What happened to the Departed Souls before Christ?
According to St Epiphanios, who lived in the fourth century, the souls of the departed who lived before Christ were in waiting in Hades, or the underworld. What were they waiting for? They were neither in heaven or hell, but waiting.
St Epiphanios writes that after Christ was crucified and before His Resurrection, He descended into Hades and those who were righteous ran with eagerness to join Him, but others ran and hid from Him, their hearts unable to receive the love He was so freely offering. He brought the righteous souls out of Hades, in a triumphant march. Out of Hades, escorted by angels and led by the Cross on which He was crucified. Everyone was free to join Him, but only the righteous found themselves able to receive His great gift of eternal life with Him.
Below are some excerpts of what St Epiphanios writes about Christ’s descent into Hades…
Something strange is happening… there is a great silence on earth today, a great silence and stillness.
The whole earth keeps silence because the King is asleep. God has died in the flesh and hell trembles with fear. He has gone to search for our first parent, as for a lost sheep.
Greatly desiring to visit those who live in darkness and in the shadow of death, He has gone to free from sorrow the captives Adam and Eve, He who is both God and the son of Eve. The Lord approached them bearing the Cross, the weapon that had won Him the victory. At the sight of Him Adam, the first man He had created, struck his breast in terror and cried out to everyone: “My Lord be with you all”. Christ answered him: “And with your spirit”. He took him by the hand and raised him up, saying: “Awake, O sleeper, and rise from the dead, and Christ will give you light” (cf Eph 5:14).
I did not create you to be held a prisoner in hell. Rise from the dead, for I am the life of the dead. Rise up, work of My hands, you who were created in My image. Rise, let us leave this place, for you are in Me and I am in you; together we form only one person and we cannot be separated. For your sake I, your God, became your son; I, the Lord, took the form of a slave; I, whose home is above the heavens, descended to the earth and beneath the earth. For your sake, for the sake of man, I became like a man without help, free among the dead. For the sake of you, who left a garden, I was betrayed to the Jews in a garden, and I was crucified in a garden. See on My face the spittle I received in order to restore to you the life I once breathed into you. See there the marks of the blows I received in order to refashion your warped nature in My image. On My back see the marks of the scourging I endured to remove the burden of sin that weighs upon your back. See My hands, nailed firmly to a tree, for you who once wickedly stretched out your hand to a tree. I slept on the Cross and a sword pierced My side for you who slept in paradise and brought forth Eve from your side. My side has healed the pain in yours.
My sleep will rouse you from your sleep in hell. Rise, let us leave this place. The enemy led you out of the earthly paradise. I will not restore you to that paradise, but I will enthrone you in heaven. I forbade you the tree that was only a symbol of life, but see, I who am life itself am now one with you. I appointed Cherubim to guard you as slaves are guarded, but now I make them worship you as God. The throne formed by Cherubim awaits you, its bearers swift and eager.
The bridal chamber is adorned, the banquet is ready, the eternal dwelling places are prepared, the treasure houses of all good things lie open.
The Kingdom of Heaven has been prepared for you from all eternity.
From an ancient homily for Holy Saturday by St Epiphanios (PG 43, 439, 451, 462-463).
† Fr N. S.
Source: August-September 2015 Lychnos Edition