Christ’s Descent into the Place of the Dead

Bright Monday                   CHRIST IS RISEN!

St. John Cassian (d. 435AD) writing in the 5th Century, accepted a notion, that was commonly held by many Patristic writers, about Christ descending into Hades after His death on the cross.  Christ goes to the place of the dead in order to liberate those who are being held captive by death.   The descent into Hades and the harrowing of Hell – emptying it by liberating all the dead – came to be thought of as part of the resurrection story.    The imagery is that of the Exodus and the Passover.   Christ leads God’s enslaved people from death to life and from earth to heaven rather than from one place on earth (Egypt) to another (the Holy Land).  This image of Christ dying on the cross for the express purpose of descending to the place of the dead to liberate the dead from enslavement to death is a common Eastern Patristic interpretation of the crucifixion.  Notions of Christ being crucified as a punishment from God or to fulfill some juridical requirement were not as popular in the Christian East as they became in the Christian West.  “Christ died for our sins” could mean He suffered the penalty which we should have suffered as justice demands, as a substitution for us – he suffered the penalty in our place.  Or, “Christ died for our sins” can mean that in order to rescue us from death – death  being that place we each arrived at by our sinful choices.   Christ died to descend to where we were in order to rescue us from that death.   St. John says of Jesus that:

“At the ninth hour he penetrated hell and extinguished the inextricable darkness of Tartarus by his shimmering brilliance. He broke open its gates of bronze, smashed its iron bars, and, having savingly captured the captivity of the holy ones who had been shut up in the cruel darkness of hell, bore it off with him to heaven, thrusting aside the fiery sword and by a devout confession restoring to paradise its erstwhile inhabitant.” (John Cassian, Ancient Christian Writers – The Institutes, pg. 61)

Adam’s Expulsion in the Writings of St. John Chrysostom

This is the 30th blog in this series which began with Adam & Sin, Paradise and Fasting.  The previous blog is Adam’s Expulsion in The Hymns of St. Ephrem.

St. John Chrysostom (d. 407AD) was one of the most prolific preachers/writers of the late 4th and early 5th Centuries. “Chrysostom” is a title meaning “Golden mouthed” – a laudatory comment praising this preacher for the invaluable wisdom contained in his sermons.  Scattered throughout his sermons are numerous comments on Adam, his sin and his expulsion from Paradise; a few excerpts of his commentaries on Adam are below.  Immediately after Eve and Adam have sinned (Genesis 3), God seeks the guilty pair out.  Chrysostom writes:

“He [the Lord] calls personally: ‘The lord God called Adam,’ the text says, ‘and said to  him, “Adam, where are you?…’”

What has happened?  I left you in one condition whereas now I find you in another; I left you clad in glory, whereas now I find you in nakedness.

‘Where are you?”’   How did this happen to you?  Who has brought you to this changed condition?  What kind of robber and brigand has robbed you like this in an instant of all the substance of your wealth and cast you into such indigence?  Whence has come the nakedness you are experiencing?  Who is responsible for depriving you of that wonderful garment you had the good fortune to wear?  What is this sudden transformation?  What tempest has all at once in this way sunk all your precious cargo?  What has happened to make you try to hide yourself from the one who has been so kind to you and placed you in a position of such importance?  Who is it you are not endeavoring to avoid through such fear?    Surely, after all, no one has cause to accuse you?  Surely, after all, no witnesses are testifying against you?  Whence comes the fear and dread that overwhelms you?  ‘”I heard the sound,’” the text says, ‘”as you walked in the garden, I was afraid because I am naked, and I hid.’”  Whence comes the knowledge of your nakedness?  Tell me” what is new and surprising?  Who could ever have told you of this, unless you have become guilty cause of your own shame, unless you have eaten from that one tree I told you not to eat from?”  (Anthony Coniaris (ed.),  DAILY READINGS FROM THE WRITINGS OF ST. JOHN CHRYSOSTOM, p 58)

Chrysostom like many Patristic writers assumed Adam was clothed with God-given glorious garments in Paradise.  He creatively interprets the loss of those garments as a robbery – Satan in tempting Eve to sin has robbed Eve and Adam of their glorious robes and left them naked.  This is a theme we will also see in Orthodox hymns dealing with Adam and the expulsion from Paradise.

“That is to say, notice the man also saying, ‘”The woman you gave me as my companion gave it to me, and I ate it.”’ No evidence of force, no evidence of pressure—only choice and decision: simply ‘gave,’ not ‘forced’ or ‘pressured.’  She in turn in making her excuse didn’t say, The serpent forced me and I ate.  Instead, what? ‘”The serpent deceived me.”’  She had the choice of being deceived or not being deceived.  ‘”The serpent deceived me,”’ she said.  In other words, the enemy of our salvation, working through that evil creature, brought forward his advice and deceived her – not forcing or pressuring but through his deadly advice putting his deception into effect after find the woman easily disposed to embrace the deception and thus deprived of any excuse.”  (Anthony Coniaris (ed.),  DAILY READINGS FROM THE WRITINGS OF ST. JOHN CHRYSOSTOM, p 57)

Free will and free choice are common themes in the Patristic writers – there is no predestination when it comes to sinning.  Humans make free choices and are accountable for those choices.

“For by making man picture himself as equal to God, he (the devil) drove him to the punishment of death.  Such are his wiles that he not only drives us away from the blessing we have, but he also tries to drive us onto a more precipitous cliff.  But God in His love did not fail to regard mankind.  He showed the devil how foolish were his attempts; He showed man the great care He manifested in his regard, for through death He gave man everlasting life.  The devil drove man from Paradise; God led him to heaven.  The profit is greater than the loss.”   (St. John Chrysostom (d. 407AD),  BAPTISMAL INSTRUCTION,  pp 45-46)

While the Christian West following Augustine tended to see the original sin of Adam and Eve as total destruction for humanity resulting in humanity being predestined to sin, sin becoming “natural” to humans, and humans becoming totally depraved, the Eastern Christian Fathers put a much more hopeful interpretation on the series of events.  Satan’s temptation of Eve – in which Satan deceives Eve into sinning – is almost presented as part of God’s plan to deceive Satan.  For God’s plan for humanity included the incarnation of His Son – the Word becoming flesh, God becoming a human in order to allow humanity to share in the divine life. God’s ultimate reaction to human sin is not wrath, but further opportunity for God to prove His unconditional love for His human creatures.  Even death – the result of human sin and disobedience – is given by God to His creatures as a means for their salvation not as retributive punishment.  For through the death of His Son, God will raise humanity not just from earth but from Sheol/Hades/death to heaven.

Next:  The Effects of the Expulsion from Paradise in Patristic Thinking

Free Will

This is the 14th blog in this series which began with Adam & Sin, Paradise and Fasting.  The previous blog is The Fall from Grace.

St. Paul & St. John Chrysostom

The Eastern Christian writers of the Patristic period tended to be very strong believers in free will, which is the witness of the Scriptures themselves.    God, though omnipotent, in humility and love contains His all-powerful will, respecting the free will He has given to humans.  Generally the Eastern Patristic writers do not subscribe to any idea of predestination for humans  (see my blog Theodoret on Ancestral Sin.  The 5th Century bishop says if our nature was so tainted by sin that we are now predestined to sin, then we are not liable to judgment by God since sinning is all we can do.  He argues God is a just judge and rightfully judges us because we choose to sin, we are not predestined to do so).   We are on a path of our own choosing – even the road to hell (which Chrysostom thought was paved by the good intentions of bishops and priests) is one of our own making and its destiny our own choice.  The amazing grace of salvation is that though we have chosen death and Hades as our preferred destination, God in His love for us was willing to go there as well like the good shepherd to make our return to Him possible.   Death and Satan are not God’s tools of justice to punish us for our sins.  God works to rescue us from their grip.  Christ’s death does not satisfy some demand for justice, but rather in the very means by which God destroys death and Satan and rescues us from the consequences of our own sinfulness.

“Sin, Gehenna, and Death do not exist at all with God, for they are effects, not substances.  Sin is the fruit of free will.  There was a time when sin did not exist, and there will be a time when it will not exist.  Gehenna is the fruit of sin.  At some point in time it had a beginning, but its end is not known.  Death, however, is a dispensation of the wisdom of the Creator.  It will rule only a short time over nature; then it will be totally abolished.”  (THE ASCETICAL HOMILIES OF ST. ISAAC THE SYRIAN, p 133)

Sin,  Gehenna (Hades, Sheol, hell), and death all belong to time, not to eternity.  Their effects on the world, though mighty, are not unlimited.  They all pale before the righteous love and merciful power of God.  Death, St. Isacc said, is a “dispensation.”  He means by this, what many Eastern Fathers thought, that death was actually a means to curtail within each human the effects of sin.  (Again see my blog Theodoret on Ancestral Sin.  Theodoret sees death as a merciful way to prevent us from going on and sinning forever.  But also, because death is painful, it is supposed to make us hate sin, the cause of death.  Obviously that is of limited value in human experience because today people are as likely to blame God for the existence of death as they are to blame sin).  Humans do not grow in sin and evil infinitely – death was used as a means of limiting sin in any one person to a brief time.  No one’s sinfulness increases indefinitely.  Death is a merciful way of God to limit sin and evil in each of us.  Even so, death is no friend and God works to bring sin and death to an end.

“But the element of passion was introduced later on, after he was created, and in the following way.  Man was, as we have said, the image and likeness of the power that rules all creation; and this likeness to the ruler of all things also extended to man’s power of self-determination:  man could choose whatever pleased him and was not enslaved to any external necessity.  But man was led astray by deception and deliberately drew upon himself that catastrophe which all mortals now share.  Man himself invented evil: he did not find it in God.  Nor did God make death; it was man himself who, as it were, was the creator of all that is evil.  …  the first man…deliberately instituted by himself things that were against nature; in rejecting virtue by his own free choice he fashioned the temptation to evil.  For sin does not exist in nature apart from free will; it is not a substance in its own right.  All of God’s creatures are good …   So man fell into the mud of sin, and lost his likeness to the eternal Godhead.  And in its stead he has, by his sin, clothed himself in an image that is of clay and mortal; and this is the image we earnestly counsel him to remove and wash away in the purifying waters of the Christian life.” (St. Gregory of Nyssa, FROM GLORY TO GLORY, pp 112-114)

The goodness in humanity – being created in God’s image and likeness – is still at the heart of every single human being, despite the Fall and despite sin’s presence throughout the human experience.  That goodness has been plastered over by the “mud of sin.”  But it is external to our natural core, and it can be washed away through the tears of repentance and through baptism.

Next:  Free will and Freedom

Death: The Last Enemy of God

I found the poem Conscientious Objector”  by Edna St. Vincent Millay to be very insightful and moving.  It touches upon the topic that all of us will experience, albeit only once in our lifetime, namely, death.   Death has been called “the great equalizer” since it treats all people the same – it recognizes no class, age, gender or racial distinction.  It is the common experience of all humanity, and so ties us all together in its life-ending insatiable swallowing down humankind.   Millay says it is possible to be a Conscientious Objector in death’s war on humanity – we each can die, but never hand over anyone –friend or enemy – to death.

Conscientious Objector

by Edna St. Vincent Millay

I shall die, but that is all that I shall do for Death.

I hear him leading his horse out of the stall; I hear the
clatter on the barn-floor.
He is in haste; he has business in Cuba, business in the
Balkans, many calls to make this morning.

But I will not hold the bridle while he cinches the girth.
And he may mount by himself: I will not give him a leg up.
Though he flick my shoulders with his whip, I will not
tell him which way the fox ran.
With his hoof on my breast, I will not tell him where
the black boy hides in the swamp.

I shall die, but that is all that I shall do for Death; I am
not on his pay-roll.

I will not tell him the whereabouts of my friends nor of
my enemies either.
Though he promise me much, I will not map him the
route to any man’s door.

Am I a spy in the land of the living, that I should deliver
men to Death?
Brother, the password and the plans of our city are safe
with me; never through me shall you be overcome.

Millay’s poem made me think about death as portrayed in and understood by the Bible.  On the one hand God warned Adam that should he disobey God and eat the forbidden fruit of the Tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil, that Adam would surely die.  On the other hand, God commanded that humans should not kill (Exodus 20:13; Deuteronomy 5:17), that murderers should be punished by death (Genesis 9:6), and that God Himself had no desire to see anyone, including sinners die (Ezekiel 18:32, 33:11). 

Can I live as Millay suggests, as a Conscientious Objector to death?  Can I live so that I never betray anyone – friend or enemy – to death, rather always seeing death as the true enemy of humanity? 

Whatever role death might have played in dealing with rebellious and sinful humanity, St. Paul does categorize death as an enemy, not a tool of God:

“The last enemy to be destroyed is death.”   (1 Corinthians 15:26)

That death is neither God’s friend, nor invention is made clear in the Septuagint  which was canonical Jewish thinking at the time of St. Paul:  

“Do not invite death by the error of your life, or bring on destruction by the works of your hands; because God did not make death, and he does not delight in the death of the living. For he created all things so that they might exist; the generative forces of the world are wholesome, and there is no destructive poison in them, and the dominion of Hades is not on earth. For righteousness is immortal. But the ungodly by their words and deeds summoned death; considering him a friend, they pined away and made a covenant with him, because they are fit to belong to his company.” [Wisdom of Solomon 1:12-16 (NRSV)]

Death is summoned when humans sin, but does not belong to the Will of God for humanity.  God’s will is always geared toward humanity’s eternal salvation.

So, can I live so committed to a pro-life attitude that I never betray any fellow human being to death?  Would not that be respecting the sanctity of human life?

Next: Some Scriptural Thoughts on Death (A)

Job: My Redeemer Lives!

A very powerful and important part of Roman Catholic liturgical piety regarding the resurrection of Christ includes the reading of Job 19:23-27.   Job proclaims, “My redeemer lives!”, which is often interpreted as his belief in the resurrection.

The focus on the Messiah as Redeemer is a very important element in the thinking of especially Western Christian piety since medieval times, where it fits well into ideas of the substitutionary death of Christ and a piety which focuses on Christ the victim who dies for (pays the price for) our sins. 

Orthodox priest Patrick Henry Reardon in his small commentary on Job, THE TRIAL OF JOB. Writes about Job 19: 

Then come the truly shining lines of the book, where Job places all his hope in God, his ‘Redeemer’ or Vindicator in the latter days (verses [19:]23-27). This noun, go’el, is the active participial form of the verb ga’al, meaning ‘to avenge.’  … the Christian transmission of Holy Scripture has preferred the words ‘redeem’ and ‘purchase’ to translate this Hebrew verb. Thus, Psalm 74 (73):2 says that God ‘redeemed’ or ‘purchased’ (ga’alta) His people in their Exodus from Egypt.

Reardon’s comment that the root word translated as “redeemer” comes from the Hebrew word meaning “to avenge” caused me to wonder whether the emphasis on Jesus as redeemer or the one who pays the price for something was too weak a translation of the word, though it fits well into Western Christian piety and has shaped that piety.
I began to wonder whether the Orthodox focus on Jesus Christ as the conqueror of death, the victor over mortality rather than the victim of death, perhaps in some way better captured the imagery of Christ as Savior.  The Western Christian debates between Catholics and Protestants swirled around the notion of Jesus as the one time redeemer who paid the price for our sins, whereas Orthodoxy tended to focus on Christ as the destroyer of death, liberating all humankind from death’s insatiable appetite for human flesh. 

Orthodox biblical scholar Silviu Bunta in a personal email to me wrote: 

Redeemer is not a good translation. The go’el was not just someone who paid a price. The passive implication in the English redeemer is not there in the Hebrew go’el. Actually ga’al most probably means more to vindicate than to redeem or to avenge. To avenge is too far from the sense of rescue which ga’al certainly carries, but to redeem is also too far from the sense of vengeance, which ga’al also carries. In common language ga’al was mostly used for tribal or familial relations in which one person, the go’el, would act as the defender of the tribal or family rights. Probably that’s what Job asks for in ch. 19 (a kin with divine powers, like the god of his family). So I would say that ga’al has three different connotations which no one English word can encompass: kinship, defense, and vengeance. Certainly the go’el is not one who just “takes it,” passively. Job 19 is far from fitting this picture. Clearly Job wants the full destructive force of his go’el.

The Orthodox understanding of Christ’s resurrection is not that He passively paid some price for our sins, but rather than He actively came to destroy death by His own death and then he liberated all the dead from Hades.   As Chrysostom says in his famous Pascha sermon, “not one dead remains in the grave.”    The very purpose of the incarnation of God in Jesus is so that Jesus can die in order to destroy death  (see my blog, Why did God become human?).   The Orthodox icon of Holy Saturday clearly portrays Christ harrowing Hades and liberating those trapped in death’s pit, raising them up with Himself in the Resurrection of new life.

Jesus’ death was voluntary – He willfully submits Himself to execution and death, in order to go to Sheol, to the place of the dead, so that He can destroy death and  to liberate all the dead.  This is the great act of salvation which we celebrate each Pascha.  Christ dies for our sins, not to passively pay some ransom, but in order to destroy death (1 Corinthians 15:26; Hebrews 2:14).

Theophany, Baptism, and the Garment of Salvation (2)

This is the conclusion of the blog series that began with Theophany, Baptism, and the Garment of Salvation (1)

 We go naked into the baptismal font and come out clothed in the garment of salvation.  At Theophany, Christ descends into the waters of the Jordan and comes out clothed in our sins – he who takes upon himself the sins of the world.   This is the interchange – Christ becomes what we are so that we might share in what he is  – God became man so that humans might become God.  Our nakedness is associated with our fallen nature.  We are naked in church only right before we are baptized – after baptism we are clothed in garments of light and our sins are covered!  Christ who is God the Word becomes incarnate to clothe Himself with our fallen nature.

In a previous blog, At Baptism We Put on a Glorious Body, I mentioned the Holy Saturday Liturgy in which, like at every baptism, we sing, “As many as have been baptized into Christ, have put on Christ.”  Putting on Christ means to receive from Christ the glorious garments which God had bestowed upon Adam and Eve when they lived in communion with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in Paradise before the Fall. As  Gary A. Anderson notes in his book, The Genesis of Perfection:

“And in his Letter to the Corinthians, Paul described the resurrection as an act of ‘putting on immortality’ (1 Cor. 15:53). From these letters three sets of symbols emerge: first, baptism is marked by clothing; second, baptism is a participation in the death and resurrection of Jesus; third, resurrection is a putting on of immortality. All we need to do is add the theme of the stripping of Adam and the picture is complete: At baptism the Christian is stripped of the garments inherited from Adam and vested with the token of those garments he or she shall enjoy at the resurrection. And, not by accident, the entire incarnate life of Jesus is read through the same lens; Prior to his incarnation, Christ resided in heaven clothed in glory. He descended to earth, assuming the garments of flesh bequeathed by Adam at his fall. There, he persevered all temptation and was obedient even to the point of death. As a result, God the Father raised him from the dead and reclothed him with a glorious body on Easter morning.”              

Ideas of nakedness somehow being a sign of holy innocence emerged in the Renaissance humanism and later with the Enlightenment.   Notions of the noble savage and nudist colonies being a return to what’s innocent and natural were born of a different age and mindset than that of the Patristic writers who received the message from the apostles.  In the ancient world when one was in the presence of a king, one wore appropriate garments.  This was the assumption they brought with them about being in God’s presence as well.

In Jewish thinking in biblical times, death – the loss of the body, was not a release from this world, but rather the loss of one’s ability to communicate with God.  In Sheol – the place of the dead – one does not live eternally praising God because without a body (hands, knees, heart, brain, tongue and mouth) one cannot even praise God.

 “For in death there is no remembrance of you; in Sheol who can give you praise?”   (Psalms 6:5 NRSV)

“Whatever your hand finds to do, do with your might; for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going”   (Ecclesiastes 9:10  NRSV).

Nakedness in general in the Bible is associated with being exposed, vulnerable, extremely poor, being humiliated and violated.   It is not the condition of holy innocence nor somehow assumed as the “natural” condition for a sinless humanity – for those under God’s care are clothed and protected.  (See Revelation 6:11, the redeemed martyrs of the Lord are robed in white by God as they await the establishment of God’s kingdom – even here nudity is not the norm for the saved).   In Genesis 2:25 Eve and Adam are said to be naked in Paradise and yet not ashamed, but no explanation is offered as to why they would have been ashamed except for the assumption that nakedness is in fact associated with shame in Genesis.   They seemed unaware or unconcerned in Paradise about their being nude, but after they sinned they are aware of their nakedness and this is not a good experience to them; they try to cover their own nakedness immediately.   Most interestingly in Genesis 3:11 after they confessed being naked – God asks them, “Who told you that you are naked?”   Apparently god assumed they were unaware of being nude in Paradise – because He had clothed them in glorious garments of light?  That was the assumption of many Eastern Fathers in reading Genesis.

Standing in the presence of royalty, the ruled were expected to be robed in appropriate garments – this was the natural experience of the ancients.  I think it also explains the rather odd detail in the Gospel parable of the man at the wedding banquet who doesn’t have the wedding garment and so is expelled from the celebration (Matthew 22:1-14).  In the parable the king had commanded that everyone – good and bad – be brought into the feast.  Yet one who is brought in is then unexpectedly expelled because he doesn’t have the proper attire for being in the King’s presence.   Many biblical scholars agree that there is no known custom of providing wedding garments for all attendees of a marriage feast – something which would have been way too expensive for the masses in any case.  The parable seems to have incorporated the notion because it is a king who is hosting the wedding feast – this is a royal wedding and in the presence of the king one has to have the proper royal attire. 

Nakedness in the scriptures is associated with poverty, shame, vulnerability and being humiliated.   God exalts humanity by clothing them not by exposing their nakedness.  Even the Lord Himself is not naked but clothed in majesty (Psalm 93:1; see Also Psalm 104:1-2).  It is with glory that He clothes the humans He created in His image and loves.

Hell, no?

Statue of Hades
Statue of Hades

In this blog series, I will comment on something I’ve been thinking about – the existence of hell.   My intention is to take a look at the absence of any mention of hell in the book of Genesis in particular, but also to note its lack of mention in most of the Old Testament.  (It isn’t mentioned in a standard RSV which uses the Hebrew Sheol for the place of the dead, but the NKJV does use “hell” instead of the Hebrew Sheol.  The OSB prefers Hades following the Septuagint).   Hell and Hades both imply more judgment and punishment than does the more passive Hebrew “Sheol” which simply is where the dead both good and wicked reside without being a place of continued punishment.

One of the most interesting aspects of the book of Genesis is the tools of punishment that God has at His disposal to use with His human creatures when they sin.

In Genesis 2:16-17, God warns the first human that should he break God’s command and eat of the forbidden tree of the knowledge of good and evil that he would die.  We do not know if this is the most severe punishment God can conceive, but it is punishment threatened by God.  God does not explain death, but the implication certainly is that one will cease to be able to enjoy God’s blessings.  Is death thus a permanent state?  The text offers no further explanation of death, but one might infer from Genesis that passing into death is not a good thing for one then is placed beyond enjoying the rest of God’s creation.   There is no sense that death places one in a place of permanent torment, a hell, only that one is cut off from one’s people and one’s God.  In fact one might almost conclude that death ends one’s existence as there is no indication of life beyond the grave, though the murdered Abel’s ‘blood’ does cry from the ground to God which seems to be a figurative not literal expression, but might keep open the issue of a continued existence beyond death.

Icon of the Expulsion from Paradise
Icon of the Expulsion from Paradise

In Genesis 3:17-24, after Adam and Eve have broken God’s commandment, God pronounces judgment on Adam sentencing him to toil hard to make crops grow, and sentencing him to death which is now clearly described as the dissolving of the human body back into the dust of the earth.  Further God expels the man from the Garden of Delight in which He had placed the man in the beginning, forcing the man out of his caretaker position in God’s garden and consigning him to till the earth to produce his own food.  The expulsion from Paradise does not say that the man is eternally forbidden from returning to the Garden.  Rather the cherubim and the flaming sword prohibit the man from re-entering, which would seem to imply that the situation is temporary for these guardians could be removed allowing re-admittance to the man at some time in the future.   Paradise was not annihilated, nor were the humans.   Humanity is separated from Paradise but both continue to exist.

As the story progresses it will be Abel, not Adam or Eve who first taste death as returning to the dust of the earth.  Again God makes no mention of a hell as a  place of unending torture for sinners nor is there any indication that this punishment is connected to future sins of humans.  This is a specific sentence against Adam, though it is very possible that the story is a typology and what has happened to Adam happens to all of humanity.   We share in Adam’s sin and the consequence of his sin to the extent that Adam is a type (representative) of all humans (see Romans 15:14, I Corinthians 15:21-22, 45-49).

The next event which God must confront is Cain’s murder of his brother Abel in Genesis 4.  God exiles the fratricide Cain from the rest of humanity for his crime, but he does not inflict capital punishment on Cain for his crime, nor does God ever threaten Cain with eternal damnation.  Cain’s punishment is recognition by God of Cain’s own action – Cain has cut himself off from civilized human beings. The punishment of Cain is imposed upon him for his sins.  Though his descendents will suffer the consequences of what happens to him, they are not declared punishable for his sins nor are the labeled as enemies of God.  Perhaps indicative of the early biblical attitude toward such things it is Cain who builds the first human city – the murderous Cain, expelled from humanity founds the fist city – human civilization!

Flood Waters
Flood Waters

The Genesis story continues as does human sin.  God Himself becomes increasingly troubled by the creatures He has made.   He is disillusioned with the humans He made in His own image and experiences grievous anguish in His heart about the humans.  In Genesis 6:6-13 God decides to take action against His human creatures because of their wickedness.  He decides to bring them to an end by flooding the earth.  But again His intention is a temporary punishment – not a continuing state of punishment; for He also decides to save a few humans in order to repopulate the earth.  He is not completely exterminating humankind nor the earth He has created, but more is cleansing it of wickedness.   The story of Noah and the flood is God’s fourth major action against human sinfulness.  God decides to drown sin and the sinful, but simultaneously tremendous collateral damage is decreed for all of life must suffer because of and with the wicked humans.   God is not only punishing the specific evil doers but has decided to wipe out sinful humanity which would include innocent infants and children – with the noted exception of Noah, his wife, their sons and sons’ wives – no children were spared according to the story.    The punishment visits death upon humanity, but no mention is made of this being continuous and eternal for the victims of the flood.  Their lives are ended, they are not kept alive for further torture.

rainbowAt the conclusion of the flood, God has a change of heart about His human creatures.  He recognizes that “the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth” and apparently decides to live with this sad reality.  God also vows never again to destroy all living creatures just because of the sinfulness of humans (Genesis 8:21-22).   God then establishes a covenant with not only the humans but with all the creatures of the earth never again to destroy the earth by flood (Genesis 9:8-17).  Unless God means His covenant promise to be totally literalistic (He won’t flood the world to destroy it, but He might use fire!), God seems to have decided that a permanent state of punishment is not part of His plan for rebellious humanity.

Even the flood doesn’t end humanities rebellion against God.   In Genesis 11 God confronts the humans for building the tower to heaven in Babel.  The punishment this time is that God both “confuses their tongues” by multiplying languages so that the humans cannot communicate with each other and He scatters them over the face of the earth.  Despite the hostilities that will now arise as a result of miscommunications and misunderstandings, God does not devise a hell – a place to keep people alive in order to torture and punish them for their wrongdoings.   All of the punishments of God in Genesis are confined to this world – first expelling the humans from His Paradise and forcing them to struggle laboriously with agriculture and child birth, and then using exile, death and catastrophic events to punish (not discipline) the sinners.   But as for mention of some form of continued torture beyond life in this world, in hell, no, not in Genesis.  Perhaps hell as a method of punishment was not yet part of God’s tools of dealing with sin and evil.   It certainly would indicate that hell itself is not eternal, but completely temporal.

Next blog:   Hell, yes?

Addendum Blog:  Orthodox Hymns on Hell

Entire blog series is also available as one PDF document:  Hell (PDF)

Christ Conquers Hell – Even Those of our own Making

 Where shall I go from your Spirit?
   Or where shall I flee from your presence?
 If I ascend to heaven, you are there!
    If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!   (Psalm 139:7-8)

A frequently asked question is “What is hell?”   Some think it a place of physical torture of sinners, others believe it to be a state of being (perhaps self created).  Whatever it may be, Christianity affirms that Christ our God has conquered it, in order to submit it to the will, love and lordship of God. 

As St. John Chrysostom says in his famous Paschal Sermon

The One Who was the Prisoner of Death has utterly destroyed it;
the One Who descended to Hades took it captive. …

So, Death, where is your sting?
So, Hades, where is your victory?

CHRIST IS RISEN, and you are overthrown!
CHRIST IS RISEN, and the demons have fallen!
CHRIST IS RISEN and the angels rejoice!
CHRIST IS RISEN and life takes command!
CHRIST IS RISEN, and not a single corpse remains in the grave!

John Chryssavgis writes in his book , BEYOND THE SHATTERED IMAGE:

“Our joyful optimism lies in the conviction that there is no place devoid of God.

Hell- that is to say, the place where God is not- can only be created as a result of an estrangement between our world and God.  If we hold on to the earth and the fullness thereof (Psalm 91:1), then everything (even death and destruction) is a ferment of divine life, the air itself (no matter how polluted) is vibrant with the Spirit.  Beyond the shattered image, there always lies the reflection of the divine reality that has no end and the re-presentation of the vision of God that knows no darkness.  This faith alone can transform evil and pain, while disclosing a loving purpose beyond suffering and isolation.”   

The very icon of Christ descending into Sheol/Hades is one which depicts Christ filling all things, even that region of outer darkness and death so that there is indeed no place where God is not.  (Ephesians 4:9)  And humanly speaking, this means that where ever we are – even in a state of despair, place of pain, the darkest reaches of our minds and when we feel totally forsaken – no place is beyond the reach and presence of God.  That is a truth to give us hope in times and places when we seem unable to believe. 

“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? … For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord”  (Romans 8:35, 38-39).