The question is what exactly do we mean when we speak about Hell and the descent of Christ into it. There are many passages in both the Old and New Testaments which refer to Hell. I shall not quote them all here, because the purpose is to present the teaching about the deadening and destruction of Hell.
One passage which presents Christ’s words is characteristic: “And you, Capernaum, who are exalted to heaven, will be brought down of Hades” (St. Matthew 11:23). Here clearly Christ is using the image of Hades in opposition to heaven, which is identified with the glory of Capernaum, which was granted to see the Godman Christ, while Hades means its utmost humility and downfall because it did not prove worthy of this great gift.
The word ‘Hades’ in the New Testament corresponds to the Hebrew word ‘Scheol’, which is interpreted as a cave, a chasm, an abyss, and points to the dark and boundless kingdom of the dead, that is to say, the place of the spirits of the dead.
In the Old Testament, it is considered as a place in the lowest part of the earth, but this must be understood symbolically, in accordance with the concepts of that time…So the image of Hades is used symbolically by Holy Scripture to point to the power of death and the devil. The holy Apostle Paul’s words are characteristic: “Inasmuch then as the children have partaken of flesh and blood, he himself likewise share in the same, that through death He might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil” (Hebrews 2:14-15).
Therefore in the Orthodox Christian Tradition Hades is not simply a particular place, but the dominion of death and the devil. We say that the souls of those people who are in the power of the devil and death are in Hades. It is in this sense that we must regard the Church’s teaching about the Descent of Christ into Hell, that is, that Christ entered the realm of death, accepted to die, whereupon by the power of His death He conquered death, made it completely powerless and weak, and gave every person the possibility, by His power and authority, to escape the dominion, the authority, and power of death and the devil.
We have a witness of the Descent of Christ into Hades from the General Epistle of the holy Apostle Peter, in which it says: “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive by the Spirit, by whom also he went and preached to the spirits in prison” (1 Peter 3:18-19). Here it can be seen clearly that Christ, with His Divinity, descended into the prison of the spirits, of their souls, that is, and preached repentance. Another place in the same letter says the same: “For this reason, the gospel was preached to those who are dead, that they might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit” (1 Peter 4:6).
In the Holy Tradition of the Church much is said about the Descent of Christ into Hades in the sense that He came down into the realm and kingdom of death. The troparia (hymns) sung at Pascha Vespers which begin with the phrase “today Hades groans and cries aloud” are shocking. They present Hades calling out with groaning. Among other things it is said that his authority was destroyed, for Christ released all those whom he had held for centuries. These words are characteristic: “my dominion has been swallowed up; the Shepherd has been crucified and He has raised Adam. I am deprived of those whom once I ruled; in my strength I devoured them, but now I have cast them forth. He Who was crucified has emptied the tombs; the power of death has no more strength.
Also very meaningful for this point is the Catechetical saying of Saint John Chrysostom which we read at the Divine Liturgy on Pascha Sunday. Among other things it says that when Hades encountered Christ “it was angered…it was abolished…it was mocked…it was slain…it was overthrown…it was fettered in chains.” Then it says that through Christ’s death on the Cross, Hades took a mortal body, and found itself face to face with God. It took earth, and encountered heaven, it took what was seen, that is to say, the human body, human nature, and fell upon the unseen, that is to say, the Godhead.
The Church’s teaching about Christ’s Descent into Hell was described by Saint John of Damascus in a a troparion (hymn) of the Paschal Canon. I shall quote it entirely because it is very well known: “Thou didst descend into the nethermost parts of the earth, O Christ, and didst shatter the bonds eternal which held the prisoners in captivity, and after three days thou didst rise again from the grave, like Jonah from the whale”.
(Source: The Feasts of the Lord by Metropolitan of Nafpaktos Hierotheos)