The Death of Death

Pascha: The Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ from the Dead

“But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep.  For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead.  For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.  But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ.  Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power.  For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet.  The last enemy to be destroyed is death.”  (1 Corinthians 15:20-26)

Clearly in Orthodox hymns and theology, Christ’s incarnation, death and resurrection all have to do with God’s own plan to deal with death, the last enemy to be destroyed.   Some Christian theologies focus almost exclusively on Christ dealing with sin, and generally this means a retributive justice in which sinners are punished and the righteous are saved.  Some Orthodox writers thought a system in which Christ comes only to save the righteous is not much of a miracle at all.  As. St. Paul expresses it:

“While we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.  Why, one will hardly die for a righteous man—though perhaps for a good man one will dare even to die.  But God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.”  (Romans 5:6-8)

It is not the righteous who were in need of God’s mercy and forgiveness.  Thus on the cross, Christ dies not only for our sins but for us sinners.  He goes to the place of the dead to defeat that last enemy: death itself.

WHEN YOU ASCENDED THE CROSS, O LORD,

FEAR AND TREMBLING FELL UPON CREATION.

YET YOU FORBADE THE EARTH TO SWALLOW UP THOSE WHO CRUCIFIED YOU,

AND YOU COMMANDED HELL TO SEND UP ITS CAPTIVES

FOR THE REGENERATION OF MORTALS.

JUDGE OF THE LIVING AND THE DEAD,

YOU HAVE COME TO GRANT LIFE, NOT DEATH.

LOVER OF MANKIND, GLORY TO YOU!

As the above hymn indicates when Christ “ascended the cross” (the implication being he chose to be lifted up on the cross; neither Rome, nor the Jews nor Satan nor death itself could force him to be nailed to the cross), Christ did not annihilate His enemies.  He did not command the earth to swallow them up – He didn’t send anyone to hell or kill anyone for what they were doing.  Not only did He not further populate hell with those who were murdering Him, He voluntarily went to the place of the dead, and emptied Hades of all the dead who were there – the righteous and the unrighteous.  Christ came to grant life not death to those who were spiritually dead.  This is the joyous celebration of Pascha.

“In the second century the subject of Christ’s descent into Hades was an inseparable part of the paschal divine services. Secondly, it shows that, already in second century Christian hymnography, Christ’s redemptive sacrifice was viewed as pertinent for all people without exception. Thus it speaks not of Christ saving the righteous but of his forgiving all ‘those who sullied themselves with sin.’ After destroying death, vanquishing the enemy, trampling down hell, and binding the devil, he calls them to himself in order to grant them forgiveness of sins and to lead them up to God the Father.” (Archbishop Hilarion Alfeyev, Christ the Conqueror of Hell: The Descent into Hades, an Orthodox Perspective, pg.36)

As we in the Orthodoxy Church sing at Holy Friday Vespers:

When You, the Redeemer of all, were placed in a tomb all Hell’s powers quaked in fear.

Its bars were broken, its gates were smashed.

Its mighty reign was brought to an end, for the dead came forth alive from their tombs, casting off the bonds of their captivity.

Adam was filled with joy!

He gratefully cried out to You, O Christ: “Glory to Your condescension, O Lover of man!”

Adam, the first human and who together with Eve were the first sinners, are saved by Christ’s resurrection.  Adam is saved not because he is righteous – it was his sin that is considered to be the original sin of humankind.  Adam is saved because Christ defeats that final enemy – death, which held Adam captive as a result of that ancestral sin.  Christ destroys sin and death thus liberating all the dead, including all who had sinned.  God wishes not the death of the sinners but that we turn from our sin to Him.  The descent of the incarnate God into Hades makes it possible for everyone to experience the salvation of God.

Great and Holy Saturday (2012)

St. Cyril of Jerusalem wrote: “You must know that this type is found in ancient history. For when that cruel and ruthless tyrant Pharaoh oppressed the free and high-born people of the Hebrews, God sent Moses to bring them out of the evil thralldom of the Egyptians. The door-posts were anointed with the blood of the lamb, that the Destroyer might pass by those houses which had the sign of the blood. And so the Hebrew people was marvelously delivered…Now turn from the ancient to the recent, from the type to the reality. There we have Moses sent from God to Egypt; here, Christ sent by his Father into the world: there, Moses had to lead forth an oppressed people out of Egypt: here, Christ rescues mankind when overwhelmed with sin: there, the blood of the lamb was the spell against the Destroyer; here, the blood of the unblemished Lamb, Jesus Christ, put the demons to flight: there that tyrant pursued to the sea the people of God; and in like manner this brazen and shameless demon follows the people of God to the very waters of salvation. The tyrant of old was drowned in the sea, and the present tyrant is destroyed in the saving water.” (St. Cyril of Jerusalem in From Shadows to Reality: Studies in the Biblical Typology of the Fathers by Jean Danielou, S.J., pg. 183)