Let’s Get Out Of This Place

The Saturday before Palm Sunday is known as Lazarus Saturday among the Orthodox, and they celebrate Christ raising him from the dead just prior to His entrance into Jerusalem (gospel of John). It is a feast that offers something of a preview of Christ’s resurrection, and a foretaste of the General Resurrection at the End of the Age. Some years back I sat in a cave that is purported to be the grave of Lazarus. I could not help but think of him – but of him in Hades rather than the tomb. It is said in the Fathers that when Christ raised him from the dead, it was necessary for Him to say, “Lazarus, come forth!” For had He only said, “Come forth!” all of the dead would have risen before their time. It’s a thought that I like a lot.

 It is also, however, a thought that has occurred to Hades itself, at least in the hymnody of the Church:

 I implore you, Lazarus, said Hell, Rise up, depart quickly from my bonds and be gone. It is better for me to lament bitterly for the loss of one, rather than of all those whom I swallowed in my hunger.

 Why do you delay, Lazarus? cried Hell. Your Friend stands calling to you: ‘Come out.’ Go, then, and I too shall feel relief. For since I swallowed you, all other food is loathsome to me.

 O Lazarus, why do you not rise up swiftly? cried Hell below, lamenting. Why do you not run immediately from this place? Lest Christ take prisoner the others, after raising you. (From the Canon of Lazarus Saturday)

 It is as if when Christ says, “Come forth!” Hell cries, “Get out!”

 Most of the Orthodox hymns surrounding Christ’s death and resurrection (and Lazarus’ as well) center on the notion of the “Harrowing of Hell.” The object of the Cross is not the wrath of God, but the death and confinement of man. It is the virtual non-existence that holds us in death that is trampled down by the death of Christ.

The punishment theories of the atonement have a way of mixing moral themes into Christ’s death and resurrection. They are about Christ’s payment for the moral debt of our sins. Somehow, something is terribly askew in such meditations. The utter graciousness and even gratuitous character of Christ’s victory is overlooked.

I am aware of the Biblical passages that speak of the resurrection to damnation as well as the coming judgment. But I always have the sense that those who dwell on such things are somehow afraid that Christ might accidentally forgive someone who should not have been forgiven. Be careful! Someone might get away with something!

When I ponder the atonement, the work accomplished by Christ’s death and resurrection, I tend to think of the imagery of a prison break – a really BIG prison break. When the doors are opened every fellow-prisoner is your friend. You make a run for it because it’s your chance and the sudden generosity that has found you is likely to spill over to everyone and everything. It is like the childhood cry that ends the game of Hide and Seek: “Olly, Olly, Oxen free!”

In truth, despite all of our responsibility for sin, we are largely its victims. We do not begin our lives in Paradise, but in a world in which everyone is broken and distorted. Those who carry out crimes are most likely to have been victims first. We do to others what has been done to us. And sometimes it goes to horrendous extremes. We are psychopaths and sociopaths, addicts and sinners, the children of a world gone wrong.

And though there is help, even salvation for us in this life, many never seem to find it, or being found by it, fail to understand its significance. And now they lie among the dead, bound in their sins, brought down to Hades for their crimes.

It is this fellowship of criminals and sinners that the good bishop, Melito of Sardis, seems to have had in mind when he penned a Paschal homily around the year 160 ad. It is wonderfully primitive in its vision, speaking with a concern that continues to echo in the language of the Orthodox faith. It is hopeful and bold, though perhaps discouraging for those who fear that someone might get off too lightly. He says of Christ in Hades:

[Christ] rose up from the dead, and cried aloud with this voice: “Who is he who contends with me? Let him stand in opposition to me. I set the condemned man free; I gave the dead man life; I raised up the one who had been entombed. Who is my opponent?”

“I,” He says, “am the Christ. I am the one who destroyed death, and triumphed over the enemy, and trampled Hades under foot, and bound the strong one, and carried off man to the heights of heaven.

“I,” he says, “am the Christ.”

“Therefore, come, all families of men, you who have been befouled with sins, and receive forgiveness for your sins. I am your forgiveness. I am the passover of your salvation. I am the lamb which was sacrificed for you. I am your ransom. I am your light. I am your saviour. I am your resurrection. I am your king. I am leading you up to the heights of heaven. I will show you the eternal Father. I will raise you up by my right hand.”

This is the one who made the heavens and the earth, and who in the beginning created man, who was proclaimed through the law and prophets, who became human through the virgin, who was hanged upon a tree, who was buried in the earth, who was resurrected from the dead, and who ascended to the heights of heaven, who sits at the right hand of the Father, who has authority to judge and to save everything, through whom the Father created everything from the beginning of the world to the end of the age.

This is the alpha and the omega. This is the beginning and the end–an indescribable beginning and an incomprehensible end. This is the Christ. This is the king. This is Jesus. This is the general. This is the Lord. This is the one who rose up from the dead. This is the one who sits at the right hand of the Father. He bears the Father and is borne by the Father, to whom be the glory and the power forever. Amen.

Amen. Indeed.





About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.



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27 responses to “Let’s Get Out Of This Place”

  1. Eliot Rausch Avatar

    Thanks for your continual diligence online here and the wonderful clarity you continue to offer all of us. It has beens such an illuminating and transformative gift through this Lenten season. May your Pascha be filled with great joy!

  2. Esmee La Fleur Avatar
    Esmee La Fleur

    Amen indeed!

  3. Basem Avatar

    I always wanted to believe that Apocatastasis is the ultimate form of Orthodoxy! Yet the fanatics deafen my silly hopes with the cry – “heretic”!!

  4. Dean Avatar

    “The object of the cross is not the wrath of God, but the death and confinement of man.”
    Thank you Father for this and for the hymnograhy and the quote from the good bishop. Thinking of these and the Paschal sermon of St. John Chrysostom make my heart buoyant ahead of time. What depth of graciousness exists in our Lord’s heart! This side of heaven we will not know the number of captives Christ will raise and return with Him at His glorious Second Coming. Daniel saw a thousand thousands serving God and ten thousand times ten thousand standing before Him. I can only anticipate that this number of captives held in bondage by Satan will exceed even the myriad of heavenly beings.

  5. Scott Avatar

    I always thought the idea of a resurrection to damnation rather than purgation was a glitch in certain views of the atonement. Why raise anyone in that plight as a big disfavor instead of letting them sleep in the grave? “Lake of Fire? Thanks a lot, pal. Just put me back under.”

  6. Jeff Avatar

    My experience with Orthodoxy is that it sometimes seems like one would have to try really hard not to be saved, and sometimes (when reading about things connected with monasticism ) that hardly anyone will be saved.
    How does the rigor of monasticism fit in with all this?

  7. Chris Avatar

    Thank you, Father. Admittedly, when I first became Orthodox, part of my difficulty with celebrating Pascha was the question: What about those being raised unto condemnation; those who are “shut out” of the Kingdom? Why are we celebrating knowing that even some are shut out of the Kingdom? These questions still come to my mind from time to time.

  8. Janine Avatar

    I may sound rather extreme, but I know people who couldn’t care less about any of this. They happen to be individuals who are making my life utterly miserable at the moment, acting with abusive cruelty. But my question is not about what will happen to them. I know I am not the Judge. But if repentance (as a general state of being) is out of the question, then what? Perhaps God will give them experiences to help create change, but that is a seemingly long shot. At what point does personal attitude count or not? I know, probably impossible to answer in the infinite perspective. But the principle question remains

  9. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    Father…I echo your hope.

    We don’t know exactly what the eye will see come the general resurrection. We can only imagine. But I do not think we are even close in our imagination.
    We do know Christ is drawing “all things” to Himself.
    But I don’t think we can even fathom the extent of His splendor and majesty, His power, the emanation of His uncreated Light that, if not prepared, will knock you down as dead. His Greatness which creates life…creates! from nothing. Knowledge and Wisdom in His providence, where He sustains the whole universe and beyond. Who is eternal in Himself…the I AM, who grants us eternal life. Who forgives sins. Who is the Life of the world.
    So when we talk about His Love Mercy and Grace, and whether He will forgive this or that one, do we really know what we are talking about? I mean… our Judge is our King and our God. There is none compared. So, even with this little bit that we know, can you just imagine how anybody, from the greatest sinner to the saint, is going to react in His presence? Nah…there won’t be any “thanks, pal”. There won’t be any of that. But we might just here a “woe is me, I am a man of unclean lips.”,
    I believe, that just as it is said, He is merciful to sinners (us) and is the Lover of Mankind. I think the better question is how will us sinners react in His Presence to His Mercy and forgiveness. Would you even be able to speak? Would you want to?
    Look at that icon of Extreme Humility. Look at His face. This is the Face of God in His depth of grief and sorrow (which we know nothing of) for the sin and death of His own people, due to our separation from Him. Can we even fathom this extreme humility? It’s a difficult image to lay your eyes on at first. But Christ is extreme. He can make you squirm and at the same time soften a hardened heart.
    Maybe it would help to consider these things. The Dread Judgement, as it is called, is not going to be anything like our imaginings. But we know He loves … and we know He desires none to perish. Only He can make it so. We pray….

  10. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    One monastic said that you should live as though only you yourself will be lost. Only love makes any sense of any of it.

  11. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Apparently, even though the gates are smashed and a means of escape has been made, some insist on remaining in hell (and try to keep others there as well). Only God knows how the story ends. God will not compel anyone to enter paradise.

  12. Janine Avatar

    Thank you for your answer, Father! Rejoice, our salvation is here — and indeed, everybody’s. I read this article yesterday and it seems to apply here and in some way echo or complement what you are saying:

  13. David Waite Avatar
    David Waite


  14. Blagica Avatar

    Amen. Indeed.

  15. Debbie L Avatar
    Debbie L

    It was brought to me to add to St Ephrem’s prayer ‘grant that I may see my own sins, and not judge them, or my brothers sins…judgement is from God alone, and our judge comes as the Lamb slain and resurrected carrying ALL sin…thanks be to God!

  16. MamaV Avatar

    Fr Stephen,

    Your response to Janine reminds me of the dwarves at the end of The Last Battle by C. S. Lewis… they are the in the same environment, objects of the same love, but because of their self-imposed darkness they cannot receive any of it. I myself have experienced such darkness of heart; feeling like my husband and kids could do nothing right, slighting every kindness, wishing I could die… and then realizing that if I died in that state I would most likely look at my Saviour and say, “couldn’t you have done better?” Lord have mercy!!

  17. Vasilia Avatar

    I often feel like I think of Orthodoxy with my own “child’s mind” and Fr. Stephen’s posts and your comments help me (drag me!) toward an adulthood of understanding. This post makes me hopeful, but also strikes fear into me. My reaction to fear is to put it aside, partially a denial, because I can’t “handle it”. Then I am reminded here: I can’t do it alone. How stubborn I am. Lord, have mercy.

  18. Jeff Pauls Avatar
    Jeff Pauls

    As others have already said, with few words and with more words, Amen. We all say, “Amen. Glory to God our Father. You have trampled death by death.”

    I want to say more, but much of it has been said. Not to mention, I find myself quite speechless with Thanksgiving. Thank you, Father Stephen and to all who have commented so far.

  19. juliania Avatar

    Thank you for this beautiful meditation, Father Stephen! What a memory you have, of sitting like the prophet outside the very cave – I always think it is on the other side of that tall mountain in the icon of the Entry into Jerusalem, and the little children in the palm tree are like Eliot’s children in the apple tree in his last poem – quick, now, here, now – always, as you said in your last meditation.
    And isn’t it, indeed, our memories that do sustain us when nothing else seems to work? The saving grace is present there.

    Like the children with the palms of victory
    We cry out to thee…

    As you said about the last judgment in an earlier post, it is not that we think of someone else facing that time, but rather of our own, my own standing in that moment, my own failings which loom larger in my own reality than any of my brothers or sisters whose trials I can only dimly imagine. We are both sheep and goats, but we are also children in the apple tree of life.

    This site is such a blessing for all. Many, many thanks!

  20. Janine Avatar

    Fr. Stephen et al, I wanted to add something to our conversation. I have tried (for a lot of decades really) to “save” these people. You know, like “maybe they don’t know they’re hurting me” or “maybe I did something they didn’t understand” or “maybe I need to tell them the truth” or even the spiritual truth, etc. But I have had to realize there is nothing that I can do to save somebody else. Aside from the question of arrogance on my part, there is also the hard fact that only a person can change their own mind and even God doesn’t impose that. Obviously, I can pray. I can pray for mercy and for everybody’s soul. I can also pray too be guided as to how best to approach them and how to deal with our relation. But I can’t really save anybody else . And we do have warnings about casting what’s holy to people who really have no use for it

  21. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    I think what bothers me the most, Janine, is that after so many years the abuse persists. I assume you are in a situation where you can not avoid contact. This is a very tough situation.
    I do not think of you as arrogant in trying to help them. Sounds like you have gone through great lengths, even at the expense of suffering yourself, to help them see the Light (much more than I would have had the patience for).
    One thing you can be assured of, no matter how things turn out for them, though we hope for the best, their memories can not be destroyed. They will remember your words and efforts in times when they “need” to remember. (I think God moves in this way in His constant “tapping on our shoulder”, you know what I mean?)
    I pray God give you grace and strength. May He uphold you, Janine.

    Remember what Father tells us….we can love our enemies because Christ is Risen.
    Pretty soon we feast…but not yet…some heavy days are upon us…

  22. Dean Avatar

    Janine, Paula AZ,
    True, we cannot save another. That’s the work of the Spirit of God. I read this once, I believe written by a monk. He said that each person has a fissure in his/her soul. Only God knows where that crack is. We may pray for years for another with no visible change. Yet God remembers each of those prayers made for that person. At the opportune moment, He will pour all those prayers into that fissure, sometimes with dramatic results. As St. Paul noted, it is hard for someone to continue kicking against the goads. God can soften even the most obdurate of wills.

  23. MamaV Avatar

    Dean: that’s amazing. I will always remember that.

  24. Janine Avatar

    Thank you Paula and Dean, what you both say makes a lot of sense. Also, I agree about that “crack.” It reminds of St Paul: “For the word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart” Heb. 4:12

  25. Janine Avatar

    PS. All I have to do is look to myself to see what a wandering journey I have been on. Without being over dramatic I think it’s possible that in some sense if I can be saved, anybody can. What a reminder, thanks

  26. Rk Avatar

    “I,” he says, “am the Christ.”

    “Therefore, come, all families of men, you who have been befouled with sins, and receive forgiveness for your sins. I am your forgiveness. I am the passover of your salvation. I am the lamb which was sacrificed for you. I am your ransom. I am your light. I am your saviour. I am your resurrection. I am your king. I am leading you up to the heights of heaven. I will show you the eternal Father. I will raise you up by my right hand.”

    Amen! Amen! Amen!

    When the clarion call of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ resounds throughout creation calling all to repentance and life, only those tarrying to admonish others will be left in the wake of the great prison break.

    Forgive everyone everything

  27. Janine Avatar

    I thought of the Sartre play, “Huis Clos” (“No Exit”) and talking with a friend, it sure fits what you are describing in this conversation, Father. Funny that an avowed atheist like Sartre wrote it, but as my friend said, the spiritual truth is so deep even an atheist has to recognize the truth of it. Praying during the Crucifixion and reading of the Twelve Gospels last night, though, I wanted to add that I was able finally to understand that my abusers are victims too. They are victims of the devil, in their delusion about their behavior, as the whole world is victim of the devil. I can surely pray for them. Thank you again Father and everybody.

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