We are used to comic book superheroes flying in and diving down on their enemies, crashing through buildings and bursting open locked doors.
We’re not quite as used to thinking of Jesus doing the same.
Yet, one of the most powerful images in the Eastern-rite Catholic and Orthodox churches is “the Resurrection icon.” Also known as “Christ’s Descent into Hades” and “Anastasis,” it is the main icon of Pascha (Greek for “Easter”). It shows Jesus diving into hell and bursting through its gates to rescue Adam and Eve.
Anastasis, a word used in the Greek of the New Testament, means “raising up.” It is an action word and the image in this icon is dynamic.
We in the Western church may not be as familiar with icons, prayer images that come from the Eastern churches’ tradition. While icons seem like artwork, they are more correctly prayer aids. As an anonymous book, published by the Orthodox Brotherhood of the Apostles of Peter and Paul in Hong Kong explains, icons are “a window through which we look with our physical eyes at the Kingdom of Heaven, …”
Descending into Hell
The window opened in the Resurrection Icon shows us what Eastern churches teach about how Christ “descended into hell” — as we say in the Apostles’ Creed.
Russian Orthodox Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev, explained that icons “never depict the resurrection itself, i.e., Christ coming out of the grave. They rather depict ‘the descent of Christ into Hades’, or to be more precise, the rising of Christ out of hell. Christ, sometimes with a cross in his hand, is represented as raising Adam, Eve and other personages of the biblical history from hell. … (this) iconographic type is considered to be canonical, as it reflects the traditional teaching on the descent of Christ to hell, his victory over death, his raising of the dead and delivering them from hell where they were imprisoned before his resurrection.”
The Resurrection Icon shows several things:
- Christ robed in white, the traditional icon color of resurrection;
- His robes rise up around him, indicating that he is moving downward;
- Christ grasps an old man by the hand; this is Adam. Eve usually stands behind him, but some icons show Christ taking both Adam and Eve by the hand;
- Christ stands on two boards. These are the gates of hell and they are broken.
- Beneath the broken gates is often a bound man. This is Satan, chained in his own domain, into which the light of Christ now streams;
- At Christ’s right stand three men, two with crowns. These represent David and Solomon. With them stands John the Baptist;
The people to the left of Christ are not as obvious in identities. One is often depicted as a shepherd and another as Moses. The rest are believed to be Old Testament prophets.
Acts of Pilate
The story regarding hell depicted in the Resurrection Icon comes from the non-canonical Gospel of Nicodemus, also called “the Acts of Pilate.” This three-part work dates to the time of Christ, except for the third part — about the “descent into hell.” This is more recent, perhaps from the fourth century, and does not exist in the original Greek text. This third part what gives us the story we see in icons about Christ’s resurrection. (There are a few versions of the same icon.)
In the West, Catholics have traditionally understood hell in four ways:
- As the place of eternal punishment for the damned — humans and demons;
- As a place for those who died in original sin — unbaptized — but not in mortal sin;
- As similar to the Jewish Sheol, the lightless underworld. This was where saints and prophets of the Old Testament awaited the coming of Christ;
- As having a level or place that houses purgatory. (Purgatory, today, is viewed as something entirely separate from hell.)
For the Western church’s understanding of the descent into hell, we look to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (nn. 631-637). Here it says Jesus went to “the realm of the dead,” “proclaimed the Good News to those imprisoned there,” and delivered “the holy souls, who awaited their Savior in Abraham’s bosom.”
Gospel of Nicodemus
Christ bursting into hell and imprisoning Satan, while yanking Adam and Eve to freedom is not quite as vividly seen here as in the Gospel of Nicodemus — which, again, is not part of the canon of the church recorded in the Bible. However, it is a very hopeful depiction. For example, in chapter seven of Nicodemus, the personified Hades (keeper of the dead) reviles the chained Satan: “Turn and see that not one of the dead has been left in me, but all that you have gained through the tree of knowledge, you have lost through the tree of the cross.”
Bishop Alfeyev explains how the Orthodox churches view this in their teachings: “(M)any church fathers and liturgical texts of the Orthodox Church repeatedly underline that, having descended to hell, Christ opened the way to salvation for all people, not only the Old Testament righteous. The descent of Christ into Hades is perceived as an event of cosmic significance involving all people without exception. They also speak about the victory of Christ over death, the full devastation of hell and that after the descent of Christ into Hades there was nobody left there except for the devil and demons.”
Both Eastern and Western churches agree on this: the glorious power of Christ’s Paschal Mystery. That power is greater than any comic book superhero: Christ has the power to break free from death and to save everyone with him.
Thomas Aquinas, the great 13th century theologian, said much the same in his explanation of Christ’s descent into hell. He noted that, while we in the West might say that Christ descended into only one of the parts of hell listed above, the power of Christ’s Passion is so strong that Christ “wrought this effect in a measure in every part of hell, just as while, suffering in one part of the earth, he delivered the whole world by his Passion” (Summa Theologica (part 3, question 52).
This dynamic action reminds us of what Paul wrote to the Corinthians about the Resurrection: “Death is swallowed up in victory. Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” (1Cor 15:54-55).
Sources: “The Icon, History, Symbolism and Meaning” at orthodox.cn; “Christ the Conqueror of Hell” at Orthodoxeurope.org; the Catholic Encyclopedia; Summa Theologica; The Catechism of the Catholic Church; ewtn.com; vatican.va; and orthodoxroad.com