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Descent into Hell and penal substitution

16 April 2010

The Resurrection / Descent into Hell

One of the the major differences between Eastern and Western theology can be seen in the metaphors used for Holy Week and Easter. If you look at some of the blogs over the last couple of weeks, there were still some, especially Protestant ones, where the dominant metaphor is the Cross, not merely for Good Friday, but also for Easter. The resurrection is an afterthought tacked on. In others, the resurrection of Christ is the main theme, and the main metaphor for it is the empty tomb. In Orthodoxy, however, the main metaphor for Pascha is the Descent into Hell, or the Harrowing of Hell. The ikon of the Resurrection actually shows Christ descending into hell, and trampling on the gates of hell, and raising Adam and Eve. The ikon showed his robe being blown upwards, indicating descent.

One of the things that emerges from the Emerging Church movement is the dissatisfaction that many Evangelical Protestants feel about the Penal Substitution theory of the atonement. And many of the objections to the Emerging Church movement among Evangelical Protestants who have rejected the Emerging Church thinking are centred on this, and are often expressed in a vigorous defence of the Penal Substitution theory, which they regard as “traditional” and “orthodox”.

I have commented on theories of the atonement in Salvation and atonement | Khanya and on Hell and Hades in Go to Hell! | Khanya so I won’t go into more detail here, but Father Stephen Freeman has recently posted some very interesting comments on this at Metaphors of the Atonement | Glory to God for All Things:

Excellent illustrations of this are found if you look at the doctrines related to the Descent of Christ into Hades. The article by Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev, Christ Descent into Hades, which was recently referenced here, notes contrasts in how the understanding of Christ’s Descent into Hades developed in both East and West. The development, starting in the 4th or 5th centuries eventually resulted in very different understandings. But the underlying issue was not the Descent into Hades but the metaphors which came to dominate the thought of Christian teachers, East or West.

People who are concerned about the Emerging Church and its attitude to the Penal Substitution theory of the atonement might find Fr Stephen’s post worth reading.
I also decided to recycle this post for the April 2011 Synchroblog, on the theme “Do you live under a rock?”

Here are the links to the other posts:

2 Comments leave one →
  1. 23 April 2010 4:59 pm

    Interestingly I was having a discussion about theories of the Atonement with some Christians over at the echurch blog here and here – as you can see the discussion diverged from the original topics! I also posted a link to your previous blogpost about it.

    Amazing how many Christians have no idea that there’s any alternative to penal substitution theology (actually I didn’t know about it until I met Orthodoxy, though I did know about the Harrowing of Hell as there is a carving of it in Bristol Cathedral, and it’s mentioned in the writings of Joseph Campbell).

  2. 14 April 2011 7:07 pm

    thanks as always for your contributions, steve. the idea of descent vs. ascent is such a critical one and has all kinds of ramifications in the way we practice our faith. peace to you from colorado.

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