In the teaching of the Church, the Descent into Hell is indissolubly connected with the Redemption. Since Adam was dead, the abasement of the Saviour, who had assumed his nature, had to reach the same depths to which Adam had descended. In other words, the descent into hell represents the very limits of Christ’s degradation and, at the same time, the beginning of His glory. Although the Evangelists say nothing of this mysterious event, Apostle Peter speaks of it, both in his Divinely-inspired words on the day of Pentecost (Acts ii, 14-39), and in the third chapter of his first Epistle (1 Peter iii, 19). “He went and preached unto the spirits in prison”. Christ’s victory over hell, the deliverance of Adam and of the righteous men of the Old Testament is the main theme of the Divine Service of Great Saturday; it runs through all the Easter service and is inseparable from the glorification of Christ’s Resurrection in the flesh. This theme is, as it were, interwoven with the theme of the Resurrection. “Thou hast descended into the abyss of the earth, O Christ, and hast broken down the eternal doors which imprison those who are bound, and, like Jonah after three days inside the whale, Thou has risen from the tomb.”

Following the texts of the divine services, the icon of the Descent into Hell expresses the spiritual, transcendental reality of the Resurrection – the descent of our Lord’s soul into hell – and reveals the purpose and results of this descent. In harmony with the meaning of the event, the action in the icon takes place in the very depths of the earth, in hell, shown as a gaping black abyss. In the centre of the icon, standing out sharply by his posture and colours, is the Saviour. The author of the Easter canon, St. John of Damascus, says “Although Christ died as a man and His holy soul departed from His pure body, His Divinity remained inseparable from both – I mean body and soul.” Therefore He appears in hell not as its captive, but as its Conqueror, the Deliverer of those imprisoned therein; not as a slave but as the Master of life. He is depicted in the icon with a radiant halo, symbol of glory, usually of various shades of blue, and often spangled with stars round the outer edge and pierced with rays issuing from Him. His garments are no longer those in which He is portrayed during His service on earth. They are of a golden-yellow hue, made luminous throughout by thin golden rays (“assiste”) painted upon them. The darkness of hell is filled by the light of these Divine rays – the light of glory of Him Who being God-Man, descended therein. It is already the light of the coming Resurrection, the rays and dawn of the coming Easter. The Saviour tramples underfoot the two crossed leaves of hell’s doors, that He has pulled down. On many icons, below the doors, in the black abyss, is seen the repellent, cast down figure of the prince of darkness, Satan. In later icons are seen here also a number of varied details:- the power of hell destroyed – broken chains with which angels are now binding Satan, keys, nails and so forth. In His left hand Christ holds a scroll – symbol of the preaching of the Resurrection in hell, in accordance with the words of Apostle Peter. Sometimes, instead of the scroll He holds a cross, no longer the shameful instrument of punishment, by the symbol of victory over death. Having torn asunder the bonds of hell by His omnipotence, with His right hand Christ raises Adam from the grave (following Adam, our ancestress Eve rises with hands joined in prayer); that is, He frees Adam’s soul and with it the souls of all those who wait for His coming with faith. This is why, to the right and left of this scene, are shown two groups of Old Testament saints, with prophets at their head. On the left are king David and king Solomon in royal robes and crowns, and behind them John the Forerunner; on the right – Moses with the tablets of the Law in his hand. Seeing the Saviour descended into hell, they at once recognise Him and are pointing out to others Him of Whom they had prophesied and Whose coming they had foretold.

The descent into hell was the last step made by Christ on the way of His abasement. By the very fact of “descending into the abyss of the earth” He opened to us the access to heaven. By freeing the old Adam, and with him the whole of mankind from slavery to him who is the incarnation of sin, darkness and death, He laid the foundation of a new life for those who have united with Christ into a new reborn mankind. Thus the spiritual raising of Adam is represented in the icon of the Descent into Hell as a symbol of the coming resurrection of the body, the first-fruit of which was the Resurrection of Christ. Therefore, although this icon expresses the meaning of the event commemorated on Great Saturday and is brought out for worship on that day, it is, and is called, an Easter icon, as a prefiguration of the coming celebration of the Resurrection of Christ and therefore of the future resurrection of the dead.

Leonid Ouspensky, “The Resurrection,” in Leonid Ouspensky and Vladimir Lossky, The Meaning of Icons(Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1983) 187-188.

It remains spiritually impossible to talk of Hell for others. The theme of Hell can only be broached in the language of I and Thou. The threats in the Gospel concern me; they form the serious tragic element in my spiritual destiny; they prompt me to humility and repentance, because I recognise them as the diagnosis of my state. But for you, the numberless you of my neighbour, I can only serve, bear witness, and pray that you will experience the Risen Christ, and that you and everyone will be saved…

Olivier Clement quoted in Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev, The Mystery of Faith: An Introduction to the Teaching and Spirituality of the Orthodox Church, 227.

In recent weeks, on the weekends before and after the feast of the Elevation of the Cross, my priest has made a point of noting that Orthodox devotion to the Cross of Christ can jar somewhat for those of us who grew up in western, and more particularly Protestant, contexts. If we were brought up to see the Cross as the punishment meted out on Christ by the Father for our sins, then we may have an instinctive aversion to the Cross, seeing it as something terrible and offensive and hardly as something to be venerated.

His words reminded me of the Bible I had as a child and at the revulsion that I had felt at the image of the crucifixion that was in it. I did everything I could to avoid looking at it, for it was a depressing, dark painting, totally devoid of hope. As a child I felt rather guilty that I always turned the pages on it as quickly as possible, but it was an image of dread and certainly not one that spoke to me of a loving God.

Now, a lot of water has gone under the bridge since then and I have discovered that what was then presented to me as the Gospel was rather a distorted version of it. And I have discovered that it is not for nothing that we refer to the Feast of the Cross as the “Universal Exaltation of the Precious and Life-giving Cross.”

But I was reminded of that picture again yesterday. I have been restoring a Dutch Statenbijbel which was the official Dutch Calvinist translation. I’m really enjoying the work although it is a huge and heavy book. I discovered that part of the reason it is so thick is that it has fairly substantial Psalms, hymns, prayers and a catechism at the back. And, glancing at the catechism and hymns, I was reminded of what a miserable and depressing vision such a theological context portrays of the human person.

That in itself was nothing new, although it is something I try not to focus on. But yesterday I came across a picture of the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise which is placed opposite the beginning of Genesis. That this is the image chosen to mark the beginning of the Bible could perhaps be seen as making a theological statement – and no doubt the likes of Matthew Fox would have something to say about its prioritising of sin and redemption over the goodness of creation, but I do not really want to give credence to such simplistic polarities. And I suspect that the differences go deeper than simply the acceptance or rejection of certain imagery, but lie rather in the understanding of such images.

Indeed, I have become increasingly aware in recent months just how central the imagery of the loss of Paradise and of our identification with the fall of Adam and Eve is in Orthodox theology. Indeed, the more I read the liturgical texts of the Church, the more central this seems to become. But the point of such texts is not to remind us of our hopeless situation and to foster gloom and doom. It is rather that God goes in search of fallen Adam, that Adam (i.e. all humanity) is made new again in Christ who Himself descends into hell to conquer death.

In this context, then, the Cross of Christ is not about God meting out death but it is about God in Christ destroying death and the power of death in order to bring life. On the Cross, God “hast raised up Adam and the whole of fallen nature” (Small Vespers for the Feast). This is why we venerate the Cross, not as a symbol of torture or punishment, but as a symbol of victory.

Father Boris Bobrinskoy continues his discussion of Christ’s confronting the reality of human sin and suffering in the first chapter of The Compassion of the Father by showing that, for the Fathers and particularly John of Damascus, Jesus took on the blameless or natural passions, banishing sin from them

through the very brazier of divine love, the fire of the Holy Spirit burning in Jesus. This fire stigmatizes and consumes all temptations, every evil power, and any external evil suggestion. These can never become embedded in the citadel of the human heart of Jesus, the preeminent trinitarian dwelling. (58)

However, this passable condition was not a source of sin for Jesus, for he suffered freely and remained open.

The Incarnation of the Son of God recalls the glorious, even paschal, aspect of His entire life. The light and joy of the Resurrection rebound on His earthly life from the time of the Nativity, even when His divine glory is hidden. He is filled with the power of the Spirit: healings and signs follow one another, compassion is poured out, and demons are chased away. “I watched Satan fall like lightning from heaven” (Jn 10:18). The Orthodox Liturgy exalts all the moments of Jesus earthly life from His birth, the advent of salvation itself. Even there, the cross and kenōsis are not forgotten or bracketed, but the kenōsis of Jesus, from stage to stage, is never a victory of darkness over light. (59)

When he reaches adulthood, Jesus is sent forth by the Spirit to accomplish the will of the Father, taking the sins of humanity onto Himself.

“He made Him to be sin”: this terse Semitic formulary unhampered by scholastic theological distinctions expresses the mystery of the descent of the Just One into sin, into suffering – the one whom no one could convict of sin (Jn 18:23).

Jesus takes upon Himself the transgressions of the multitude and thereby diverts the anger of God. The Adamic temptations are redone, and Satan unloads them with all his power onto Jesus, who is permeated by the Spirit and the bearer of a divine identity that remains an impenetrable mystery to the spirit of darkness. The temptations in the desert are spectacular, visible moments of the unceasing and permanent combat Jesus wages in our name against the darkness that ebbs and flows, sometimes with forceful outbursts that seem to defy life.” (60-61)

Death is both the consequence and the antidote of sin but we should not isolate any of the images that Scripture uses about redemption. Christ has consumed the infernal roots of sin “and extracted its sting. The seed of justice sprouts in our humanity, which Christ bears…” (61)

Let us not be afraid to speak of the death of Jesus – and of His resurrection – as a sacrifice because the sacrifice is an essential aspect of the love of the Father and the Son. The Father required no sacrifice to appease His wrath – this image of the Father’s wrath is secondary in the Bible. Rather, this is a sacrifice of offering, of descent and then of ascent, in search of the lost sheep. It is a sacrifice of consecration, of the exorcising of human nature corrupted by sin, of the healing of humanity sick through sin, and of the consolation of humanity bewildered in loneliness, far from the sources of living water. Jesus reaches and heals the intimate depths of humanity. This is a sacrifice of reintegration by which all of creation is brought back to the Father. (62)

This work of mercy, healing, compassion and forgiveness is continued in the Church. The Church perpetuates the kenōsis of the Risen One. In the Eucharist we become contemporary to the events of salvation. Our sins tear the garments of the Saviour, but our sufferings always ascend to the throne of God. Sin and suffering retain a residue of “non-sense” and of scandal that we are invited to enter into:

The saints have imitated the unblemished, defenceless Lamb and, like Him, have become vulnerable to love, violent in love, stronger than death. The countless suffering of the living and deceased members of the Church witness to the Lamb. It is in Jesus alone that our suffering also becomes a sacrament; it becomes this to the extent that our hearts and bodies are slowly and painfully purified of the germs of passions – sins that dwell in us and render us resistant to love. (64)

We should, however, be wary of speaking of beneficial suffering or of objectifying the sufferings of others. The challenge is rather to learn to look with compassion which we learn through the apprenticeship of prayer and the apprenticeship of love.

When we follow the path of Jesus, we learn how to offer our own hearts to God. It is then that the heart opens and fortifies itself in the spirit of compassion. The human being is able to be filled with the misery of the world, to carry it on his or her shoulders, and to lay it down before the throne of God. But our hearts are weak and inconstant. Given up to ourselves, we tend to close up, to protect ourselves from suffering – which is always too great – to ignore or forget it. Nonetheless, this same heart is called to love, to compassion, to mercy. It can only respond to this call by merging into the heart of Jesus. That requires, as a precondition, a purification, an exorcising of the evil that is in us, in all forms. The evil in the world can be exorcised and burned only to the extent that the roots of evil which lie in our own hearts are exorcised, banished, and burned, consumed in the face-to-face with Jesus, with His Name, His Cross, and His Spirit. “This type of spirit can be driven out only by praying and by fasting” (Mt 17:22). (66)

The first chapter of The Compassion of the Father is a paper that Father Boris Bobrinskoy presented to the association of Christians for the abolition of torture, and in which he addresses the Christian encounter with human suffering. Here we see the relationship between human suffering and sin, for “To speak of ‘passions’ or ‘sufferings,’ necessitates outlining their evil causes and the roots of sin.” (51)

“Sin is infinitely more than that to which our preaching has reduced it.” (51-52) Referring to the Suffering Servant of Deutero-Isaiah, Father Boris continues:

The singular and plural mixed terms. “He took up … our sorrows, our transgressions, our iniquities, the sins of many” represent both a human being and humanity – the one and the multiple Adam – united in solidarity and in a state of deep decay. A personal and collective alienation from God and self creates a state of dreamy illusion, reminiscent of a collective subconscious – an almost sacramental remembrance of primordial sin. (52)

The boundary between sin and punishment becomes blurred and sin itself acts as a merciless tyrant.

Disturbing concepts – the extrinsic punishment of a vengeful God and the notion of a penal and distributive justice – runs throughout the Old Testament and into the New Testament, extending to the doorstep of the Gospels and the parables of Jesus. (53)


Job approaches the threshold of a mystery to which Deutero-Isaiah and the Psalms gives greater depth, the mystery of the innocent Just One. Job’s refusal of unjust suffering still resonates in all human sufferings.

In our most elementary and natural awareness, suffering is a nonsense, a scandal at the heart of God’s creation; the humble heart revolts against it. It is an integral part of disorder, of sin, which sickens and enslaves all of humanity. Only by anticipating the mystery of redemption does it finally acquire sacramental, positive, pedagogical, and revealing value, as a sign of the divine love, crucified and victorious. Jesus Christ Himself becomes the living key to the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. He fulfils and gives meaning to the image of the suffering, poor man in Sheol. (53-54)

Far from being indifferent to this suffering, God is moved by it and takes up Satan’s challenge and

from the first moment of disobedience, when Adam and Eve discover they are naked and flee from the gaze of their Creator, God goes to search for them: “Adam, where are you?” (Gen 3:9). This call of God resonates beyond the boundaries of the primitive Eden; it reverberates throughout the entire history of Israel and of humanity. God goes to search for the lost sheep, and when He has found it, He, full of joy, brings it back on His shoulders to the sheep pen. Upon His return, He gathers friends and neighbours for rejoicing (Lk 15:4-7). Again, we perceive echoes of the heavenly feast.

However, the search for the lost human being is long and hard. The Orthodox Church, at Matins of Holy Saturday, in the wake of St Irenaeus states: “You descended to earth to find Adam, but You did not find him on earth, O Master, and You went to search for him in the Hades” (stanza 25). (55)

Central to our salvation is the identification of God and the human being which involves a double movement of conferring and receiving love. It is the mystery of a divine Love that humbles itself before the creature in order to uplift it to Him.

The entire history of humanity, and therefore of salvation, is a long descent of God into Hell, into the desert, into the barrenness of the human heart. This descent into the abyss befits the magnitude of the love of God. …

The church fathers speak of a threefold kenōsis of the Son of God: becoming human, becoming sin, and dying. These three modalities of descent through the redeeming Incarnation correspond to three places: Bethlehem, the Jordan and Golgotha. A condescending, progressive gift of total love pursues human degeneration to the end. …

The return of humanity to the house of the Father, the ascent after the condescension, will occur in reverse order: death will be vanquished by the death of Christ and its sting pulled out; sin will be destroyed in its very roots, in heart of man, by one man who had not known sin; and humanity will be reconciled, filled with the divine Spirit, by the One who recapitulates in Himself all humans. (57-58)

To be continued…