Author Topic: Christ the Conqueror of Hell, by Met. Hilarion Alfeyev  (Read 581 times)

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Offline Iconodule

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Christ the Conqueror of Hell, by Met. Hilarion Alfeyev
« on: September 12, 2017, 04:10:26 PM »
I finished reading Christ the Conqueror of Hell: The Descent into Hades from an Orthodox perspective by Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev. It's a pretty short book, but, with its narrow focus, it feels very thorough. While Metropolitan Hilarion's own writing has a bit of a dry, academic tone to it, much of the book is made up of substantive excerpts from primary texts, which are often beautiful and enthralling to read. The subject is Christ's descent into hell after his crucifixion, his defeat of death, hell, and the devil, and his liberation of the captives there.

The book is eye-opening for me because I had for a long time viewed this episode as a bit peripheral- the intermission between the crucifixion and the resurrection. When I encountered hymns talking about Christ's plundering and emptying of hell, I took them as rhetorical flourishes of jubilation for the feast of resurrection. What Met. Hilarion makes clear is that the Church, since its early days, has imbued the descent into hell with a universal significance. He does this through extensive quotes from apocryphal literature, the fathers, and prayers and liturgical poetry from the early days of the Church to the flowering of Byzantine hymns that we still sing today.

Among several striking things for me is the importance of apocryphal texts which, while they didn't make their way into the official New Testament canon, continued to exert authority in the church, likely because they themselves were conveying widely held Christian beliefs. One of the most important of these is the Gospel of Nicodemus. Another major authority in the ancient church is hymnody, and hymns that have been in widespread use since ancient times have the force of dogmatic texts. The majority of the work Metropolitan Hilarion cites is poetry, including a chapter focusing on the work of Sts Ephrem the Syrian and Romanos the Melodist, followed by a detailed look at a variety of Byzantine hymns, many of them by anonymous authors, which develop themes from these two poet-saints.

Another thing that struck me was how widespread the belief in universal salvation has been among orthodox catholic Christians. A key question regarding the descent into hell is, Who was liberated from hell by Christ's descent there? The answers vary among church fathers and liturgical texts- some thought he rescued only the Old Testament righteous, or those who had lived pious lives, pagan or Jewish, prior to Christ's coming, or those who were receptive to Christ's preaching. But a good portion depicted the descent as a universal prison break, extending throughout time, that leaves hell empty. This viewpoint wasn't just a minority opinion shared by a few saints but seemed to be rather popular at certain times and places. Some key hymns and prayers of the Orthodox Church continue to assume it. Metropolitan Hilarion concludes that the question remains open.

Lastly, I should note that Metropolitan Hilarion does give the Latin fathers some attention but clearly doesn't regard them as equally authoritative as the Eastern fathers. Or rather, they are authoritative insofar as they agree with the East. And, loathe as I am to indulge any kind of anti-Latinism, I can see why, on this question, he takes this stand, as Saint Augustine and those who followed him (including Saint Gregory the Great) took a very restrictive view of the descent into hell, shared by no one else- namely, that it only saved some of those who were there at the time of Christ's descent. Saint Gregory says Christ took a "bite" from hell- a far cry from the complete despoiling depicted by the inspired Eastern poets. This all culminates in the teaching found in Aquinas that Christ only rescued the Old Testament righteous, and that his preaching to the damned was only to shame them for their unbelief. Also, unbaptized infants are out of luck. To be fair, Saint Augustine didn't know the dogmatic force his musings would take throughout the Latin church for centuries.
« Last Edit: September 12, 2017, 04:20:28 PM by Iconodule »
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Offline LBK

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Re: Christ the Conqueror of Hell, by Met. Hilarion Alfeyev
« Reply #1 on: September 12, 2017, 07:23:48 PM »
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Another thing that struck me was how widespread the belief in universal salvation has been among orthodox catholic Christians. A key question regarding the descent into hell is, Who was liberated from hell by Christ's descent there? The answers vary among church fathers and liturgical texts- some thought he rescued only the Old Testament righteous, or those who had lived pious lives, pagan or Jewish, prior to Christ's coming, or those who were receptive to Christ's preaching. But a good portion depicted the descent as a universal prison break, extending throughout time, that leaves hell empty. This viewpoint wasn't just a minority opinion shared by a few saints but seemed to be rather popular at certain times and places. Some key hymns and prayers of the Orthodox Church continue to assume it. Metropolitan Hilarion concludes that the question remains open.

Iconography is in visual terms what hymnography is in verbal. The iconography of the Resurrection/Harrowing of Hades speaks clearly that both the people of the OT (on the left) and NT (on the right) are called to salvation:

Am I posting? Or is it Schroedinger's Cat?

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Re: Christ the Conqueror of Hell, by Met. Hilarion Alfeyev
« Reply #2 on: September 12, 2017, 09:02:48 PM »
Jesus Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures.
How this relates to the coming Antichrist? I don't know...

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Offline Luke

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Re: Christ the Conqueror of Hell, by Met. Hilarion Alfeyev
« Reply #3 on: September 12, 2017, 09:29:56 PM »
I finished reading Christ the Conqueror of Hell: The Descent into Hades from an Orthodox perspective by Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev. It's a pretty short book, but, with its narrow focus, it feels very thorough. While Metropolitan Hilarion's own writing has a bit of a dry, academic tone to it, much of the book is made up of substantive excerpts from primary texts, which are often beautiful and enthralling to read. The subject is Christ's descent into hell after his crucifixion, his defeat of death, hell, and the devil, and his liberation of the captives there. . .
I like  his writing style in his book, Orthodox Christianity.

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Re: Christ the Conqueror of Hell, by Met. Hilarion Alfeyev
« Reply #4 on: November 18, 2017, 05:38:13 AM »
It's a pretty short book, but, with its narrow focus, it feels very thorough.

This was my only complaint about it: sometimes it was a little too thorough, or at least a little over-enthusiastic about presenting texts from certain people/periods. So with the 4th century Fathers Met. Hilarion would sometimes tuck additional references away in footnotes, but when he got to the poetry and hymns he'd quote a half dozen large chunks of text from the same author/source, all saying pretty much the same thing. I appreciate long quotes of primary sources more than most, but it still got a bit tedious. Though maybe the problem is just with me being unable to switch gears, when it morphed from a straight-forward academic study to something more like an anthology.

Offline Luke

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Re: Christ the Conqueror of Hell, by Met. Hilarion Alfeyev
« Reply #5 on: November 18, 2017, 11:41:03 AM »
I am currently reading the book.  I have not heard of the Gospel of Nicodemus or Bartholomew until reading the book. :-\

Offline Porter ODoran

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Re: Christ the Conqueror of Hell, by Met. Hilarion Alfeyev
« Reply #6 on: November 18, 2017, 02:41:56 PM »
Thank you for a very nice review, Iconodule.
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