Eastern Theology and Hell 3

Dante took theology about the afterlife and turned it into an epic adventure, modeling his story on Homer’s stories and on Virgil’s famous The Aeneid and in many ways taking them to the next millennia of history.

In the East, instead of finding a Dante’s journey into the underworld and then back up to heaven, we find poets who told stories of Christ’s victory of Death and the Devil and Hell. The principle poets are Ephrem the Syrian and Romanos the Melodist. Their poetry, which has been said to be some of the best in the world, puts into words the theology of what Christ accomplished between his death and his resurrection/ascension.

Do you believe in the descent into hades (after the death of Jesus)? Why or why not? What part does this theology of the fathers play in your understanding of the descent?

This Lent I’m reading the pious and and learned study of Archbishop Hilarion Alfeyev (Christ the Conqueror of Hell: The Descent into Hades from an Orthodox Perspective), who tells the story of how we get from the Bible to the current liturgical ideas in Eastern Orthodoxy. As I dipped into these poems by reading Alfayev, what struck me was how personified and mythic and epic everything had become. Here are the principle themes:

Christ, the protagonist, breaks the gates and bars of Hades, overpowers Satan and his ministers, and breaks their resistance. Christ then illumines Sheol with is light, destroys Death and opens the way for the dead to rise. What we see in the poetry of the East is a near universal, if not universal, victory over death and hades and hell and Satan. Which borders on a kind of universalism.

Alfayev sums up his study by noting four views of the effect of Christ’s descent:

1. All are liberated from hell and death (Orthodox liturgical emphasis).

2. The OT saints are liberated (Eastern patristic tradition emphasis; West after Augustine).

3. Those who followed Christ [elect] were liberated (Augustine).

4. Those who lived by faith and in piety were liberated (West; after Augustine).

Alfayev sees Scripture as prominent in authority with the liturgical texts second. The councils, which are specific responses to specific issues at specific times, are alongside the liturgical texts. Then the fathers opinions.

Thus, the descent for Alfayev is doctrine but how many find salvation is private opinion. The most pervasive view, as I read him, is that only those who believe are saved.

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  • I guess I believe – and have believed for as long as I can remember – that all those in “hell” are given a chance to fully hear the complete Gospel and see the true Jesus and accept or reject Him.

    Since time and space as we understand them do not exist, this is happening een for souls that die this second and every second after…

  • I believe the descent is clearly indicated by the miraculous separation – the completed process of kenosis when Jesus cries out: “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani!” The unimaginable becomes reality. God is cut off from God – out of unfathomable love and for our benefit. “*It* is finished.”

  • Désiré Rusovsky

    Ordered the book. Thank you for the info.

    I tend to conditionnal universalism °o°

  • John W Frye

    I am reluctant to use the Ephesians 4: 7-10 text for any post death ministry of Jesus in the netherworld. I think Paul simply has the incarnation and exaltation in mind there. The 1 and 2 Peter passages are a little more tricky and complicated. I don’t think we need to reach any kind of universalism theology if we take the view that Jesus appeared not to evangelize, but to declare his triumph over all death-dealing powers as part of his redeeming work.

  • Scot McKnight

    John, that’s how I explained 1 Peter 3 in my commentary. The other texts don’t give any clues as to what Jesus would have been doing in the post-mortem state.

  • Do I believe in the decent into Hades? Yes. And I’m amazed at how reluctant Christians are to accept in faith that Jesus is triumphant, that ultimately every knee shall bow and every tongue shall confess that Jesus is Lord, that Jesus is the savior of all humanity, especially, not only, those who now believe. I believe we all were created for relationship with God and I trust that God will complete the good work that He has begun in us. These are precious promises through which we can stand in faith for not only our salvation, but the salvation of all.

    Jesus saving all of humanity from the kingdom of darkness, this present evil age (Hell), in no way diminishes the terribleness of the kingdom of darkness, no more than a life guard that saves 100 out of 100 people from drowning diminishes the threat of drowning, or the fear of those who are drowning, or the desire of others who have been saved to help those who are drowning.

  • John W Frye

    Scot, I am glad to hear it. I don’t know what to do with the whole array of Tartarus scenarios. I think theological expressions of universalism (both ancient and contemporary, in both the Eastern and Western Church) are going to be vigorously revisited in view of Rob Bell’s book.

  • Dana Ames

    the Eastern view isn’t true Universalism, as I understand the definition of it as: judgment at the return of the Lord doesn’t apply, or else if there is judgment, everyone at that point somehow makes it through the Pearly Gates, wherever you think those are located 🙂

    The focus in the east is not “who gets into Heaven” and “who goes to Hell”. You may know that in eastern thought “heaven” and “hell” are not understood to be “places”, but rather the internal condition of those who love and want God, on one hand, and those who have rejected God before their physical death, on the other hand, as we all are present to The Presence of Christ on his return. For those who love God, the fire of his love will be a purification. There will most certainly be judgment; very often we pray for “a good answer at the judgment seat of Christ”. The ultimate vision (“salvation”) for those humans who want God is loving union with and worship of the Triune God, and stewarding the renewed earth under King Jesus; for the rest, it is the inward pain of not knowing how/not wanting to love in the face of the suffusing Presence of God who IS love. As best I understand it, this is the teaching of the church.

    Orthodoxy doesn’t say much more than this, since scripture really doesn’t say a lot to begin with. The liturgical texts are about the harrowing of hell, the massive forgiveness evidenced by the Cross, the exaltation of human nature (“essence”) now resident from the Ascension on forever within the Godhead in the Person of Christ, and the wonder -yet again- of the Incarnation that enabled all this to happen. We keep praying that God, by the work of the Holy Spirit, will bring us to the fullness of salvation. All these ideas are very perichoretic. You could read through the Holy-Thursday-through-Pascha section of the Lenten Triodion if you want the core of it, and the Ascension texts as well. I’m sure it’s all on line.

    As for the interpretations of the Fathers, “Origenism” -as I understand his ideas that everyone existed as a “spirit being” before birth and will return to some kind of similar existence after death- doesn’t exist in Orthodoxy. That’s not on the table. But what is on the table are some suppositions of some others of the Fathers, that *after* the universal judgment, because the justice of God is beyond our notions of it, the fiery love of God just might possibly be so evident at last to those who initially rejected it, and just might possibly be working, little by little, purification in those folks as well, until Christ will be glorified by all in all, and eventually all will be saved, as in the definition above. This is not the majority view, but it has also never been anathematized.

    I personally think those “of the first resurrection” will be a part of this process of reconciliation by means of deeply loving those “on the left”, being God’s instruments of healing.


  • Randall

    Thanks for the explanation that you gave Dana. That is how I have understood the Bible even though my background growing up in a Baptist church that my father pastors would probably not like me stating it on those terms. I have always found the ‘certified’ view in our congregation to downplay God’s unity to the point of seeming a little schizophrenic and being only temporarily merciful. My thoughts regarding that is that “Love is great inspiration but a hell of a reward.”

    Anyway, I resonate with their understanding of how God can be experienced as two distinctly opposite realities.

  • Anon

    As I understand Orthodox Christianity, Christ’s victory is absolute and by definition universal. But our Salvation – the appropriation of this victory as our own – depends on our response. If you don’t get the synergy part, Orthodoxy won’t make much sense. I don’t think the Scriptures themselves make much sense without this understanding, though obviously others disagree.

    In any case, Met. Hilarion’s book is worth reading for the early Christian poetry alone.