One final post on this topic and I will close discussion of this strange series of contemplations on the meaning of Christ’s descent into hell. This has to do with the role of Christ’s descent for our salvation.
In response to my first post on this topic Fr. Marsh offered the following observations, which I think bear repeating here:
1) If salvation is more communal than individual, and our individual salvation is connected to each other’s salvation, then bringing those in hades up is important to and a necessary part of my own salvation. In life or death we are connected.
2) Christ’s descent to hell/the dead means that Christ has entered the hell of my life, the dead places.
3) Finally, I ought not be to quick to assume that I will not be in hades. His descent reminds me that we are never beyond his reach. The depth of his love is every bit as deep as the depths of the abyss of my life.
I thought these were beautiful and profound insights. (If you haven’t checked out Fr. Marsh’s blog you should do so. It is Interrupting the Silence)
One thing to keep in mind when considering something as difficult for us to comprehend as the harrowing of hell – God does not do anything that is useless and has no purpose. Therefore, if we accept the teaching of scripture the descent into hades must have some purpose. In the end, it seems, that purpose was to bring about our salvation.
The Orthodox profess faith in the oneness of the faith and the unity of the Church. If that is so, then even those who existed before us, and those who will live after us, will not be saved apart from us. We are all saved together. And, if we are all saved together Christ descending into hell, proclaiming the gospel and rescuing those who were chained there is a crucial part of it.
Going back to my opening posts, the problem we often have with this idea is that it is not consistent with our view of hell as the prison of the damned. We are incapable of conceiving that people of faith from before Christ (i.e. Adam, Abraham, David) should be in hell. Alternatively, if we accept the truth that Christ preached not only to the faithful in hades, but to all, even those we would term as being “lost,” we have an even harder time with that because we cannot fathom the concept of salvation or redemption being granted after death. (Although, I will point out, that if we were to accept that salvation can occur after death, this would answer the question that is the bane of protestant Sunday School teachers the world over, ”How can a good and just God condemn someone to hell who has never heard the gospel?)
But, our current notions of death and hades are not those that were taught by the ancient church. The Church Fathers taught just the opposite. Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev, quoting the eminent theologian I. Karmiris, states ”‘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.” (Source: Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev: Christ the Conqueror of Hell)
This offers us a different notion of hell than the one we live with and accept. Bishop Alefeyev writes that Christ’s preaching in hades was a preaching of the joyful news of deliverance and salvation, not only for the righteous but also for the unrighteous. It was not a preaching to condemn unbelief and wickedness. While this challenges our modern Western ideas, the Bishop also notes that this understanding is entirely consistent with new testament scripture.
Although I am not sure I understand all of this, such an understanding of the descent into hell makes much more sense to me. As Bishop Alfeyev notes, if Christ desending into hades was nothing more than to rescue the faithful who died before Christ and to condemn the unbelievers, then this act has no real significance. Such an act is not the triumphant act that made the earth quake and the heaven’s tremble. But, Christ descending into death and hell, preaching salvation and rescuing those who believed, even those who had never known or heard of Christ or responded in faith to God before their death, that is truly an earth shattering event. It seems therefore that even death itself is not the end of our path to God. Death is not a change to a static relationship with God, but a movement and transformation into a more dynamic one in which salvation is extended even to those who have never heard of Christ in life. It is the beginning of Christ raising all of us. It is the start of the process of our deification.
I close this meditation with a passage from Bishop Alfeyev.
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) 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’. 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.