Christ’s Descent into Hades: A Conversation – Bradley Jersak


I’ve read and heard you say, “Christ descended into Hades, tied up the strong man and plundered his goods.” I assume this means his captives all the way back to Adam and Eve. Were Adam and Eve and many others in hell?


I believe we would feel very conflicted if we read the above as if we thought everyone (or even most people) were literally burning in hell and waiting for thousands of years for Jesus to come and get them. Even worse if he only rescued that minority of Old Testament saints we deemed faithful. So, how else might we read those words?

To answer that, we will begin by thinking about Jesus’s parable of “the binding of the strongman,” in which Jesus “plunders his goods.” Then we will ask how the early church saw this parable fulfilled in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Mark’s version of the parable reads, “…no one can enter a strong man’s house to steal his possession unless he ties up the strong man first. Then he can plunder his house” (Mark 3:27).

By the way, the parable of a strong man being plundered is also a hint that Jesus is borrowing imagery from the Exodus of God’s people being Egypt delivered from bondage and how, upon leaving, they plundered Pharaoh’s goods (including gold, silver, clothing and as many people who wanted to leave with them). This is a clue that the Passion and Resurrection of Christ would also fulfill the Jewish Passover.


I am wondering, then, if Jesus did not actually ‘descend into hell.’ Is it metaphorical?


Or he truly did descend into Hades, metaphorically speaking.


I always thought ‘goods’ meant ‘captives.’ And that the ‘strongman’ is death, sin, and darkness.


You’re reading that well! After his resurrection, the first Christians interpreted that parable with a second set of images. They say Jesus as the One who has bound the strongman (i.e., Hades, the personification of death) and entered Hades (i.e., not some literally fiery hell but the mythological “house” of the death, sin, and darkness). There, he finds and rescues the captives (all humanity, represented by Adam and Eve), alive or dead, and “raises up humanity with himself.

Now, if we’re transpose the parable into real life, one example is found in the Book of Hebrews, where the author says, “Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death, he might break the power of him who holds the power of death–that is, the devil–and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death” (Hebrews 2:14-15).

So, Christ descends into death to break the power of death, so that death can no longer have dominion over us, whether those still alive live in fear of death or those who have already died. Death is not the last word!

In the mythical or parabolic retelling, those in “Hades” were “waiting” for their deliverance, including “Adam and Eve.” The Christian but uncanonized Gospel of Nicodemus tells that tale beautifully and dramatically. And let’s not rush to the actuality for a moment. The church loved to use the language of parables as a primary means of proclaiming the good news. For example, we have the end of St. Chrysostom’s “Passover Sermon” (or “Paschal Homily”):

Let no one fear death, for the death of our Savior has set us free.
He has destroyed it by enduring it.
He destroyed Hades when he descended into it.

He put it into an uproar even as it tasted of His flesh.
Isaiah foretold this when he said,
You, O Hades, have been troubled by encountering Him below.

Hades was in an uproar because it was done away with.
It was in an uproar, because it was mocked.
It was in an uproar, for it was destroyed.
It is in an uproar, for it is annihilated.

It is in an uproar because it is now made captive.
Hades took a body, and it discovered God.
It took earth, and encountered Heaven.
It took what it saw, and was overcome by what it did not see.

O death, where is your sting?
O Hades, where is your victory?

Christ is risen, and you, O death, are annihilated!
Christ is risen, and the evil ones are cast down!
Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice!
Christ is risen, and life is liberated!

Christ is risen, and the tomb is emptied of its dead;
for Christ, having risen from the dead,
is become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep.

To Him be glory and power forever and ever. Amen!

Amen! So too, in the early church, we find 100s of hymns that tell this same story. Here are just four samples:

As God, Thou didst rise from the tomb in glory, raising the world with Thyself. Therefore, mortal nature praises Thee as God, and death has vanished, Now Adam exults, O Master, and Eve, freed from her bonds, rejoices crying out: Thou are the One, O Christ, who grants resurrection to all.

When Thou didst descend to death, O Life Immortal, Thou didst slay hades with the radiance of Thy Divinity. And when Thou didst raise the dead from the lowest depths, all the hosts of heaven cried out: O Giver of Life! Christ our God! Glory to Thee!

Thou didst rise from the tomb, O Almighty Savior, and seeing the miracle, hades became terrified: and the dead rose, and at the sight of it, creation rejoices with Thee. And Adam is joyful, and the world, O my Savior, praises Thee forever.

Thou didst descend into hades, O my Savior, and as the Almighty One, broke down its gates. As the Creator, Thou didst raise the dead together with Thyself, shattering the sting of death, and delivering Adam from the curse, O Friend of mankind. Wherefore we cry out to Thee: save us, O Lord.

And beyond the hymns and homilies, we also have the Eastern icons of the Resurrection, where Jesus does not merely emerge alone from an empty tomb, but is seen rising over the broken gates of Hades, with the strongman bound beneath his feet, and drawing Adam and Eve (humanity) up with himself.

The apostle Paul seems to use this same reading, too, since he interprets Psalm 68, a poetic retelling of the Exodus story, as fulfilled in Christ. Paul writes,

But to each one of us grace was given according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Therefore it says,

When He ascended on high,
He led captive a host of captives,
And He gave gifts to men.”

(Now this expression, “He ascended,” what [b]does it mean except that He also had descended into the lower parts of the earth? 10 He who descended is Himself also He who ascended far above all the heavens, so that He might fill all things.)

Okay, so that’s the gospel as told, sung, and painted in narrative form. We use narrative and parable to reveal the truth, but also because the actual fulfillment is very difficult to conceive from our limited human perspective.

Because Christ has conquered death, we rise with him now to newness of life and look forward to being raised to be with him after we die. That seems simple enough. But I’m also becoming increasingly convinced of something rather mind-blowing. Namely, that with his resurrection to eternity, Jesus Christ transcends space and time as head of the cosmos to fill all things (Ephesians 1 in a nutshell) and therefore, becomes directly available to all space and time. That means he raises the dead immediately. There is no waiting around for millennia in some gloomy spiritual prison, not even “before Christ” (for there is no “before” to eternity.

Imagine: when Adam and Eve (meaning every human being), even before the earthly sojourn of Jesus of Nazareth, this One Lord Jesus Christ–crucified, risen, and ascended–IS (eternally NOW) there to raise them up with himself. No long “soul sleep” or centuries of purgatory, but rather, “to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8) … and always has been! (Because there is no “before” in eternity). That’s why Moses and Elijah can appear, resurrected, with Christ on Mount Tabor even “before” Jesus goes to the Cross and rises from the dead. And that’s why every appearance of God in the Old Testament IS a “christophony”–an appearance of Jesus Christ, not as some disembodied “pre-incarnate Word” not yet made flesh (that’s a fiction), but the crucified and risen One who fills time and eternity with his presence.

At least that is my way of perceiving the mystery, but we are really like babies still in Mom’s womb, trying to infer what life is like out there in the big wide world, based on muffled sounds and jarring motions.

P.S. I do think that as we pass from death into life, we will face a restorative judgment, not some punishment by fire, but a release from the chains of our lies, delusions, and attachments through the fire of divine love.

Picture of Brad Jersak

Brad Jersak

Bradley Jersak is an author and teacher based in Abbotsford, BC. He serves as a reader and monastery preacher at All Saints of North America Orthodox Monastery. Read More