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Resurrection Sunday 2024

Christ’s Descent into Hell – by Dionysius, Moscow icon-painting school (Source)


When You, the Immortal Life descended to Death, it was then that You put Hades to death with the lightning of the Godhead; and when You raised up the dead from the infernal depths, all the Heavenly Powers cried aloud: “O Life-Giver, Christ our God, glory to You.” (Great Friday Service, p. 401)


The resurrection icon illustrates the well-known hymn which is sung by the Orthodox faithful on Holy Friday in anticipation of the resurrection. It shows the multiple condescensions by which Jesus Christ saves us. In the Incarnation, Christ descended from heaven to Earth, where fallen humanity dwells. Then in his Passion, he descends to suffer death on the Cross. Following that, he descends yet again to the underworld for our salvation.

At the top of the icon, we see three angels holding and beholding the Cross. At the center of the icon we see Jesus Christ within a blue sphere of divine glory and his grabbing hold of Adam and Eve, our first parents. In addition to Adam and Eve, we see King David and King Solomon to his left and the Forerunner John the Baptist on his right. The haloes signify their having attained sainthood. The people in the background without haloes represent humanity in need of salvation.

The bottom third of the icon is full of symbolism. Underneath Christ’s feet are the shattered gates of hell lying crosswise on top each other. Hell is no longer an inescapable prison; Christ, having shattered the gates of Hell, offers us a way back to God the Father. In the bottom compartment, we see figures in white waiting for their redemption. The shadowy figures in the black darkness are the demons. Written next to them are the names of the vices associated with the demons. Upon closer examination, we see vertical lines which signify the fiery arrows shot by the angels at their enemies, the demons. The two angels pummelling one of the demons underscores the ancient Christian understanding of salvation in Christ as spiritual warfare against the forces of darkness and evil.

This particular icon was painted (written) by Dionyius, who was part of the Moscow school. It was painted sometime in the late 1400s to the early 1500s. This makes the icon as old as the Protestant Reformation. Looking at this icon of Christ’s Resurrection provides Protestants with an opportunity to consider how their tradition overlaps with and diverges from the Orthodox tradition.

For those of us who grew up in the Western Christian tradition, the Orthodox Resurrection icon challenges our understanding of Hell and of salvation in Christ. Western social media often depict Hell as a place of punishment and the Devil as the ruler of Hell. We find none of this in the Orthodox Resurrection icon. In Orthodox iconography, Hell is depicted as a vanquished foe. This icon prominently presents Christ as the Conquering Hero who has come to destroy the powers of Hell and rescue fallen humanity.

In the Incarnation, Christ took on mortality so that he might experience death in our place. This is different from the Western forensic paradigm which operates from the understanding that Christ took on mortality so that he might be punished in our place. The underlying assumption of Protestant theology is that death is the penalty imposed on those who break God’s law. Another significant difference is how the two traditions understand the purpose of Christ’s death on the Cross. Orthodoxy believes that Christ came to free us hostages from Satan’s rule, whereas Western Christianity believes that Christ died on the Cross for our legal acquittal.

Thus, Orthodoxy affirms Christ’s substitutionary death on the Cross, but we operate from a different theological paradigm. This paradigm has been called the Christus Victor paradigm. (See Gustav Aulen’s modern classic Christus Victor for a comparison of the Lutheran paradigm with the patristic paradigm.) The Orthodox understanding is based on biblical texts often overlooked by Protestants.

But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, for the suffering of death crowned with glory and honor, that He, by the grace of God, might taste death for everyone. (Hebrews 2:9; OSB)

Inasmuch then as the children have partaken of flesh and blood, He Himself likewise shared in the same, that through death He might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and release those who through the fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage. (Hebrews 2:14-15; OSB)

(Now this, “He ascended”–what does it mean but that He also first descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is also the One who ascended far above all the heavens, that He might fill all things.) (Ephesians 4:9; OSB)


In sum, with the Fall planet Earth has become enemy territory; by succumbing to sin, humanity has become hostage to the Devil, and Hell has beome the Devil’s stronghold. However, with the Incarnation planet Earth has become reclaimed territory under the leadership of our divine Champion Jesus Christ. Christ went so far as to enter the Devil’s stronghold by his voluntary death on the Cross. Because Christ is the Source of Life, it was impossible for the gates of Hell to confine the Immortal One. To understand the Orthodox Easter (Pascha) service, it is important to grasp the Christus Victor motif. This motif provides the key to understanding John Chrysostom’s classic Easter sermon. If you happen to find yourself at an Orthodox Pascha (Easter) service, you will hear the following lines:

Let no one grieve over sins; for forgiveness has dawned from the tomb.

Let no one fear death; for the Death of our Saviour has set us free.

He has destoyed it by enduring it.

He despoiled Hades, when He descended thereto.

This sets the stage for the famous call-and-response: Christ is Risen! Truly He is Risen!

Wishing you all a blessed and joyous Pascha.

Robert Arakaki



The Harrowing of Hell Icon by Dionysius.” 10 August 2022. Russianicon.com.

Gustaf Aulen. 1969. Christus Victor: An Historical Study of the Three Main Types of the Idea of the Atonement. E.G. Hebert, translator. New York: MacMillan Publishing Company.


1 Comment

  1. David

    Hello , Robert ,

    Christ is Risen !

    I am glad to see you posting on this blog again. I still refer to many of the past posts on this blog , but I don’t check in here often because it seemed inactive. I hope you are well and I hope to see more posts on the Orthodox-Reformed Bridge.

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