At the time of writing, the author was an archbishop in the Russian Orthodox Church. He has since been elevated to the status of metropolitan. You might picture one of those bearded Orthodox patriarchs but he is actually a middle-aged man close to me in age.
This book is a study of the theme of Christ’s descent into hades. The author uses a multi-pronged approach, tracing the theme in Scripture, the NT apocrypha, the writings of the church fathers (both east and west), ancient Christian poetry, and the hymns and liturgical traditions of the Orthodox church. The book is filled with quote after quote to the point that one feels almost overloaded.
But this is good. The large number of quotes proves the point beyond a reasonable doubt that the descent is a major part of the Christian tradition accepted universally in all parts of the church and throughout her history from the second century to the middle ages. This is important, because the clause “he descended into hell” in the Apostles’ Creed has been attacked as a late addition to the Creed.
Not only is this book helpful for making the case that the descent is an important part of the Christian creed, his many quotations illuminate more clearly just what the church meant by that confession: Christ enters hades not as its victim but as its conqueror. He summarizes the descent motif as follows:
“Christ does not merely descend into the depths of hell – He invades it, vanquishing the devil and demons, smashing the gates, and breaking their locks and bolts. All of these images are intended to illustrate one fundamental idea: Christ descends not as a victim of hell but as the victor over death and Hades. Before Him the powers of hell are powerless” (p. 34).
Christology is the key to understanding how the descent could in some sense be part of Christ’s “victory.” This might seem counterintuitive, since we have been taught to think of the death of Christ, and his remaining in the grave for three days, as part of his humiliation. His exaltation does not begin until his resurrection.
But if Christ is God incarnate, and if the human nature that he assumed into personal union with himself was comprised of both body and soul, it follows that when the body of Christ died, the God-man continued as a divine being in a human soul. It was in hypostatic union with his human soul that the divine Son of God entered hades (for that is what hades is – the “place” where departed souls go after death). The hypostatic union was not broken at the point of death.
This means, then, that descent of the divine Son of God in union with his human soul into the realm of the dead, while still part of his humiliation, was nonetheless also part of his victory over Satan and death.
Hippolytus of Rome (170–235), disciple of Irenaeus:
“For this reason the warders of Hades trembled when they saw Him; and the gates of brass and the bolts of iron were broken. For, lo, the Only-begotten entered, a soul among souls, God the Word with a (human) soul. For His body lay in the tomb, not emptied of divinity; but as, while in Hades, He was in essential being with His Father, so was He also in the body and in Hades. For the Son is not contained in space, just as the Father; and He comprehends all things in Himself. But of His own will he dwelt in a body animated by a soul, in order that with His soul He might enter Hades, and not with His pure divinity” (p. 46; ANF 5.194).
Epiphanius, Bishop of Salamis, Cyprus (310/20 – 403):
“Christ suffered by his flesh and died in his flesh, but by his divinity he was always alive and raised the dead. His body was truly buried and for three days remained without soul, breathless and motionless; it was wrapped by a shroud, put into a grave, covered by a stone and sealed. His divinity, however, was neither sealed nor buried. Together with his holy soul it descended into the nether world and liberated captive souls from there; it destroyed the sting of death, demolished bars and locks of steel ...” (p. 68).
The Syriac Christian author, Jacob Aphrahat (c. 270–c. 345):
“When Jesus, the slayer of Death, came and put on a body from the seed of Adam, and was crucified in the body and tasted death; and as soon as Death perceived that he descended to him, he quivered in his place and became agitated at the sight of Jesus. He shut up the doors and did not want to receive Him. However, he shattered the doors and entered to him [Death] and began to rob him of his possessions. As the dead saw light shining in darkness, they raised up their heads from the bondage of death and looked forth and saw the brightness of Christ, the King” (p. 69).
The Good Friday matins of Great Saturday (Orthodox liturgy):
“When in the new tomb you, the Redeemer of all, had been laid for the sake of all, hell became a laughing stock and, seeing you, quaked with fear; the bars were smashed, the gates were shattered, the graves were opened, the dead arose ... When you went down to death, O immortal Life, you slew hell with the lightning flash of your Godhead” (p. 187).
There are many more quotes along the same lines, but these give you a taste.
My only concern with this book is that the author tries to draw out what he considers to be the soteriological implications of Christ’s descent into hell. Because these texts speak in such decisive terms of Christ’s conquering hell, even to the point of emptying it and leading all of its residents out into resurrection life, Alfeyev comes close to affirming universal salvation.
This universalistic message is made clear by the cover art that adorns the book (see at top above). It is an 11th century fresco from the Dark Church in Cappadocia, Turkey, dramatically depicting the descent of Christ into hell. It shows the prince of hades being crushed under Christ’s feet, and the instruments of his torture destroyed, and the bronze gates of hades broken. But the main point is a soteriological one: the fresco shows Christ leading Adam by the hand out of hades. Alfeyev argues that Adam is a representative figure. Adam stands, not just for the Old Testament saints (as in the western tradition which speaks of Christ freeing them from the limbus patrum) but for all humanity. Thus, the victory of Christ over hades is a universal victory that frees all mankind from its slavery to death.
However, Alfeyev pulls back from affirming absolute universalism, since he also believes in a libertarian conception of free will. As a result, he recognizes that if the torments of hell are eternal, they are only eternal for those who resist God’s will (p. 193). God does not save anyone against their will (pp. 179-80).
I think this problem is caused by the Orthodox tendency toward a Christus Victor understanding of the atonement. The problem is not with the idea that Christ conquered hell, but with making the descent into hell (rather than his sacrificial death) the central atoning event. Over and over again, Paul says that we are justified and forgiven “by his blood,” not by his defeating the powers of darkness. The defeat of the powers of hell is a consequence of the atonement (Col 2:15) not the atonement itself.
In spite of my concerns, I recommend this book. I do not believe in Christus Victor as a theory of the atonement, but I do believe in Christus Victor! Christ has conquered death and hell. Let us rejoice in the triumph of our King.