In 2013, the news shocked us with a dark story about an Ohio man who kidnapped three women and held them captive for over 10 years, keeping them hidden from the outside world. These women were abused, beaten and sometimes tortured. They all lived in the same house in a working class neighborhood and no one suspected anything was wrong for those 10 years. Their ordeal ended when one of the women managed to escape with her daughter, immediately reporting her captor to the police, who invaded the house and saved the other two women. Let’s for a moment imagine the condition of the other two women before the police came, knowing that one of them had fled. Expecting the arrival of the police and the end of their misery, their hearts would beat with joy, fear and expectation. But let’s now imagine that for whatever reason there was a delay in the police’s arrival. What do you think the condition would be of the women who were still captive? They are waiting more anxiously than ever—their rescue is near but hasn’t yet come, their hope is renewed every day but remains unfulfilled, and still they sleep in the same place. They may start to doubt if the police would ever come. They may wonder if their abductor would move them to another location, and with that would come the loss of their hope. Now imagine that after a few more years, the police finally show up. What a joy! But also imagine the fear this tyrant kidnapper faces, and what judgment awaits him.
Brothers and sisters, the story above is only a small image of Hades—where Satan held in captivity all those who departed before the coming and the death of our Lord and Savior. They were waiting for the fulfillment of the promise of His coming and the release of their holy souls. But this isn’t the full story. Although the release of these souls from Satan’s bondage and captivity is very important, the story isn’t only about this. However, before we start we must admit that this topic is very mysterious and currently highly debatable in the West, even though it was a matter of fact in the writings of the early church fathers. What surprised me in their writings was that their focus wasn’t on the release of the souls bound in Hades, but rather on the preaching which took place there.
David the Psalmist says, “For you will not leave my soul in Sheol” Ps 16:10. “For the enemy has persecuted my soul; He has crushed my life to the ground; He has made me dwell in darkness, like those who have long been dead…Revive me, O Lord, for Your name’s sake” 143:3,11. So the expectation of the release from Hades has been in the hearts of the prophets through the revelation of God. Going to the New Testament, St. Peter in the first epistle writes, “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive by the Spirit, by whom also He went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly were disobedient, when once the Divine longsuffering waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared” 1 Peter 3:18-20. And he also surprises us by saying, “For this reason the gospel was preached also to those who are dead, that they might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit” 1 Peter 4:6. So what was preached to them? Who are “they”? What was their condition? What if they believed—would they be released and considered among the believers? To answer some of these questions we will turn to the fathers.
In Stromata 1, St. Clement of Alexandria takes a significant look at the Lord’s visit to Hades. He teaches that as the Law was given to the Jews, philosophy was given to the Gentiles to prepare them both to receive the Gospel. Then, he establishes that the souls of the righteous and the souls of the sinners, even before the death of Christ, couldn’t have been under the same condemnation, for this will charge the divine providence with injustice. With regard to the Lord’s visit to Hades, St. Clement seemed to focus on the Lord’s preaching in Hades, shedding light on some difficult questions we often face. Like what happens to the souls of those who died before the Advent of the Lord? Or what happened to those who never heard about the Lord but lived their lives according to their knowledge?
St. Clement sees the Savior’s visit to Hades as part of the divine providence of those who lived their lives in righteousness but ended their lives imperfectly. He said, “For it was suitable to the divine administration, that those possessed of greater worth in righteousness, and whose lives had been pre-eminent, on repenting of their transgressions, though found in another place, yet being confessedly of the number of the people of God Almighty, should be saved, each one according to his individual knowledge.” 2 St. Clement sees that the Lord’s preaching in Hades was to the Jews as well as to the Gentiles (that’s to everyone) since souls, after their release from the bodily passions, are able to see clearly so to confess the Lord 3 “…since souls, although darkened by passion, when released from their bodies, are able to perceive more clearly…”
With regard to those who departed before the Advent of the Lord and those who lived in ignorance, he writes that the Lord preached to “those who had departed before the Advent of the Lord (not having the Gospel preached to them, and having afforded no ground from themselves, in consequence of believing or not) to obtain either salvation or punishment. For it is not right that these should be condemned without trial, and that those alone who lived after the Advent should have the advantage of the divine righteousness.”
As for St. Cyril of Alexandria, in his commentary on the same verses (1 Peter 3:18-20) he seems to be very aware of what St. Clement wrote. “In order to deliver all those who would believe, Christ taught those who were alive on Earth at the time of his incarnation, and these others acknowledged him when He appeared to them in the lower regions.” He continues, “For both those who were alive on Earth during the time of His incarnation and those who were in hell (Hades) had a chance to acknowledge him.” However, St. Cyril uses imagery to describe to us the power and might of the Lord in destroying the enemy and the release of the souls of the holy ones. “When the gatekeepers of hell saw him, they fled; the bronze gates were broken open, and the iron chains were undone.” Those who are familiar with the Resurrection doxology chanted during the holy fifty in the Coptic Orthodox Church would find these words very familiar, if not identical.
St. Severus of Antioch brings to our attention that the souls of those who believed (benefited) in Christ as He preached in Hades are the souls of those who lived a life of good works here on Earth. He tells us that not everyone who heard His voice in Hades believed, which fits perfectly with “having given themselves over to sexual immorality and gone after strange flesh, are set forth as an example, suffering the vengeance of eternal fire.” Jude 7.
Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and His ways past finding out. The above church fathers’ writings enlighten our thoughts with regard to the Lord’s preaching in Hades, but more importantly they show the depth of the love of God for mankind, going after him not only to Earth but even unto Hades. It also shows the power of the Son of God in destroying Satan and his kingdom, as the scriptures say, “Or how can one enter a strong man’s house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man? And then he will plunder his house” Mat 12:29.4
1 Stromata “patchwork or layer” is a collection of writings by St. Clement of Alexandria (150-215 A.D). All the quotes taken from Stromata in this post are taken from Book 6, Chapter 6. ↩
2 This may add great value in our understanding of what St. Paul writes when he says “…not having the law, are a law to themselves” Rom 2:14 and how we can reconcile Rom 2:14 with the need to accept the Son of God as the Savior. ↩
3 “If, then, the Lord descended to Hades for no other end but to preach the Gospel, as He did descend; it was either to preach the Gospel to all or to the Hebrews only. If, accordingly, to all, then all who believe shall be saved, although they may be of the Gentiles, on making their profession there; since God’s punishments are saving and disciplinary, leading to conversion, and choosing rather the repentance than the death of a sinner; and especially since souls, although darkened by passion, when released from their bodies, are able to perceive more clearly, because of their being no longer obstructed by the paltry flesh.” ↩
4 After reading this blog, no further dogmatic or theological conclusions should be made as a result of reading the writings of these fathers on the topic.↩