“I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live. And whoever lives and believes in Me will never die.”–John 11
“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 fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage.”–Hebrews 2:14-15
Today is Holy Saturday in which we commemorate the time Christ spent in the grave. He was not idle during this time. As a human, He entered the realm of the dead which was an inescapable prison. As God, He filled this dark place with light and life, destroying death from within.
Appropriately, I have just finished a book, reading a little at a time over some months, titled “Christ the Conqueror of Hell” by Archbishop Hilarion Alfeyev. From the epilogue:
“When he rebelled against God, the devil set himself the task of creating his own autonomous kingdom where he would be the master, winning back from God a space where God’s presence could not, in any way, be felt. In Old Testament understanding, this place was Sheol. After Christ’s descent, Sheol became a place of divine presence…..Christ descended into hell not as the devil’s victim but as Conqueror. He descended in order to “bind up the powerful” and to “plunder his vessels.””
This book went into great detail studying early sources to learn how a few vague passages in scripture concerning Christ’s descent into Hades were understood by the early church. The study followed into the next several centuries to discern what the accepted teaching of the Church was upon this matter. My Protestant friends, you should not let this reliance on fathers of the first millennium scare you. Those same fathers established the accepted canon of the New Testament on which you rely. You greatly trust their judgment whether you realize it or not. But I digress.
It is hard to know quite what to say about this. If you want to hear more details on this topic, I recommend the book. You don’t have to be Orthodox to learn from the Orthodox Tradition. Let’s just look up at the icons and I’ll tell you what is going on there.
A week before the “Harrowing of Hell” (second icon), Christ fired a good warning shot at Hades when He called out Lazarus with a word. This was a special event because he had been dead 4 days. It was thought that people might linger a little while near their bodies and might be returned to life during that period, but after 3 days, they were sure to be locked securely in Hades. Also, notice the man near the tomb is holding part of his garment over his nose. As Martha pointed out, in 4 days decay was sure to set in and he would stink. To raise the dead at that time was considered impossible to all but the Creator Himself. Christ simply commanded him to come forth and he did. You see Lazarus standing but still bound at the door of the tomb. Christ tells people to “unbind him and let him go.” How did he walk to the entrance if he was bound and needed help to “go?” Ancient tradition says that he did not walk to the door, but was seen by those near floating to the entrance.
The devil, of whom the epistle to the Hebrews says, “had the power of death” was concerned, but his great pride did not allow him to see his true danger. The early fathers believed that the devil didn’t quite understand who Jesus really was. He knew he had something to do with the Son of God who was everywhere present, but, like so many humans, could not see past the veil of His humanity to His deity. This is probably why Satan began working at that point to bind this Jesus in Hades. He managed to kill Christ within the week, but things didn’t work out the way he planned. The fathers speak of a “divine deception” in which Satan took the “bait” of Christ’s humanity only to be pierced by the hook of his divinity. Some have criticized the morality of this image, but it is proper to think that Satan was deceived, not that God deceived him. A prideful heart keeps us from seeing many obvious things, so this is nothing unusual. In any event, the devil bit off more than he could chew, the “strongman was bound” and his “possessions” taken away.
As for the scriptural quotation beneath the icon, I think people fail to take it (as well as some other things in the Gospel according to John) as literally as they should. Specifically, many read it as if He said “I have the power of resurrection and the power to give life.” No, He is the resurrection and the life. His very being as a person raises the dead. In Him, God is seen in perfect union with His creation. The injection of divinity into the human race brings us to life. Salvation is union with Him. An obvious way to become more in union with another person is to trust that person completely. This is why you see this gospel explaining here and elsewhere that salvation comes by “believing in Him.” But people want to take it non literally and to explain what this means we should “believe about Him.” As George MacDonald said, “the smallest belief in Him is far better than the greatest belief about Him.”
Now, let’s look at the second icon. This is called the “harrowing of hell.” Beneath the feet of Christ are the broken doors of Hades. Around and below them, you see broken locks and chains. The man bound at the bottom is Death or Satan–some icons will show two bound figures. Christ is pulling up Adam and Eve and, through them, the whole human race. There are other inhabitants of Hades there including some righteous kings on the left. All are freed and death is “abolished,” as Paul said to Timothy.
“Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life!”–The Paschal Troparion
“The angel cried to the Lady Full of Grace: Rejoice, O Pure Virgin! Again I say: Rejoice! Your Son is risen from His three days in the tomb! With Himself He has raised all the dead! Rejoice, all you people! “–Paschal Hymn to the Theotokos