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Category: Easter (Page 1 of 2)

Being Faithful in Dark Times

The Myrrh Bearing Women, carrying jars of aromatic spices to anoint Jesus’ body, being greeted by the Angel announcing the Good News of Christ’s Resurrection.

 

Tonight I attended the Holy Thursday service at the local Orthodox Church via Zoom.  It was strange witnessing one of the most significant services being held in an almost empty church (due to the mandatory lock down in response to the COVID-19 pandemic).  The Holy Thursday service, also known as the Twelve Gospels, recalls Christ’s betrayal, condemnation, crucifixion, and burial through twelve readings from all four Gospels.  It is the longest service in the Orthodox Church’s liturgical calendar.  After the Holy Thursday service is a time of waiting.

For the faithful women followers of Jesus, the period following Jesus’ crucifixion and death must have been bleak and painful.  It must also have been a time of depression, doubt, and confusion.  One lesson we can learn from the example of the faithful women is the importance of faithfully ministering to the needs of others, including the dead.  It was the custom in those days, as in so many other cultures, to show respect to the departed.  In Mark’s Gospel, chapter 16, we read about this act of faithfulness:

16 Now when the Sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, that they might come and anoint Him. Very early in the morning, on the first day of the week, they came to the tomb when the sun had risen. And they said among themselves, “Who will roll away the stone from the door of the tomb for us?” But when they looked up, they saw that the stone had been rolled away—for it was very large. And entering the tomb, they saw a young man clothed in a long white robe sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed.

But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He is risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid Him. But go, tell His disciples—and Peter—that He is going before you into Galilee; there you will see Him, as He said to you.”  (Mark 16:1-7; NKJV)

The grieving women had woken up in the predawn darkness, bought spices, then headed to the tomb to pay their respect to recently departed beloved Jesus.  They had a problem, the huge stone blocking the entrance to the tomb. This was a topic of conversation among them as they headed towards the tomb of Christ.  We read in verse 3:

And they said among themselves, “Who will roll away the stone from the door of the tomb for us?”

They did not know the answer, but they went anyway.  When they arrived at the tomb, God had a surprise waiting for them–Jesus had risen from the dead!  Due to their faithfulness, they were the first to hear the Good News of Christ’s resurrection and were given the task of evangelizing the Disciples.  For this reason the Orthodox Church honors the Myrrh Bearing Women on the second Sunday following Easter Sunday (Pascha).  On this Sunday, the Church sings:

You commanded the myrrhbearers to rejoice, O Christ! / By Your Resurrection, You stopped the lamentation of Eve, the first mother! / You commanded them to preach to Your apostles: The Savior is Risen from the tomb! [Kontakion – Tone 2]

There will be dark times in our lives when the road forward is blocked by a huge obstacle.  Through the ages the biggest obstacle for the human race has been Death.  The lock down for the COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic can be a time of anxious waiting.  It reminds us of the proximity of death.  Many people are looking forward to life returning to normal when we can forget about death, but for Christians, we look forward to our being sharers in Christ’s resurrection.  Let us follow the example of the Myrrh Bearing Women who were faithful in doing good deeds even in the face of obstacles and uncertainty.  Faithfulness in dark times requires inner strength and hope in something that we do not yet see.  Before the joy of Easter is a time of waiting and hoping, of faithfulness during dark times.

Robert Arakaki

 

 

Remembering the Good Thief

 

The Good Thief Meets Christ in Hades

A skeptical reader wrote in response to my article “Evidence for Christ’s Descent into Hell”:

How do you get around the statement of Christ to the thief on the cross ?
Was that a lie or do you think Christ did not know where he was going?

In all four Gospels we are told that Jesus was crucified along with two other men (Matthew 27:38; Mark 15:27-28; Luke 23:32, 39-43; John 19:18). But only in Luke’s Gospel do we learn about the dialogue that took place between Jesus and the two condemned criminals. The conversation is packed with spiritual significance. Even in his final moments Jesus has a profound impact on those around him. One man repents and returns to God. The other continues to reject God and ends his life unrepentant. This conversation is symbolized by the three-bar cross distinctive to the Slavic Orthodox tradition. The Slavic cross has three horizontal lines: a short horizontal bar symbolizing the sign proclaiming Jesus as King of the Jews, the long horizontal bar on which his hands were nailed, and a short diagonal bar symbolizing the board on which his feet were nailed. The diagonal line also symbolizes the contrasting destinies of the two thieves: one slanting upwards toward heaven and the other slanting downwards toward hell.

Sadly, many Protestant all too casually reject, without having done any study or attempting to understand, the ancient declaration of Christ’s descent into hell found in the Apostles Creed. The skeptical reader disagreed with my article about Jesus spending three days in hades before his Resurrection. He asks how this could be true in light of Jesus’ promise that the penitent thief would be with him in paradise that same day. This question is based on the assumption that paradise is synonymous with heaven, the spirit realm above, and that hades is the underworld where the dead repose. That being the case, if paradise is synonymous with heaven then it would be a logical contradiction for Jesus to be in heaven and hell that same time.

 

Is Paradise a Place or Life with Christ?

The reader’s skepticism appears to be based on the assumption that paradise is strictly a place. However, one must also consider the possibility that paradise can indicate being in a relationship with Christ. The Orthodox Study Bible (OSB) in the commentary notes for Luke 23:39-43 noted that the two thieves represent two different spiritual conditions. One thief refused to take responsibility for his actions, while the other acknowledged this guilt and asked Jesus to remember him. The commentary note states:

To be reconciled to Christ is to be in paradise immediately. Furthermore, the souls of the departed are in the presence of God and experience a foretaste of His glory before the final resurrection.

The popular Evangelical NIV Study Bible in the commentary for Luke 23:43 notes that “paradise” referred to the place of bliss and rest between death and resurrection. In the commentary for 2 Corinthians 12:4, the NIV Study Bible notes that “paradise” is synonymous with the third heaven, the place where the believers who have died are now “at home with the Lord.” Here we see the different emphases the two traditions have in their understanding of paradise.

 

Paradise in the Bible

In the Old Testament, the word “paradise” has been used several times in reference to the Garden of Eden, either directly or retrospectively. In the Septuagint version of Genesis 2, the word “παράδεισον” is used five times (verses 8, 9, 10, 15, and 16). The word appears again in Genesis 13 in which Sodom and Gomorrah—before the divine judgment—are likened to “the garden of God.” The Prophet Ezekiel used “paradise” in chapters 28 and 31 in his prophecies against the rulers of Tyre and Egypt. He invoked Eden, the “garden of God,” to depict the ruler being like Adam—in a state of perfection—before succumbing to the sin of pride which led to his downfall thereby incurring divine judgment.

In the Septuagint, paradise was used to evoke memories of Eden, a lush green enclosed garden in contrast to an unruly or devastated desert wasteland. In Joel 2:3, Zion is likened to a “paradise of splendor” (OSB) or a “garden of Eden” (RSV) (“ὡς παράδεισος τρυφῆς” in LXX). In Isaiah 51:3, Yahweh promises the Jews that he would one day restore Zion and make her like the “garden of the LORD” (“ὡς παράδεισον κυρίου” in LXX). Thus, the word “paradise” signifies mankind’s original condition of bliss and union with God before the Fall, not in a spiritualized gnostic sense, but in a uniquely agrarian reference to place. In the rabbinical literature, the bliss of paradise is contrasted with the torment of gehenna.

Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament notes that paradise has been understood by the Jews as referring to the First Age and to the Age to Come. Jewish eschatology anticipated a reopened or restored paradise.

The site of reopened Paradise is almost without exception the earth, or the new Jerusalem. Its most important gifts are the fruits of the tree of life, the water and bread of life, the banquet of the time of salvation, and fellowship with God. The belief in resurrection gave assurance that all the righteous, even those who were dead, would have a share in reopened Paradise. (TDNT Volume V, p. 767)

The notion of paradise as a future state can be found in Revelation 2:7 in which Jesus promises to those who overcome will eat of the Tree of Life that is in “paradise of God” (NA28). The commentary note in the Orthodox Study Bible informs us that the Tree of Life is an allusion to the Cross, the fruit is spiritual food, i.e., the Eucharist, and that the paradise of God is heaven.

 

Altar Area – St. Barbara Greek Orthodox Church

The promise of reopened paradise finds its fulfillment in the Orthodox Liturgy. The altar area of Orthodox churches is marked off by an icon wall (iconostasis) and the royal doors. When the doors are closed, they symbolize man’s expulsion from the original paradise, and when the gates are opened, they symbolize mankind being welcomed back to paradise. The Tree of Life is symbolized by the Cross and his body hanging on the Cross symbolizes the Fruit that conveys eternal life to those who partake of it. The Eucharist in which we feed on Christ’s Body and Blood symbolizes the Messianic banquet in which humanity is reconciled with God in the reopened paradise. For the Orthodox Christian this is a here-and-now reality that takes place every Sunday at the Eucharist, not in some far off future.

 

John Calvin’s Interpretation of the Good Thief

Calvin’s interpretation of Luke 23:39-43 can be found in his commentary on the synoptic Gospels (Vol. III pp. 200-205). Calvin has a lot to say about these five verses. He describes the Good Thief’s conversion as a miracle.

In this wicked man a striking mirror of the unexpected and incredible grace of God is held out to us, not only in his being suddenly changed into a new man, when he was near death, and drawn from hell itself to heaven, but likewise in having obtained in a moment the forgiveness of all the sins in which he had been plunged through his whole life, and in having been thus admitted to heaven before the apostles and first-fruits of the new Church.

Calvin underscores the fact that the Thief’s conversion was not a result of natural processes but the result of divine grace.

For it was not by the natural movement of the flesh that he laid aside his fierce cruelty and proud contempt of God, so as to repent immediately, but he was subdued by the hand of God; as the whole of Scripture shows that repentance is His work (Bold added).

Calvin used the Good Thief as evidence against medieval Catholicism’s elaborate soteriology which involved indulgences, the keys of Peter, and confession to lessen the amount of time one would spend in purgatory. For Calvin all that matters for entrance into heaven is faith and repentance.

Thus, when the robber has been brought by fatherly discipline to self-denial Christ receives him, as it were, into his bosom, and does not send him away to the fire of purgatory.

We ought likewise to observe by what keys the gate of heaven was opened to the robber; for neither papal confession nor satisfactions are here taken into account, but Christ is satisfied with repentance and faith, so as to receive him willingly when he comes to him.

Surprisingly, Calvin did not attempt to discuss the location of paradise. He seems to be suggesting that paradise consists of a state of bliss contingent on faith in Christ.

Today shalt thou be with me in paradise. We ought not to enter into curious and subtle arguments about the place of paradise. Let us rest satisfied with knowing that those who are engrafted by faith into the body of Christ are partakers of that life, and thus enjoy after death a blessed and joyful rest, until the perfect glory of the heavenly life is fully manifested by the coming of Christ (Italics in original; bold added).

Given Calvin’s reticence to discuss the location of paradise, our skeptical Protestant reader should not be overly concerned about reconciling the Good Thief’s entrance into paradise with Christ’s descent into hell. Many of the difficulties can be avoided if one focuses on the bliss of paradise stemming from relationship with Christ, not exclusively on the coordination of spatial locations. After all, it is Christ himself that is the bliss of paradise. We need a Christ-centered understanding of paradise and heaven, or else we will end up with a religious caricature of Disney World.

 

The Good Thief in the Orthodox Liturgy

When I converted to Orthodoxy I was surprised by how often I heard about the Good Thief. As a Protestant I hardly heard about the Good Thief with the exception of theological debates about death bed conversions and how the Good Thief provided an example of salvation without works and the possibility of being saved apart from being baptized. As an Orthodox Christian I am reminded of the Good Thief every Sunday in the closing line of the pre-Communion prayer:

O Son of God, receive me today as a partaker of Your mystical supper. For I will not speak of the mystery to Your enemies, nor will I give You a kiss, as did Judas. But like the thief, I confess to You: Remember me, Lord, in Your Kingdom.

One time I became especially aware of this line in the pre-Communion prayer. This was after my house had been broken into and I felt angry enough to punch the burglar in the face. Saying this prayer before going up for Holy Communion made me keenly aware that I was no better than the thief hanging on the cross.

 

Pope Theophilus of Alexandria

Learning from the Early Church

Theophilus, the twenty-third Pope of Alexandria (ruled 384-412), gave the homily “On the Crucifixion and the Good Thief.” In the passage below, Theophilus constructs a dialogue between Christ and the Thief:

The gate of Paradise has been closed since the time when Adam transgressed, but I will open it today, and receive you in it. Because you have recognised the nobility of my head on the cross, you who have shared with me in the suffering of the cross will be my companion in the joy of my kingdom. You have glorified me in the presence of carnal men, in the presence of sinners. I will therefore glorify you in the presence of the angels. You were fixed with me on the cross, and you united yourself with me of your own free will. I will therefore love you, and my Father will love you, and the angels will serve you with my holy food. If you used once to be a companion of murderers, behold, I who am the life of all have now made you a companion with me. You used once to walk in the night with the sons of darkness; behold I who am the light of the whole world have now made you walk with me. You used once to take counsel with murderers; behold, I who am the Creator have made you a companion with me. (Bold emphasis added.)

Theophilus seem to understand paradise more in terms of a restored relationship with God than as a place. Where Calvin understood the Thief’s conversion as a result of divine intervention hinting at irresistible grace, Theophilus echoed the early consensus that even after the Fall humanity retained the ability to freely respond to God’s grace, as evidenced by the phrase “of your own free will.”

He continues exegeting the Good Thief’s confession from the standpoint of Matthew 10:32-33:

All these things I will pardon you because you have confessed my divinity in the presence of those who have denied me. For they saw all the signs which I performed, but did not believe in me. You, then, a rapacious robber, a murderer, a brigand, a swindler, a plunderer have confessed that I am God. That is why I have pardoned your many sins, because you have loved much (Lk. 7:47). I will make you a citizen of Paradise. I will wash you [sic] body so that it will not see corruption before I resurrect it with me on the third day and take you up with me.

Pope Theophilus continues his sermon contrasting the Unrepentant Thief against the example of the Good Thief. The bliss of the Good Thief is contrasted with the woes of the Unrepentant Thief. Unlike many Protestants who assume hell to be exclusively a place of fiery torment, Theophilus understands that hell also can be a frigidly cold place.

The other who has denied me will see you enveloped in glory, but he will be enveloped in pain and same. He will see you surrounded by light, but he will be surrounded by darkness. He will see you in a state of joy and happiness, but he will be in a state of weeping and groaning. He will see you enjoying ease and benediction, but he will be suffering oppression and malediction. He will see you refreshed by the angels, but he will be troubled by the powers of darkness. And in the midst of intense cold the worm that never rests will consume him. Not only did he not confess me, but after having denied me he reviled me. (Bold emphasis added)

‘For this reason all will receive according to their works. For as I have already said to them explicitly and in public: Everyone who acknowledges me before men, I will also acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven; but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven.’ (Mt. 10:32-33)

 

Icon of the Crucifixion – Eastern style

Reflecting on the Cross

In closing, it is important that we go beyond the Protestant versus Orthodox polemics and look to the wisdom of the early Church. The early Church can be viewed as common ground for both Protestants and Orthodox. The Cross of Christ is rich in symbolic meanings. Pope Theophilus, who lived in the fourth and fifth centuries, skillfully unpacked the meanings of the Cross of Christ.

Whether you are a Western Christian who just celebrated Easter or an Orthodox Christian looking forward to the Resurrection Service this coming Saturday evening, I encourage you learn from this early Christian bishop-preacher.

The cross is the consolation of those who are afflicted by their sins. The cross is the straight highway. Those who walk on it do not go astray. The cross is the lofty tower that that gives shelter to those who seek refuge in it. The cross is the sacred ladder than raises humanity to the heavens. The cross is the holy garment that Christians wear. The cross is the helper of the wretched, assisting all the oppressed. The cross is that which closed the temples of the idols and opens the churches and crowns them. The cross is that which has confounded the demons and made them flee in terror. The cross is the firm constitution of ships admired for their beauty. The cross is the joy of the priests who dwell in the house of God with decorum. The cross is the immutable judge of the apostles. The cross is the golden lampstand whose holy cover gives light. The cross is the father of orphans, watching over them. The cross is the judge of widows, drying the tears of their eyes. The cross is the consolation of pilgrims. The cross is the companion of those who are in solitude. The cross is the ornament of the sacred altar. The cross is the affliction of those who are bitter. The cross is our help in our hour of bodily need. The cross is the administration of the demented. The cross is the steward of those who entrust their cares to the Lord. The cross is the purity of virgins. The cross is the solid preparation. The cross is the physician who heals all maladies.

 

Wishing all of you a blessed Pascha!

Robert Arakaki

 

References

John Calvin. Calvin’s New Testament Commentaries: Matthew, Mark and Luke (Vol. III). David W. Torrance and Thomas F. Torrance, editors.

John Chrysostom.  Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom.  Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North America.

Gerhard Kittel and Gerhard Friedrich. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament: Volume V .

Theophilus. “Homily of Theophilus of Alexandria: The crucifixion and the Good Thief.” In Christian Forums. Posted by ‘Anglian’ 5 April 2010.

 

Evidence for Christ’s Descent Into Hell

 

Christ standing over the shattered doors of Hell and rescuing Adam and Eve

On Holy Saturday, the Orthodox Church celebrates Christ’s descent into Hell (Hades).  For many Protestants and Evangelicals this is a strange idea. When I was a Protestant, I was often puzzled by the line in the Apostles Creed: “he [Christ] descended to hell.”  I thought this line was bizarre and unnecessary.  As a Protestant, I was never taught the theology behind the historic creeds of the Church. However, after attending the Orthodox Easter (Pascha) services I began to see how Christ’s descent into Hell is important for our salvation.

Recently, the Rev. Scot McKnight wrote an insightful article “Holy Saturday: What Happened on Saturday to Jesus?  In it he listed bible verses that taught Christ’s descent into Hell.  The article helped me to understand familiar passages in a new light.  I thought I knew the Bible pretty well, but I was surprised to find that I had overlooked bible passages that support Holy Saturday, a feast day that takes place just before Easter Sunday.  Thank you, Pastor McKnight!  In this article, I examine the biblical basis for Christ’s descent into Hell, the witness of the Church Fathers to this doctrine, and John Calvin’s rejection of this important doctrine.  

 

Icon – Prophet Jonah

What the Bible Teaches

Christ’s descent into Hell (Hades, Sheol) can be found in both the Old and New Testaments.  It forms a part of the arc of biblical narrative of how God saves us through Jesus Christ.  Hell can be understood as the holding place where the souls of the good and the bad went after death (Luke 16:19-31).  It is to be distinguished from Gehenna, the place of eternal torment (Mark 9:42-48; Revelation 20:14).  

Christ’s descent into Hades was anticipated by Jesus himself in Matthew’s Gospel.

For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” (Matthew 12:40: OSB; emphasis added)

Here Jesus saw in the Prophet Jonah’s three nights in the whale a foreshadowing of what would happen to him in his impending death.  

The Apostle Peter spoke of Jesus’ descent into Hell in his Pentecost sermon:

He [David], foreseeing this, spoke concerning the resurrection of the Christ, that His soul was not left in Hades, nor did His flesh see corruption. (Acts 2:31; OSB; emphasis added)

Here Peter was making reference to Psalm 16 verse 10, one of the messianic psalms.  One of the greatest concerns expressed throughout the Book of Psalms is the fate of the souls after death.  In this passage we learn that death is not the final word and see hints of the Messiah’s victory over death.

The Apostle Paul in his letter to the Ephesians developed the theme of Christ’s elevation to the highest position in the cosmos for our salvation.  In Ephesians 4, Paul discussed Christ’s descent into Hades in light of Christ’s later ascension to heaven.  

Now this, ‘He ascended’—what does it mean but that He also first descended into the lower parts of the earth?  (Ephesians 4:9; OSB; emphasis added)

In his epistle, the Apostle Peter gave a more detailed explanation of Christ’s descent into Hell in light of the impending Judgment Day.  

By whom also He went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly were disobedient, when once the Divine longsuffering waited in the days of Noah. (1 Peter 3:19-20; OSB; emphasis added)

For this reason the gospel was preached also to those who are dead, that they might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit. (1 Peter 4:6; OSB; emphasis added)

Apparently, in preparation for the Final Judgment everyone, both living and dead, will have some knowledge of the Gospel.  

Protestants pride themselves on their biblical exposition, but I had never heard a sermon on these verses or on the theme of Christ’s descent into Hell during my twenty-plus years as a Protestant.  The reasons for this oversight is not all that surprising.  These verses don’t fit in well with the Protestant dogma sola fide (justification by faith alone) which gives heavy emphasis to the penal atonement model of salvation. Yet what we see here is a strand of biblical teaching that began in the Old Testament, is reiterated by Christ, and expounded by the two preeminent Apostles: Peter and Paul.  

Protestant and Evangelical readers might ask: So what are the practical implications of Christ’s descent into hell?  Below are some of the practical implications:

  • Hell is not an unknown place, for Christ has gone there for us.
  • Hell is not a place of complete hopelessness, for Christ has evangelized Hell.  
  • Hell is not Satan’s domain, for Christ has invaded Hell and taken death captive.
  • Hell is not the final destination, for the gates of Hell have been shattered and the captives liberated.
  • We need not fear death, for Christ our Captain has gone before us leading the way to heaven.  

Resurrection Icon – Death Taken Captive

 

The Apostles’ Creed

This strand of biblical teaching would later find expression in a line in the Apostles Creed that many Protestants find baffling:  

I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit
and born of the virgin Mary.
He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended to hell.
The third day he rose again from the dead.
He ascended to heaven
and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty.
From there he will come to judge the living and the dead.    (Source)

The Apostles Creed represents an ancient baptismal creed that became part of the liturgical life of western churches.  Because the early Christians regularly recited the Apostles Creed, Christ’s descent into Hell was widely known.  This stands in contrast to modern day Evangelicalism which is largely ignorant of the Apostles Creed and the theology behind it.  My former Protestant home church said the Apostles Creed every few years.  That’s how rarely we used it!

 

The Witness of the Church Fathers

An examination of the Church Fathers shows a widespread acceptance of Christ’s descent into Hell.  Irenaeus of Lyons (died c. 200), one of the earliest Church Fathers, in Against Heresies 4.27.2 (ANF Vol. 1 p. 499) paraphrases 1 Peter 3:19-20:

It was for this reason, too, that the Lord descended into the regions beneath the earth, preaching His advent there also, and [declaring] the remission of sins received by those who believe in Him.

Here we see an explicit reference to the Gospel being proclaimed in Hell by none other than the Lord Jesus himself.  Hell is no longer a place of hopelessness, but one in which the dead can be saved through faith in Christ.  

Cyril of Jerusalem (c. 310-386) in his catechetical lectures taught Christ’s descent into Hell to redeem the righteous.

He was truly laid as Man in a tomb of rock; but rocks were rent asunder by terror because of Him. He went down into the regions beneath the earth, that thence also He might redeem the righteous. (Lecture 4.11; NPNF Vol. 7 p. 22; emphasis added)

He also linked Christ’s descent into Hell to a puzzling verse in Matthew’s Gospel (27:52-53)  which spoke of the dead rising and entering into Jerusalem: 

I believe that Christ also was raised from the dead; for I have many testimonies of this, both from the Divine Scriptures, and from the operative power even at this day of Him who arose — who descended into hell alone, but ascended thence with a great company; for He went down to death, and many bodies of the saints which slept arose through Him. (Lecture 14.18; NPNF Vol. 7 p. 99; emphasis added)

Hilary of Poitiers (c. 315-368), one of the less well-known Church Fathers, was a staunch defender of Christ’s divinity against the Semi-Arians.  In On the Trinity (De Trinitate) Hilary discussed Christ’s descent into Hell in connection with the confession made by the Good Thief:

When He descended to Hades, He was never absent from Paradise (just as He was always in Heaven when He was preaching on earth as the Son of Man), but promised His martyr a home there, and held out to him the transports of perfect happiness.

. . . for the Lord Who was to descend to Hades, was also to dwell in Paradise. Separate, if you can, from His indivisible nature a part which could fear punishment: send the one part of Christ to Hades to suffer pain, the other, you must leave in Paradise to reign . . . . (On the Trinity 10.34; NPNF Vol. 9 p. 190; emphasis added)

The point Hilary is making is that the alleged contradictions that appear to contradict Christ’s divinity can be cleared up by taking into account Christ’s two natures, that is, Christ was at the same time both divine and human in his Incarnation.  

Gregory of Nazianzen (330-389) in his Second Oration on Easter (Orations 45.24) declared:

If He descend into Hell, descend with Him. Learn to know the mysteries of Christ there also, what is the providential purpose of the twofold descent, to save all men absolutely by His manifestation, or there too only them that believe.  (NPNF Vol. VII p. 432; emphasis added)

Gregory’s phrase “twofold descent” refers to Christ’s descent from heaven to earth, and then from the world of the living to the world of the dead.  Christ’s purpose for doing so is for our salvation.  The phrase “save all men absolutely” points to a broader understanding of salvation than just the forgiveness of sins.

Ambrose of Milan (c. 339-397) in On the Christian Faith related Christ’s two natures to his descent into Hell:

Distinguish here also the two natures present. The flesh hath need of help, the Godhead hath no need. He is free, then, because the chains of death had no hold upon Him. He was not made prisoner by the powers of darkness, it is He Who exerted power amongst them. (Book 3.4.28; NPNF Vol. 10 p. 246; emphasis added)

Then,

Now, if it please you, let us grant that, in accordance with the mystic prophecy, the substance of Christ was present in the underworld—for truly He did exert His power in the lower world to set free, in the soul which animated His own body, the souls of the dead, to loose the bands of death, to remit sins. (Book 3.14.111; NPNF Vol. 10 p. 258; emphasis added)

Here Ambrose showed how Christology relates to the Christus Victor understanding of salvation.  Ambrose is a prominent and influential Latin Father.  It was he who brought Augustine to faith in Christ.  

Augustine of Hippo (354-430), whose teaching gave rise to the theology of Western Christianity, both Roman Catholic and Protestant, in no uncertain terms affirmed Christ’s descent into Hell.  He wrote in Letter 164 Chapter 2: 

It is established beyond question that the Lord, after He had been put to death in the flesh, “descended into hell;” for it is impossible to gainsay either that utterance of prophecy, “You will not leave my soul in hell,” — an utterance which Peter himself expounds in the Acts of the Apostles, lest any one should venture to put upon it another interpretation — or the words of the same apostle, in which he affirms that the Lord “loosed the pains of hell, in which it was not possible for Him to be holden.” Who, therefore, except an infidel, will deny that Christ was in hell?

Augustine wrote this letter because even back then there were people who doubted that Christ descended to Hades.  His fierce retort against the skeptics of his time, likening them to unbelievers, should give pause to our present-day Protestant skeptics.  

John of Damascus (c. 675-c. 749) wrote the closest thing to a systematic theology in the early Church.  In his Exposition of the Orthodox Faith (Chapter 29), Saint John devoted one brief chapter to Christ’s descent into Hades.

The soul when it was deified descended into Hades, in order that, just as the Sun of Righteousness rose for those upon the earth, so likewise He might bring light to those who sit under the earth in darkness and shadow of death: in order that just as He brought the message of peace to those upon the earth, and of release to the prisoners, and of sight to the blind , and became to those who believed the Author of everlasting salvation and to those who did not believe a reproach of their unbelief, so He might become the same to those in Hades: That every knee should bow to Him, of things in heaven, and things in earth and things under the earth. And thus after He had freed those who had been bound for ages, straightway He rose again from the dead, showing us the way of resurrection. (NPNF Vol. 9 pp. 72-73; emphasis added)

In this short passage, John of Damascus interweaves several biblical passages around the theme of Christ’s descent into Hades: Malachi 4:2, Isaiah 9:2, 1 Peter 3:19, and Philippians 2:10.  Saint John teaches us that Christ took his ministry of miracles and preaching to Hades when he died.  We learn that Hell is not exempt from Christ’s ministry of salvation for Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior of all people everywhere, both the living and the dead.  

In summary, we find a patristic consensus that ranges from Irenaeus of Lyons in the second century to John of Damascus in the eighth century.  Both Greek and Latin Fathers bore witness to this doctrine.  Furthermore, we find this doctrine expressed in the worship life of the early Church, e.g., the Apostles Creed, which is still used by Western Christians and in the Holy Saturday services celebrated by the Orthodox.  Thus, we can say that the doctrine of Christ’s descent to Hades is a fundamental Christian teaching as it meets the criteria set forth in the Vincentian Canon: “Quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus creditum est” (That Faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all). (Commonitory [6])

 

Calvin’s Break From the Patristic Consensus

John Calvin

It came as a surprise to me to find that John Calvin understood Christ’s descent to Hades metaphorically.  In his discussion of the fate of those who died and the place of the dead known as Limbo (Limbus), Calvin regards this to a “fable” and something “childish” taught by “great authors” (the Church Fathers): 

Though this fable has the countenance of great authors, and is now also seriously defended by many as truth, it is nothing but a fable. To conclude from it that the souls of the dead are in prison is childish. And what occasion was there that the soul of Christ should go down thither to set them at liberty? (Institutes 2.16.9; Vol. 1 p. 514; emphasis added)

Calvin was of the opinion that the line in the Apostles Creed regarding Christ’s crucifixion, death, and burial referred to Christ’s physical sufferings and the following line about Christ’s descent to Hades referred to Christ’s internal suffering as he experienced divine wrath on behalf of sinful humanity.

But, apart from the Creed, we must seek for a surer exposition of Christ’s descent to hell: and the word of God furnishes us with one not only pious and holy, but replete with excellent consolation. Nothing had been done if Christ had only endured corporeal death. In order to interpose between us and God’s anger, and satisfy his righteous judgment, it was necessary that he should feel the weight of divine vengeance.   . . . .

But after explaining what Christ endured in the sight of man, the Creed appropriately adds the invisible and incomprehensible judgment which he endured before God, to teach us that not only was the body of Christ given up as the price of redemption, but that there was a greater and more excellent price—that he bore in his soul the tortures of condemned and ruined man. . . . . 

Hence there is nothing strange in its being said that he descended to hell, seeing he endured the death which is inflicted on the wicked by an angry God. (Institutes 2.16.10; Vol. 1 p. 514; emphasis added)

Calvin’s emphasis here is on Christ’s sufferings to appease the wrath of an “angry God.”  Here we see in stark terms the penal atonement model of salvation (which assumes a wrathful deity) that many find grossly overplayed, if not deeply repugnant.  What I find surprising is how Calvin cavalierly discards the ancient Christus Victor model of salvation and replaces it the penal atonement model.  Also upsetting was Calvin’s condescending attitude towards the Church Fathers.  To ignore the teaching on Christ’s descent to Hell, Calvin brings a novel, allegorical reading to the Apostles Creed. That Calvin’s reading is a minority position can be seen in the fact that Martin Luther did not jettison the traditional reading of the Apostles Creed.  In his 1533 sermon at Torgau, Luther affirmed the traditional understanding that Christ entered Hell as Victor over Satan and his host (Bente).  While Luther introduced a new soteriology (doctrine of salvation) with his novel understanding of justification (sola fide), Calvin made even bigger break with a soteriology based on the penal atonement model, which would grow to largely ignore, if not exclude the ancient patristic models of salvation used by the Church Fathers for centuries

Pastor John Piper

Calvin’s dismissive attitude towards the doctrine of Christ’s descent into Hell would have long term consequences.  It would lead to the descensus controversies that would roil sixteenth century Protestantism (Bagchi p. 198).  Calvin’s innovative understanding was accepted within Reformed circles, but when brought into contact with other Protestant traditions it traditions it came across as bizarre.  Nonetheless, Calvin’s view became part of the Reformed tradition.  It can be found in Question 44 of the Heidelberg Catechism.  Reformers like Theodore Beza would, on their own imitative, omit that line (Bagchi p. 199).  Even today, prominent Reformed theologians like John Piper have taken the liberty to omit that line.  They “retain” aspects of ancient Christianity and throw out what they don’t like.  This is like wanting to have one’s cake and eat it too.

When I studied church history at seminary, I learned that Protestantism’s heavy emphasis on the penal aspects of Christ’s dying on the Cross is a relatively recent doctrine that emerged to prominence in the 1500s.  What we see in the Apostles Creed reflects the theology of the early Church which reflected the patristic doctrine of Christus Victor.  The fact that many Protestants today are unfamiliar with Christ’s descent in Hades and even the Apostles Creed show how far Protestantism has drifted from its ancient Christian roots.  This is not to say that Protestants and Evangelicals should relinquish the penal model of salvation altogether, but that they should incorporate the ancient patristic model of Christus Victor into their theology.  A good resource for this is Gustav Aulen’s theological classic Christus Victor.  Protestantism has paid a heavy price in forsaking its roots in the early Church.  It has adopted a novel soteriology accompanied by a new form of worship resulting in their estrangement from Ancient Christianity.

 

Two Paradigms of Salvation

When I was a Protestant it was hard to fit the verses about Christ’s descent to Hell into the penal substitutionary theory of salvation.  In this model, all that mattered was Christ’s suffering and dying on the Cross.  His death was the crucial element; everything else was superfluous.  This led to strained attempts to explain how Christ’s resurrection was necessary for our salvation.  More prominent in the early Church was the recapitulation theory in which Christ as the Second Adam retraced human existence from birth to death, from conception in his mother’s womb to his descent into the underworld.  The underworld was where all the dead souls—good and bad—awaited the Final Judgment.  Like the other humans who died, Christ descended into Hades. However unlike other humans, this was the uncorrupted Second Adam who was unjustly sentenced to death, Immanuel who is “God With Us.”  John Chrysostom in his famous Easter sermon declared:

It [Hell] took a body [Jesus Christ], and, lo, it discovered God.  
It took earth and behold! it encountered Heaven.  
It took what it saw, and was overcome by what it could not see.  
O death where is your sting?  O Hades [Hell], where is your victory?  
Christ is risen, and you [Hell] are annihilated.  
Christ is risen and the demons have fallen.  
Christ is risen and the Angels rejoice.  
Christ is risen and life is liberated.  
Christ is risen, and the tomb is emptied of the dead. . . .

Where Protestantism puts the emphasis on the forgiveness of sins obtained through Christ’s death on the Cross, Orthodoxy puts the emphasis on the defeat of sin, death, and the devil through Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. What saves us is not an event but rather a Person, Jesus Christ.  This is not to say that Protestantism’s doctrine of salvation is all wrong. However, Protestantism’s reductionism unduly emphasizes only one part of a far richer and fuller picture of Salvation in Christ.  Orthodoxy’s holistic understanding of salvation is multifaceted.  It teaches us about the many ways Christ saves us: freeing us from captivity to Satan and the demons, the healing our souls and body, bringing us back home and restoring us to our standing as God’s beloved children, making us wise, transforming us into his likeness and more.  Unlike Protestantism’s novel approach to salvation, Orthodoxy preserves the teachings of the early Church to the present day.

This year [2018], Orthodox Easter will come one week after Western Easter.  This will give Protestants and Evangelicals an opportunity to compare their celebration of Easter with Orthodoxy’s ancient liturgy.  It may come as a surprise that on Saturday there are two services.  On Saturday morning, the Orthodox Church celebrates Christ’s harrowing of Hell.  The mood of this service is that of a quiet joy in anticipation of the Easter service.  We invite our Protestant friends to come to the Saturday morning service and celebrate with us Christ’s descent into Hades to set the captives free.  Then Saturday midnight, the Liturgy is celebrated with exuberance and extravagance.  Over and over, we cry out: Christ is Risen! This service is the high point of Orthodox worship.  Tip: Check ahead for the specifics of the service.  Better yet, ask an Orthodox friend to take you along.   

Come and see!

Robert Arakaki

 

Additional Readings

Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev.  2002. “Christ the Conqueror of Hell” (lecture)

Gustav Aulen.  1931.  Christus Victor: A Study of the Three Main Types of the Idea of Atonement

David V.N. Bagchi.  2008.  Luther Versus Luther? The Problem of Christ’s Descent into Hell in the Long Sixteenth Century.”  Perichoresis 6.2.

F. Bente.  XIX. Controversy on Christ’s Descent into Hell.”  The Book of Concord

Robert B. Kruschwitz.  2014.  He Descended into Hell.Christian Reflection – A Series in Faith and Ethics

Scot McKnight.  2018. “Holy Saturday – What Happened on Saturday to Jesus?Jesus Creed

John Piper.  2008.  Did Christ Ever Descend to Hell?  DesiringGod.org

 

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