Ok, bear with me people. I have a lot I want to share, but not exactly sure how I'm going to put it. Forgive me if I am all over the place with it.
This is the first I have learned about the Orthodox (and Western, for that matter) beliefs on what it meant when Christ conquered hell--more precisely it is the first I have thought about it as an actual event rather than a concept.
This is taken from a lecture of Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev entitled Christ the Conqueror of Hell: The Descent of Christ into Hades in Eastern and Western Theological Traditions
In his ‘Festive Letters’, Cyril of Alexandria elaborates on the theme of the preaching of Christ in Hades...
Cyril emphasizes the universality of the salvation given by Christ to humanity, perceiving the descent of Christ into Hades as salvific for the entire human race. He is not inclined to limit salvation to a particular part of humanity, such as the Old Testament righteous. Salvation is likened to rain sent by God on both the just and the unjust....The descent of Christ into Hades, according to Cyril’s teaching, signified victory over that which previously appeared unconquerable and ensured the salvation of all humanity:
Death unwilling to be defeated is defeated; corruption is transformed; unconquerable passion is destroyed. While hell, diseased with excessive insatiability and never satisfied with the dead, is taught, even if against its will, that which it could not learn previously. For it not only ceases to claim those who are still to fall [in the future], but also lets free those already captured, being subjected to splendid devastation by the power of our Saviour... Having preached to the spirits in hell, once disobedient, He came out as conqueror by resurrecting His temple like a beginning of our hope and by showing to [our] nature the manner of the raising from the dead, and giving us along with it other blessings as well.
In John Damascene we find lines which sum up the development of the theme of the descent of Christ into Hades in Eastern patristic writings of the 2nd¾8th centuries:
The soul [of Christ] when it is deified descended into Hades, in order that, just as the Sun of Righteousness rose for those upon the earth, so likewise He might bring light to those who sit under the earth in darkness and the shadow of death: in order that just as he brought the message of peace to those upon the earth, and of release to the prisoners, and of sight to the blind, and became to those who believed the Author of everlasting salvation and to those who did not believe, a denunciation of their unbelief, so He might become the same to those in Hades: That every knee should bow to Him, of things in heaven, and things in earth and things under the earth. And thus after He had freed those who has been bound for ages, straightway He rose again from the dead, showing us the way of resurrection.
According to John Damascene, Christ preached to all those who were in hell, but His preaching did not prove salutary for all, as not all were capable of responding to it. For some it could become only ‘a denunciation of their disbelief’, not the cause of salvation. In this judgement, Damascene actually repeats the teaching on salvation articulated not long before him by Maximus the Confessor. According to Maximus, human history will be accomplished when all without exception will unite with God and God will become ‘all in all’. For some, however, this unity will mean eternal bliss, while for others it will become the source of suffering and torment, as each will be united with God ‘according to the quality of his disposition’ towards God. In other words, all will be united with God, but each will have his own, subjective, feeling of this unity, according to the measure of the closeness to God he has achieved. Along a similar line, John Damascene understands also the teaching on the descent to Hades: Christ opens the way to paradise to all and calls all to salvation, but the response to Christ’s call may lie in either consent to follow Him or voluntary rejection of salvation. Ultimately it depends on a person, on his free choice. God does not save anybody by force, but calls everybody to salvation: ‘Behold, I stand at the door, and knock; if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him’. God knocks at the door of the human heart rather than breaks into it.
A couple days after reading the above, I listened to Matthew Gallatin's The Sacraments. My mind was still mulling over the above text, and in the middle of the podcast I had an "Ah hah!" moment (but not as cheesy as Oprah's). In his concise, slow manner, Gallatin helped me grasp the basics of what I had just read.
He starts the podcast off with explaining that sacraments do not make us acceptable to God nor do they reconcile us to Him. Rather, it is in the sacraments that we run to God. From there he takes a moment to clarify: "We do not require reconciliation with God because He is angry with us and can have nothing to do with us until He is appeased for the sins we have committed against Him. God is not anger. God is love." Rather, reconciliation is required because we, through Adam and Eve, have plunged into death and separation from God.
God so longs to be united with us that He followed us into death by taking on our humanity. But death could not withstand His presence and it was destroyed. Now our humanity has been united with the divine. "So now we are no longer creatures who by nature die...Now we stand completely reconciled before God," says Gallatin. Furthermore, as I read in the Bishop's lecture and heard from Gallatin, God has reconciled the whole world to Himself--not just a select few or just those who have faith. We are all standing before God right now; we are either reaching out to embrace Him or we are turning our backs to Him, either in direct rejection of Him or simply because we are distracted by the world. I remember those tracts I was supposed to hand out to my middle school friends: they had a picture of a little kid standing on one cliff, the word GOD on the other cliff, and a cross spanning the abyss between them. Usually there were words or something to represent "Heaven" and "Hell" as well: "Which side do you think you're on right now?" "Where do you think you will be after death?" (I did this routine once. I was so shy and embarrassed about it, but I did it to be a good Christian. Although I knew she had no religious background whatsoever, the girl pointed to the side with God/Heaven/Happiness. "No, really, which side?" So much for that!) This is a false portrayal of where she stands before God. Although visual representations of stuff like this are usually avoided in Orthodoxy, I would put her, me and God on the same side. We both have the choice to either embrace God or turn around and walk off the cliff. We are reconciled and must now decide if we will run to Him and show love to Him, or if we will "spend endless ages trying to hide from Him" as Gallatin puts it. We have all already received Jesus' sacrificial gift, and only a few will see it for what it is, take advantage of His mercy and embrace God.
The hardest part about this is that it points out how self-destructive and prideful we are (what a combo). With death having been conquered and especially for those who have received the Holy Spirit through baptism, we can not longer blame our nature for our falling short, or as is more frequent for me anyway, outright ugliness. But how much lower can we get than to be given the gift of faith, the Holy Spirit and the sacraments and still sin!
I have heard people talk like: "Now that so-and-so has heard the Gospel and rejected it, they will be held accountable and can't claim ignorance at the the Great Judgment;" meanwhile the unbeliever's life could have more semblance of holiness than the believer's. My faith in God does not by itself make me more holy than my unbelieving sister. What separates me from her is my sacramental life: my movement with God and the direction of my gaze. When I cease to "dance" with God, as Gallatin would put it, I again look no different from the world. Thus it is the demon's job to distract me from God--to get me to turn around for only a moment. If I die in that moment, my back to God, what defense will I have? Jesus redeemed me and brought me before His Father, but like Lot's wife I looked back as if there was something I wasn't quite ready to leave behind.
God graciously grants us time in life to make our decision of where our treasure lies. He knows that we falter and have a terrible time with humility, so in His great mercy He gives us chance after chance to take two steps forward for every one step back. Here I realize more deeply the importance of continual prayer. Every time I pray (if I can call it that...I am so unworthy), I turn to God--that's one step forward. May God put a prayer of repentance on my lips at my death! Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy.
For a more complete, clearer picture of what I'm attempting to share, I highly, highly recommend taking the 15 mins or so to listen to Gallatin's podcast on Ancient Faith Radio (link at right). He has a way of speaking clearly and concisely and it helps me tremendously. Also the lecture by Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev was very interesting for me and didn't take too terribly long to read. He talks first about the Eastern views of Christ's decent to Hades and the following additions/changes to those views adopted by the Western Church.