Knocking Down the Gates of Hell

resurrectioniconThe Swedish Lutheran theologian, Gustav Aulen, published a seminal work on the types of atonement theory in 1930 (Christus Victor). Though time and critical studies have suggested many subtler treatments of the question, no one has really improved on his insight. Especially valuable was his description of the “Classic View” of the atonement. This imagery, very dominant in the writings of the early Fathers and in the liturgical life of the Eastern Church, focused on the atonement as an act of invasion, the smashing of gates and bonds, and the setting free of those bound in hell. Aulen clearly preferred this imagery and is greatly responsible for its growing popularity in some segments of Western Christendom.

The language of the Classic View was obscured in the West by the later popularity of propitiatory suffering (and the various theories surrounding it). Aulen claimed that Luther tended to prefer this older imagery. I had opportunity to do a research paper in grad school on the topic. I surveyed all of the hundreds of hymns written by Luther and analyzed them for their atonement theology. All but about two used the Classic View. Aulen seems to have been right.

In Orthodoxy, this imagery is the coin of the realm in the hymns surrounding Pascha. All of Holy Week is predicated on the notion of Christ’s descent into hell and His dynamic actions in destroying death and setting free those held in captivity. St. John Chrysostom’s great Paschal Homily, read in every Orthodox Church on the night of Pascha, is an “Ollie, Ollie, in come free!” of salvation.1

I have written on this topic before. I thought, however, to share some of the verses from the hymns of the Matins of Holy Saturday. Their language is a pure expression of the spirit of Orthodox Pascha and the atonement teaching of the Fathers.

Hell, who had filled all men with fear,
Trembled at the sight of Thee,
And in haste he yielded up his prisoners,
O Immortal Sun of Glory!

Thou hast destroyed the palaces of hell by Thy Burial, O Christ.
Thou hast trampled death down by thy death, O Lord,
And redeemed earth’s children from corruption.

Though thou art buried in a grave, O Christ,
Though Thou goest down to hell, O Savior,
Thou hast stripped hell naked, emptying its graves.

Death seized Thee, O Jesus,
And was strangled in Thy trap.
Hell’s gates were smashed, the fallen were set free,
And carried from beneath the earth on high.

O Savior, death’s corruption
Could not touch Thy holy flesh.
Thou hast bound the ancient murderer of man,
And restored all the dead to new life.

Thou didst will, O Savior,
To go beneath the earth.
Thou didst free death’s fallen captives from their chains,
Leading them from earth to heaven.

In the earth’s dark bosom
The Grain of Wheat is laid.
By its death, it shall bring forth abundant fruit:
Adam’s sons, freed from the chains of death.

Wishing to save Adam,
Thou didst come down to earth.
Not finding him on earth, O Master,
Thou didst descend to Hades seeking him.

O my Life, my Savior,
Dwelling with the dead in death,
Thou hast destroyed the iron bars of hell,
And hast risen from corruption.

These examples could be multiplied many times over. The section of Matins from which these are taken has over 100 verses! Orthodox Holy Week and Pascha has many ways of acting out this theology. Lights go up at the hint of victory, particularly as we sing the Song of Moses celebrating the drowning of Pharaoh’s army. In some parishes, bay leaves are tossed in the air by the priest in a fairly violent and joyous celebration of the victory. In yet others, at certain points during the Vesperal Liturgy of Pascha,  loud noises such as the banging of pots and pans are heard as the liturgy describes the smashing of hell’s gates. There’s is one village in Greece where two parishes have developed a custom of firing rocket fireworks at each other in the Paschal celebration.

Such antics completely puzzle the non-Orthodox and even seem comical. The Paschal celebration in Orthodoxy is far more akin to the wild street scenes in American cities when the end of World War II was announced – and for the same reason!

All of this also explains why many Orthodox are very reluctant to engage in “who’s going to hell” discussions with other Christians (though some Orthodox sadly seem to relish the topic). The services of Holy Week, as illustrated in these verses, are filled with references to hell. I daresay that no services elsewhere in all of Christendom make such frequent mention of hell. But the language is just as illustrated above. It’s all about smashing, destruction and freedom. It is the grammar of Pascha. It is the grammar of Christianity itself.

Hell is real. Jesus has come to smash it. It is the Lord’s Pascha. It is time to sing and dance.

Footnotes for this article

  1. “Ollie, Ollie, in come free!” and other similar phrases (“oxen free!”) is a children’s cry that ends the game of Hide ‘n Seek.

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.



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20 responses to “Knocking Down the Gates of Hell”

  1. Johnpaul Avatar

    Christ is risen! Thanks for sharing that hymn.

  2. Victoria Avatar

    This is one of my favorite selection of verses – particularly because of the verse

    “Wishing to save Adam,
    Thou didst come down to earth.
    Not finding him on earth, O Master,
    Thou didst descend to Hades seeking him.”

    I have also read that translated “Wishing to save His friend Adam”.

  3. Warren Caterson/H Avatar
    Warren Caterson/H


  4. Sarah Avatar

    Beautiful! Thank you for your diligent work in writing. I’ve been especially blessed by it during Holy Week.

  5. Nicholas Stephen Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Stephen Griswold

    Christ is risen indeed. In my Seminary days I studied the atonement as a Protestant. I found the various theories always had an element of self contradiction in them. When I became interested in Holy Orthodoxy and studied the beliefs I found that the Ancient view of salvation is not self contradictory and rang very true. I set out to find why all the Western views seemed to be flawed. When I read Anshelm’s work on the subject I found the reason. Western Theology applied Neo Platonic and Aristotelian philosophy to inquire into God. I noted particularly where they assigned attributes to God and then argued from those assumed attributes. Those attributes were all pagan concepts of the Divine and not the revealed nature of God in Christ. Therefore all their theories have pagan beliefs woven in and have led them far astray.
    I have always told people that I cannot decide who is saved or not because I don’t have a seat in the jury box and I am not on God’s Advisory Council. Besides, I am in sales not management.

  6. Ioana Avatar

    Christ is Risen!
    Cristos a Înviat!

    Dear Father,
    Dear readers,
    I pray you all have a Bright Pascha and that joy is in your hearts and all around you. This is the day the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it!

  7. Karen Avatar

    “Hell was in an uproar because it was done away with.
    It was in an uproar, because it was mocked.
    It was in an uproar, for it was destroyed.
    It is in an uproar, for it is annihilated.
    It is in an uproar because it is now made captive.
    Hell took a body, and it discovered God.
    It took earth, and encountered Heaven.
    It took what it saw, and was overcome by what it did not see.
    O death, where is your sting?
    O Hades, where is your victory?
    Christ is risen, and you, O death, are annihilated!
    Christ is risen, and the evil ones are cast down! Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice!
    Christ is risen, and life is liberated!
    Christ is risen, and the tomb is emptied of its dead;
    for Christ, having risen from the dead,
    is become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep.
    To Him be glory and power forever and ever. Amen!”

    (From The Paschal Homily of St. John Chrysostem)

    Joyous Feast to all!

  8. Ioannis-John Chiladakis Avatar
    Ioannis-John Chiladakis

    ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ ΑΝΕΣΤΗ Father. Thank You for Your presence and guidance.

  9. Ook Avatar

    @Nicholas Stephen Griswold
    “Besides, I am in sales not management.”
    Thank you for brightening my day with this wonderful line!

  10. Laurie Marvin Avatar
    Laurie Marvin

    Hi, Father Stephen. Last night I went to a service and I was hoping for something like the end of WW2. More drinking, shouting, and dancing. I would have loved to crack open a bottle of wine and just have a party with other Orthodox. However, even in Orthodox services, I sometimes feel a little deflated. There is a lot of chanting, but I feel like sometimes we are missing the ecstatic joy that would occur say when the Berlin Wall fell. I struggle with this at other services as well, although not usually at the Divine Liturgy. Am I missing something?

  11. George Avatar

    Thank you father for sharing this great hymn and for all your sharing. I have seen the fireworks displays. It is awesome and there is nothing that can describe the shared joy of the resurrection and the greatest freedom that is open to all. Christ is Risen! Хрїстóсъ воскрéсе!

  12. James Isaac Avatar
    James Isaac

    Truly Christ is Risen!! Blessed and Bright Holy Pascha to you and yours, Father, and to all the lovely folks who frequent this blog.

    I had the blessing of attending a Greek church throughout Holy Week as well as last night/this morning, and was already feeling that almost-comical sense of things with the manner in which verses such as you cite are chanted. Comical, as in both funny and “comic-book” like (seeing Christ as like Batman and Hades/devil as the Joker “where does he get all these wonderful toys”). That sense of the actual futility and powerlessness of death in view of Christ’s work for and in us comes very alive!

  13. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I’m not entirely sure. My first thought is that some things might vary from parish to parish – I say that because your description does not fit my own experience. This year was so intense. I’ve been battling through a back injury this week. So, last night, I stayed through Matins (Paschal announcement with much shouting) and left shortly before the sermon of St. John Chrysostom (all my back could take for the evening). But, as I was coming through the parish hall, I saw a young man in tears. He told me that he had to keep leaving the service, such was his joy, just to step and and weep (I mean really sobbing). He described a bit of his experience to me. I suspected he was not alone in his feelings.

    So, it varies.

    It can also have much to do with shared experience – the joy of Pascha is greatly intensified when it is in the context of other deeply shared experiences. WWII and the Berlin Wall came at the end of an entire culture’s common suffering and sacrifice. Pascha, I think, requires Great Lent – it certainly requires Holy Week.

    But all of that keeps coming back to the uniqueness of our own setting.

    As to the Liturgy itself – it returns us to its solemn tones, I think, and returns us to the depth of things. It is a time for inward ecstasy. I know that when serving in the altar, there is a need, even in such joy, to practice a sort of sobriety lest in the casual movements of exuberance we fail to take proper care of Holy Things.

    It is always ok for us to be very honest with God on these things and ask for His grace and clarity.

  14. Laurie Marvin Avatar
    Laurie Marvin

    Hi, Father Stephen. I know people do have experiences like the one that you described. And perhaps I need to strive for more sacrifice during the Lenten season for Pascha to feel “real”, but I have had this problem before and I was hoping when I become Orthodox that I might experience more meaning in services. Sometimes it feels like faith turns into just going to church or just going through the motions. The music or chanting doesn’t seem to move me and I have a hard time focusing. Have you experienced this as priest? What happens when you don’t feel much or don’t want to go services? I feel bad about it, but it doesn’t seem to be in my control. Thank you for your help- Laurie

  15. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I deeply appreciate your honesty in sharing about this. As a priest one of the most common “ailments” is a kind of tedium, boredom, a sort of lassitude regarding the services. You do not ever get to think to yourself, “I don’t really feel like going to Church today.” You go, and you serve.

    My own personal experience is marked by my ADHD. Often, before entering the altar (as I say the entrance prayers), I notice that my mind is scattered and is “everywhere present except here” (my new ADHD motto). I then speak to God about it. I acknowledge what cannot be controlled in my mind and brain, but I ask for His grace and mercy to serve. If my body is “going through the motions” it is also doing what my brain would love to do if only it could be in the present moment and place. Thus, I “glorify God in my body” as St. Paul commanded.

    Even with all of that built-in distraction, God grants moments of clarity, and even ecstasy. I’ll take them as He gives them.

    But I’ve also learned not to judge myself in these things – nor to create a sadness in my own heart by longing to be someone other than who I am. Who I am is a product of so many things – an object of God’s constant providence. Whatever suffering we endure in this life “works for us an eternal weight of glory” (2 Cor. 4:17). As much as possible, I seek to lose myself in Christ, like diving into the ocean out of sight of the shore. It is an abandonment to His providence.

    Most of our lives is beyond our control. Life is to be lived, not managed. That’s a long, slow lesson to learn. God give us all grace. You are very much not alone.

  16. Laurie Marvin Avatar
    Laurie Marvin

    Thank you for your kind response. I’m sure as a priest with all of the services that it can be difficult to muster up the energy some days.

  17. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Laurie, my priest looked absolutely worn out last night. It has been a long Lent and Holy week. On top of that a long time member of our parish a mid 40s mother of six kids and indefatigable worker for Christ suddenly died Friday. She was found dead at he breakfast table. No cause has yet been determined. Pretty much every one’s mind was elsewhere. Yet the celebration of a real continuing cosmic event went on.

    There are many days when the pain my wife and I experience as we decline due to age discourages us from going or even praying . Yet Jesus waits for us and watches and gives what we allow in sometime tiny moments. Little taps on the shoulder.

    It is the nature of our culture, the mind of the world, not to concentrate on anything for long seeking stimulus everywhere. Sometimes just being there is all I can do, sometimes not even that. Fear not, persist as you can and Jesus will see.
    Spiritual feelings, even when real
    , tend not to last long.

    You are not unique. Still, Christ is Risen!

  18. Stavroula Avatar

    Father, Michael and Laurie,
    Christ is Risen!
    Thank you Father and Michael for your responses to Laurie. They were very helpful to me, as I often experience what Laurie has described. Especially helpful was Father’s comment, ” If my body is ‘going through the motions’ it is also doing what my brain would love to do if only it could be in the present moment and place. ”
    L. Joseph Letendre’s book, When You Pray, has also given me much peace when worries about “I should be feeling more” start creeping back. In the chapter entitled Pray Faithfully, he discusses Faith and Feeling, which addresses what Laurie and I both experience. Maybe this could help you too, Laurie.

  19. Phil Avatar

    Like Laurie, I felt like Pascha this year wasn’t as joyous as I’ve experienced in the past (though I have very limited experience of Pascha as a recent convert). Last year we weren’t able to gather for Pascha with the COVID shutdown, so I was really looking forward to Pascha this year. But most everyone had to attend with a mask on, which at least hides much of our joy and prevents us from seeing the joy in others. (When St. Macarius the Spirit-Bearer chanced upon the skull of a pagan priest, the wise Abba asked, “What is it like where you are?” The pagan priest replied, “Hell is a place where you cannot see each other’s faces.”) We had limited attendance, and no ability to gather together for the middle-of-the-night meal that was such a source of happiness in the past, so these factors also seemed to dampen the atmosphere. But I need to remember and take to heart – Pascha is a joyful event for itself and what it means, it isn’t all about how it makes me feel if the circumstances don’t seem as happy as they did previously. God, give me grace to see your mercies, and teach me to be joyful despite temporary circumstances.

  20. Chris Avatar

    Amen. Christ is risen. Indeed He has risen!

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