Metaphors of the Atonement

Metaphors are very important when thinking about any aspect of our salvation. People can sometimes state what they believe as doctrine very precisely without thinking about what their beliefs imply about God, the world, or themselves. Metaphors can work in a very hidden way – particularly those that are referred to as “root metaphors.” A root metaphor is the over-arching imagery that generally governs how a train of thought goes. It provides the logical or image-driven framework upon which later thought will be built.

Excellent illustrations of this are found if you look at the doctrines related to the Descent of Christ into Hades. The article by Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev, Christ Descent into Hades, which was recently referenced here, notes contrasts in how the understanding of Christ’s Descent into Hades developed in both East and West. The development, starting in the 4th or 5th centuries eventually resulted in very different understandings. But the underlying issue was not the Descent into Hades but the metaphors which came to dominate the thought of Christian teachers, East or West.

Bishop Hilarion cited a passage from Cyril of Alexandria’s Paschal Homily (7th Paschal Homily, 2) and noted:

The doctrine of the descent of Christ into Hades occupies an essential place in the works of Cyril of Alexandria. In his ‘Paschal Homilies’, he repeatedly mentions that as a consequence of the descent of Christ into Hades, the devil was left all alone, while hell was devastated: ‘For having destroyed hell and opened the impassable gates for the departed spirits, He left the devil there abandoned and lonely’.

This imagery is also found in St. John Chrysostom’s famous Catechetical Homily: “And not one dead is left in the grave.”

Bishop Hilarion contrasts this with the Descent into Hades’ development in Western Christianity:

The general conclusion can now be drawn from a comparative analysis of Eastern and Western understandings of the descent into Hades. In the first three centuries of the Christian Church, there was considerable similarity between the interpretation of this doctrine by theologians in East and West. However, already by the 4th—5th centuries, substantial differences can be identified. In the West, a juridical understanding of the doctrine prevailed [emphasis added]. It gave increasingly more weight to notions of predestination (Christ delivered from hell those who were predestined for salvation from the beginning) and original sin (salvation given by Christ was deliverance from the general original sin, not from the ‘personal’ sins of individuals). The range of those to whom the saving action of the descent into hell is extended becomes ever more narrow. First, it excludes sinners doomed to eternal torment, then those in purgatory and finally unbaptized infants. This kind of legalism was alien to the Orthodox East, where the descent into Hades continued to be perceived in the spirit in which it is expressed in the liturgical texts of Great Friday and Easter, i.e. as an event significant not only for all people, but also for the entire cosmos, for all created life.

An excellent example of the sort of development in the West which Bishop Hilarion describes is found in the work of Thomas Aquinas. Bishop Hilarion offers this observation:

Thomas Aquinas was the 13th-century theologian who brought to completion the Latin teaching on the descent of Christ into Hades. In his ‘Summa Theologiae’, he divides hell into four parts: 1) purgatory (purgatorium), where sinners experience penal suffering; 2) the hell of the patriarchs (infernum patrum), the abode of the Old Testament righteous before the coming of Christ; 3) the hell of unbaptized children (infernum puerorum); and 4) the hell of the damned (infernum damnatorum). In response to the question, exactly which was the hell that Christ descended to, Thomas Aquinas admits two possibilities: Christ descended either into all parts of hell or only to that in which the righteous were imprisoned, whom He was to deliver. In the first case, ‘for going down into the hell of the lost He wrought this effect, that by descending thither He put them to shame for their unbelief and wickedness: but to them who were detained in Purgatory He gave hope of attaining to glory: while upon the holy Fathers detained in hell solely on account of original sin (pro solo peccato originali detinebantur in inferno), He shed the light of glory everlasting’. In the second case, the soul of Christ ‘descended only to the place where the righteous were detained’ (descendit solum ad locum inferni in quo justi detinebantur), but the action of His presence there was felt in some way in the other parts of hell as well.

What is of interest to me is looking at what is happening on the metaphorical level in these two treatments of Christ’s Descent into Hell. In St. Cyril’s preaching, as well as in other Fathers of the Eastern Church, the root metaphor of Christ’s Descent into Hell is literally that – Christ’s Descent into Hell. Gustav Aulen, the Swedish Lutheran theologian, would later dub this imagery the “Christus Victor” model of the atonement. It is placing Christ’s defeat of Satan and destruction of Hell as the dominant image that is pressed throughout its preaching and its use in doctrine. The East never broke the metaphor up (nor did it ever offer an analysis of Hell itself as in Aquinas’ four distinctions). A number of Eastern Fathers, indeed the majority, will labor somewhat to state that not everyone will be saved in a “happy” sense, but they have to labor to reach that conclusion because the overarching metaphor of Christ Descent into Hades can easily lead one to see Hell as empty – and if Hell is empty, then all are saved. (I personally love Cyril’s description of Satan being left “abandoned and lonely.”)

In the West, it is not the metaphor created by the Descent of Christ into Hades that controls the development of thought on the subject, but an alternative metaphor – that of the forensic, or legal world, as Bishop Hilarion noted. Thus Christ’s Descent into Hades is analyzed by reference to a metaphor outside the event and made to conform, ultimately, to that metaphor.

Thus it is today that we find the Roman Catholic Church re-examining the doctrine of limbo. My dear friend Fr. Al Kimel has posted an article on the current work of Catholic theologians on Pontifications. It is worth a read – but I would note to any reading it, that from an Orthodox perspective, what is going on is a reexamination of the legal metaphor and the possibility that some other approach might yield different results. It did in the Eastern Church – and will in the West if theologians there will let the event speak for itself.

I will add as an additional observation, that the controlling or root metaphor in the West was not simply drawn from the legal world itself. Rather, an analysis of the Adamic fall and the use of some of St. Paul’s imagery with that fall, come to be the dominant metaphor. Original sin therefore plays a role in the West that it never did in the East. It is worth noting that the thinking and doctrine concerning salvation which followed or were driven by that metaphor come to see the Descent into Hell as problematic. Rome treated the problem by subjecting it to scholastic analysis. For much of the Protestant tradition, the Descent becomes so problematic that it is virtually forgotten. Anglican Prayerbooks (even in 1928) offered optional versions of the Apostles’ Creed in which you could say, “He descended into Hell,” or “He went into the place of departed spirits.” At the most, the Descent into Hell was limited to a freeing of the “righteous.” The alternative metaphor of original sin and juridical salvation gave little or no room for a salvation from Hell from within Hell itself. For a large number of modern Evangelicals, it is no exaggeration to say that there is no awareness at all that Christ ever descended into Hell (Hades, etc.). The metaphor which dominates their thoughts on salvation gives no room nor necessity for such a descent. This absence is similar to the absence of sacramental understanding in which Baptism and Eucharist play a role in salvation. They are reduced to memorials or ordinances because the controlling metaphor in modern Protestant thought has no room nor necessity for either.

The ending of Chrysostom’s Catechetical Sermon is a fitting end to these thoughts:

O Death, where is thy sting?
O Hell, where is thy victory?
Christ is risen, and thou art overthrown!
Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen!
Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice!
Christ is risen, and life reigns!
Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in the grave.
For Christ, being risen from the dead,
Is become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep.

To Him be glory and dominion
Unto ages of ages.


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.





145 responses to “Metaphors of the Atonement”

  1. WW2 Marine Veteran Avatar
    WW2 Marine Veteran

    The doctrine of the Ascent of Christ into Hades is very informative. I truly appreciate this presentation. We need more of this type of history of the church.

  2. Seraphim Avatar

    I don’t see any “legalism” or “forensic” metaphors here. Damnation is a possibility for all Christians – why should those who lived before Christ be assured salvation? Some of them rejected God – like Korah and those who perished in the Flood and at Sodom. Universalism is a heresy; the fact that some people refuse to accept salvation does not detract from the entirely victorious nature of Christ’s conquest over sin through the entire cosmos.

  3. Margaret Avatar

    Well said, Fr. Stephen! And thank you for saying it!

  4. fatherstephen Avatar

    We don’t profess a legalism or a salvation of those before Chirst. We proclaim Christ and His mercy. We draw n0 conclusions. Only the love of God.

  5. Patrick Avatar

    I continue to ponder, Father Stephen, about the timelessness of the Descent. If Hades was empty, because all souls departed, does that speak only of those who died before ca 32AD, or might that speak of all departed souls, who “fell asleep” before and after that time? We speak of the Crucifixion and the Resurrection as being eternal events; should not the Descent be also?
    Forgive me if it is a heretical thought. It comforts me though to think that a sinner like me could be preached to by Christ Himself in His Victory over sin and Death.

  6. […] here, but Father Stephen Freeman has recently posted some very interesting comments on this at Metaphors of the Atonement | Glory to God for All Things: Excellent illustrations of this are found if you look at the doctrines related to the Descent of […]

  7. […] Father Stephen Freeman, whose thought and spirit I greatly appreciate, has this evening posted on Metaphors of the Atonement. I commend it to Orthodox readers especially, but it may be of interest to western Christians […]

  8. Brian Avatar

    I think Patrick has touched on a truth that we tend to overlook because we are all-too-prone to think of time in a linear fashion.

    If we look at the icon of the Resurrection (alternately known as the icon of the Harrowing of Hades), we see depicted, among others, King David – the very man of whom St. Peter said on the day of Pentecost, “that he is both dead and buried, and his tomb is with us to this day.”

    It should also be noted that the tombs of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were well known to the Jews of Christ’s time – indeed they are with us to this day. Yet in reply to the Sadducees, Christ quoted the Scripture, “I am the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” and said that, “He is not the the God of the dead, but of the living.”

    Our Faith is eschatological in that it is a participation by grace in what is, in terms of linear time, the future. So it is that St. John Chrysostom can rightly say, “Christ is risen, and not one dead remain in the grave!”

    Speaking of the icon of the Resurrection, I am forever comforted by the fact that God is love. God is good. God is compassionate toward us, ever reaching out to us in love and longing for our return to Him in order that He might demonstrate his mercy and kindness by sharing His own life with us. Those who believe otherwise must ask themselves: to whom is God reaching down and lifting back to Himself in the icon of the Resurrection? Are they not the very persons whose sin was the occasion for His own suffering and death? Is He not reaching out in love to the ones who can truly be said to be the most ‘guilty’, the beginning and the cause of all the evils in the world? “Original sin” and various degrees of “guilt” are less than raindrops in the endless ocean of God’s love.

    What unspeakable mercy!

  9. Mairnéalach Avatar

    The Logos himself spoke of an abiding wrath, both from his human lips and also from the lips of his prophet John through the apocalypse. East and West both have to reckon with those statements. Both parties offer plenty of pious speculation. God is the god of the living, not the dead. With that in mind I find the opinions about Christ’s descent into hell not nearly as interesting as those about his crucifixion and resurrection.

  10. Marsha Avatar

    Patrick, i really like that thought as well. If every day is a Pascha, then surely Christ descends into our hells daily to save us!

  11. fatherstephen Avatar

    I think of all three together. Seems to me better to consider them in that way.

  12. Karen Avatar

    Brian, well said. Thank you.

    Mairnealach, I think the Descent into Hades is of interest because it reveals the ultimate frontier to which God goes to save us. In the same way that the Cross is of interest because it reveals the depths of suffering to which God will go to save us, Hades reveals the extremes of God’s willingness to be Present to and with us in the consequences of our Sin. In other words, there is no experience of man where Christ has not been (except that of personal sin). Therefore the Psalmist (David) can say “If I should descend to Hades, You would be there.” (Ps. 138:8 LXX)

  13. alex Avatar

    Father, bless.

    I wonder if some of the differences in understanding come from a failure in the West to differentiate between hell and hades?

  14. Jerry Cornelius Avatar
    Jerry Cornelius

    Which verse in the Bible states that he descended into Hell?

  15. Jamie Avatar

    Father Stephen,

    I have grown up as a Protestant Christian. Your observation is correct. I never once heard that Jesus descended into Hell. The overall metaphor that informed all that I was ever taught in church was a legal one. I am coming out of this metaphor more and more.

    Thank you,

  16. Karen Avatar

    Jerry, do you believe that Jesus Christ actually died? The word for hell in the Bible is Hades/Sheol, which means the grave, the abode of the dead (not to be confused with Gehenna, or the “lake of fire” in Revelation, where the unrighteous suffer after the general resurrection). If you believe Jesus died, you must believe He descended into Hades. They mean the same thing. The Scriptures make it abundantly clear in numerous places that Jesus actually died.

  17. Ken Kannady Avatar
    Ken Kannady

    Very good Fr. Stephen! If I may add, perhaps the “captives” help define the descent by Christ into hell.

  18. coffeezombie Avatar

    Jerry, see 1 Peter 3:18-20 is usually read as referring to Christ’s descent into Hell. At least, the Evangelicals I grew up among read it that way (though they really didn’t know what to make of it, and it was usually ignored).

  19. Jerry Cornelius Avatar
    Jerry Cornelius


    Thank you. I have read 1 Peter 3:18-20

    18For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive by the Spirit, 19 through whom also he went and preached to the spirits in prison 20 who disobeyed long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built. In it only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water

    If he descended into Hell at Death, how do you reconcile this statement with that Descent?

    Luke 23:43 Jesus answered him, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.

    I would distinguish between different Hebriac conceptaul frameworks in dealing with terms like Sheol, Hades etc. – Hell has a very specific implication….one of separation.

  20. Rebecca Wilson Avatar
    Rebecca Wilson

    I was not able to access Fr. Al’s blog through your link or the web. Is it still closed because of past harassment?


  21. coffeezombie Avatar

    Jerry: Your question reminds me of one of the troparia hymns sung during the Paschal Hours,

    “In the grave bodily, but in Hades with Thy soul as God,
    In Paradise with the thief, and on the Throne with the Father and the Spirit,
    Wast Thou who fillest all things,
    O Christ the Inexpressible.”

    Maybe not the best answer logically, but I’ve learned that the best answer for me is to point to what I know of how these things are treated by the Church in its worship.

    “I would distinguish between different Hebriac conceptaul frameworks in dealing with terms like Sheol, Hades etc. – Hell has a very specific implication….one of separation.”

    Well, then, technically, we’re talking about Christ’s descent into Hades/Sheol. “Hell” is an English word (originally a somewhat similar concept to Hades, the realm of the dead) that has been used to translate *both* Hadels/Sheol and Gehenna in English Bibles (until relatively recently).

  22. EPG Avatar

    Jeffrey Cornelius wrote in part: “Hell has a very specific implication….one of separation.”

    I am a novice at all of this, but why should the concept of separation be an obstacle? After all, Jesus did cry out from the Cross, “Why have you forsaken me?” And there was a period, from Friday afternoon until some time before the women went to the tomb after the Sabbath, stone cold actually really dead, right?

    Now I know this has some startling implications in light of the doctrine of the Trinity. But isn’t that part of the Paschal mystery?

  23. EPG Avatar

    Another question —

    The Orthodox (along with Roman Catholics, Anglicans, and some others) would not be limited to a sola scriptura approach (which some of the comments above seem to be aiming at).

    So, how is the concept of Christ’s descent rendered in the Apostle’s Creed (early Tradition) and the Nicene Creed (Church Council)? Does that illuminate the issue at all?

  24. reader john Avatar
    reader john

    For some reason I keep thinkng of the last words of a book by the Oxford Dominican Simon Tugwell OP, whose work is firmly grounded in patristics. At the end of his enchanting book entitled The Beatitudes he writes, if I remember it correctly, “In the end we are all beggars at the door of God’s grace.” As I read it, saints and sinners both. Just a reminder that God “loves”….but not in the comparitively paltry manner in which man “loves”.

  25. Scott Morizot Avatar

    Just for etymological purposes, I’m pretty sure the English ‘Hell’ was derived from ‘Hel’ which was, like Hades, both the deity of death and the abode of the dead. So it’s probably best used to translate Hades/Sheol/Death. I could be wrong, but that’s my best understanding.

    The other NT word used is ‘gehenna’ which tends to be used in apocalyptic language and is thus not always easy to understand. It was the garbage dump outside Jerusalem, of course. Often, when Jesus used it, it seems to have simultaneously had a sense of the coming judgment of God against Jerusalem in AD 70 and through that apocalyptic image a sense of the ultimate experience of those who do not want God when the knowledge of the glory (which the NT tells us is his love) of the Lord fills all things to overflowing and God cannot be escaped.

    It’s my understanding that, among other reasons, 2 Peter is considered to refer to the descent into Hades (or death) by Jesus because where else would the spirits from the time of Noah be?

    But again, I could be mistaken. That’s just my best understanding right now.

  26. Jerry Cornelius Avatar
    Jerry Cornelius

    “After all, Jesus did cry out from the Cross, “Why have you forsaken me?” – EPG

    Archimandrite Zacharias Zacharou has said that it is incorrect to say that Jesus experienced ‘Ontological Separation’ on the Cross – do you think he meant between his Divine self and his human self [his ‘theandric hypostasis’] rather than a sundering in the perichoresis or circumincession of the Trinity, because of the problem of bearing the sin of the whole world?

    Do you think bearing the sin of the whole world on the Cross sundered the coinherent unity if the Trinity or did they take the problem of sin ‘into’ their perichoresis and extinguish it by overcoming death?

  27. Jerry Cornelius Avatar
    Jerry Cornelius

    “Wast Thou who fillest all things”,

    Whoever wrote this Troparian clearly understood his simultaneous ascent into Paradise and his simultaneous descent into Hell – his “filling of all things”……

  28. pastorsonya Avatar

    Yes, I agree about the legal metaphor in the west. It seems to be present in the NT but it’s only one of many (and not the one I prefer). All this is interesting to me, as a Lutheran. Luther knew there was something wrong with the legal metaphor and to a large degree subverted it – yet he kept the metaphor. At the same time, he used other metaphors, most notably the “participation” metaphor common in the Fathers. Anyway, it was very interesting post!

  29. Lewis Avatar

    Since Hell is where sinners end up for eternity (or do they?), it has long bothered me that Christ descended into it. Today’s blog explains how difficult this has been for others over the centuries. One of my summary thoughts is that by descending into Hell, ‘Christ caught everybody up” to the day of the Resurrection, but I am not sure that is sound ‘theology’. What do you think, Fr. Stephen and others?

  30. Patrick Avatar

    The problem with the common understanding of Hell is alluded to above. 3 different NT words are were all translated “infernus” in the Latin, and “Hell” in the English. Hades (OT Sheol) is the place of the dead. Also called “grave”, “pit”, “into the earth”, etc. With the exception of the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, nowhere are flames and torments associated with the word Hades. (Meanwhile, in that Parable, might the “Bosom of Abraham” be elsewhere in Hades?) The eternal torments are almost universally associated with the word “Gehenna” (the Devil gets a special punishment in yet another place called “Tartarus”). In Revelations, it is stated that Hades itself will be thrown into the “lake of fire”-presumably Gehenna.
    Jesus went to Hades, not Gehenna.
    Our semantic equation of Hades and Gehenna has been, I think, of great disservice to Christianity in general in English speaking countries. I don’t know whether other languages include the same error.

  31. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    If Christ really died as a real human being, he went whereever real human beings who died went. Does it really matter where? Or do we use such excursions into ‘meaning’ to distract ourselves from the reality of the fact that Jesus is fully God and fully man. God Incarnate, everywhere present and filling all things.

    The troparian quoted by upstream by coffiezombie still says it best:
    “In the grave bodily, but in Hades with Thy soul as God,
    In Paradise with the thief, and on the Throne with the Father and the Spirit,
    Wast Thou who fillest all things,
    O Christ the Inexpressible.”

    In any case Christ is Risen!

  32. Mary Lanser Avatar

    I am a Catholic and nothing that has been said here makes sense to me. Also I didn’t get Archbishop Hilarion’s essay either. Usually he makes more sense when he’s talking about Catholic doctrine.

    I am not going to engage a long argument. That’s not my interest here, but you all should know that this is alien to at least one, fairly well aware, Catholic and one time catechist.


  33. Anna Avatar

    Jerry Cornelius,

    I heard in my Protestant past, that there are varying ways of translating the phrase that Christ spoke on the Cross to the thief. From what I remember, it is possible to read it in various ways, due to the lack of punctuation.

    It could be translated,

    I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in Paradise.

    It could also be translated,

    I tell you the truth today, you will be with me in Paradise.

    I’m thinking that your discussion goes much deeper than this though.


  34. Jerry Cornelius Avatar
    Jerry Cornelius


    I am interested in the impact of Son becoming sin on the Trinity and the whole problem of death and how the Trinity dealt with that in themselves as the Life of the World when Jesus gave up his spirit.

    2 Corinthians 5:21 God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

    Romans 6:23 For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord

    Mark 15:34 And at the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?”–which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

    It is absolutely clear that an ‘Ontological Separation’, a ‘Sundering’, a wrenching apart did take place on the Cross – but how – because I am ruling out any suggestion that there was an ‘ontological separation’, a sundering in the theandric hypostasis of Jesus – between His Divine self and His human self – so in dealing with sin the Trinity simultaneously allowed themselves be sundered for us – but in being sundered, they were simultaneously in Communion and there is some form of exchange and reversal taking place from Death to Life, even as the Son of Life is becoming Death by becoming Sin and all this is being transacted within the Perichoresis of the Trinity – there is this incredible exchange taking place within the Trinity on the Cross.

    Kathryn Lindskoog and G. F. Ellwood have observed in their paper, ‘C.S.Lewis: Natural Law, The Law in our hearts’ that -“In Lewis’s first chronicle of Narnia, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950), the lion Asian predicts this hardness of God’s love by promising to save Edmund from the results of treachery. He says: “All shall be done. But it may be harder than you think” (p. 104). When he and the wicked White Witch discuss her claim on Edmund’s life, she refers to the law of that universe as the Deep Magic. Aslan would never consider going against the Deep Magic; instead, he gives himself to die in Edmund’s place, and the next morning comes back to life. He explains to Susan that though the Witch knows the Deep Magic, there is a far deeper magic that she does not know. This deeper magic says that when a willing victim is killed in place of a traitor, death itself begins working backwards. The deepest magic works toward life and goodness.”

  35. Arnold E. Karr Avatar

    Objecting to a general salvation of those who died before Jesus revealed himself reminds me of the workers in the parable who resented being paid no more than those who had worked only an hour. If God has given me what I was promised for my faith, why should I care if he gives the same to someone else for nothing? Perhaps I should reevaluate my own accomplishments and realize that, to God, they are little better than nothing.

  36. Mary Lanser Avatar

    With respect to the harrowing of hell, I would think that the strongest caution would be not to fall into the idea of an easy grace or an irresistible grace. The former a simple error, the latter a heresy.

    One might postulate that when Christ entered Sheol that there may have been a soul to reject him there, but the Catholic Church certainly does not speculate on that in her formal teaching, and the image that the only one left in Sheol on Easter morning was the devil was common enough when I was being taught in Catholic school in the 1950’s.


  37. fatherstephen Avatar

    No separation whatsoever.

  38. Victor Avatar


    Perhaps the ‘deep magic’ referred to by Aslan is the knowledge that things ought to be fair or just and the ‘deeper magic’ is Mercy.

    The Evil one seeks to catch God out in a contract, to force the Son into ‘paying off the Father’, to force a separation between Father and Son. What the Evil one cannot understand is that They will never be truly separated in any way at all. Christ’s cry is not one of separation from the Father but of union with Humanity. When He so cries out to the Father He unites Himself to the Psalmist, to Job, to every questioning, suffering human being in our whole history.

    Even as Job “opened his mouth and cursed his day” he also said “though He slay me, yet will I trust Him.”

    The words of Christ to His Father are not, “I knew you were a hard Master, reaping where you did not sow”(Matt 25:24) and “look, there you have what is yours”(Matt 25:25) but rather “My God, My God…” (Matt 27:46) and “into Your hands I commend my Spirit.”(Luke 23:46)
    Is not the theology of penal substitution exactly the ontological wedge between Father and Son which the Evil one sought to create? Though he has failed in this attempt he seeks yet to destroy us by having us believe that the Father has rejected the Son, that Jesus came to save us from the Father etc. This is the death cry of death, the last gasp of the kingdom of darkness, and it is finally drowned in the triumph of Christ.

    By embracing sin Adam found death. In embracing death Christ encountered sin. In ’emptying Himself’ He enters into that place of complete lack and nothingness. He becomes sin in the sense of missing the mark, of being incomplete, of being as nothing. But the Self He empties in His meeting with death is such a Fullness that it overflows all the emptiness and roars through the dry canyon of death as a river in Spring flood.

  39. fatherstephen Avatar

    Patrick and others,
    I strongly recommend Met. Hilarion Alfeyev’s new book Christ’s The Conqueror of Hell: The Descent into Hades from an Orthodox Perspective. It is by far the most authoritative and thorough treatment of the subject. Orthodoxy does not make quite the distinction between Hades and Hell as some might think.

  40. fatherstephen Avatar

    It’s not a Catholic treatment of the subject, but an Eastern Orthodox treatment. And this is one of the places where the two tend to part company.

  41. Mary Lanser Avatar

    Can you help me see more specifically where you say we part company, Father? I am not being purposefully dense…but does Orthodoxy teach that all souls are saved?….and is the descent into hell some kind of ongoing moment so that no one ever gets into hell much less never comes out?

    That is what it is sounding like to me, and if that is the case then yes we are different on that score.


  42. fatherstephen Avatar

    Orthodoxy certainly believes that there are souls which enter hell and suffer torments. However, Christ’s descent into hell is indeed something of an ongoing moment. In the description of some Orthodox theologians, “hell is spending eternity in the presence of God and not wanting to be there.” In that sense, hell is a state of the heart that refuses the love of God. It is not an external punishment but an internal state. The Psalmist says, “Lo, if I descend into hell, Thou art there.” There are many even in this present life who refuse the love of God and enter a kind of torment (even though they may be oblivious to it). God is not willing that any should perish, according to Scripture, but we believe that there are some who will refuse that loving generosity. I know I refuse it far too often in my life, and so I pray, “Lord, have mercy.”

    We believe that the prayers of the living are of benefit to those who have died – even to souls in hell. God alone knows the nature or extent of that benefit. And so we pray, and trust in His mercy.

    There are many aspects of Catholic teaching, such as purgatory, or material fire in hell, that are not accepted by the Orthodox Church – including Aquinas’ distinctions within Hades.

    But universalism is not the teaching of the Orthodox Church either. There are a small handful of fathers who hint that such salvation may indeed be possible in the end for all, but that it is beyond our knowledge or ability to say. St. Isaac of Syria is perhaps the best known in this regard.

    I believe that as a Christian I should never rejoice in the loss of a soul, but should ever pray for God’s mercy. Only the demons rejoice at the death of a sinner and we should never want to be like them. And so we pray, with tears, calling on the mercy of the good God, otherwise our hearts would grow dark.

    May God have mercy on all, including my sinful soul.

  43. Jerry Cornelius Avatar
    Jerry Cornelius

    “No separation whatsoever” – Father Stephen Freeman

    Father Stephen,

    Thank you. OK. How do you treat this verse, if Paul is correct and the Son became sin (cf. Romans 6:23)?

    Isaiah 59:2 But your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, And your sins have hidden His face from you so that He does not hear.

  44. Micah Avatar


    At the end of the line that separates darkness from true light, God set a divine hook.

    Dia-logos between East and West is fulfilled in Pascha, and thus the Church proclaims that Christ is Truly Risen!

  45. Jerry Cornelius Avatar
    Jerry Cornelius

    “Christ’s cry is not one of separation from the Father but of union with Humanity. When He so cries out to the Father He unites Himself to the Psalmist, to Job, to every questioning, suffering human being in our whole history. ” – Victor


    A great treatment of the “Discernment of Cries” in the Book of Job, the Psalms and on the Cross…

    I am still interested in therelationship between the problem of the Son becoming ‘Sin Bearing’ for us and the relationship of Sin to Separation.

  46. Jerry Cornelius Avatar
    Jerry Cornelius

    “By embracing sin Adam found death. In embracing death Christ encountered sin.” – Victor

    Surely the Son becomes sin before he embraces death )Cf.Romans 5:12-21)?

  47. Micah Avatar

    Surely the Son becomes sin before he embraces death) Cf.Romans 5:12-21)? — Jerry

    Yes — but only when sin is understood as an existential problem. The Son’s crucifixion fulfills every prophecy and law because it reveals God’s perfect righteousness and nature (hidden behind the veil of law).

    Thus does St. Paul cry “where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” (1 Cor 15:55)

  48. Jerry Cornelius Avatar
    Jerry Cornelius

    “Yes — but only when sin is understood as an existential problem. The Son’s crucifixion fulfills every prophecy and law because it reveals God’s perfect righteousness and nature (hidden behind the veil of law). ” – Micah

    …Hidden behind the veil of the Law.

    Micah, I really like your closing observation on the relationship between hidden attribution and the Law, but do you distinguish between Sin as an Existential problem and Sin as an Ontological problem?

    The Existential defined in terms of ‘Action’ and the Ontological defined in terms of ‘Being’.

  49. Jerry Cornelius Avatar
    Jerry Cornelius

    Fahter John Behr suggests that sin is an Ontological problem in his book, ‘The Mystery of Christ – Life in Death’:

    “We are sinful and fallen….the depth of our brokenness extends to the very core of our being..” (Page 92).

    Isaiah 53:5 But he was pierced for our transgressions [rebellions], he was crushed for our iniquities [perversions]; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.

  50. Micah Avatar

    Well put Jerry.

    St. Paul speaks of a sharp double-edged sword that separates all things, but in separating, points the way to eternal life (cf. Genesis 3:24).

    This is why there is a place for both “doulia” and “latria” (properly understood) in the Living Church (cf Revelation 19:10).

  51. Jerry Cornelius Avatar
    Jerry Cornelius


    Thank you. I am interested that the Sword wielded by the HOLY Spirit is Scripture:

    Genesis 3:24 After he drove the man out, he placed on the east side of the Garden of Eden cherubim and a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life.

    A flaming sword guarding the way to the Tree of Life being wielded and flashed back and forth and I am interested that that the Cherubim guard the Mercy Seat….

    Ephesians 6:17b and the sword that the Spirit wields, which is the Word of God.

    Hebrews 9:5 Above the ark were the cherubim of the Glory, overshadowing the mercy seat. But we cannot discuss these things in detail now.

  52. Greg Avatar

    Is there a patristic or contextual exegesis on Ephesians 6:17 that details what is meant precisely by the “word of God” in this context?

  53. Micah Avatar

    Metropolitan Philaret of Moscow’s statement (quoted in Fr. Georges Florovsky’s Limits of the Church) is a most definitive exegesis of the Logos of Ephesians 6:17 (or the flaming sword and Tree of Life in the metaphor of Genesis 3:24):

    “You expect now that I should give judgement concerning the other half of present Christianity,” the Metropolitan said in the concluding conversation, “but I just simply look upon them; in part I see how the Head and Lord of the Church heals the many deep wounds of the old serpent in all the parts and limbs of his Body, applying now gentle, now strong, remedies, even fire and iron, in order to soften hardness, to draw out poison, to clean wounds, to separate out malignant growths, to restore spirit and life in the numbed and half-dead members. In this way I attest my faith that, in the end, the power of God will triumph openly over human weakness, good over evil, unity over division, life over death.”

  54. Karen Avatar

    Dear Father, bless! That is a really nice summary of Orthodox teaching in your comment to Mary. Thanks.

    Jerry, I don’t know if this helps and Fr. Stephen may correct, but the verse where it says Jesus “became sin” for us I have read is the same term used for “sin offering.” In other words, Jesus became our sin offering for us. It is a reference to all that this implies regarding the nature of the OT sacrifice that prefigured it. I don’t know if this impacts the nature of your question regarding separation.

    I love that imagery in C.S. Lewis regarding the “deep magic” and the”deeper magic.” I think that Victor makes a very good commentary on this.

  55. Brian Avatar


    Perhaps this will help with the idea of sin as it relates to the unthinkable possibility of ontological separation in the Trinity or between the divine and human natures of Christ (and please bear in mind that I am no theologian). I am the first to admit that there is a mystery to all this that cannot be fully grasped by the mind.

    Adam’s personal sin made him and all his descendants subject to the slavery of death and sin. His descendants’ personal sins are the result of this slavery, of being driven by the desire for life while cut off from its only possible Source – and of being driven by the fear of death to preserve their egoistic and biological existence (“sin reigned IN death”). Adam’s sin is unique in that his was a completely free choice, free of any compulsion, necessity of his nature, or fear of death. Thus Adam’s sin was the cause of death while death – and the the fear of death – in his descendants became a ‘force’ (what the Apostle Paul calls “the law of sin”) impelling them to commit personal sins of their own.

    In terms of what our Lord did for us to undo this vicious cycle, the Apostle put it this way:

    “Forasmuch then as the children are partakers of flesh and blood, he also himself likewise took part of the same; that through death he might destroy him that had the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver them who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage [i.e., to death and sin].”

    It may be a bit of an oversimplification, but it is probably fair to say that Orthodox Christians understand sin and death as a single tragic reality – not two things that are distinct. We speak of them separately only for the sake of understanding given the limitations of human language.

    Man was created for life and immortality. For man to experience death is to “sin” in the sense that sin means “missing the mark” of that for which he was created. The apostle’s words, “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us…” are therefore understood in the sense that Christ (in His humanity) purposely chose to obey His Father and endure the “sin” of death for our sakes that He might destroy the power of death and sin in His divine Person. In doing so, He transformed the “sin” of death into the communion of obedience to God and, as you said, “death itself begins working backwards.”

    As to Christ’s descent into Hades, I think it is best understood in terms of Michael Bauman’s comments above. And in light of Father Stephen’s constant (and correct) reminders that we do not live in a two-story universe – or in this case “three-story” (Heaven, earth, AND Hades), it is best not to speculate about Hades as some other ‘place.’ The word “Hades” is borrowed from the Greek language, but it can carry with it all sorts of ancient Greek mythological connotations that were never intended by early Christian writers. The hymnology of the Church is quite simple:

    “You descended into the tomb, O Immortal
    You destroyed the power of death
    In victory You arose, O Christ God
    Proclaiming ‘Rejoice!’ to the myrrh-bearing women
    Granting peace to Your apostles
    And bestowing resurrection on the fallen”

    Hope this helps. Please forgive me where I have failed.

  56. Jerry Cornelius Avatar
    Jerry Cornelius

    “It may be a bit of an oversimplification, but it is probably fair to say that Orthodox Christians understand sin and death as a single tragic reality – not two things that are distinct. We speak of them separately only for the sake of understanding given the limitations of human language.” -Brian


    Thank you. I understand the tendency in certain Eastern Orthodox Dogmatic and Doctrinal streams to subliminate Sin as a category into Death as a category and the implications of this specific sublimation.

    If you agree to this sublimation then Sin becomes an existential category of ‘imputed action’ and not an Ontological category of the actual ‘violation of his Being’ and so the statement “no separation whatsoever” becomes apposite….

    I simply question the efficacy of this Sublimation, although I fully accept and confess the soteriological implications of these verses:

    Hebrews 2:14-15 Because God’s children are human beings–made of flesh and blood–the Son also became flesh and blood. For only as a human being could he die, and only by dying could he break the power of the devil, who had the power of death. Only in this way could he set free all who have lived their lives as slaves to the fear of dying.

  57. Victor Avatar


    Thanks for this. I think it moves in the direction of what the meaning of sin is. When we look at is as incompleteness and missing the mark instead of only moral/legal failure we look at it in its original relationship with death.
    John’s Gospel refers to Christ as “The lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” I think this references the brokenness and ‘unfulfilledness’ of the created order. Christ has come to heal our brokenness but also to fulfill our vocation, to be the first complete human.

    There is a strong strain of teaching among the Fathers indicating that the Incarnation is not caused by the fall. God has always been intent on union with humanity and that union was not yet complete prior to the fall. He intends to complete it and so take away the incompleteness of the world, fallen or not.

    Jerry, as you pointed out, Christ became sin prior to the cross. I believe that this was because he embraced death prior to the cross as well. Every moment of the incarnation, from Annunciation to Crucifixion and Resurrection was and is an active embrace of our condition.

  58. Micah Avatar


    The One “whom death found it impossible to keep its hold on” Acts 2:24 (cf Psalm 16:9-11) has raised fallen man to Himself (cf Psalm 110:1).

    Christ’s Pascha has filled all things!

    The fear of death was only a very small part of hell.

  59. Mary Lanser Avatar

    Father Stephen,

    Do you have my posts on moderation? I don’t know if that is really necessary is it? It does inherently degrade trust.


  60. Mary Lanser Avatar

    Well apparently not!! So now what? I’ve posted a longish post twice and nothing showed up, so I owe everyone an apology. Frustrating though.


  61. Mary Lanser Avatar

    Third try…

    A few Orthodox occurances of Near Death Experiences are listed below. There are many others recorded but I don’t have the books handy so I must depend on what I can find recorded on Orthodox Internet sources. I believe it would be a charity to examine Catholic examples and analogies and metaphoric language with the same gentleness one would attribute to Orthodox sources since they sound and look remarkably the same. The Catholic Church does not condemn all such experiences but she is cautious and does not define formal doctrine in terms of each and every experience or teaching on a subject, but culls and synthesizes that which is true for the ages. It is very often an error to generalize from individual experiences and teachings that have not been formally taken up.

    Here is the Orthodox experience, what I can readily find of it:

    First there is Life After Death by St. John Maximovitch

    and then these other stories:

    A vision in Northumbria

    [St.] Bede (673-735), in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, tells of a man from Northumbria who became ill and died, then came back to life several hours later. The man said he saw a great valley where human souls were blown about by powerful winds and exposed alternately to fierce heat and bitter cold. The next stop was a place of darkness, where souls rose up and fell like sparks in flames arising from a huge pit. He next saw a vast meadow saturated with light and filled with the fragrance of flowers. In the meadow were countless people dressed in white robes. Soon, he approached a place where the light was still more beautiful, and the fragrance was even more pleasant than in the meadow. He was not allowed, however, to enter here.

    The valley of fire and ice, he understood, was a place for those who died penitent and confessed, but had postponed repentance until the hour of death. These souls would be admitted to heaven on the day of judgment. Meanwhile, they could be helped by almsgiving, prayer, and fasting on the part of the living. The pit of fire was the opening of hell, from which no one who entered would ever be rescued. The people in the meadow were those who had done good on Earth but had not attained the perfection needed to enter heaven. Their admittance to heaven would be delayed until the day of judgment. Heaven was located near the place of surpassingly beautiful light and was the destination of all who were perfect in thought, word and deed before they left the body.
    Thecla’s Vision

    Another vivid Orthodox vision of the afterlife was granted to a novice named Thecla. She reported seeing three great furnaces in a dream.

    Demons pulled people out of the furnaces, then beat the people with hammers. This place, Thecla understood, was assigned to Christians who did not act according to their faith. Their sins included indecent language and failure to honor holy days. She also saw a blazing river filled with souls. In her vision, Thecla visited the Promised Land, where she saw a great, indescribably beautiful temple filled with brilliant light. This temple, she learned, was intended for the last monks, who would be few in number. Thecla’s vision was considered genuine, because she reportedly had only a vague idea of doctrine on the fate of sinners and the righteous. The date of her experience is uncertain.

    Thecla’s vision illustrates Orthodox belief that sins committed in this life, unless cleansed away by repentance, Holy Baptism, and confession, will go unforgiven and will entail much suffering in the afterlife. The Orthodox faith also teaches that those who are spared suffering in this life may have to endure it hereafter, as in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31). By contrast, New Age thinking about NDEs and the afterlife tends to emphasize delightful, “heavenly” visions but avoid any mention of post-mortem suffering.

    According to his account, he died while in the hospital, and his soul left his body for a brief time. He saw two angels at his side. They took him by the arms and escorted him upward rapidly. Then he heard the cries and ugly laughter of evil spirits approaching. He was horrified, and described the encounter as follows: “Evil spirits! O, how much irony, how much of the most sincere kind of laughter this would have aroused in me but a few days ago….Having surrounded us on all sides, with shrieks and rowdy sounds the evil spirits demanded that I be given over to them; they tried somehow to seize and tear me away from the angels, but evidently did not dare to do this.”

  62. Mary Lanser Avatar

    In light of all that has been said to date how does one understand Life After Death by St. John Maximovitch?

    I hope this posts…


  63. Brian Avatar

    “Every moment of the incarnation, from Annunciation to Crucifixion and Resurrection was and is an active embrace of our condition.” – Victor

    Well said!

    Although we are right to think of Him as the “perfect Man,” He was incarnate in a human nature that was “in the likeness of sinful flesh” (Romans 8:3), which is to say that he willingly subjected Himself to all the effects, weaknesses, and necessities of sinful nature: hunger, thirst, fatigue, suffering… and death.

    He was (and is) fully human and fully God. But “though He was a Son, yet He learned obedience [in His humanity] by the things which He suffered. And having been perfected [in His humanity], He became the author of eternal salvation to all who obey Him.”

    This, I believe, is yet another dimension to “For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.”

    What an ineffable mystery of love!

  64. fatherstephen Avatar

    I ask everyone’s forgiveness and patience with me. I have not meant to be silent in these discussions. However, Metropolitan Jonah of the OCA is visiting my parish this weekend (he’s been here since Friday morning), and all of my attention has been in the parish and with the Metropolitan. I’ll return to more normal work with the blog on Monday. Any prayers offered are most appreciated. Postings with a hyper-link in them are automatically moderated by the wordpress blog program and I have to clear them manually. Thus if you have had problems with something posting, it’s because it was waiting for me to come and clear it. This is the first time today I’ve been able to attend to things. Again, thanks for your patience.

  65. Mary Lanser Avatar

    Forgive me, Father. I didn’t know about the hyperlink. I haven’t had enough experience yet. I pray you and your parish benefit from the pastoral visit and that the pastoral visitor is well pleased!!


  66. Brian Avatar

    “In light of all that has been said to date how does one understand Life After Death by St. John Maximovitch?” – Mary

    This topic as a whole is best left to Fr. Stephen. However, perhaps the best treatment I have ever read on the subject was written by Protopresbyter Michael Pomazansky.

    These thoughts from his essay may prove helpful in the meantime:

    “The subject…is not specifically a topic of Orthodox Christian theology: it is not a dogma of the Church in the precise sense, but comprises material of a moral and edifying character, one might say pedagogical. To approach it correctly, it is essential to understand the foundations and the spirit of the Orthodox world-view.”

    (Perhaps, then, this is not a topic appropriate to a public Blog Site? There are some things that simply cannot be accurately known unless they are assimilated from within the full context of the life of the Church.)

    “Concerning all the sensual, earthly images by which the Particular Judgement is presented…, although in their fundamental idea they are completely true, still they should be accepted in the way that the angel instructed Saint Macarius of Alexandria, being only the weakest means of depicting heavenly things.”

    “It is perfectly clear to anyone that purely earthly images are applied to a spiritual subject so that the image, being impressed in the memory, might awaken a man’s soul. ‘Behold the Bridegroom cometh at midnight, and blessed is the servant whom He shall find watching.’”

    The rest is best left to Fr. Stephen to address, should he choose to do so.

  67. Jerry Cornelius Avatar
    Jerry Cornelius

    “I think it moves in the direction of what the meaning of sin is. When we look at is as incompleteness and missing the mark instead of only moral/legal failure we look at it in its original relationship with death.” -Victor

    Victor, how do you see the relationship of sin to Holiness, Purity and Righteousness of the Trinity? Does it remain a rational abstraction from the Hebrew translated as “missing the mark” – analogy from archery – or do you see the full depravity, distortion and rebellion of sin expressed in Isaiah 53: 5-6?

    Isaiah 53:5-6 But he was pierced for our transgressions [Hebrew:rebellions], he was crushed for our iniquities [Hebrew:perversions]; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him[self] the sins of us all.

  68. Mary Lanser Avatar

    Dear Brian,

    You and Father Michael have made my point for me with regard to Orthodox views of Catholic teaching on purgatory. It is critical for one not to confuse formal teaching with individual experiences or perceptions. Not all of the teachings of the saints have been taken up formally in all of their particulars.

    That is really my only small contribution here, since the Orthodox and Catholic views have been compared, I think it is useful to note that not all comparisons are fully accurate. The facile repetition of time worn estimations have to stop somewhere if genuine communication is ever to begin.

    Additionally, and more importantly for this conversation, just within the context of Orthodoxy, I think that the writing of St. John the Wonderworker deserve or perhaps even demand consideration.


  69. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    It is quite difficult in the modern era to practice a proper discretion in these matters. There are a great many books published and information posted on the internet that, in prior ages, would not have been generally avaiable. Such activity can be useful some harmful.

    Mary, there is an internal evaluation of St. John’s words going on in an attempt to righteously digest it. It is not a formal, forensic evaluation as such, but it is proceeding in the minds and hearts of the faithful at all levels.

    Nothing to report at this point, at least not as far as I know. If the process follows traditional norms, what is right and true will organically become part of the understanding of the Church, the rest will be jettison.

    All in God’s time.

  70. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Mary, I would say that the clash of metaphors between the RCC and the Orthodox is indicative of the reality of the gulf between us. A gulf that is not easily brigded, much less actually mended.

    I am quite reticent to accept or push any large scale attempt at unity for two reasons:
    1. I don’t understand the necessity as long as we can work together in peace on areas where we have a common concern; &
    2. The unity that is spoken of is often such facile terms would require a long convalesence for all of us even if it were achieved. The only healer capable of managing the surgery and overseeing the subsequent convalesence is our Lord Himself. I’d rather wait on Him in this case. There is to great a liklihood of making the situation worse.

    Surely little, personal, local efforts can and should be made as a matter of fillial friendship, but the deeper wounds are not ours to heal except by the grace of God in our own hearts.

  71. Mary Lanser Avatar

    Dear Michael,

    With respect to time and discretion and discernment with regard to St. John’s understandings of life after death, I am in accord, and I believe that as his words are given credence, the clash of metaphors between Catholic and Orthodox on the matter of the particular judgment will seem less divisive.

    There will be no resumption of communion without the working of the Holy Spirit in our individual lives and the lives of the Church. There is no possibility of second-guessing that by any measure. I fully agree with you there.

    My suggestion always is that we don’t act negatively anew, or continue in the old ways that caused the suppurating sores in the first place.

    ~smile~…I consider my efforts, such as they are, to be exceptionally “local”…and highly unpopular, except on the rare and deeply rewarding occasion.


  72. Steven M. Calascione Avatar
    Steven M. Calascione

    To my mind, if there is one statement that completely encapsulates the true life of the Church it is found in the introductory paragraph of Fr. Florovsky’s “Limits of the Church”:

    “For the Church is unity, and the whole of her being is in this unity and union, of Christ and in Christ. ‘For in one Spirit were we all baptized into one body’ (1 Cor. 12.13), and the prototype of this unity is the consubstantial Trinity.”

    The obverse to such divinely inspired unity is schism, which leaves an invisible mark on the soul in the form of a schismatic will — both of which seem to thrive in complacency (cf. Zeph 1:12) to the extent that “the onlooker may not be able, immediately, to discern the schismatic ‘branches’ from the Catholic trunk”.

    Understanding how this will operates clearly, is a matter of the utmost importance to all who make it their business to walk as children of light (cf. Ephesians 5:8).

    Of course, we would all rather not have to speak about such things but we can be sure than in addressing its root together, we cause it to loosen its grip on many souls.

    Once again, thanking Father Stephen and all contributors here for your most esteemed contributions.

  73. Mary Lanser Avatar

    Dear Steven,

    I agree with you fully in this, and have often said that the end of the schism will require far more of a change of heart and mind that ever a change of doctrine or theology.


  74. Steven M. Calascione Avatar
    Steven M. Calascione

    Dear Mary,

    I agree with you wholeheartedly. Redemptoris Missio is a matter of true unity not semantics.


  75. Steven M. Calascione Avatar
    Steven M. Calascione

    All doctrine and theology is useful insofar as it draws all members of the Body into consubstantial unity with the Trinity (cf. 1 Cor 14:26).

  76. Brian Avatar


    I wholeheartedly agree. There is rhetoric from both East and West (although I freely confess that the harshest rhetoric often comes from some in the East) that is often based upon little more than a failure to try to understand the meaning intended by the language that has developed on both sides during the long period of estrangement.

    This is not to say that there are not very real and significant differences, but SOME of the perceived differences are little more than the result of stubbornness, pride, and downright prejudice.

    I so appreciate Fr. Stephen because he is faithful to the Orthodox Faith in the spirit of a truly orthodox, and indeed catholic, Christian – in humility, patience, and love.

  77. Mary Lanser Avatar

    Dear Brian,

    Now that we’ve come this far, I have to say that there are Catholics who surely could out-nasty anyone I’ve ever met in Orthodoxy…bar none.

    I am the last one to encourage a facile end to the schism on those grounds alone!!

    I was thinking as I’ve been reading through these comments again that there are few metaphors or analogies that can capture the whole of any truth, so the value of such things must be in how they touch our hearts and minds. How they draw the best out of us as people struggling to believe, working to stay faithful and absorbed in faith.

    I am an eastern Catholic and I went to one of the several websites gathering prayers and devotions for the intention of Pope Benedict in this time of trial for him and for the Church. I looked at the forms to fill out promising this or that kind of prayer and devotion and I found that there was not one mention of anything resembling my devotional life as an eastern Catholic, so I shrugged and moved on.

    Miles to go before we sleep.

    And I am ever so grateful for Father Stephens patience and gentle spirit!!


  78. Steven M. Calascione Avatar
    Steven M. Calascione

    Well said Brian.

    We Christians are creatures of union and the great schism must end with the words: “It is finished” (John 19:30).

    Thank you Mary, for your patience and humility.

  79. John M. Avatar
    John M.


    Late to the dance on this, but I humbly thank you for your teaching and patient responses in the discussions. Your response to Mary was enlightening and edifying for me and makes my heart leap a little.

    As you say, “May God have mercy on all, including my sinful soul.”

  80. Mary Lanser Avatar

    My great difficulty in reading this article is the treatment of the Harrowing of Hell as an ongoing event, when I belive there are strong grounds for asserting that it is a part of the same salvific moment that includes the Passion Death and Resurrection and Descent as a one time historical event.

    So that just as the eucharistic liturgy is a re-presentation of a one-time event, so too should be our conceptualization of the Harrowing of Hell.

    What happens after in time in death is real in-time moment of mortality and particular judgment, and not a continuation of the one-time moment of the Harrowing of Hell as part of the Moment of Redemption.


  81. coffeezombie Avatar

    Mary, I may be totally off here, but I’m not sure that the Orthodox Church, at least, would say that the Death and Resurrection of Christ is a “one time historical event,” either, in the sense that you seem to be using here.

    On the one hand, yes, they did happen in time, and, therefore, once in history. Christ’s sacrifice is not repeated, he offered himself once and for all.

    But, on the other hand, they are eternal events; or, in other words, events that happen in eternity, that is, outside time. Christ is the “lamb slain from the foundation of the world.” When we stand in church during the Paschal Liturgy, we’re not just celebrating something that happened once a long time ago; we are, in some way, present at the Resurrection, participating in it. Same with Holy Friday, and with all the Feasts of the Church.

    This is (as my understanding goes) why we say to each other during the Paschal season, “Christ is Risen!” and, during the Christmas season, “Christ is born!”, rather than “Christ was risen!” or “Christ was born!”

    Also, someone please correct me if I’m wrong, but my impression is that the Orthodox understanding of the Eucharist is not so much that it is a re-presentation of Christ’s sacrifice or of the Last Supper, but, rather, that it is the Bridal Feast, the Feast in Heaven into which we enter.

  82. Mary Lanser Avatar

    Dear Coffee Bean!

    Of course Eucharist is much more than sacrifice as well in the west. We are only partially retarded !!

    …but I do think there is the idea even in the far more advanced reaches of the east that Redemption happened once and Redemption includes the Passion, Death, Descent, Resurrection AND Ascension…as of a piece.

    So that to say that the west partitions the Harrowing of Hell like England partitioned Africa, is not quite fair since these artificial metaphors are meant to describe truths of revelation that relate to ongoing passage from death to life, in time…

    Though there is a way of looking at “being” outside of time, it must also be conceded that there is such a thing as time, with respect to divine action, or the Incarnation would have quite a different, and I believe heretical, meaning.

    It do get complicated sometimes!

    PS: Coffee puts my mother to sleep. Always has, so she is truly a coffeezombie!!


  83. fatherstephen Avatar

    I understand your difficulty. I think however, that there is much more to be said in understanding the re-presentation of the sacrifice of Christ. After all, the Scriptures tell us that the Lamb was slain before the foundations of the earth – so there is something about the character of that event – though it clearly occurs in time – also has a “timeless” quality. “On going” is probably the wrong term because that implies that it has a linearity that is a description of things in time. “Eternal” is not the same thing as endless linearity. But these matters are great mysteries and we do well not to press them too far.

    On earlier comments – I would want to add that the stories of near-death, or there-and-back-again experiences, or even the musings of some saints, should not be taken as foundations for dogmatic speculation. The topic fascinates people, and we often want to know much more than we do, but there is a kind of knowing that is harmful and a kind of knowing that is salvific. Speculation, to a large extent, especially in certain matters, is about as useful as gossip – and likely harmful. Even the knowledge of doctrine, when he only has an intellectual character, has not risen to the level of saving knowledge.

    Thanks to everyone for their patience. I had a very busy weekend with the Metropolitan’s visit. Everything went very well and I was richly blessed. I hope to return shortly to my usual pattern of writing and managing comments, etc.

    Christ is risen!

  84. Mary Lanser Avatar

    Uh…Oh!!!…there was supposed to be a big old smile next to my assertion that Catholics are only mildly retarded!!…

  85. Mary Lanser Avatar

    Only ideas that I think are worth pressing, because my Church has gone to great lengths to press them and been mocked and derided for it, are these:

    1. God does not press upon us any irresistible grace.

    2. Universal salvation is a heresy.

    3. None but the pure stand before God.

    4. Few leave this life sufficiently purified to stand before God.

    5. There is a hierarchy in heaven

    Frankly I don’t really care too much how one relates those truths as long as they are related with the least distortion.


  86. Robert Avatar

    On many things we agree dear Mary, but likewise on many important and substantial issues we deeply and sincerely differ.

  87. Mary Lanser Avatar

    I think this from Jerry Cornelius deserves more than a passover:

    “I think it moves in the direction of what the meaning of sin is. When we look at is as incompleteness and missing the mark instead of only moral/legal failure we look at it in its original relationship with death.” -Victor

    Victor, how do you see the relationship of sin to Holiness, Purity and Righteousness of the Trinity? Does it remain a rational abstraction from the Hebrew translated as “missing the mark” – analogy from archery – or do you see the full depravity, distortion and rebellion of sin expressed in Isaiah 53: 5-6?

    Isaiah 53:5-6 But he was pierced for our transgressions [Hebrew:rebellions], he was crushed for our iniquities [Hebrew:perversions]; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him[self] the sins of us all.

  88. Mary Lanser Avatar

    Dear Robert,

    Dare I ask?

    Also I think WordPress ate one of my comments. There’s a post by Jerry Cornelius a few posts back dated the 18th I believe that is really worth taking a look at with respect to the nature of sin.


  89. Robert Avatar

    Mary, I don’t think there is a need to go over any specifics. I believe you are well aware of all the major issues. So I will respectfully decline. 😀

  90. Mary Lanser Avatar

    Dear Robert,

    I am aware of many of the contested areas of doctrinal expression and I am also aware that the list changes sometimes from person to person. So I always ask.

    Also it is a good thing I have not taken an a priori rejection of Orthodox teaching as my primary mode of operating in the world. I have learned a great deal by being open. More than many of my own Catholic brothers and sisters.



  91. Victor Avatar


    First, was the pun intended? passover – Passover? Funny either way….
    Second, I wasn’t neglecting Jerry’s question, I don’t know how I missed seeing it!


    I like the question very much and will need to process it a bit. I think it points to a certain lived tension. On the one hand I don’t want to dismiss the lived fact of our broken, diseased corrupt wretchedness and how the Living Christ enters into each moment to liberate us. On the other hand I’m leery of granting some kind of ontology to sin…

    Let me think on it, and let the better minds and purer hearts here present comment at will meantime….


  92. Brian Avatar

    “I think this from Jerry Cornelius deserves more than a passover:”
    – Mary

    Agreed. This is, I believe, the second time Jerry asked essentially the same question. The first was phrased thus:

    “If you agree to this sublimation then Sin becomes an existential category of ‘imputed action’ and not an Ontological category of the actual ‘violation of his Being’ and so the statement “no separation whatsoever” becomes apposite…. I simply question the efficacy of this Sublimation…”

    Perhaps Victor would also like to comment on this.

    Jerry, you are clearly fluent in the language of philosophy – the only language in which discussion of important nuances can take place with some degree of precision. Allow me to state from the outset that, although I have some exposure to this language, I do not really speak it very well.

    So before I even try to give an answer, I need to ask you a question to ensure that I have correctly understood your question(s)/comments. I will await your reply lest I speak to something other than what you intended.

    To put it in simple terms, is it fair to say that the premise of your question(s)/comments is that God is holy, man has violated God’s holiness through sin; and that given this premise, how is it that the Orthodox understand Soteriology (or more precisely, the Atonement)? And how can the Orthodox be so unequivocal about saying that there was no “Ontological Separation’, a ‘Sundering’, a wrenching apart that took place on the Cross”? And further, how can the God-man remain God if He descended into Hades (or Hell or whatever), the ‘place (or ‘state’ – whatever we choose to call it) of separation from God?

    Is this a fair understanding of what you are saying? If not, please clarify.

  93. fatherstephen Avatar

    Brian, Jerry, etc.

    My comment of “no ontological separation” is rooted in the dogma of the Church on Christology.

    An interesting prayer in the Orthodox liturgy (at the censing of the altar): “In the tomb with the body, in Hades with the soul yet as God, in Paradise with the thief, on the throne with the Father and the Holy Spirit, wast Thou, O Christ, filling all things.”

    In addition I would point anyone to the dogmatic teachings in the Theopaschite Formula (5th Ecumenical Council) in which how we understand the concept of the suffering of God is treated. These matters are part of the Church’s teaching, and have an Orthodox answer. To discuss the question apart from the context of the Church’s teaching on the Trinity and the Christological doctrines simply risks error (from an Orthodox perspective).

  94. Mary Lanser Avatar

    One of the Trinity suffered in the flesh

    There are sometimes advantages to being in more than one place at the same time. As an eastern Catholic I’ve been able to use that prayer in catechizing Latin rite adults….That is a particularly powerful prayer and gives the flat statement of fact so much more power to move and convince.


  95. Seraphim Avatar

    Mary, like Mr. Calascione, I would like thank you for your contributions to the discussion. I haven’t been able to express my thoughts since the beginning due to a hard drive failure, but you said everything that I would have had to say.

    Forgive me if the following two points have already been made – I skimmed the above comments a little too quickly.

    (1) A clash of metaphors is not a clash of doctrine, but rather a difference in the ways of expressing the doctrines. We do not speak of doctrines – such as the Incarnation and the Holy Trinity – as “metaphors”; we only use metaphors when we discuss something of which we have no experience. (The “fires” of Purgatory or Hell are metaphors – nobody, not even those poor Roman Catholics, are so silly as to believe in chemical combustion down there. We say “fire” because it’s a good symbol for the torture of separation from God [which is an aspect of Hell, which our RC brethren have emphasized] and the continuing fire of God’s love even for the sinners [an aspect pointed out by St. Maximos the Confessor in the East and Blessed Juliana of Norwich in the West].)

    There shouldn’t be any reason to deny any metaphors, if they are useful. The civil legal system does involve making reparation and atonement for real harm caused to the community, and is supposed to result in the real repentance of the criminal, so insofar as it actually works, it’s a good metaphor for the economy of grace. Unlike Lutherans, Roman Catholics still believe quite strongly in theosis.

    Furthermore, metaphors like “Purgatory” (which is just as much – and no more – a metaphor as Hell) is useful, since there isn’t any other convincing way I’ve heard (can you present me with another way, Father Stephen? this may simply be a problem with my education) to express the fact that souls after death are purified from their sins. We automatically think of souls as being in a “place”, whatever this would mean, so we might as well give this “place” a name. If we deny the existence of Purgatory, we are in danger of denying the existence of purgation (at least I would be in such danger – maybe because of my Protestant upbringing).

    Hades isn’t Purgatory, but it would seem useful to me to give names to the different “hells” as the medieval Catholics did because each different “hell” has a different function.

    (2) It often isn’t a clash between “East” and “West”, but between the Orthodox communion and the Catholic communion. I am as eastern as anyone else here (Orthodox in communion with Rome), but I do not see any contradiction between the metaphors and teachings of my church and that of the Western church, and I have a great love for both Western theology and Western (Tridentine) liturgy and piety. East and West complement each other; conflict is the result of schism. One can be fully Eastern and still be secure enough in his Easternness to not feel the need to denigrate Western metaphors and expressions of the Faith. If we are authentically Eastern, we should be able to feel comfortable with the presence of Roman Christianity.

    Second remark on this point: It is a DUTY for the Orthodox and Catholic communions to come back into communion with each other. It isn’t sufficient to work together towards common goals (such as peace, or what have you – this is in response to Michael Bauman, above) – we are a body, and a human body that is dismembered dies. It is a sin against charity to deny communion to each other.

    P.S. Coffee puts me to sleep too. Starbucks is a great place for a good nap.

  96. fatherstephen Avatar

    I am no expert in RC theology which sometimes looks like a bit of a moving target, particularly in the modern era. Classically, the debate on purgatory at the Council of Florence, underlined differences between Rome and the East, as is presented in the teaching of St. Mark of Ephesus, who led the rejection of the false union offered at Florence. His writings generally sum up the Orthodox position in the matter – interestingly a rejection of the then RC teaching of a material hell fire. Perhaps the RC position has changed. The Orthodox Church has not. How Eastern the Byzantine Catholic mind is at present, is something I do not know. I suspect that what a Byzantine Catholic means by “Eastern” and what an Orthodox Christian means by “Eastern” may be different things – at least to some extent. But I do not know enough on the subject to engage in a conversation on the matter.

    I understand the thoughts on ecumenical questions – it is not a topic I particularly care to comment on.

  97. Mary Lanser Avatar

    Dear Father Stephen,

    I’ve never met any Orthodox person who would pick up Father Joseph Gill’s book, ‘The Council of Florence’ and suspend their disbelief long enough to give it a fair reading. I’ve never met anyone who has read it at all.

    It has much more data in it that the usual Orthodox sources in English on the subject. I cannot speak for other language sources.

    Maybe if you ever have the time…


  98. fatherstephen Avatar

    Mary, as I’ve stated, this is not a conversation I care to have.

  99. Mary Lanser Avatar

    Forgive me. I did not mean for my suggestion to appear as an invitation to dialogue. It was only a book recommendation and I leave it at that.


  100. Jerry Cornelius Avatar
    Jerry Cornelius

    “My comment of “no ontological separation” is rooted in the dogma of the Church on Christology” – Father Stepehn Freeman.

    Father Stephen, Brian, etc.

    I endorse the Dogma of the Church on Christology and I have ruled out any form of ‘ontological separation’ in relation the theandric hypostasis of the Son – the area of my engagement is the relationship of Hamartiology to the internal soteriological dynamics of the Trinity in terms of their own internal coinherent relations and perichoresis.

    Father Stephen is correct and beyond refutation to say that there can be no ontological separation in the Divine and Human attributions of the Son and we cannotbe divided on this statement of affirmation and confession of faith.

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