When Christ, upon the Cross, cried out, “It is finished!” He was referring to His sufferings and struggles. He was not yet finished, He was far from finished, working His once-for-all, saving, mighty deeds. Now He descended to Hades to reveal Himself with power to those whom satan was holding captive there and to bring His own Light to them and by it to lead them out of the darkness.
Hades? What is that supposed to be?
Hades is a term borrowed from Greek mythology, used by the Orthodox as a synonym for death. It is a way of speaking about death, which is otherwise very difficult to speak of at all, in which we make spatial imagery out of what is more literally a condition.
Everyone dies, or in this way of speaking, goes to Hades, even the righteous. This does not necessarily involve torment, but before Christ entered Hades, the souls there, separated from (and grieving for) their bodies, lived a sort of shadowy existence, gradually wasting away, heading toward annihilation.
For Christ also died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit; in which he went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly were disobedient... (1 Peter 3:18-19)
For this is why the gospel was preached even to the dead, that though judged in the flesh like men, they might live in the spirit like God. (1 Peter 4: 6)
St. Maximos the Confessor teaches us that these verses mean Christ, when He descended into Hades, gave a chance to everyone there, those who had never heard of Him and even those who had rejected God during their lifetimes and were chastised during their lifetimes accordingly (“judged in the flesh”). (St. John Maximos, Questions-Answers to Thalassius 7. )
St. John of Damascus, similarly, taught that Christ revealed Himself in Hades to those who had been ignorant of Him in their lifetimes.
The soul [of Christ] when it is deified descended into Hades, in order that, just as the Sun of Righteousness rose for those upon the earth, so likewise He might bring light to those who sit under the earth in darkness and the shadow of death: in order that just as he brought the message of peace to those upon the earth, and of release to the prisoners, and of sight to the blind, and became to those who believed the Author of everlasting salvation and to those who did not believe, a denunciation of their unbelief, so He might become the same to those in Hades: That every knee should bow to Him, of things in heaven, and things in earth and things under the earth. And thus after He had freed those who has been bound for ages, straightway He rose again from the dead, showing us the way of resurrection. (St. John of Damascus, The Exact Exposition of Orthodox Faith 3, 29.)
The Orthodox do not permit themselves to speculate upon how many of the residents of what had previously been Hades were persuaded, repented, and chose Christ. The point we make is that all were given the chance, and that all henceforth were made (willingly or unwillingly) to live in a place Christ now and forever fills. Death is no longer what it once was! It is no longer separation from God (even if some might wish it were), and it is no longer permanent separation from our bodies, either.
We do not know if every one followed Christ when He rose from hell. Nor do we know if every one will follow Him to the eschato¬logical Heavenly Kingdom when He will become ‘all in all’. But we do know that since the descent of Christ into Hades the way to resurrection has been opened for ‘all flesh’, salvation has been granted to every human being, and the gates of paradise have been opened for all those who wish to enter through them. This is the faith of the Early Church inherited from the first generation of Christians and cherished by Orthodox Tradition. This is the never-extinguished hope of all those who believe in Christ Who once and for all conquered death, destroyed hell and granted resurrection to the entire human race.
(Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev, lecture, Christ the Conqueror of Hell)
There are those in the Church (of whom I am one) who believe Christ still preaches to those who die, and in this way, people who during their lifetimes had never heard of Him or to whom He had been misrepresented have their chance truly to know Him and embrace Him. The Church permits such a pious belief, without necessarily endorsing it.
Hades truly ruled the race of man, but not forever, for You, O mighty One, when You were placed in the grave, demolished the locks of death with the palm of Your hand, O Element of Life, proclaiming to those sitting yonder from the ages a true salvation, having become, O Savior, the First-Born of the dead. (Greek Orthodox Services, p. 381.)