the whole aim of the Incarnation is to disclose the extent of God’s love: The entire purpose of our Lord’s death was not to redeem us from sins, or for any other reason, but solely in order that the world might become aware of the love which God has for creation. Had all this astounding affair taken place solely for the purpose of the forgiveness of sin, it would have been sufficient to redeem us by some other means. (Chapters on Knowledge IV.28 = excerpt no. 120 in The Wisdom of St Isaac [Fairacres Publications, 1997]). 

Human response needs to reflect this divine love, and in this way it can itself become theophanic. Such a response involves a profound sense of humility, which itself reflects Christ’s own ‘garment of humility’ that He put on at the Incarnation (Syriac writers make very creative use of clothing images and metaphors). Profound humility in turn involves tears of repentance, which can also become tears of joy, the outcome of which will be the acquisition of a compassionate heart, which implies the ability to see everyone and every thing as it were through the eyes of God, and from his, rather than a human, perspective. Those who have attained to this profound humility see themselves as worse than the worst of sinners, thus underpinning them through compassion, in imitation of Christ’s undergoing a death reserved for the worst of criminals. (One might compare this with the Seventh Step of Humility in the Rule of St Benedict, where ‘a person not only admits with his tongue, but is also convinced in his hearth, that he is inferior to all’). 

Isaac’s teaching on the immensity and limitless nature of divine love inevitably involves him in having to come to some understanding of what he calls ‘the difficult matter of Gehenna (Hell)’. How is the concept of an eternal Gehenna compatible with that of a God who ‘is love’ (I John 4:16). In the First Part of his Discourses Isaac only gives some  passing hints of his tentative thoughts on the matter; thus in Discourse 26 he says,  beginning with a quotation from Evagrius: ‘Sin, hell and death do not at all exist with God, for they are events, not persons’. There will be a time when sin will not exist. Gehenna is the fruit of sin; it had a  beginning in time, but its end is not known.

 It was only with the publication (in 1995) of much of the Second Part that Isaac’s more detailed thoughts on the matter became known, for in the final chapters he returns to the subject. Here it will be best for the most part to allow St Isaac to speak in his own words. First of all, in chapter 38 he provides his starting point, thus preparing the reader for what is to follow: 
1. What profundity of richness, what mind and exalted wisdom is God's! What compassionate kindness and abundant goodness belongs to the Creator! With what purpose and with what love did He create this world and bring it into existence! What a mystery does the coming into being of this creation look towards! To what a state is (our) common nature invited! What love served to initiate the creation of the world! This same love which initiated the act of creation prepared beforehand by another dispensation the things appropriate to adorn (the world's) majesty which sprung forth as a result of the might of His love. 2. In love did He bring the world into existence; in love does He guide it during this its temporal existence; in love is He going to bring it to that wondrous transformed state, and in love will the world be swallowed up in the great mystery of Him who has performed all these things; in love will the whole course of the governance of creation be finally comprised. And since in the New World the Creator's love rules over all rational nature, the wonder at His mysteries that will be revealed then will captivate to itself the intellect of rational beings whom He has created so that they might have delight in Him, whether they be evil or whether they be just. With this design did He bring them into existence, even though they, among themselves have made, after their coming into being, this distinction between the just and the wicked. Even though this is so, nevertheless in the Creator's design there is none, from among all who were created and who have come into being that is, every rational nature who is to the front or to the back of God's love. Rather, God has a single equal love which covers the whole extent of rational creation, all things whether visible or invisible: there is no first place or last place with Him in this love for any single one of them, as I have said. Here he is making two fundament points: first, that the distinction between the just and the wicked is something secondary, seeing that it was introduced by the actions of individual human beings, subsequent  to the creation of humanity; secondly, that God’s love is even and changeless: there is no before or after in his love, for he knows everyone before they  became just or wicked, and his love does not change when people became just or wicked: The Creator and His love did not change because they underwent change after He had brought them into being, nor does His purpose which exists eternally (change). And if it were otherwise, He would be subject to change just as created beings are a shocking idea. Realising that what he is saying may seem difficult to some readers, he goes on: 4. My brethren, if there is anyone to whom these things are difficult to  believe, he should be careful lest, by running away from one element in the argument he fall into blasphemy at another: imagining that he is spurning the words of a fellow human being, he may find himself arming himself against what concerns the divine Nature, being forced (by the logic of his case) to reduce the glorious Nature of His Creator to weakness and change. 5. But we know that everyone is agreed on this, that there is no change, or any earlier and later intentions, with the Creator: there is no hatred or resentment in His nature, no greater or lesser place in His love, no  before or after in His knowledge. For if it is believed by everyone that the creation came into existence as a result of the Creator's goodness and love, then we know that this original cause does not ever diminish or change in the Creator's nature as a result of the disordered course of creation. 

The next chapter (39) has the title ‘Contemplation on the topic of Gehenna, in so far as grace can be granted to human nature to hold opinions on these mysteries’. After quoting the Psalms 33:4 and 111:3, he exclaims: How unattainable is the unfathomable purpose of the Lord! Such is the inalterable kindness that is for ever, such is the love, such is the outpoured compassion of His nature, and, with all this, the foreknowledge of His creative activity so what is the reason for the establishing of this difficult matter of Gehenna? All who have knowledge of truth are full of wonder and amazement at this mystery: since the contemplation of this escapes all enquiry, all rational beings endowed with the faculty of knowledge and who are conversant with the spiritual meaning of the divine mysteries retire and have recourse to silence, and they fall down in worship  before the mysteries of the wisdom of Him who should be worshipped in silence, for all His actions are to be wondered at in adoration. Isaac then goes on: 
2. That we should imagine that anger, wrath, jealousy or the such like have anything to do with the divine Nature is something utterly abhorrent for us: no one in their right mind, no one who has any understanding at all can possibly come to such madness as to think anything of the sort about God. Nor again can we possibly say that He acts thus out of retribution, even though the Scriptures may on the outer surface posit this. Even to think this of God and to suppose that retribution for evil acts is to be found with Him is abominable. By implying that He makes use of such a great and difficult thing out of retribution we are attributing a weakness to the divine Nature. We cannot even believe such a thing can be found in those human beings who live a virtuous and upright life and whose thoughts are entirely in accord with the divine will let alone believe it of God, that He has done something out of retribution for anticipated evil acts in connection with those whose nature He had brought into being with honour and great love. Knowing them and all their conduct, the flow of His grace did not dry up from them: not even after they started living amid many evil deeds did He withhold His care for them, even for a moment. If someone says that He has put up with them here on earth in order that His patience may be known with the idea that He would punish them there mercilessly, such a person thinks in an unspeakably blasphemous way about God, due to his infantile way of thinking: he is removing from God His kindness, goodness and compassion, all the things because of which He truly bears with sinners and wicked men. Such a person is attributing to God enslavement to passion, supposing that He has not consented to their  being chastised here, seeing that He has prepared them for a much greater misfortune, in exchange for a shortlived patience. Not only does such a  person fail to attribute something praiseworthy to God, but he also calumniates Him. How then, should one approach this ‘difficult matter of Gehenna’? Isaac now explains his own approach: 3. A right way of thinking about God would be the following: the kind Lord, who in everything He does looks to ways of assisting rational beings, directs thought concerning judgement to the advantage of those who accept this difficult matter. For it would be most odious and utterly blasphemous to think that hate or resentment exists with God, even against a demonic  beings; or to imagine any other weakness, or passibility, or whatever else might be involved in the course of retribution of good or bad as applying, in a retributive way, to that glorious divine Nature. Rather, He acts towards us in ways He knows will be advantageous to us, whether by way of things that cause suffering, or by way of things that cause relief, whether they cause joy or grief, whether they are insignificant or glorious: all are directed towards the single eternal good, whether each receives  judgement or something of glory from Him not by way of retribution, far from it! but with a view to the advantage that is going to come from all these things. 4. Just as He decreed death, under the appearance of a sentence, for Adam  because of sin, and just as He showed that the sin existed by means of the  punishment even though this punishment was not His real aim: He showed it as though it was something which Adam would receive as a repayment for his wrong, but He hid its true mystery, and under the guise of something to be feared, He concealed His eternal intention concerning death and what His wisdom was aiming at: even though this matter might be grievous, ignominious and hard at first, nevertheless in truth it would be the means of transporting us to that wonderful and glorious world. Without it, there would be no way of crossing over from this world and being there. By thus showing the existence of sin, the Creator did not say `This [sc. death] will turn out for you to be the cause of good things to come and a life more glorious than this'. Rather, He showed it as something which would bring our misfortune and dissolution. Again, when He expelled Adam and Eve from Paradise, He expelled them under the outward aspect of anger: `Because you have transgressed the commandment, you have found yourselves outside Paradise' as though dwelling in Paradise had been taken away from them because they were unworthy. But inside all this stood the divine plan, fulfilling and guiding everything towards the Creator's original intention from the  beginning. It was not disobedience which introduced death to the house of Adam, nor did transgression remove them from Paradise, for it is clear that God did not create Adam and Eve to be in Paradise, just a small portion of the earth; rather, they were going to subjugate the entire earth. For this reason we do not even say that He removed them because of the commandment which had been transgressed; for it is not the case that, had they not transgressed the commandment, they would have been left in Paradise for ever. 5. So you should see that, while God's caring is guiding us all the time to what He wishes for us, as things outwardly appear it is from us that He takes the occasion for providing things, His aim being to carry out by every means what He has intended for our advantage. All this is because He knew beforehand our inclination towards all sorts of wickedness, and so He cunningly made the harmful consequences which would result from this into a means of entry to the future good and the setting right of our corrupted state. These are things which are known only to Him. But after we have  been exercised and assisted little by little as a result of these consequences after they have occurred, we realize and perceive that it could not turn out otherwise than in accordance with what has been foreseen  by Him. This is how everything works with Him, even though things may seem otherwise to us: with Him it is not a matter of retribution, but He is always looking beyond to the advantage that will come from His dealings with humanity.  

Now, after all these preliminary considerations, Isaac finally comes to the key issue, with the words ‘And one such thing is this matter of Gehenna’. 

He goes on to express his own view: 6.


 I am of the opinion that He is going to manifest some wonderful outcome, a matter of immense and ineffable compassion on the part of the glorious Creator, with respect to the ordering of this difficult matter of Gehenna's torment: out of it the wealth of His love and power and wisdom will become known all the more and so will the insistent might of the waves of His goodness. It is not the way of the compassionate Maker to create rational  beings in order to deliver them over mercilessly to unending affliction in  punishment for things of which He knew even before they were fashioned,  being aware how they would turn out when He created them and whom nonetheless He created. All the more since the fore-planning of evil and the taking of vengeance are characteristics of the passions of created  beings, and do not belong to the Creator. For all this characterizes  people who do not know, or who are unaware of, what they are doing or thinking when something has happened with us human beings, for as a result of some matter that has occurred unexpectedly to them they are incited by the vehemence of anger to take vengeance. Such action does not belong to the Creator who, even before the cycle of the depiction of creation had been  portrayed, knew of all that was before and all that was after in connection with the actions and intentions of rational beings. 


Isaac goes on to quote the ‘Interpreter’, in support of his views, Theodore of Mopsuestia (d.428) being the great authority in the Church of the East on all matters of exegesis; he then continues (Chapter 39, section 15): Accordingly all kinds and manner of chastisements and punishments that come from Him are not brought about in order to requite past actions, but for the sake of the subsequent gain to be gotten in them. He does not  bring to mind the existence of things that are past except in order that they may instil in us hatred of sin. This is what the Scriptures bring to our attention and remind us of, as has frequently been shown by us in sound expositions above, namely, that God is not one who requites evil, but He sets aright evil: the former is the characteristic of evil people, while the latter is characteristic of a father. Scripture shows Him as if He is bringing good and evil by way of requital, whereas His purpose is not in fact this, but to instil in us love and awe, so that by the latter we might make our conduct chaste, while, by means of love, we might grow in excellency of understanding. 16. If this were not the case, what resemblance does Christ's coming have with the deeds of the generations which were prior to it? Does this immense compassion seem to you to be a retribution for those evil deeds? Tell me, if God is someone who requites evil, and He does what He does by means of requital, what commensurate requital do you see here, O man? Show me! 17. So then, let us not attribute to God's actions and His dealings with us any idea of requital. Rather, we should speak of fatherly provision, a wise dispensation, a perfect will which is concerned with our good, and complete love. If it is a case of love, then it is not one of requital; and if it is a case of requital, then it is not one of love. Love, when it operates, is not concerned with the requiting of former things by means of its own good deeds or correction; rather, it looks to what is most advantageous in the future: it examines what is to come, and not things that are past. If we think otherwise than this, then according to the resulting childish view the Creator will prove to be weak I speak as a human being for after what He had established had become corrupted against His will, He devised some other plan, preparing ills in return for its corruption. Such are the feeble ways of understanding the Creator!


 At this point Isaac (like Ephrem before him) stresses that biblical terms used of God must not be taken literally: it is part of God’s coming down to our level that he has allowed himself to be depicted in human language and human terms in the Old Testament. 
19. Just because the terms wrath, anger, hatred, and the rest are used of the Creator, we should not imagine that He actually does anything in anger or hatred or zeal. Many figurative terms are employed in the Scriptures of God, terms which are far removed from His true nature. And just as our rational nature has already become gradually more illumined and wise in a holy understanding of the mysteries which are hidden in Scripture's discourse about God that we should not understand everything literally as it is written, but rather that we should see, concealed inside the  bodily exterior of the narratives, the hidden providence and eternal knowledge which guides all so too we shall in the future come to know and  be aware of many things for which our present understanding will be seen as contrary to what it will be then; and the whole ordering of things yonder will undo any precise opinion we possess now in our supposition about Truth. For there are many, indeed endless, things which do not even enter our minds here, not even as promises of any kind. 20. Accordingly we say that, even in the matter of the afflictions and sentence of Gehenna, there is some hidden mystery, whereby the wise Maker has taken as a starting point for its future outcome the wickedness of our actions and wilfulness, using it as a way of bringing to perfection His dispensation wherein lies the teaching which makes wise, and the advantage  beyond description, hidden from both angels and human beings, hidden too from those who are being chastised, whether they be demons or human beings, hidden for as long as the ordained period of time holds sway. 21. If the world to come is entirely the domain of grace, love, mercy and goodness, and because the resurrection from the dead is also a demonstration of the mercifulness of God and of the overflowing abundance of His love which cannot be repaid, how can one think of a dispensation in which is included requitals for our own good or evil actions? For one speaks of requital when the person who is the requiter is gradually instructed about the requital needed as a result of, and corresponding to, the good and bad actions that take place: along with actions which differ from day to day, he acquires a different knowledge, and his consequent thoughts are subject to external causes and take their origin from temporal circumstances. 22. If the Kingdom and Gehenna had not been foreseen in the purpose of our good God, as a result of the coming into being of good and evil actions, then God's thoughts concerning these would not be eternal; but righteousness and sin were known by Him before they revealed themselves. Accordingly the Kingdom and Gehenna are matters belonging to mercy, which were conceived of in their essence by God as a result of His eternal goodness. It was not a matter of requiting, even though He gave them the name of requital. That we should further say or think that the matter is not full of love and mingled with compassion would be an opinion full of blasphemy and insult to our Lord God. By saying that He will even hand us over to burning for the sake of sufferings, torment and all sorts of ills, we are attributing to the divine Nature an enmity towards the very rational beings which He created through grace; the same is true if we say that He acts or thinks with spite and with a vengeful purpose, as though He was avenging Himself. Among all His actions there is none which is not entirely a matter of mercy, love and compassion: this constitutes the beginning and the end of His dealings with us. 
Isaac concludes the chapter with the words: How much to be worshipped is our Lord God's gentle compassion and His immeasurable munificence: He makes many threats, but He makes the  punishment small out of grace, all in order to increase love for Him. 
In Chapter 40, it becomes clear that, for Isaac, ultimate salvation is indeed universal, involving all rational beings (thus including the fallen angels). God does not have ‘a kind of love that originates as a result of events that take place in time’. 3. Rather, everyone has a single place in His purpose in the ranking of love, corresponding to the form He beheld in them before He created them and all the rest of created things, that is, at the time before the eternal purpose for the delineation of the world was put into effect. ... God has a single ranking of complete and impassible love towards everyone, and He has a single caring concern for those who have fallen, just as much as for those who have not fallen. 4. And it is clear that He does not abandon them the moment they fall, and that demons will not remain in their demonic state, and sinners will not remain in their sins; rather, He is going to bring them to a single equal state of completion in relationship to His own Being in a state in which the holy angels are now, in perfection of love and a passionless mind.

A little further on he continues: 6. Who can say or imagine that the Creator's love is not prior to the ordering of this matter which He carries out because of the advantage that comes from it, something which is known to Him alone, but which subsequently He will make known to all? 7. No part belonging to any single one of (all) rational beings will be lost, as far as God is concerned, in the preparation of that supernal Kingdom which is prepared for all worlds. All this of course does not mean that the reality and experience of Gehenna is not terrible, and this is why, Isaac says, ‘the angels rejoice over every single sinner who repents’. Whereas the ‘medicine’ of repentance that God has provided is something that the majority of humanity benefit from in this life, thus avoiding Gehenna, for the utterly depraved a stronger ‘medicine’ is required; these are people ‘who, because of their hardness of heart and utter abandonment to wickedness and the lusts, fail to show any remorse’. What that ‘strong medicine’ consists of was explained by Isaac in chapter 27 of the First Part: 
I say that those who are scourged in Gehenna are tormented by the scourgings of love. The scourgings that result from love - that is, the scourges of those who have  become aware that they have sinned against love - are harder and more bitter than the torments which result from fear. The pain that gnaws at the heart as a result of sinning against love is sharper than all other torments that exist. The contrition that comes from the realization of God’s love is itself the harsh torment. 
As Ephrem, in his meditation on the Last Judgement, had already pointed out, the pain and torment of Gehenna are psychological rather than physical, and, moreover, they are self-inflicted, since they are brought about as the result of one finally becoming aware of the immensity of God’s love, against which one has sinned. As Isaac stresses, the idea that the torments of Gehenna are retributive punishment is in fact blasphemous, for it attributes to God motives and actions that belong solely to the realm of human beings. On the surface it might seem that Isaac’s view that Gehenna was not eternal comes into conflict with the various Gospel passages which speak of ‘eternal fire’, but Isaac clearly understands the term ‘eternal’ in these passages as referring to linear time, which, at the end of Time, comes to an end. With this understanding Isaac is able to conceive that ‘the mystery of Gehenna’ will finally, and in sacred time, no longer exist, when ‘God will be all in all’ (I Cor. 15:28). It was probably with reference to Isaac’s thoughts on this matter that a later Syriac writer tells us that ‘Isaac of Niniveh’s teaching was not accepted by many’. A certain Daniel even wrote a treatise against it; another more perceptive writer, however, commented that ‘St Isaac speaks the language of heaven, but Daniel speaks the language of earth’. In the face of the utterly terrible evils that some human beings have perpetrated just in the course of our own lifetimes, let alone in past centuries, it is easy enough to see how Daniel was able to take offence at Isaac’s teaching (and others have done so since then), but in order to understand Isaac’s point of view, one needs to hold on firmly to his emphatic insistence that, since God is love, his love must finally overcome all evil, and above all, that any idea of a God of infinite love must imply that there is a divine purpose which goes beyond Gehenna. 

St Isaac’s views on these matters are by no means unique, for they are shared by St Gregory of Nyssa and a number of other great saints. © 2014 Sebastian Brock 

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 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.

[70] 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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