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Christ the Conqueror of Hell: The Descent into Hades from an Orthodox Perspective Paperback – November 20, 2009
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About the Author
Archbishop Hilarion (Alfeyev), Chairman of the Moscow Patriarchate Department for External Church Relations, is well known throughout the Orthodox Church as a leading theologian, writer, and musical composer. He holds a doctorate in Philosophy from Oxford University and a doctorate in theology from St Sergius Orthodox Theological Institute in Paris.
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The other reviews on this book do an adequate job of discussing the strengths of this work. I would take a bit of a different slant on this work. Not only did Christ break down the "gates of Hades" once and for all, thus disarming the evil one, but also, as St. Ephrem said, when the Roman lance pierced the side of Jesus and the water and blood flowed from Christ's side, the angel with the flaming sword sent to guard the gates of Paradise was recalled, because the eternal living water flowed forth from the Savior. Hell was destroyed and Paradise reopened! In the eternal present in which Christians now dwell in Christ, we need have no fear of the evil one, or as a certain country singer called him, "sneaky snake." In my work of planting churches among Muslim and animist populated areas of Africa and India, I am strengthened by the reality that the evil one is done; the Kingdom of God is near; we are bid to go out and plant the flag of Christ and call people to the light. Because the Second Adam has conquered death and reversed the course set by the First Adam, we can, in the name and might of the First Adam, command the demons to flee, sickness to depart, blindness to become sight, and the poor to rejoice. What need we fear? Rise up O Church, have done with lesser things! Let the reign of Christ be made apparent wherever your foot treads.
Bishop Alfeyev has written not only a little gem of theology, he has performed a wonderful pastoral task. What more could we ask of a bishop?
He says of 1 Peter 4:6, “These words serve as the basis for understanding Christ’s suffering for the ‘unrighteous’ and how his preaching in hell reached even those of whom the Old Testament speaks” ‘And the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.’ … Christ descended into hell, granting them another chance of salvation by preaching to them the Gospel of the kingdom so that they might live ‘according to God in the spirit.’” (Pg. 19)
He quotes a 2nd century hymn, and observes, “this text indicates that in the second century the subject of Christ’s descent into Hades was an inescapable part of the paschal divine services. Secondly, it shows that …Christ’s redemptive sacrifice was viewed as pertinent for all people without exception…. After destroying death… and binding the devil, he calls them to himself in order to grant them forgiveness of sins and lead them up to God the Father.” (Pg. 36)
He points out, “Augustine neither rejects nor accepts unconditionally any opinion concerning the salvation of all those in hell. Though very careful in his judgment, it is clear that the possibility of salvation for those in hell is blocked in his perception by his own teaching on predestination…” (Pg. 90)
He summarizes, “The teaching on Christ’s descent into Hades was an integral part of the Christian liturgical tradition from the early centuries… This theme continues to play a central role in the Church today. Christ’s descent into Hades is mentioned more than fifty times in the services of Good Friday and Great Saturday, more than two hundred times during the Pentecost period, and more than one hundred and fifty times in the Sunday and festal hymns throughout the church year.” (Pg. 155)
He points out, “the authors of the liturgical books saw Christ’s descent as significant for ALL PEOPLE without exception… nowhere do the hymns speak of selectivity---the existence of certain groups that were unaffected by Christ’s descent. Nowhere … is it stated that Christ preached to the righteous but left sinners without his saving words or that he led the holy fathers out of hell but left all the rest. It is never indicated that someone was excluded from God’s providence for the salvation of people, accomplished in the death and resurrection of the Son of God.” (Pg. 178)
He explains, “The salvation of humanity… had already been accomplished by Christ through his incarnation, suffering, death, descent into Hades, and resurrection. He vanquished hell, bound the devil, and opened up the way to paradise for all who desire to believe in him and respond to his call, even those who rejected it during their earthly lives. To enjoy the fruits of Christ’s victory one must believe in him, trust him, and follow him, freely and consciously rejecting the devil. Each person must vanquish hell and the devil within and overcome the inner power that opposes the will of God.” (Pg. 180)
He states, “In praying for ‘those immured in hell,’ the church bases its action on the fact that God… can change the fate of those in hell, just as he did when he descended there and led out the dead. For the mercy of God there are no obstacles other than man’s free will. In the end it is God himself who ‘takes away and gives life, brings down into the nethermost parts and raises up,’ therefore he can lead out from hell those held therein. The church places its faith in the possibility above all through the paschal message of Christ’s victory over death and hell, which permeates… all of the liturgical books of the Orthodox Church.” (Pg. 201) Later, he adds, “The idea that all the dead received the opportunity to be saved is quite widespread among Eastern Christian writers, and it was only in the West where some authors labeled it heretical.” (Pg. 205)
He concludes, “Does this have anything to do with those who died outside the Christian faith after the descent of Christ into hell? It does not 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. But it does if we proceed from the assumption that after Christ hell was no longer like the Old Testament sheol, but a place of divine presence… According to the teaching of the Orthodox Church, all people, whether believers or non-believers, appear before God after their death. Therefore, even for those who did not believe during their lifetime, there is hope that after death they will recognize God as their Saviour and Redeemer, if their previous life on earth prepared them for this recognition.” (Pg. 215-216)
He ends on the note, “We do not know if everyone followed Christ when he rose from hell, nor do we know if everyone will follow him to the eschatological heavenly kingdom … We do know that, since Christ’s descent, 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 who wish to enter through them. This is the faith of the early church, inherited from the first generation of Christians and cherished by the Orthodox tradition. This is the never-extinguished hope of all those who believe in Christ, who once for all conquered death, destroyed hell, and granted resurrection to the entire human race.” (Pg. 218)
This is a rich and fascinating summation of Orthodox teaching on the subject, and will be of great interest to anyone studying the doctrines of the afterlife, Hell, and Universalism.
This book was phenomenal for several reasons.
1. It deals with a subject matter that is often overlooked or ignored by the modern Church.
2. It traces the doctrine throughout the centuries, starting with the New Testament, the Apostolic Fathers, onward through the Church Fathers.
3. It points out the need for this doctrine, by showing us how Christ conquered Hades and death, and that now believers really don't need to fear death, because Christ has truly conquered it.
The Archbishop puts forward three possible theories as to who Christ saved from Hades (Sheol) when he descended.
1. The Old Testament Saints, which is the belief that the Western Church has commonly held (myself included).
2. That by His preaching, it gave those spirits listening the opportunity to repent and be saved (a view that I'm open to.).
3. That Christ saved everyone in Hades, and now it lies broken and empty, with only the devil and the demons as it's inhabitants. (I'm not too keen on this view for several reasons).
The book is fascinating, and really makes you think about the emplications of the Son of God entering Hades, and its consequences for the human race. I recomend this book to any serious student of the Scriptures and Church History. I was struck by just how many of the Fathers were united on this belief, and how prevalent it has been down through the ages.