Christ the Conqueror of Hell

My beloved spiritual children in Our Risen Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,

By Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev

The Descent of Christ into Hades in Eastern and Western Theological Traditions (Source: A lecture delivered at Saint Mary's Cathedral, Minneapolis, on November 2002)

The Byzantine and old Russian icons of the Resurrection of Christ never depict the resurrection itself, i.e., Christ coming out of the grave. They rather depict 'the descent of Christ into Hades', or to be more precise, the rising of Christ out of hell. Christ, sometimes with a cross in his hand, is represented as raising Adam, Eve and other personages of the biblical history from hell. Under the Savior's feet is the black abyss of the nether world; against its background are castles, locks and debris of the gates which once barred the way of the dead to resurrection. Though other motifs have also been used in creating the image of the Resurrection of Christ in the last several centuries, the above-described iconographic type is considered to be canonical, as it reflects the traditional teaching on the descent of Christ to hell, His victory over death, His raising of the dead and delivering them from hell where they were imprisoned before His Resurrection. It is to this teaching as an integral part of the dogmatic and liturgical tradition of the Christian Church that this paper is devoted.

The descent of Christ into Hades is one of the most mysterious, enigmatic and inexplicable events in the New Testament history. In today's Christian world, this event is understood differently. Liberal Western theology rejects altogether any possibility for speaking of the descent of Christ into Hades literally, arguing that the scriptural texts on this theme should be understood metaphorically. The traditional Catholic doctrine insists that after death on the Cross Christ descended to hell only to deliver the Old Testament righteous from it. A similar understanding is quite widespread among Orthodox Christians.

On the other hand, the New Testament speaks of the preaching of Christ in hell as addressed to the unrepentant sinners: 'For Christ also died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that He might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit; in which He went and preached to the spirit in prison, who formerly did not obey, when God's patience waited.' However, many Church Fathers and liturgical texts of the Orthodox Church repeatedly underline that having descended to hell, Christ opened the way to salvation for all people, not only the Old Testament righteous. The descent of Christ into Hades is perceived as an event of cosmic significance involving all people without exception. They also speak about the victory of Christ over death, the full devastation of hell and that after the descent of Christ into Hades there was nobody left there except for the devil and demons.

How can these two points of view be reconciled? What was the original faith of the Church? What do early Christian sources tell us about the descent of Christ into Hades?

1. Eastern theological tradition

We come across references to the descent of Christ into Hades and His raising the dead in the works of Eastern Christian authors of the 2nd and 3rd centuries, such as St. Polycarp of Smyrna, Saint Ignatius of Anticoh, Hermas, Saint Justin, Melito of Sardes, St. Hyppolitus of Rome, Saint Irenaeus of Lyons, Saint Clement of Alexandria and Origen. In the 4th century, the descent to hell was discussed by Saints Athanasius, Basil the Great, Gregory of Nazianzen, John Chrysostom, as well as such Syrian authors as Jacob Aphrahat and St. Ephraim the Syrian. Noteworthy among later authors who wrote on this theme are Saints Cyril of Alexandria, Maximus the Confessor and John Damascene.

Let us look at the most vivid interpretations to our theme in Eastern Christian theology.

The teaching on the descent of Christ into Hades was expounded quite fully by Saint Clement of Alexandria in his 'Stromateis'. He argued that Christ preached in hell not only to the Old Testament righteous, but also the Gentiles who lived outside the true faith. Commenting on 1 Peter 3:18, St. Clement expresses the conviction that the preaching of Christ was addressed to all those in hell who were able to believe in Christ:

Do not [the Holy Scripture] show that the Lord preached the Gospel to those that perished in the flood, or rather had been chained, and to those kept 'in ward and guard'?... And, as I think, the Savior also exerts His might because it is His work to save; which accordingly He also did by drawing to salvation those who became willing, by the preaching [of the Gospel], to believe in Him, wherever they were. If, then, the Lord descended to Hades for no other end but to preach the Gospel, as He did descend, it was either to preach the Gospel to all or to the Hebrews only. If, accordingly, to all, then all who believe shall be saved, although they may be of the Gentiles, on making their profession there...

Saint Clement emphasizes that there are righteous people among both those who have the true faith and the Gentiles and that it is possible to turn to God for those who did not believe in Him while living. It is their virtuous life that made them capable of accepting the preaching of Christ and the apostles in hell:

...A righteous man, then, differs not, as righteous, from another righteous man, whether he be of the Law [Jew] or a Greek [Gentile]. For God is not only Lord of the Jews, but of all men...So I think it is demonstrated that God, being good, and the Lord powerful, save with a righteousness and equality which extends to all that turn to Him, whether here or elsewhere.

According to Saint Clement, righteousness is of value not only for those who live in true faith, but also for those who are outside the faith. It is evident from his words that Christ preached in hell to all, but saved only those who came to believe in Him. Anyway, Saint Clement assumes that this preaching proved salutary not for all to whom Christ preached in hell: 'Did not the same dispensation obtain in Hades, so that even there, all the souls, on hearing the proclamation, might either exhibit repentance, or confess that their punishment was just, because they believed not?' According to Saint Clement, there were those in hell who heard the preaching of Christ but did not believe in Him and did not follow Him.

In Saint Clement's works we find the notion that punishment sent from God to sinners are aimed at their reformation, not at retribution, and that the souls released from their corporal shells are better able to understand the meaning of punishment. In these words lies the nucleus of the teaching on the purifying and saving nature of the torment of hell developed by some later authors.

Saint Gregory of Nyssa entwines the theme of the descent in hell with the theory of 'divine deception.' On the latter he builds his teaching on the Redemption. According to this theory, Christ, being God Incarnate, deliberately concealed His Divine nature from the devil so that he, mistaking Him for an ordinary man, would not be terrified at the sight of an overwhelming power approaching him. When Christ descended in hell, the devil supposed Him to be a human being, but this was a Divine 'hook' disguised under a human 'bait' that the devil swallowed. By admitting God Incarnate into his domain, the devil himself signed his own death warrant: incapable of enduring the Divine presence, he was overcome and defeated, and hell was destroyed.

This is precisely the idea that Saint Gregory of Nyssa developed in one of his Pascal sermons on 'The Three-Day Period of the Resurrection of Christ.' Judging by its contents, this homily was intended for Holy Saturday, and in it Saint Gregory poses the question of why Christ spent three days 'in the heart of the earth.' This period was necessary and sufficient, he argues, for Christ to 'expose the foolishness' (moranai) of the devil, i.e., to outwit, ridicule and deceive him. How did Christ manage to 'outwit' the devil? Saint Gregory gives the following reply to this question:

As the ruler of darkness could not approach the presence of the Light unimpeded, had he not seen in Him something of flesh, then, as soon as he saw the God-bearing flesh and saw the miracle performed through it by the Deity, he hoped that if he came to take hold of the flesh through death, then he would take hold of all the power contained in it. Therefore, having swallowed the bait of the flesh, he was pierced by the hook of the Deity and thus the dragon was transfixed by the hook...

In Saint John Damascene we find lines which sum up the development of the theme of the descent of Christ into Hades in Eastern Patristic writings of the 2nd - 8th centuries:

The soul [of Christ] when it is 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 the 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 denunciation of their unbelief, so He might become the same to those in Hades: That every knee 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...

The teaching of the Eastern Church Fathers on the descent of Christ into Hades can be summed up in the following points:

  1. The doctrine of the descent of Christ into Hades was commonly accepted and indisputable;
  2. the descent into Hades was perceived as an event of universal significance, though some authors limited the range of those saved by Christ to a particular category of the dead;
  3. the descent of Christ into Hades and His Resurrection were viewed as the accomplishment of the 'economy' of Christ the Savior, as the crown and outcome of the feat He performed for the salvation of people;
  4. the teaching on the victory of Christ over the devil, hell and death was finally articulated and asserted;
  5. the theme of the descent into Hades began to be viewed in its mystical dimension, as the prototype of the resurrection of the human soul.


Let us move now to the theological significance of the doctrine of the descent of Christ into Hades. This doctrine, in our view, has great significance for theodicy, the justification of God in the face of the accusing human mind. Why does God permit suffering and evil? Why does He condemn people to the pains of hell? To what extent is God responsible for what happens on earth? Why in the Bible does God appear as a cruel and unmerciful Judge 'repenting' of His actions and punishing people for mistakes which He knew beforehand and which He could have prevented? These and other similar questions have been posed throughout history.

First of all, we should say that the doctrine of the descent of Christ into Hades raises the veil over the mystery that envelops the relationship between God and the devil. The history of this relationship goes back to the time of the creation. According to common Church teaching, the devil was created as a good and perfect creature, but he fell away from God because of his pride. The drama of the personal relationship between God and the devil did not end here. Since his falling away, the devil began to oppose divine goodness and love by every means and to do all they can to prevent the salvation of people. The devil is not all-powerful, however; his powers are restricted by God and he can operate only within the limits permitted by God. This last affirmation is confirmed by the opening lines of the Book of Job where the devil appears as a creature having, first, personal relations with God and, secondly, being fully subjected to God.

By creating human beings and putting them in a situation where they choose between good and evil, God assumed the responsibility for their further destiny. God did not leave man face to face with the devil, but Himself entered into the struggle for humanity's spiritual survival. To this end, He sent Prophets and teachers and then He Himself became man, suffered on the Cross and died, descended into Hades and was raised from the dead in order to share human fate. By descending into Hades, Christ did not destroy the devil as a personal, living creature, but 'abolished the power of the devil' that is, deprived the devil of authority and power stolen by him from God. When he rebelled against God, the devil set himself the task to create his own autonomous kingdom where he would be master and where he would win back from God a space where God's presence could be in no way felt. In the Old Testament understanding, this place was sheol. After Christ, sheol became a place of divine presence.

This presence is felt by all those in Paradise as a source of joy and bliss, but for those in hell it is a source of suffering. Hell, after Christ, is no longer the place where the devil reigns and people suffer, but first and foremost it is the prison for the devil himself as well as for those who voluntarily decided to stay with him and share his fate. The sting of death was abolished by Christ and the walls of hell were destroyed. But 'death even without its sting is still powerful for us...Hell with its walls destroyed and its gates abolished is still filled with those who, having left the narrow royal path of the cross leading to paradise, follow the broad way all their lives.

Christ descended into hell not as another victim of the devil, but as a conqueror. He descended in order to 'bind up the powerful' and to 'plunder his vessels.' According to Patristic teaching, the devil did not recognize in Christ the Incarnate God. He took Him for an ordinary man and, rising to the 'bait' of the flesh, swallowed the 'hook' of the Deity (the image used by Saint Gregory of Nyssa). However, the presence of Christ in hell constituted the poison which began gradually to ruin hell from within (this image was used by the 4th century Syrian author Jacob Aphrahat. The final destruction of hell and the ultimate victory over the devil will happen during the Second Coming of Christ when
the last enemy to be destroyed is death,' when everything will be subjected to Christ and God will become 'all in all…


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 understand the preaching of Christ in hell and its salutary impact on people. 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, Ioannis Karmiris, that 'according to the teaching of almost all the Eastern Fathers, the preaching of the Savior 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 and unrighteous.' At the same time, the preaching of Christ was a good and joyful news of deliverance and salvation, not only for the righteous but also for 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 Saint Peter relating to the preaching of Christ in hell speaks against its understanding in terms of accusation and damnation.'

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 Saint John Damascene.





In our Risen Lord, Redeemer, God and Savior Jesus Christ,

+Father George