Tuesday, April 6, 2021

The Harrowing of Hades


Dr David Arias presents us with another vivid illustration of how the West’s separation from the Orthodox Church has caused her to wander into a barren, lifeless religious land.  He quotes Thomas Aquinas, the famous Roman Catholic theologian, regarding the harrowing of Hades by Christ, in order to explain the significance of this event for humanity.  Here are some highlights from his essay:

When reflecting on our Lord’s harrowing of hell, it is, of course, necessary to distinguish different meanings of the name “hell.” In its most general meaning, “hell” signifies “the underworld,” which the Hebrews refer to as, Sheol, and the Greeks call by the name, Hades (Catechism of the Catholic Church, #633). Further, as the Roman Catechism teaches, there are three main parts to the underworld. There is gehenna, or hell in the strict sense, which is the abode of the damned. There is also purgatory wherein the punishments, unlike those of gehenna, are cleansing and only temporary in character. Lastly, there is that part of the underworld known as “Abraham’s bosom” (see, Luke 16:22-26). It was in here that “the souls of the just prior to the coming of Christ the Lord were received, and where, without experiencing any sort of pain, but supported by the blessed hope of redemption, they enjoyed peaceful repose” (Roman Catechism, pt. 1, art. 5).

So, into which part or parts of hell did Christ descend and why? Taking St. Thomas Aquinas as our guide, we can affirm both that our Lord descended into all three parts of hell and that He descended into only one part of hell (i.e., into Abraham’s bosom).  . . .

 . . . Christ’s soul, through its essence, only entered Abraham’s bosom. Nonetheless, through its effect, Christ’s soul was in some way present in every part of hell. As St. Thomas puts it, “being in one part of hell, his effect in some way spread to every part of hell, just as by suffering in one place on earth, he liberated the whole world by His passion” (Summa Theologiae, III, q. 52, a. 2). More specifically, St. Thomas teaches that the proper effect of Christ in the underworld was the bestowal of the beatific vision on the souls of the just waiting for Him in Abraham’s bosom. This, properly speaking, constitutes the harrowing or despoiling of hell. For, through granting the souls of the just the vision which beatifies, the King of all things “robbed” hell of its most prized possessions. But Christ’s presence in hell also had the effects of giving hope of attaining eternal glory to the souls in purgatory and of confounding and bewildering those in gehenna (Summa Theologiae, III, q. 52, a. 2).

These considerations, in turn, cast some light on the reasons for God the Son’s descent into hell. For one thing, He went there to manifest His power and authority to the underworld. As St. Paul writes, “at Jesus’ name every knee must bend in the heavens, on the earth, and under the earth, and every tongue proclaim to the glory of God the Father: Jesus Christ in Lord!” (Phil. 2:10-11). But secondly, and more importantly, our Lord came to deliver His loved ones from their exile. He came to reward those who, from our first father, Adam, to His own foster-father, St. Joseph, had fought the good fight and had finished the race. The King descended into Hell in order to bring nothing less than His own beatific vision, the very paradise which He promised to Dismas just a few hours before (Lk. 23:43), to these just and holy souls.

 . . .


One may note how the Roman Catholic view of the harrowing is rather limited in its scope:  Christ went down only to bring the just out of Hades, while for the wicked he gives nothing but vindictive chastisement (most Protestants reject the idea that Christ rescued anyone from Hades, so we will focus on the Roman Catholic teachings).  The Orthodox teaching has a very different focus.  His Grace Bishop Hilarion of Vienna elaborates:

 . . . 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 salutary 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 salutary 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 no 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.

 . . .


Such is the expansive view of the Orthodox Church.  It is no great wonder, then, that as the West has moved away from it, atheism/indifference to Christianity has been steadily growing since Roman Catholics and Protestants have so greatly limited the scope and action of God’s Love, declaring that only certain categories of men will be saved:

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 unbaptised 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 Good 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).


And also,

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.


‘The death of the West’ is a popular topic of discussion, and rightly so since it is a phenomenon sadly unfolding right before us.  But the cause is known - her being sundered from the Orthodox Church, in which the Grace of God abides.  And therefore the cure is likewise known - the reunion of the West with that same Church, which is nothing less than the crucified, risen, glorified, and ascended Body of the God-man, the Lord Jesus Christ.  Will the pride of the West for her post-Great Schism ‘civilization’ keep her from reuniting with that which will give her life?

The holy icon of the Harrowing of Hades is from https://www.orthodoxroad.com/christs-descent-into-hell-icon-explanation/ .  An explanation of this icon is on the same page.


Holy Ælfred the Great, King of England, South Patron, pray for us sinners at the Souð, unworthy though we are!

Anathema to the Union!

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