The Descent into Hades (or Sheol)
The Feast of the Resurrection is our Feast of feasts and the basis of our faith. St. Paul says that if Christ is not raised from the dead then our faith is in vain. (1 Cor. 15:14). The dominant icon for Easter is not of the bodily resurrection of Jesus, but rather the “Descent into Hades”. The Descent into Hades is not an event that was seen, it is a “painting of theology,” as Father Alexander Schmemann says, which corresponds to the meaning of the event, and is based on the bible’s account of Jesus descending into the abyss to deliver the souls of the Just.
The icon of the Descent is very simply an image of Christ, the Victor”. . . Trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.” It is an icon rich in meaning. It takes place in Hades, also called Sheol. The term Hades should not be confused with the word hell, as generally understood as opposite of heaven. Hades is a term used in the Old Testament to describe the place where all the dead go; whether righteous or evil. The icon shows us the very depths of the earth, a gaping black abyss, the place referred to in the Old Testament precisely as Hades.
Upon His death, Christ descended into the regions of Hades. A verse on Ps. 119 sung during the Matins of Holy Saturday says, “Wishing to save Adam Thou didst come down to the earth; not finding him on earth, O Master, Thou didst descend to Hades seeking him.” The hymns of Holy Saturday commemorate His presence in Hades and the chanting of Ps. 119 and its verses marvel at His condescension. The fact that Christ appears in Hades is a wonder, “0 life, how canst Thou die?” (Verse on Ps 119.) It is also a confrontation between He who is Life, and death itself, the last enemy (1Cor 15: 26).
The theme of Christ’s death is always interwoven with His Resurrection, and this message pervades all our Church services, especially, those of Holy Friday and Saturday. So the icon of Christ’s death is that of victory. Acts 2:24 says that it was impossible for Him to be held by Hades power. He appears not as a captive but as the Victor. In the icon He appears in luminous golden robes in the middle of a halo, the symbol of glory, with rays of light issuing from Him.
The icon shows “that Hell was embittered” when it met Christ. Often this is symbolized by two angels binding Satan. The verses on “Lord I Call” for Holy Saturday all speak vividly of this: “Today hell cries out groaning” and “hell shuddered when it beheld Thee.” He holds in his left hand either a scroll, the message of the resurrection or the cross, now the symbol of Victory. With His right hand He raises Adam from the grave and with him Eve and all those who await His coming,: King David, Solomon, John the Forerunner, Moses and the prophets. “Hell has been captured and Adam recalled, the curse has been annulled and Eve set free.” (Theotokion-Vigil for the Resurrection) Christ’s descent into Hades is the final abasement in His self-emptying. He takes on all of our human nature so that it can be saved, and not only saved but glorified as well. By descending into Hades He has opened to Adam, and to us, the “path to the Ressurection. We sing in Ode 1 of the Paschal Kanon,”. . . for from death to life and from earth to heaven has Christ our God led us.” We exalt the “begining of another life” But the Resurrection is not the end of His saving work, for in His Ascension, He took our nature with Him into Heaven.
(Adapted from http://www.dce.oca.org)