Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Reprint: Why Did Jesus Die? (Parts 13-15)

Why Did Jesus Die? (13) To Preach to the Dead

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. 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 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.)

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Why Did Jesus Die? (14) To Despoil and Transfigure Hades

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..." (hymn from 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 everywhere and 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.

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Why Did Jesus Die? (15) To Blaze our Trail

...let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset [us], and let us run with patience the race that is set before us, Looking unto Jesus the Pioneer and Perfecter of [our] faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12:1-2)

Christ’s death and resurrection reveal our own path and destiny, which is to die to sin, die to death, die to self, to live in and for Him, and to be glorified and deified in and with Him.

It’s in Holy Baptism we are transferred from the realm of sin and death into Christ’s own, crucified and risen Body. But that is only the new birth. If we are not to remain newborns (or worse), we must crucify ourselves to this world, and this world to ourselves. “They that are Christ's have crucified the flesh with the affections and lusts,” says St. Paul (Galatians 5:24), and again, “God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world.” (Galatians 6:14)

The only way to overcome the habit of living for our animal selves is to combat it actively. This we do by ascetical practices. We struggle not to give our bellies or any other parts of our bodies all they demand. We force ourselves, when necessary, to keep praying. We struggle to deny ourselves the pleasures of evil thoughts, witty replies to those who insult us, and revenge. We try not to complain about anything and to accept whatever befalls us with meekness.

The object of all these and many other ascetical exercises is emphatically not to punish ourselves, but to grow spiritually, gaining mastery over our flesh (animal selves), making it serve us instead of the other way around, that we may, in turn, offer it to Christ, using it to serve others, rather than ourselves. You cannot follow Christ without following Him to Calvary -- not just in your imagination and emotions, but in your way of life. St. Paul writes:

But whatever things were gain to me, these I have counted loss for Christ. Yet indeed I also count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith; that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and the communion of His sufferings, being conformed to His death, if, by any means, I may attain to the resurrection from the dead.

Not that I have already attained, or am already perfected; but I press on, that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me. Brethren, I do not count myself to have apprehended; but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.

Therefore let us, as many as are mature, have this mind; and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal to you this, too. Nevertheless, to the degree that we have already attained, let us walk by the same rule, let us be of the same mind. (Philippians 37-16)

No saint (person clearly manifesting Christ in his life and in his person) emerges from a bed of roses, but from the fiery furnace of affliction. That is why the Holy, Precious, Life-giving Cross is the theme and the symbol not only of Christ, but of the Christian life. The entire undertaking is to crucify our selfishness and self-centeredness that we may partake of the Divine Love.

“If any man would come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me.” (Matthew 16:24, Mark 8:34)