Christ the Conqueror of Hell
Christ's descent into Hell is a major theme of Holy Week in the Orthodox Church. I try as much as I can to look over the Holy Week service book before each one so I can meditate on the meaning of the beautiful texts that I will hear chanted and read that day.
In doing so I have had to rethink some of the Biblical texts that I thought I knew well. I wanted to summarize and share some of what I've learned so far. I am especially grateful to Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev and his teaching in "Christ the Conqueror of Hell: the Descent into Hades from an Orthodox Perspective." This doesn't come close to covering everything he has to say, but I'm following his outline of Biblical texts so that you can see his thought process. I hope it will be as helpful to you as it has been for me in understanding the Orthodox way of reading the Bible on this topic.
That Christ descended into Hades or Hell isn't mentioned directly in Matthew, Mark, Luke or John but it is indirectly in the Gospel of Matthew. It is a belief of the Church stated in the Apostles' Creed: "And in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried. He descended into hell. The third day He rose again from the dead."
But what is the nature of His descent? What happened? The Bible has much to say about this, but it may not be obvious if you have come from a tradition of reading the Bible that does not train one to notice it!
Let us begin with the allusion in Matthew chapter 27, "The tombs also were opened. And many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many."
This text is the basis for the teaching that Christ resurrected the righteous of the Old Testament.
Elsewhere in Matthew Jesus alludes to His three days in the earth. "12:40 For just 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."
Jonah, along with Job 38:17 and Hosea 13:14 are seen as foretelling of Christ descending into Hades.
"17 And do the gates of death open to thee for fear; and did the porters of hell quake when they saw thee?" - Job 38:17 (Septuagint translation)
"14 I will deliver them out of the power of Hades, and will redeem them from death: where is thy penalty, O death? O Hades, where is thy sting?" - Hosea 13:14 (Septuagint translation)
Not only there but Psalm 24:7-10 is interpreted by the Church as being about Christ descending to Hades and shattering her gates, triumphing over Satan and Hades as the King of Glory.
Lift up your gates, ye princes, and be ye lifted up, ye everlasting doors; and the king of glory shall come in. Who is this king of Glory? the Lord strong and mighty, the Lord mighty in battle. Lift up your gates, ye princes; and be ye lift up, ye everlasting doors; and the king of glory shall come in. Who is this king of glory? The Lord of hosts, he is this king of glory.
After the resurrection the belief in Christ's descent into hell is present in the sermon that Peter delivered on Pentecost in Acts 2.
Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know— this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it. ... Brothers, I may say to you with confidence about the patriarch David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. Being therefore a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him that he would set one of his descendants on his throne, he foresaw and spoke about the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh see corruption. This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses.
In Peter's first Epistle he elaborates even further the teaching of the Apostles, in the context of Holy Baptism, about what Christ did when He descended to the prison of hell.
For Christ also suffered once for sins, 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 proclaimed to the spirits in prison, because they formerly did not obey, when God's patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water. Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. - 1 Peter 3:18-21
Indeed in the next chapter Peter adds further, "For this is why the gospel was preached even to those who are dead, that though judged in the flesh the way people are, they might live in the spirit the way God does." - 1 Peter 4:6
These texts from Peter help us understand how Christ's suffering for the unrighteous reached those in hell via His preaching there. Those who did not obey in the days of Noah, who Moses says in Genesis 6 that God was sorry He had even made them because they were so wicked all the time, those same disobedient people did not perish eternally. Jesus descended into hell and gave them another chance at salvation by preaching the Gospel to them that they might live in the spirit the way God does.
Peter is not the only Apostle to teach the descent of Christ into Hades, but Paul does as well in Ephesians 4:8-10.
Therefore it says, “When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men.” (In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower regions, the earth? He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.)
Christ has conquered Hades and thrown the devil, death and hell into the lake of fire, as St. John puts it in the Book of Revelation. Indeed there Jesus says of Himself that He is the first and the last and holds the keys of Hades.
The New Testament gives us three themes, then, for understanding the descent of Christ into Hades: 1) Preaching to the souls held in prison, not only the righteous but sinners; 2) A baptismal theme in 1 Peter that connects Christ's descent into Hades with Holy Baptism. Paul also makes a similar connection in Romans 6, "Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life."; and 3) the theme of victory over death and hell by Jesus descending there.