Church of the Holy Savior, Constantinople
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.
In the history of Christianity an idea has repeatedly arisen that God predestines some people for salvation and others to perdition. This idea, based as it is on the literary understanding of the words of St. Paul about predestination, calling and justification, became the corner-stone of the theological system of the Reformation, preached with particular consistency by John Calvin. Eleven centuries before Calvin, the Eastern Christian tradition in the person of John Chrysostom expressed its view of predestination and calling. ‘Why are not all saved?’ Chrysostom asks. ‘Because… not only the call [of God] but also the will of those called is the cause of their salvation. This call is not coercive or forcible. Every one was called, but not all followed the call’. Later Fathers, including Maximus and John Damascene, spoke in the same spirit. According to their teaching, it is not God who saves some while ruining others, but some people follow the call of God to salvation while others do not. It is not God who leads some from hell while leaving others behind, but some people wish while others do not wish to believe in Him.
The teaching of the Eastern Church Fathers on the descent of Christ into Hades can be summed up in the following points:
1) the doctrine of the descent of Christ into Hades was commonly accepted and indisputable;
2) the descent into Hades was perceived as an event of universal significance, though some authors limited the range of those saved by Christ to a particular category of the dead;
3) the descent of Christ into Hades and His resurrection were viewed as the accomplishment of the ‘economy’ of Christ the Saviour, as the crown and outcome of the feat He performed for the salvation of people;
4) the teaching on the victory of Christ over the devil, hell and death was finally articulated and asserted;
5) the theme of the descent into Hades began to be viewed in its mystical dimension, as the prototype of the resurrection of the human soul.
Excerpted from: Christ the Conqueror of Hell, The Descent of Christ into Hades in Eastern and Western Theological Traditions by Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev. Entire article appears here: http://orthodoxeurope.org/page/11/1/5.aspx