In our previous post on this topic, we first explored the Seventh-day Adventist (and similar annihilationist denominations), and second we explored the ancient Hebrew understanding of the state of the dead. While its easy to see how the SDAs could arrive at their view by reading Ecclesiastes with a modern worldview, the ancient Jewish view does not seem to follow the same path. In fact, it seems to be in line with the Orthodox view that, “Death is the common lot of men. But for man it is not an annihilation, but only the separation of the soul from the body. The truth of the immortality of the human soul is one of the fundamental truths of Christianity.”1
In the icon of the resurrection above, the entire narrative of human life and death up until this point is depicted, as discussed previously. Hades is depicted at the bottom of the image as a place of subterranean darkness filled with broken chains, manacles, and various forms of torture, along with death and/or the devil, who has been bound hand and foot and who no longer has any power over humankind.
This icon depicts Christ’s descent into Hades on Holy Saturday after His burial (cf. 1 Peter 3:19–20). The troparion of the feast represented by this icon explains in more depth what is happening in this image:
When You did descend to death, O Life Immortal, You did slay hell with the splendor of Your Godhead, and when from the depths You did raise the dead, all the Powers of Heaven cried out, O Giver of Life, Christ our God, glory to You!
In the image, we also see a number of other interesting features that help to illuminate the reality depicted herein. Christ is standing on the doors of Hades, which are broken. Just to the left of Christ, we see the Forerunner and Baptist John stretching forth his hand to point to Christ. This represents the fact that Saint John descended into Hades before Christ in order to act as His forerunner there as well as in the world of the living. From the two tombs on both the right and left, Christ raises the first-fallen, Adam and Eve. The fundamental meaning behind this depiction of Adam and Even is confirmed by The Holy Evangelist Matthew’s Gospel:
…and the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised; and coming out of the graves after His resurrection, they went into the holy city and appeared to many (Matthew 27:52–53).
This story is explained in a unique way by Saint Gregory of Nyssa. His explanation is not necessarily the consensus opinion of the fathers, but serves to illustrate the fundamental change in the state of the dead initiated by the resurrection. Having sold himself into bondage to the devil, mankind was imprisoned by the devil in hades. In order to break mankind out of the prison, the Son of God descended, through death, into hades. The devil, failing to perceive the danger, admitted the Deity into hell, securing his own downfall:
As the ruler of darkness could not approach the presence of the Light unimpeded, had he not seen in Him something of flesh, then, as soon as he saw the God-bearing flesh and saw the miracle performed through it by the Deity, he hoped that if he came to take hold of the flesh through death, then he would take hold of all the power contained in it. Therefore, having swallowed the bait of the flesh, he was pierced by the hook of the Deity and thus the dragon was transfixed by the hook.2
(On this topic see also my recent posts: Purity of Heart and Descent into Hell)
Up until this point, interaction with the dead has been condemned because it required interaction with hades. Now that the dead are no longer imprisoned in hades, this situation has changed. For as Christ told Martha, “I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: And whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die” (John 11:25–26). Saint Athanasius the Great, in one of my favorite passages of all time, stunningly reveals the radical change in both the power of death over humanity, and the mind boggling transformation in Christian attitude toward death.
A very strong proof of this destruction of death and its conquest by the cross is supplied by a present fact, namely this. All the disciples of Christ despise death; they take the offensive against it and, instead of fearing it, by the sign of the cross and by faith in Christ trample on it as on something dead. Before the divine sojourn of the Savior, even the holiest of men were afraid of death, and mourned the dead as those who perish. But now that the Savior has raised His body, death is no longer terrible, but all those who believe in Christ tread it underfoot as nothing, and prefer to die rather than to deny their faith in Christ, knowing full well that when they die they do not perish, but live indeed, and become incorruptible through the resurrection. But that devil who of old wickedly exulted in death, now that the pains of death are loosed, he alone it is who remains truly dead. There is proof of this too; for men who, before they believe in Christ, think death horrible and are afraid of it, once they are converted despise it so completely that they go eagerly to meet it, and themselves become witnesses of the Savior’s resurrection from it. Even children hasten thus to die, and not men only, but women train themselves by bodily discipline to meet it. So weak has death become that even women, who used to be taken in by it, mock at it now as a dead thing robbed of all its strength. Death has become like a tyrant who has been completely conquered by the legitimate monarch; bound hand and foot the passers-by sneer at him, hitting him and abusing him, no longer afraid of his cruelty and rage, because of the king who has conquered him. So has death been conquered and branded for what it is by the Savior on the cross. It is bound hand and foot, all who are in Christ trample it as they pass and as witnesses to Him deride it, scoffing and saying, “O Death, where is thy victory? O Grave, where is thy sting?3
In my next post I will explore how the Orthodox and Catholic veneration of the saints testifies to the power of the resurrection.
1 Protopresbyter Michael Pomazansky, Orthodox Dogmatic Theology, ch. 10.
2 Saint Gregory of Nyssa, The Homily on the Three-Day Period, quoted from “Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev on the Descent of Christ into Hades.”
3 Saint Athanasius the Great, De Incarnatione Verbi Dei, 5:27.