According to the Orthodox doctrine, when Jesus died on the cross, his soul descended into the hell and his divinity destroyed the powers of hell. There are few references to the descent to hell in the New Testament but this topic persistently occupied the minds and hearts of all Christians, especially Holy Fathers, who dedicated their works to it. What are the main points that the early Church Fathers made, and why should it matter to us?
1. Resurrection of Saints. According to the Gospel of Matthew, at the moment when Jesus died on the Cross, the curtain in the Temple was torn apart and the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints which slept arose, and came out of the graves after his resurrection, and went into the holy city, and appeared unto many. (Matthew 27: 52-53). Who were those saints? Saint Ignatius of Antioch, one of the first Fathers of the Church, put forward a hypothesis that the saints who were raised by Jesus were Old Testament prophets who have come to the possession of a new hope, no longer observing the Sabbath (Epistle to the Magnesians, Chapter 9). This event served as a proof of the future universal resurrection, and convinced many residents of Jerusalem of the salvation brought about by the Passion of Christ and of his Messianic dignity.
2. Christ Leading All People out of Hell. Since earliest times, the Holy Fathers of the Church regarded the descent of Jesus to hell as an event so global and universal that it brought salvation not only to the righteous of the past but to all people in She’ol. St. Melito of Sardis speaks on behalf of Christ in his treatise on Pascha thus: “I am the one who destroyed death, and triumphed over the enemy, and trampled Hades under foot, and bound the strong one, and carried off man to the heights of heaven, I, he says, am the Christ. Therefore, come, all families of men, you who have been befouled with sins, and receive forgiveness for your sins. I am your forgiveness, I am the passover of your salvation, I am the lamb which was sacrificed for you, I am your ransom, I am your light, I am your saviour, I am your resurrection, I am your king, I am leading you up to the heights of heaven, I will show you the eternal Father, I will raise you up by my right hand” (On Pascha, 102-103). Interestingly enough, St. Melito insists that not just the holy men of the ancient Israel, but also all people without exception were saved. The faith of that ancient bishop was so strong that he couldn’t even think that anyone would choose to remain in hell instead of following Christ. The Stromata of Clement of Alexandria contain a fairly detailed teaching on the descent into hell. Clement also believed that Jesus had preached in hell not only for the righteous but for the heathens who had lived their lives out of reach of the true faith. God is impartial, so those people who hadn’t had the chance to believe in Christ when they walked the earth were given the chance to accept him after they died thanks to their virtuous life “in accordance with the law and in tune with philosophy”. (Stromata 6:6). Clement believed that the apostles, in keeping with their Teacher, descended into the hell and preached there. He views the Hell as a place of correction rather than punishment.
3. St. John the Forerunner Preaches in Hell. St. Hippolytus of Rome wrote that Jesus had led the first-created man, Adam, out of hell. This church author was one of the first to mention the preaching of St. John the Baptist in the She’ol prior to Jesus’s coming there: “He also first preached to those in Hades, becoming a forerunner there when he was put to death by Herod, that there too he might intimate that the Savior would descend to ransom the souls of the saints from the hand of death.” (On Christ and Antichrist, 45). This topic would be advanced by other authors and find its reflection in our worship. The Church believes that St. John the Baptist preached in hell, which leads us to a conclusion that people who stay there aren’t asleep: they can not only hear the Lord’s voice but also accept the Good News and come to believe in the Messiah.
4. She’ol Has Two Compartments. Scripture says that all people who died before the First Coming of Christ went to She’ol, a place of darkness. The paradise was locked by the sin of Adam, the Messiah didn’t come yet, so no matter who you were: a righteous person or a sinner, an Orthodox Jew or a Gentile – She’ol was your destination. But then, what’s the use of following commandments if you go to hell anyway? Many Old Testament authors believed that the reason why people had to lead virtuous lives was merely to ensure God’s blessings during their earthly lives. Others assumed that there were two kinds of She’ol: sinners would go to the lower compartment where they would be tortured, while the righteous will also go to She’ol but stay in a place of rest and joy, the so-called Bosom of Abraham. The latter opinion was held by Origen and other theologians.
Therefore, all church authors of the 2nd and 3rd centuries emphasize the importance of the Descent into the Hell. They maintain that St. John the Forerunner preached there prior to Jesus’s Descent. They believe that Jesus led all the righteous people of the Old Testament out of hell, and possibly all other people, Jews and Gentiles alike. Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in the grave, St. John Chrysostom exclaims jubilantly. We Christians should not be afraid of death and hell because the death of Christ destroyed it and released all its captives. Did Jesus do away with hell altogether? He broke the gates of hell, rendered the devil powerless, and set the captives free. Until there are people inclined to do evil and choosing evil over good, hell shall exist. Hell is now unlocked and illuminated by the Light of Christ: If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there: if I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there. (Ps. 139: 8). The Church has the tremendous power to pray for the souls that stay in hell, and the Vespers prayer on the Holy Spirit Day is an example of how the Church exercises that power, but woe to those who choose darkness rather than the light, and deception rather than the truth.