The Descent of Jesus into Hades
Fr. Thomas Hopko · April 30, 2008
Fr. Thomas uses the Paschal icon as an opportunity to clear up some misconceptions about Sheol/Hades and Gehenna/Hell.
The Paschal icon, the icon of the victory of Christ, God’s Messiah, over death, the last enemy, in the Orthodox Church is an icon of the live, glorious Christ, in the realm of the dead, smashing the gates of Sheol, or of Hades, and releasing, and freeing, and pulling from the tombs, the whole of humanity, symbolized in the persons of Adam and Eve. In that icon, of course, there are the righteous of the Old Testament there in Sheol, those who were dead, who are delivered from the power of death by the dead Christ. When Christ tramples down death by death, He gives life to all of those in the tombs, all those who are among the dead.
There is some confusion among Christian believers, and even in some very technical, theological writings, even in recent years, about the significance, the meaning of what we would call the descent of Christ into Sheol, into Hades, into the realm of the dead. The confusion and the debate, the disputation, is about how is that to be understood? What does that really mean? What is being said there? What is happening? Of course, the Nicene Creed insists about the fact that Jesus was crucified and died and was buried. It said, “Who for us men and for our salvation came from heaven, and He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered.” That means He really suffered, it wasn’t fantasy, it wasn’t just a show, He didn’t just appear to be suffering, He really suffered. And He was buried. He was put into that sepulcher, which means He was really dead, and the Gospels are very clear about saying that He was really dead, that He was wrapped in the grave clothes, anointed by Joseph and Nicodemus.
In John’s Gospel, the women come to anoint the dead corpse. In John’s Gospel the point is really flaunted, the theological Gospel, whether or not He was dead. It speaks about breaking the legs of people to make sure they were dead, and then when they saw that He was really dead, they did not break His legs, to fulfill the prophecy that not a bone of His body shall be broken, but then they speared him, they take the spear and stick it in His side, from which comes forth the blood and the water that symbolizes the baptism and the Eucharist and the very life of the Church itself, the new Eve that is fashioned from the side of the new Adam when He is dead, hanging on the cross in the ecstasy of death.
So Christ really dies, and that is what the meaning of the icon is, and that is what the meaning of the expression, “descent into Sheol or Hades” means. Hades is the Greek term for the Hebrew word, Sheol, which simply means the realm of the dead. It means, not even realm, it means the condition of being dead. It is a way of speaking about the fact that the person is really dead. That is what it means. That is the meaning of it. It is sometimes put in terms of a place, and so even in the Paschal hymns we will sing, “In heaven and on earth and under the earth,” or the regions under the earth. The place of the dead was considered to be under the earth because they returned back to dust, they returned back to earth. They are taken from the earth, and their body corrupts, and they go back to earth.
So you have this kind of symbolical way of speaking about the condition of being dead. And so it can sound somehow like a place, like heaven would be a place, Sheol would be a place. But all the holy fathers, and many of the modern writers, for example Hierotheos Vlachos, the Metropolitan of Nafpaktos, a very famous, well-known writer of Orthodoxy, today many of his books are translated into English, he makes it clear that heaven and hell are not places. They are situations, they are conditions, they are spiritual realities in which we find ourselves. But one thing is for sure, to be physically dead is to be physically dead. And it is a dogma of the Eastern Orthodox Church that Jesus of Nazareth physically died, and He was buried, put into a cave as a dead man. That is just affirmed over and over again, that He really became a corpse, He was dead.
It is also affirmed that He was raised on the third day, that He did not see corruption, that the Holy One could not see corruption, that He did not remain dead and could not remain dead, as being the very life and the power of God, Himself. It was impossible that He would die, being the divine Son of God, but even in the incarnation, as a man, it was impossible that this Holy One should see corruption, and that He, even as a man, had the capability of keeping Himself alive in His communion with God the Father, that He could raise the dead, He had all the power of God. So His death was voluntary, His suffering was voluntary, the passion was voluntary, but it was real. When He dies, this is depicted and spoken about as a descent into Sheol, in other words, entering into the condition or the realm of being dead, that He really was among the dead. He was numbered, not only among the transgressors, but among the dead. He really died.
Some confusion is caused, particularly in English-speaking worlds, when this Hades or Sheol is translated and interpreted as “hell”—many of our English liturgical texts use the term: “He descended into hell,” and so on. It can be very confusing if you use this translation.
I believe, personally, that the word “hell” should not be used, for a very simple reason. It wasn’t hell. It was not Gehenna. In Scripture, you have the expression, Gehenna, which was a smoldering garbage heap outside of Jerusalem, where even the dead people were burned up, and somehow it was like a garbage heap of corruption and smoldering fire. But Sheol, Hades, is not Gehenna. And in fact, in a certain sense, it is not even a place of torment, because the teaching is that the righteous dead, like Moses, and the prophets. and John the Baptist, were not suffering in Sheol or Hades. They were certainly dead, but they were somehow also alive, because according to Scripture, according to the Bible, and here we have to be very careful that we do not slip into the realm of Platonistic philosophy in speaking about souls, the Bible does not know anything about disincarnate souls, but the Bible does teach us that a dead person who is righteous, before the coming of the Messiah, was in the hands of God, that the righteous were held in the hands of God. They were somehow preserved in the bosom of Abraham, and there was even some type of consciousness there, an expectation of liberation, so that the graves could be opened and the whole cosmos could be restored and everything could become Paradise again.
Even on the Russian Orthodox crosses, by the way, there is a little inscription at the foot of Jesus’ feet on the cross, in four Slavonic letters, M, L, R, and B, in Slavonic, which translated means, “The place of the skull (or Golgatha) has become Paradise.” So the bosom of Abraham had to be transformed into Paradise, into a living reality again, with interrelationship with all of creation—the sun, the moon, the stars, the birds and everything. In other words, even the righteous person was in the realm of the dead and had to be liberated by the Messiah in order to have real life, eternal life, real communion with God.
Another example would be that in the Old Testament, in the Psalms, if you were in Sheol you could not praise God. That is why it was so bad to be dead. The reason why it was so bad to be dead was, you could not sing Alleluia, because according to the Scriptures, and the conviction was also, if you are dead, you are not alive, and if you are not alive, you cannot be singing the praises of God, you cannot sing Alleluia. You are mute, you are dumb, your eyes are closed, you cannot see anything, you are in darkness, you are in Abaddon, some kind of forgetfulness.
But it was also the teaching, I believe this is accurate, that the wicked people who did not follow the commandments of God, who did not follow Moses, who did not love life, who perpetrated evil when they lived on the earth, they are in the depth of the Sheol, they are in Hades also, but they are already anticipating their torment. First of all, they are being tormented by their own evil. They are being tormented by themselves and their own lack of faith and their own refusal to follow God’s commandments. Then they are being tormented by the fact that they want to live and have carnal sensual pleasures and they cannot do that anymore. Then they are tormented by the fact that they are not in the hands of God, they are in the hands of the evil one, they are in the hands of the demons in the pit of Sheol. They are also tormented by the expectation that when the Messianic King comes, they are going to be raised, not for glory, but for judgment, for condemnation, so to speak. They are going to get what’s coming to them, to put it in modern language.
So the evil dead are anticipating already their unending agony by the presence of the truth and the light and the glory of God, and their suffering is going to be “apo tou prosopou tou kyriou” as Isaiah said, quoted by the apostle Peter in the book of Acts. They will suffer torment from the face of God, and not from separation from the face of God, but from the presence of the face of God. If you are evil and rooted in evil and you do not repent, the presence of light and life and truth and glory causes you terrible agony.
Before the coming of the Messiah, the wicked dead were already somehow anticipating that, and the righteous dead were anticipating the time when they would have full and complete and total communion with God and all of the good creation of God, when the Messianic King would free them.
We Christians believe, Orthodox Christians believe, that Christ is that Messianic King who frees us, and He frees us by dying. He liberates us. He ransoms us by the power of hell. He gave Himself, a ransom, to death, by which we were held captive, in order to release us, and that is what trampling down death by death means. So the icon of the so-called Descent Into Sheol shows that Jesus the Christ, the Son of God, really died, and He entered into the condition and experienced the condition of being dead, but by experiencing the condition of being dead, being life Himself, He destroys death. He tramples down death, He annihilates death. He liberates and ransoms and frees and buys back the people who are held captive by death, captive by the power of death that has come from sin. And so, the descent of Christ into Sheol means that He really died, but being life Himself, when life dies, He destroys death, and that is what the teaching is, and that is what the Paschal message, the good news of the Gospel, is.
If anyone would say, and honestly, I do think some Christians do claim this, some pretty big-name theologians, I believe, actually teach this, but I am afraid, speaking the truth in love, we try to do that, we would have to say that they are wrong if they claim that when Jesus died He experienced the torments of hell. He did not experience any torments of any hell when He died, and in some sense there even was not any hell. First of all, hell is the torment from the presence of the glory and the beauty and the truth of God for people who do not want it.
How could He who is life and truth and glory, Himself, suffer torment? Was He being tormented by the presence of Himself? It is completely senseless. It does not make any sense whatsoever, that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, could suffer the torments of hell. No. But He could die. He could enter into the realm of the dead in order to destroy it. But even the righteous dead, like the prophets and Moses and John the Baptist, were not being tormented in Sheol. They were caught by death, but they were not being tormented. There was no punishment to them, there was no torment, no agony, because the torment and the agony of Gehenna, of hell, is the torment of clinging to evils and loving death more than life, and loving evil more than good, and loving darkness more than light. That is what torments you.
And that is why, I believe, we Orthodox Christians would claim that Christ’s presence, His Parousia, in the realm of the dead when He is crucified, and then at His coming at the end of the age in glory, when all the tombs will be opened, and by the way in the Gospel the claim is that when Jesus enters into the realm of the dead and dies and tramples down death by death, the righteous already somehow experience the resurrection. In Matthew’s Gospel it says very clearly that on the Pascha morning, the first day of the week, the day of the Lord’s resurrection, many of the saints arose and they were seen walking around the holy city of Jerusalem. This was in St. Matthew’s Gospel.
And we do not ever want to imagine the dead as disincarnate souls. Some of the great teachers of Christianity do that, even Metropolitan of Nafpaktos, Hierotheos, he does that. I must say honestly say I do not agree with him when he does that. The dead are simply completely and totally dead. And then when you are alive, you are completely and totally alive. And I believe that when Christ rose from the dead in His glorified body, He gave the glorified body to all those in the tombs immediately, that they enter into eternal life with Him. That is why when we glorify the saints we glorify them as completely and totally alive. When they appear to people they do not appear as disincarnate souls, they appear as people in their glorified bodies, with their risen bodies. They are clothed with the raised body of Jesus Christ. The relic of their physical body might still be in the tombs, and they are in the tombs until the last day when all the tombs will be empty and there will be no more cemeteries and no more death anymore at all. But the dead in Christ are already entering into that splendid glory of the age to come. That is how we relate to them and venerate them within the Orthodox Church.
But in any case, that topic may be for another time, but what we want to know for now is that Jesus did not suffer any agonies of hell when He died. In fact, He did not suffer separation from God. He was forsaken and abandoned by God into death, into the hands of evil, but God was always with Him, and He was always with God. He commended His life into the hands of God when He died, He said, “Father, into Your hands I commit My spirit,” and He gave up His spirit and He died. And as the Paschal Troparion, the hymn says during the canon, it says, “In the grave with the body, in Sheol with the soul, in as much as Thou art God in Paradise with the thief, on the throne with the Father and the Holy Spirit was Thou, boundless Christ, filling all things Thyself, uncircumscribed, uncontainable, infinite.”
So there is this mystery of the infinite, glorious God being circumscribed by flesh, and dying in the flesh, and God dies in the flesh, He really dies, and experiences death, but that experience of death is the destruction of death. It is the bringing of the power of God into Sheol to destroy death. God is with Him, raising the dead through His dead body. It is through Christ that the dead are raised, so I think that it is accurate to say, first of all, it is certainly accurate to say that Jesus did not go into hell. He went into Sheol, He went into Hades. That is not hell, that is not Gehenna. He never tasted of Gehenna. He never tasted of hell at all, and He brought heaven, He brought Paradise, to the righteous dead who were held in Sheol, in Hades, to captives. In other words, to those who were dead, to those who were, literally, dead.
He came to them, but we must remember that those who were literally dead were also still somehow alive in the hands of God, even before the Messiah came. When, for example, the Sadducees, who did not believe in the resurrection of Christ, tried to catch Him in his words by saying that according to the Levite low of Moses, if a man had a wife, and he died, his brother had to take her and raise up seed so she would have children. And then the Sadducees said to Jesus, “There was a woman, and her husband died, and then his brother died, and his other brother died, and his other brother died, so that this woman ultimately ended up having seven husbands.” And then they try to make a fool of Jesus, saying, “If there is a resurrection, whose wife will she be?” We could put it this way, “Who gets the girl?” If there is a resurrection, who gets the girl? They are trying to make a fool of Jesus. They are trying to make a fool of Him, asking such a question, in order to try to make the doctrine of the resurrection to be ridiculous. But Jesus answers them, “You know neither the Scripture, nor the power of God. The sons of this age marry and are given in marriage.” But those who are counted worthy to attain to that age, the age to come, the age of the risen Christ, which begins when Jesus enters into the realm of death to destroy it, who are worthy to enter into that age and to the resurrection from the dead, they neither are marrying nor are given in marriage. They cannot die anymore, because, it says in Luke, they are eisangeli, equal to the angels (Luke 20:36). In Mark and Matthew it says hos angeli, like angels (see Mark 12:25). We do not become angels. We become angel-like, but we are still human beings. And they are sons of God. And even the women have the condition of being sons of God, because they are raised with the only begotten Son of God, who is Jesus Christ, and have the relationship to God as Abba, Father, that He has. It says, “Showing themselves to become sons of the resurrection.”
But that the dead are raised, Jesus says in Luke’s Gospel, to the Sadducees, even Moses showed in the passage about the bush, where he calls the Lord the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. He is not God of the dead, but of the living, for all live to Him. And then it says, some of the scribes answered, “Teacher, you have spoken well,” and they no longer dared ask Him any question.
So it seems to me, and you have to decide, but it seems to me that what Jesus is saying here is that the dead believers, the dead who follow the law, the dead who love God, yes, they are dead, and they have to be raised, and they are only raised by the Messiah, and they are only raised by the death of the Messiah. But they are already somehow in anticipation, children of the resurrection. They already belong to the resurrection that is planned for them from all eternity by God through Christ. That is why you even have the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob. In fact, some commentators point out that Jesus does not say, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He says the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob. They are not dead, but they are living. They are living in anticipation in the bosom of Abraham, awaiting the Messiah, and they are living forever when they are raised from the dead by Christ. So he says, “You do not even know what you are talking about, Sadducees.” In the Kingdom of God, yes, if a man has a wife, that is his wife forever, and if a woman had seven men as husbands, somehow that remains also forever. But there is no marrying or giving in marriage. We do not live as married couples, we live hos angeli, like angels.
We all become the bride of Christ, and we all relate to each other. We do not cease being who we are, because even the risen Christ, when He is raised, is still Jesus of Nazareth. In John’s Gospel, and in the Gospels generally, he even shows the continuity by showing the wounds in His hands. That causes some difficulty for some people, because they say, if He is raised into eternal life and is really healed, why is He still bearing the wounds? But I believe, personally, the reason for that is simply pedagogical and evangelical. In other words, the Gospel wants to insist that the risen Christ is not someone other than Jesus who was crucified.
And by the way, there are some Christians, even modern Christians, who say Jesus of Nazareth is one thing and the Christ is another. There is the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith and they are not the same person, they are not the same reality. But we Orthodox Christians say, oh no, Jesus of Nazareth is the Christ, and when He is raised He is revealed as the Christ, but it is Jesus who is the Christ, and it is the same one who was put to death and was crucified. That is certainly the witness of the canonical Scriptures of Orthodox Christianity.
What we want to see now, though, is this. The descent into Hades simply means He really died and destroyed death by dying and liberated all those who were held captive by death, and He gave Himself as a ransom to death, abandoned on the cross by the Father into death, but He was not abandoned in the sense that He was tormented by demons and that He was tormented by evils and that He tasted the agonies of hell, and that is part of His kenosis , that is part of His humiliation, that when He died He experienced what it is to be in hell. I believe for us Orthodox Christians that would be blasphemy to claim such a thing. It would just be crazy to claim such a thing. He really died, but he was never “in hell.” All the holy fathers and modern writers like Hierotheos Vlachos and others would claim, there is no place, it is a condition.
If we would define hell as separation from God, this is not biblical. I do not believe that is biblical at all, and in fact, it is important even to note that in some translations of the Scripture, like the Revised Standard Version, because they think of hell and the punishment as separation from God, they even put in the Bible the term separation from God, that they are afflicted by being separated from God. But the text of the Scripture does not speak about separation. It does not speak about separation at all.
For example, in the second letter of Paul to the Thessalonians, it says, “When the Lord Jesus comes in His Parousia from heaven at the end with His mighty angels and flaming fire,” that flaming fire is the fire of the Godhead. We Orthodox Christians do not believe in material hellfire. We do not believe that God is a Nebuchadnezzar, stoking up flames to burn sinners in. No, that is not our teaching. At the Parousia of Christ, the flame of the living God who is a consuming fire is joy and peace and refreshment and glory for those who believe Him and love Him, but it is torment and agony and Gehenna for those who do not. So you have the flaming fire, and He does inflict vengeance upon those who do not know God…” To not know God means to not know God by experience, not really love God. It does not mean to not know about God…“and upon those who do not obey the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.” In the Revised Standard Version it actually says, in English translation, “They shall suffer the punishment of eternal destruction and exclusion from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His might.” That betrays a theology that thinks of hell as an exclusion from the presence of God. It is as if the evil people are being excluded from God and that is their punishment, and they say, “O Lord, please forgive us,” and the Lord says, “No, it is too late, go away.”
Well, that is not the teaching. The teaching is that when Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah, identifies with sinners and takes upon Himself the sin of the world, He has mercy and forgives everybody. Absolutely everybody is forgiven. And those who do not enter because they have no wedding garment, it means they do not accept the forgiveness of Christ. They are forgiven, He offers them the wedding garment, but they do not want it. They prefer the outer darkness. They wish they could be inside at the wedding feast, but they still want to be outside and have their own way and not have the wedding garment.
But in any case, getting back to this text of the second letter of Paul to the Thessalonians, the first chapter, the ninth verse, what it really says in Greek is, “They shall suffer the punishment, or the torment, of eternal destruction.” The destruction is from the presence of God. The Greek term does not mean exclusion. And in fact, that same expression, “from the presence of God” is used in the Book of Acts, I believe it is the fourth chapter, where it says that those who are refreshed in the resurrection and experience the renewal, they also experience the renewal “from the face of the Lord.” So the just are experiencing glory and peace and beauty and bliss from the face of the Lord, the presence of the Lord, and the evil are experiencing torment and agony and punishment from the face of the same Lord, in the same reality. That is the teaching of Holy Scripture.
Jesus, Himself, is the very Lord from whose face the light and the glory of God shines. So the only people and creatures who experience hell, Gehenna, are those who experience the face of the Lord and hate it, and do not want it, and try to reject it, and try to flee from it. Then that face with that fire and that light becomes agony, and there is no way that Jesus experienced that agony. In fact, He is the cause of the agony. You might even say, according to the Scripture, the fire and the cause of the torment of the wicked is the very presence of Christ, Himself. That is the teaching.
So there is a sense in which you can say, there is no everlasting Gehenna until the resurrection of Christ and the judgment of the world. Until that comes, people are caught by death, they are in the condition of being dead. The righteous in anticipation are in the hands of God, somehow anticipating the glory to come, and the evil are in the pit, also in the hands of God, but they are experiencing torment from those hands, and torment from their hatred of God. Then when the Christ enters into the realm of the dead and smashes the gates of hell and raises everybody up, He raises up the whole of humanity, not just the righteous, He raises up the evil, too.
St. John says this in the fourth chapter of his Gospel. Those who have done good will come forth to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment. The Lord even says, “Of Myself I can do nothing. As I see, I judge.” Sometimes it says, “As I hear I judge, and My judgment is just, because I am not seeking My own will but the will of the Father who sent Me.”
So we determine whether we are in hell or not by our own belief or unbelief, by our love of love, and our love of light, and our love of truth, and our love of glory, or by our hatred of it. That has nothing to do with Jesus, the Christ, the Son of God, who died for us. When He descended into Sheol and Hades, it means simply that He died, and through death, trampled down death and raised the dead, all the dead, there is no one left in the tomb, as it says. In St. John Chrysostom’s sermon on Paschal night, he said, “No one is left in the tomb. Christ is risen and life reigns.” But if you hate that life, it is hell. If you love it, it is Paradise.
So we should not say that Jesus descended into hell. We should say, accurately, that He entered into the realm of death, which in the Bible symbolism is called Sheol, or Hades, the Greek term, the realm of the dead, the condition of being dead. What the paschal icon shows us is that Jesus entered into the condition of being dead, but being the Son of God, the perfect human being, totally in communion with the Father and the divine Son, Himself, in human form, when He enters into the realm of death, death is trampled on. Death is destroyed, the gates of hell are smashed, and everyone is raised from the power of death—those who have done good, to the resurrection of everlasting life, and those who have done evil and cling to their evil without repentance, unto everlasting hell, Gehenna, being cast out by God because they desire to be cast out. They think they deserve to be in Paradise, but they will not enter through repentance, and therefore the presence of the risen Christ torments them.
This is what we believe, this is what we understand, this is what we see when we contemplate the Paschal icon. This is what we believe, that it has not to do with hell. Hell comes at the end. Hell comes in the rejection of the risen Christ. That is what it is. The evil reject Him in anticipation, while the righteous love Him in anticipation. So the resurrection of Christ for those who keep the commandments, or try to, and repent when they do not, is the gift of everlasting life. Those who reject it get what they, themselves, desire.