Christ in Hades?! There are three mentions of Hades in the Divine Liturgy - one in the proskomedia, one during the 6th Hour in Psalm 54, and one just after the Great Entrance, where echoing the first the priest says (referring to Christ), “In the grave bodily, but in Hades with Thy soul as God; in Paradise with the thief, and on the throne with the Father and the Spirit was Thou Who fillest all things, O Christ the Inexpressible.” It’s phrased a little differently, but in the Symbol of the Faith (the Nicene Creed) we also note that “He (Christ) descended into Hell,” and that can be a little jarring for folks who grew up in a Western (especially protestant) background. Every Great and Holy Saturday we celebrate Christ’s descent into Hades, and it’s a contrapositive for Pascha/ Easter the very next day. This is important as you’ll note the Paschal icon features the harrowing of Hell, where Christ is scene trampling down the doors of Hades (and by extension, death by death), and lifting Adam and Eve out of the tomb.
Rather than recount them all here, here are the Biblical references to the event, which perhaps makes it more surprising that it doesn’t show up in protestantism. It’s not a “gotcha” per se, but it might be interesting to explore these with your protestant family to compare the Church’s traditional teachings versus individual interpretation. They are: Matthew 12:40 and 27:51-52, Acts 2:31, 1st Peter 3:18-21 and 4:6, Ephesians 4:9, and Revelation 20:14. Here’s the thing - the Orthodox position is not one that was developed during our separation from the West, but rather was part of the teachings of the Church in both hemispheres from at least the 4th century AD. Since the earliest times we have very clearly taught Christ’s descent into Hell, His victory over death, and the liberation of the saints from the realm of the dead and the rest of us from death and hell. We see this especially strongly in Church Fathers such as Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, and Athanasius, and Bl. Augustine of Hippo. This is also where and why we consider the Old Testament figures to be among the saints, as well as those who lived in faith and piety, something that was emphasized in the West by Dante in his Divine Comedy.
Now, let’s go a bit against the grain of common cultural understanding - you might be surprised! What does it mean for us that Christ descended into Hell? Well, first and foremost, it’s not an unknown and mysterious realm because Christ Himself went there for us, nor is it a place bereft of all hope because Christ evangelized there! Hell, contrary to what Halloween movies might like to tell you, is not the domain of Satan (NB: Satan was cast out of paradise not to hell, but to here), most especially because Christ invaded and took death captive. Connected to this, the gates of hell have been shattered and trampled upon, and the captives liberated. Our biggest takeaway from this really ought to be that death is nothing to be feared because Christ has gone before us leading our way to heaven!