There are two seemingly conflicting images Orthodoxy uses most of all to describe Christ’s rescue of us from death: the destruction of Hades and the transforming of Hades. We use these images together, each complementing the other, each expressing the same reality. While these ways of speaking may seem contradictory, the deeper, underlying reality is that every evil, including Hades, is destroyed precisely by being transformed into good, as when a person’s ignorance is destroyed when he acquires knowledge, or his foolishness is destroyed when he acquires wisdom.
Jesus Died to Despoil Hades
On the one hand, we see Christ as the Avenger. He is taking His revenge upon death and the devil, and He has done it, paradoxically, by dying. He enters death’s dark domain to destroy it from inside. Christ died to go down into Hades, which could not contain Him, and burst it open, and release death’s captives. This began and was revealed the moment He died:
And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice, and yielded up His spirit. Then, behold, the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom; and the earth quaked, and the rocks were split, 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 27:50-53.)
He pillaged Hades; He plundered the grave. He despoiled satan of his subjects and his chief weapon, death, by which he had kept us in slavery all our lives. “Having disarmed principalities and powers [names for ranks of angels; in this case, fallen angels, agents of satan], He made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them in it.” (Colossians 2:15) (Note: death is the devil's weapon, not God's!) Here is Christ, not the victim of God’s Wrath, but the one pouring it out, with His blood.
"...the gate-keepers of Hades trembled at beholding Me clothed with a robe spattered with revenge; for I being God, have vanquished my enemies with the Cross, and I will rise again..." ( Greek Orthodox Services, p. 386.)Death ... not only ceases to claim those who are still to fall [in the future], but also lets free those already captured, being subjected to splendid devastation by the power of our Saviour... Having preached to the spirits in hell, once disobedient, He came out as conqueror by resurrecting His temple like a beginning of our hope … and giving us along with it other blessings as well. (St. Cyril of Alexandria, 5th Festive Letter 1, 29-40 (SC 732, 284), quoted in Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev, Christ the Conqueror of Hell: The Descent of Christ into Hades in Eastern and Western Theological Traditions, A lecture delivered at St Mary’s Cathedral, Minneapolis, USA, on 5 November 2002.)
"Truly, Hades was pierced and destroyed by the divine fire when it received in its heart him who was pierced in his side with a spear for the salvation of us who sing: Blessed are You, O delivering God!" (Greek Orthodox Services, p. 384.)
"For this purpose the Son of God was manifested, that He might destroy the works of the devil" (I John 3:8) Remembering that God’s justice is eschatological, that is, to be consummated only at the end of time, we know that ‘By descending into Hades, Christ did not destroy the devil as a personal, living creature,’ but for now has made the ultimate victory sure; He has ‘abolished the power of the devil’, that is, deprived the devil of authority and power stolen by him from God.” (Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev, op. cit.)
Jesus Died to Transfigure Hades
On the other hand, we Orthodox say Christ died to tread that dark path before us, so that now, when we walk it, we find it full of His Light, full of His Love, full of His Life, full of Himself. His presence makes everything heaven for those who love Him, for to them, He is heaven. His presence destroys death as we had known it, by transforming it into the gateway to new life. The very next two verses of the hymn cited above say:
The tomb [another synonym for Hades] is happy, having become Divine when it received within it the Treasure of life, the Creator, as one who slumbers for the salvation of us who sing: Blessed are You, O delivering God!
The life of all was willing to lie in a grave, in accordance with the law of the dead, making it appear as the fountain of the Resurrection, for the salvation of us who sing: Blessed are you, O delivering God! (Hymn for Great Friday, Greek Orthodox Services, p. 384.)
Sometimes we manage to combine both metaphors in a single verse of a single hymn:
When You, Immortal life, came down to Death, you killed Hades through the dazzling brightness of Your Godhead; and when you raised up the dead from the abyss, all the powers of heaven cried aloud; Christ, our God, Giver of Live, Glory to You! (Greek Orthodox Services, p. 373.)
Jesus died to destroy Hades as hell, transforming it into the forecourt of heaven.