I Really Wasn’t Kidding – There’s Another Gospel Out There


I generally enjoy our comments and also following the links when others share some portion of Glory to God for All Things with others. Last week I posted on the necessity for the whole gospel – that is – the gospel received by the Apostles and taught to the Church. I noted that in many areas of modern Christianity, very essential elements of that gospel are in danger. I was struck when following one of the links to my post to read the following positive article, (an Anglican blog) but also noted that some members of the Anglican Church (I could not tell whether these were comments from an ordained person), in making comments on the author’s positive quoting, actually sought to deny that Christ descended into Hades. This is not a liberal Anglican site.”Stand Firm in the Faith” sounds pretty solid to me. But the conversations did an excellent job of making my point. The fullness of the Orthodox Faith is simply unknown to many, including many in liturgical Churches.

The Descent into Hades is not a minor theological side issue. Iconographically, it stands at the very center of the faith. If one reads St. Athanasius’ On the Incarnation you can quickly see that in the doctrine of the Divine Solidarity (an image he uses to describe how it is that Christ saves us), Christ’s descent into Hades is utterly necessary to the Christian understanding of His victory over sin and death. The services of the Orthodox Church surrounding Pascha are all grounded on the dogma of Christ’s descent into Hades and His victory.

The Scriptures making reference to Christ’s descent into Hades include more than the I Peter 3:19 that I cited in my earlier posting.

That verse and a few more are only the most obvious ones that come to mind. The understanding of Christ’s Resurrection as our Pascha (Passover) are not relegated to the image of the lamb’s blood on the door posts of the Israelites. More than that rich imagery is also the entire episode at the Red Sea (which is the type of our Baptism) clearly seen by the early Church as a type of Christ’s descent into Hades and subsequent resurrection. That Scripture and the “Song of Moses” figure prominently in the Vesperal Liturgy of Holy Saturday.

Some verses to consider:

1 Peter 3:18 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;19 in which he went and preached to the spirits in

1 Peter 4: 6 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.

Ephesians 4:7 But grace was given to each of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift. 8 Therefore it is said, “When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men.” 9 (In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth? 10 He who descended is he who also ascended far
above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.)

Colossians 2: 15 He disarmed the principalities and powers and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in him.

This same doctrine can be found in Western hymns (the Hymn “Victory,” one of my favorites, is one that comes quickly to mind). The modern Anglican service of the so-called “Easter Vigil” is essentially modeled on the Orthodox Vesperal Liturgy of Holy Saturday though clearly cluttered with other later doctrines.

Great classic works of Western theology, such as Gustav Aulen’s Christus Victor, make clear how utterly dominant this imagery is in the Apostolic and early Church. And yet, it has become foreign to many.

I will be bold, very bold indeed, and say that if this doctrine of Christ Descent into Hades is not known, then the most essential doctrines of our salvation are misunderstood and incorrectly taught. This is not to create an argument about whose Church is more correct, but to state a simple and plain fact of theology. If the primary story of our salvation is not a matter of agreement, then the conversation regarding the faith has barely begun.

From an Orthodox perspective, I can think of no finer article than one that has been cited before by me, Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev’s The Descent of Christ into Hades in Eastern and Western Theological Traditions. This article, delivered as a lecture at St. Mary’s Orthodox Cathedral in Minneapolis in 2002 is simply the finest summary of this doctrine that I have seen. I have taken the liberty of creating a “page” for it on this weblog for easy reference. The patristic sources, all of whom are richly grounded in Scripture, are worth the entire article. His discussion of the decline of this doctrine in the West is also worth reading.

But I return to my earlier contention, which experience is simply bearing out: another gospel is replacing the gospel of Christ – the primary metaphors of our salvation are being forgotten and set aside for a later, less Scriptural account. These are not light matters – but matters that go to the heart of the faith. I cannot write about the Christian faith and not make mention (perhaps repeatedly) of this phenomenon. Maybe more will begin to hear it – and that would be a very good thing.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.



30 responses to “I Really Wasn’t Kidding – There’s Another Gospel Out There”

  1. rdreusebios1 Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,
    Father Bless!
    As always you are both articulate and thought provoking in your commentary. And dead on I might add. The further I go along in my Orthodox journey, the more I realize how shallow the teachings f my former delusion were. Until my first Pascha, I never gave much, if any thought to the harrowing of hell, much less to the equally important theology involved in the Ascension, or Theophany, nor did I truly grasp the full implications of The Incarnation. That is why I find it imperative that we not leave things out, whether for brevity’s sake, or for fear of offending someone. Our Matushka recently remarked that taking away from “T”radition waters down the faith and creates the proverbial slippery slope that leads us away from the Apostolic Faith.
    Alas, i ramble, thank you once again

  2. Thom Stark Avatar

    What do you think “hades” refers to, father?

  3. Fatherstephen Avatar


    Good question. If you read Bishop Hilarion’s article you’ll see a detailed account of how Western theologians continually wanted to narrow the meaning of Hades in Christ’s descent. Another metaphor had come to dominate their thought and the minimization of Hades was neccesary to save their novel theologies.

    But the Best of writing in the East, including contemporary, ultimately understands that Hades comprehends the whole the the departed. All of us. Indeed, I think, rightly understood, Hades includes life here and now as well.

    It is Christ’s great emptying of Himself (in the incarnation and climatically on the Cross and His descent into Hades) that God, if you will, revealed the completeness of His love for us – there is no where we may God that He will not come.

    The Orthodox also believe that we are free to reject this gracious gift of God. The majority and most Orthodox teaching has always been that, in fact, some will reject God though He would save them. Who or how many God alone knows.

    Some small number of writers, such as St. Isaac of Syria, thought that when everything is finally said and done, God will have wooed us all back to Him. But this is not the doctrine of the Church.

    But with this understanding of Hades and our freedom, Orthodoxy sees that God has broken down our gates at every turn, and that at every turn we must give ourselves to Him in repentance. Thus all of life is the living out of our salvation.

    Thus, I think Hades refers to that state that human beings live in when they hate God (or their neighbor, or anyone). “This is condemnation, that Light has come into the world, and men preferred darkness to the Light.” It’s that simple. In a technical sense Hades refers to this state of man after he dies, but metaphorically it can extend to here and now and the condition of my heart.

    Do read Bishop Hilarion’s full article. It’s exquisite.

  4. Frank Logue Avatar

    I also quoted your earlier post at an Anglican site here: http://kingofpeace.blogspot.com/2007/05/whole-faith.html


  5. Michael Avatar

    Dear Father,

    Do you believe the Western Easter Vigil originated from the Eastern form, then? What later doctrines were encrusted upon it?

  6. maximus daniel greeson Avatar

    Bishop HIlarion is excellent, I have enjoyed all of his work.
    Here is a post from my blog on him that has (as far as I can find) all the essays and lectures he has given available on the internet.

    (link: Bishop Hilarion

  7. Fatherstephen Avatar

    Yes, I think the Easter Vigil is largely modeled on the Eastern form though I’m not enough of a liturgical scholar to know whether it developed independently. I was reading through the Exultet – there is much in that hymn that is Eastern in shape, but there is much as well that emphasizes other matters – not that I would say they were wrong, “paid for us the debt of Adam’s sin,” etc. Just that they are not as common in Eastern liturgical materials. If you read Bishop Hilarion’s treatise on the Descent into Hades you can see what he has to say about its development in the West. It’s interesting that the Exultet text seems mostly to center its imagery on the blood atonement – which is not terribly surprising in Western developments. The East knows and mentions blood atonement but it does not become as dominant as it does in the West.
    I knew a number of the composers of the 79 prayer book and studied under one of them. They certainly looked at Eastern sources for a number of things, but always had something of a modern paradigm that ancient texts were made to fit.
    The readings are pretty much the same as we use at the Vesperal Liturgy of Holy Saturday (only we have 15) and the service is done often as early as Saturday morning in the Orthodox Church. It is not our primary Easter service – that comes later with the Matins of Easter and the first Liturgy of Pascha.
    I would have to study to see the exact history of the Exultet, for instance (we do not use it). Forgive me, but some of the liturgical reformers of the 79 book had a tendency to say things that weren’t entirely true, that this or that thing was simply an ancient service – when that was not entirely the case. The renewal of Baptismal vows, a nice touch, is a modern thing, for instance.
    But the pattern of a Vesperal Liturgy is the pattern used for the Easter Vigil. They picked up and used the same pattern in the Book of Occasional Services for many feasts that did not have such a vigil. The most shameful one, to me, is the Vigil for All Saints, which seems to have more of a halloween theme than not.

  8. Fatherstephen Avatar


    Outstanding list of references!

  9. Lou Weissing Avatar
    Lou Weissing

    Father Stephen —

    I saw some of the reactions on other websites to your notes on Christ’s descent. As an Anglican, I was perplexed. After all, the consequences of the fact that “He descended into Hell” are widely repeated if not widely believed. At first it seemed odd to see this point of doctrine was largely jettisoned by so many churches. The problem for many may be the reference to Hades, or Hell. Most of the clergy are hostile to any mention of Hell, and much of the laity joins in. Of course, there are Christian groups that indulge an unhealthy focus on the devil and Hell. Both groups (which seems to account for most believers) are not only unbalanced but in error.

    But please consider one point of dissent. While knowing and doing all as we have been commanded is our calling, the less comprehensive visions are still remarkably powerful. It certainly is best to heed “the whole counsel of God.” And yet, a Baptist preacher who tells how Christ paid for our sins gives us a glimpse of the glories of the Gospel. That doctrine is a sliver of a fragment of the truth — but that sliver is so rich, so much richer than the secular materialism and post-modern angst where most of our world sleeps. In His hands are “riches forevermore,” and the crumbs under God’s table are frightfully potent.

    Going to church sometimes feels like an embarrassment of glories, where a sheet of the riches of the Kingdom is opened. We are commanded to take and share. Some are distracted by trifles. Others, who may only carry a tiny fraction of the Gospel, take and share and heal whole nations. But some, sadly, only catalogue the wealth, going out the door with nothing in their hands.

    In closing, one example who comes to mind is the Carmelite, Brother Lawrence, of “The Practice of the Presence of God.” He had no wide theological comprehension, but he seemed consumed by the fact of God in Christ. On a less glrious but more personal note, I once attended a retreat where a priest remarked that the service was a fountain of holy water and that we were vessels — some small, some larger, and some very deep. It was humbling to learn from experience that I was not very deep. But then, Christ says He calls us his friends because we are not much use as servants.

  10. fatherstephen Avatar


    I appreciate your irenic note and your generosity to others. I agree in general as well. Though, I do believe that there is a “morphing” of the Christian gospel which inevitably will lead to error where is does not already.

    My alarm, if I should call it that, is that the fundamentals of the story of our salvation are no longer being fully recounted, and instead, a shorter, more caricatured version is being substituted, often including the image of an angry God who must be satisfied in order to forgive us – something I believe to border on error.

    Imagine living in a Mormon state where people were taught wrong things concerning Christ (seriously wrong things). To live as an Orthodox Christian in a culture where the dominant forms of Christianity, though by no means as deviated as Mormonism, nonetheless present a very truncated Gospel, is a matter of concern.

    But I do not mean it to be a matter of having no charity towards others. As St. Paul said, “Nevertheless Christ is preached.” But the good effect of writing my article has been to help some folks see a little fuller the story of the Gospel. And that too is a good thing.

  11. Thomas Dunbar Avatar

    I recently had a conversation in which there was disagreement over what the term “creedal Christian” might mean. I argued that it did not mean just mean that one said the Nicene creed as part of the liturgy, or even that one believed ALL of the statements therein. Rather, seems to me that to believe in the creed(s) has to mean that one takes everything IN the creed to trump anything outside of the creed. Otherwise the creed is not functioning as a creed.

  12. fatherstephen Avatar

    Have you read Fr. John Behr’s the Way to Nicaea (there are 2 volumes now). It is excellent. He clearly developes there and in his later works the understanding of the Apostolic Hyposthesis (a phrase from St. Irenaeus). With more time I would point out that the Creeds, or certain portions of them, and certainly the Creedal Form, is older than the New Testament. It provided the model upon which the Gospels and teachings of the early Church were built and guaranteed that the teaching was “Apostolic”. I recommend them.

  13. Thomas Dunbar Avatar

    Thanks, Father Stephen. No, i’d been wondering about a good reference. Thanks for the pointer

  14. Thomas Dunbar Avatar

    Re Behr’s book(s), if you search “The Way to Nicaea” at amazon, volume 2
    isn’t shown. Rather, search for “The Nicene Faith”
    ie: http://www.amazon.com/Nicene-Faith-Formation-Christian-Theology/dp/088141266X/ref=sr_1_3/002-3239393-8805615?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1179939929&sr=1-3

  15. Thomas Dunbar Avatar

    However, these seem to be two different books?

  16. Fatherstephen Avatar

    Or you can order them through St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press on the St. Vlad’s website. You can’t read too much Behr.

  17. Thomas Dunbar Avatar

    A summary of the three different books is at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Behr

  18. Thomas Dunbar Avatar

    “you can’t read too much Behr” .. well, I’m on a very strict diet. However, the Nicene Faith book will fill a certain gap quite nicely, I think.

  19. Thom Stark Avatar

    Father, thank you for your eloquent and careful response. I find your approach very intriguing, and worth further consideration. I will look forward to reading Bishop Hilarion’s article.

    What would you say to those who argue, from a historical/contextual, even a lexical/semantic perspective, that “hades” here would most appropriately be translated “the grave” or “sheol,” etc. In other words, the interpretation that the creed is simply making it clear that Jesus in fact died before he was raised. There is obviously no agenda to evade the doctrine of hell or the like inherent in this view. I realize this sidesteps your rather beautiful account (though I don’t think it negates the truth of what you’ve said about the extent of Christ’s reach); nevertheless, would you consider this view (“he descended down to the place of the dead,” i.e., “he died”) to be deleterious to the full Gospel?

    I want to make clear that I share your concern to preserve the fullness of the Gospel in a culture full of watered-down, even idolatrous “christianities.” However, I am not sure your reading of “hades” is necessary in order to preserve that Gospel, without, once again, denying the truth about Christ’s reach expressed in your interpretation. I just am not convinced that truth is properly to be found in the phrase, “he descended to hades.”

  20. Fatherstephen Avatar


    I wouldn’t think the translation would be incorrect or misleading – but the liturgical hymnography of the Orthodox Church has long been comfortable with Hades as a proper term. Thus, as an Orthodox Christian I would say that the truth is indeed properly found in the phrase “he descended into Hades.” Take a good look at the icon. What I would argue is that this, in fact, represents the faith of the Church as She has received it. It is there for us to contemplate and to come to believe as it opens itself to us and reveals Christ in His fullness.

    To a degree, it’s part of the comfort of Orthodoxy. Other than occasional translation problems, many things are just plainly set forth. I do not have to create the faith, only to ponder it in my heart and let it save me.

  21. Thom Stark Avatar

    If I’m understanding you correctly, you’re saying that the faith is not something we make up by our own ingenuity, but rather it is a gift of grace we receive. We do not make it, but it has the power to remake us if we will commit ourselves to the pursuit of its mysteries. I think this is exactly right, and you have inherited a beautiful way of putting the matter.

    I think we might differ only on the notion of something being “plainly set forth.” I’m wary of that, because often what is plain to one group is foreign to another. For instance, when I asked you what you meant by Hades, your answer was very different from what I thought were the only options. I appreciate your answer, because it has broadened my horizons a little.

    Grace and peace to you.

  22. […] caused a degree of discomfort. And i, as it turns out, it should have. In his recent blog entry “I really wasn’t kidding-There’s another Gospel out there”, Fr. Stephen has a good deal to say about the harrowing of hell (Or hades) by Christ. He is shocked […]

  23. fatherstephen Avatar


    I agree that what seems obvious or plain to some seems obscure to others. I do not mean this as a polemic, but it is the faith of the Orthodox that, apart from some extraordinary occasion of grace, we will not see the truth outside of living within the Orthodox faith. For my own part, though I was a student of Orthodox theology for 20 or more years before I converted, even writing my thesis at Duke on the theology of icons, it was not until after my conversion that many things began to fall into place (and there is so much that is greatly beyond me). But it is in praying our faith rather than in reading it that the heart is formed. Orthodox liturgical worship is an absolute treasure trove of theology. There is nothing even remotely similar to it in the West – really, not even close. There are times I almost want to shout in the middle of a service, “Stop!” Sing that verse again!”

    And year after year, the same services and feasts and everytime something new that I failed to hear before. I think that the word “fullness” is the best description of Orthodoxy. And, too often, even we Orthodox do not begin to avail ourselves of all that is possible to us. But – the parish is not a monastery.

    In charity to one another, we can share these things – because Orthodoxy does not own anything. Everything is Christ’s and all that is Christ’s is a free gift to all.

  24. Justin Avatar

    I was reading the Creed yesterday morning, and after having read this blog, I noticed that it states nothing of His descent into Hades. It just says that He was buried for 3 days. I read it from my Orthodox Study Bible. I could have swore I read one version that mentioned his descent into Hell (I think, though, that one was on a webpage on how to pray the Rosary).

    Why wouldn’t it be in the Creed if it is such a core belief?

  25. fatherstephen Avatar


    It is in the Apostles’ Creed, the ancient Baptismal Creed of Rome, and doubtless was in many others (ancient Churches of Apostolic origin all had such statements of the faith).

    That it is not in the Nicene Creed is something of an anomaly, but its place in the Paschal services secures its dogmatic position.

  26. Roland Avatar

    I knew a number of the composers of the 79 prayer book and studied under one of them. They certainly looked at Eastern sources for a number of things, but always had something of a modern paradigm that ancient texts were made to fit.
    The readings are pretty much the same as we use at the Vesperal Liturgy of Holy Saturday (only we have 15) and the service is done often as early as Saturday morning in the Orthodox Church. It is not our primary Easter service – that comes later with the Matins of Easter and the first Liturgy of Pascha.
    I would have to study to see the exact history of the Exultet, for instance (we do not use it). Forgive me, but some of the liturgical reformers of the 79 book had a tendency to say things that weren’t entirely true, that this or that thing was simply an ancient service – when that was not entirely the case.

    First, I think the Easter Vigil in the 1979 BCP is based more on the Roman Catholic Easter Vigil than on the Byzantine Vesperal Liturgy of Holy Saturday. Until the 1970s, the Roman Easter Vigil was normally held on Saturday morning, just like the Vesperal Liturgy. The Exsultet is part of the Roman service. The similarity of the Roman and Byzantine services is more likely evidence of common ancient roots than of recent borrowing of one by the other.

    Second, I share your impressions of the 1979 BCP. It composers used the ancient Church as a resource to be mined for practices and materials that fit their a priori model, rather than as an authority to be followed uncritically. One major example of this tendency is the notion, beloved of the liturgical reform movement, that the Great Fifty Days of Easter was the tradition of the Early Church. In reality, it was a matter of some controversy among early Christians whether Easter should be celebrated for 8 days, 40 days, 50 days, or 57 days, and each of these stances came to be reflected in the Church’s liturgical life in various ways. But this was too messy for the reformers, so they imposed their Fifty Days model and reconstructed everything around it. So, for example, the Paschal Candle is no longer extinguished after the Ascension Gospel, but instead continues to burn through Pentecost, after which it is quietly removed from the sanctuary.

    Third, I wish I could see/hear all 15 readings on Holy Saturday! At my parish we only do three.

  27. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    From “The Enlargement of the Heart” by Archimandrite Zacharias:

    “Such was the importance to the Lord of this “going down” that when the sons of Zebedee asked for thrones, He said that this was madness (cf Mark 10:35-45). That is to say, to ask to “go up” is madness. This is the way of Lucifer, who wanted to set his throne above the throne of God. The true way of a master is to become a servant, to go down, to become the Last. To all those who think themselves worthy of ascent without drinking the cup of descent, Christ said onece and for all time, “Ye know not what ye ask” (Mark 10:38). As for Capernaum, which arrogantly “sought after a sign” (cf.Matt. 12:39), the Lord said, “And thou, Capernaum, which art exalted to heaven, shalt be thrust down to hell” (Luke 10:15). However, He raised and justified the publican, who “would not life up so much as his eyes unto heaven” (Luke 18:13), but fulfilled Christ’s law, which says, “Whosoever shall exalt himself shall be abased; and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted” (Matt. 23:12, cf. Luke 18:13). The publican lowere his head and his mind and went downwards, and in “going down”, he found his heart, and in his heart he found God (cf. Luke 18:10-14). Aside When the Lord was praised by men for His miracles, He did not fear pride, but always sought to give us an example of His Way. Hence, every time He was glorified, He would revel to us the way of humility by saying, for example, “The Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of men, and be crucified, and on the third day rise agian” (Luke 24:7). That is to say, He would give us an example not to exercies oursleves in lofty matters. End of aside

    Therefore, the Way of the Lord stretches out through death on the Cross to the infernal regions of hell. It is like descending into the waters of baptism. Baptism is an imitation of the Lordd’s Way. We meet Christ and put Him on (Gal, 3:27), and ascend reborn “in newness of Life” (Rom, 6:4), since He first descended into the waters and blessed them, By first going down into the waters, in obedience to His commandment, we come up renewed. “Going down” signifies His death, and this is a real death, because we die to sin, and “coming up” signifies our rebirth “in newness of life”. In baptism, we have this tracing of the Way of the Lord, and so it is also when we are commanded to descend into hell: not that we may perish, but so that we may explore even there the wondrous mystery of the divine and humble love which reaches down even into those dreadful regions. This is so that, before the gretness of this love, we may humbel oursleve unto the end and, in our turn, respond with gratitude to Christ, so perfectly and so powerfully that nothing, no place, not even hell, can separate us from God the Saviour (cf. Rom. 8:35-39). Man will never have full knowledge of the mystery of Christ if he, too, has not been through hell.

  28. John Maddex Avatar

    I might mention that a helpful podcast on this subject is available on our web site this week by Dr. Clark Carlton. It is called “Hell: A Modest Proposal.” Here is the link:


  29. Karen C Avatar
    Karen C

    “Some small number of writers, such as St. Isaac of Syria, thought that when everything is finally said and done, God will have wooed us all back to Him. But this is not the doctrine of the Church.”

    Having come into her fold and beginning to experience what Fr. Stephen describes of the impact of her Life and Liturgy, I cannot but accept the wisdom of the Church that this is not one of her doctrines nor dogmas. On the other hand, I trust that I may share St. Isaac’s hope/desire (in the spirit of Bp. KALLISTOS Ware, St. Silouan the Athonite and others). Personally, having glimpsed in some small measure the magnitude of the love of the Trinity in Christ, I wonder how a finite human will could resist forever the infinite will of the Trinity to love him/her once that love was truly perceived (no matter how painful the repentance might be), and I cannot see how a God Who is Infinite Love and longsuffering patience could not wait until the last soul had come willingly to be in Christ before declaring the final judgment and Day of Resurrection! I certainly accept the possibility of a Gehenna that lasts forever, but I hope only for a Gehenna that takes place in eternity, that is to say in the age to come, but is ultimately transfigured as well! These are mysteries too great for me to plumb! I pray nothing I have said here will be a stumbling block to the salvation of others. In which case, Fr. Stephen, please delete and respond privately!

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