From the Depths of Hell

by the Very Rev. John Breck

The final Old Testament reading for Holy Saturday vespers -- Daniel 3:1-57, the story of the three young men in the fiery furnace in Babylon -- is composite, drawing upon both Aramaic and Greek (Septuagint) traditions. The latter modifies and amplifies a detail the Church's patristic witnesses consider essential. That small detail is a typological image that announces the primary theme of Orthodox Pascha or Easter: the descent of Christ into the depths of hell, to liberate humanity from the powers of sin, death and corruption.

According to the Aramaic version, King Nebuchadnezzar -- for unspecified reasons (the Greek declares it was because he heard the three young men singing from the midst of the flames) -- asks his advisors, "Did we not cast three bound men into the furnace?" Then he adds, "Yet I see four men, unbound, walking in the midst of the fire -- and the appearance of the fourth is like a son of the gods!" That descriptive phrase, "like a son of the gods," is a Semitism, signifying an angelic being. The Septuagint replaces it with the assertion, "An angel of the Lord came down into the furnace… and drove out the fiery flame."

In the view of the Church Fathers and Orthodox tradition generally, the angelic being who appears in the midst of the flames is a prophetic image of both the means and the meaning of our salvation. That powerful image points forward to and is fulfilled by the crucifixion, the death and the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

One of the most significant differences between Western (Latin) and Eastern (Orthodox) theology concerns the means by which we are redeemed from the consequences of sin -- our rebellion against the person and will of God -- and granted access to the blessed, transfigured existence termed by Scripture "eternal life." The Latin view -- focusing on the "original sin" of the first man Adam, transmitted to successive generations like a genetic flaw -- stresses the payment or obligation we have to offer to God, whether of Christ's sacrifice (Anselm's theory of "satisfaction") or of our good deeds (the notion of accumulated "merits"). These medieval themes have been significantly modified by modern Western theologians, but they continue to shape Catholic popular piety, and even that of certain Protestant confessions (the Lutheran "theologia crucis," for example: a "theology of the cross" that places primary emphasis on Christ's crucifixion, while not neglecting the resurrection). An indirect consequence of this accent is the paschal image of the risen Christ in Western tradition. There the Saviour, bearing the marks of crucifixion, is usually depicted rising victorious from his tomb or sepulchre, while the guards are asleep at his feet.

In Orthodox tradition, that saving victory over death is depicted much differently. Here the themes of incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection and exaltation merge in the motif of Christ's "Descent into Hell," more properly termed his "Descent into Sheol," the realm of the departed righteous who await the Saviour's coming.

If the eternal Son of God, second Person of the Holy Trinity, deigned to become a man, a human being of flesh and blood, it was not in the first instance to assume the consequences of Adam's guilt through a vicarious sacrificial self-offering. He "took flesh," rather, to assume our fallen, sinscarred "nature" -- what makes us essentially human -- in order to redeem and glorify that nature. This he accomplished by his sinless life and innocent death, fulfilled by his rising from the dead and his ascension or exaltation into heaven, the fullness of the presence of God. In that movement of glorification, he remained the "God-man," bearing in himself both his eternal divinity and his human nature, restored and renewed to its original perfection and beauty. If the Son of God became (a) man, patristic tradition declares, it was to offer to us the possibility of theôsis or "deification," meaning a full participation in God's very life and a sharing with him in a communion of boundless, inexhaustible love.

In this perspective, it is not we who strive to reconcile ourselves to God by appeasing his righteous wrath. It is God who seeks to reconcile himself us to through the gift of his Son, the righteous innocent one, who breaks down the wall of our sin and unrighteousness, in order to unite us through himself to the Father. "God was in Christ," the apostle Paul declares, "reconciling the world to himself."

This is the theme so beautifully and poignantly depicted in iconography of the Resurrection or Descent into Sheol. The Crucified One, lying in the tomb on the day that will become known and celebrated as Holy Saturday, "descends" into the lower reaches of the created world, into the realm of the dead. Here he reaches out to meet and seize the outstretched hands of Adam and Eve, representatives of all humanity. The flow of Christ's robes and the position of his body make it appear that he is both descending and ascending. Enveloped in a resplendent aureole, he stands victoriously above the pit of hell, a dark hole in which Satan and Hades, symbols of sin and death, are bound fast. Death is overcome, and for those who long for eternal communion with God, salvation is at hand. It is enough to reach out and seize the hand that's offered.

As the angel descended into the fiery furnace to protect and save the three young men, so Christ descends into the farthest reaches of hell, to bring reconciliation and life to all those who seek them. In the same way, he descends into our own realm of torment and death, to enfold us in the mantle of his boundless compassion and love. We may provoke our own alienation from ultimate truth and value. We may reject the gift of life and fashion our own hell, a place of living death. Or that hell may take the form of unrelieved suffering, within ourselves or in the lives of those closest to us. Still, the metaphor holds. Into that place of darkness and pain, even into the fiery furnace of our tortured imagination, Christ descends again and again. He comes not only to release us from our suffering; he comes to bear that suffering with us and for us. He comes as Light into our darkness and as Life into our sickness and death. He comes, as he came to the three young men and to the righteous departed of the paschal icon, with outstretched hands, to embrace us, to raise us up, and to exalt us with himself into a place, into a communion, of ineffable glory and joy.

This sacred image of Christ's paschal victory reveals the mystery, the sacramental blessing, of our salvation. And in that mystery lies our most fervent hope, and with it, the object of our deepest longing.