Question Number 369:
In Orthodoxy, unlike other Christian groups, we teach that even now souls do not go to Heaven, but "Abraham's bosom" or "Tartarus" in Hades, one for the saints fortasting for Heaven and the other for those foretasting Hell. My question has to do with Christ's redemption in this light. If on Great Saturday we remember the "Harrowing of Hades," and then Christ rose bestowing life on those in the tombs, what does this mean? If they were already in Hades, in what way were they given life or how was Hades harrowed?
Also, I heard the Church believes that the thief on the cross was the first to enter Paradise, which I assume is Abraham's bosom - but then how was Lazarus there in Christ's story in the Gospels? Thank you!
There are some things that need clarifying here: it is the ancient belief of the apostolic Churches (i.e. pre-Nicene fathers) that the spirits of the righteous in the intermediate state (between death and the end of the age) are not in the fullness of glory since they await the resurrection of the body. Since a human being is a unity of soul/spirit and body, the saints are tought to be in a state of joyful anticipation.
This state of separation of body and spirit is called death or hades. Everyone goes to hades, but hades was understood as being a different experience for the righteous and the wicked - this is the theme of Luke 16, and so paradise or Abraham's bosom is that blessed state in hades. Paradise is also called "heaven" by Saint Paul in 1 Corinthians 14. In that sense, we can say that the saints go to "heaven," but that is not quite equivalent to the fullness of glory of the age to come.
There is always a sense of "already" but "not quite yet" which we experience as time unfolds for us. The "harrowing of hades" (or "harrowing of hell" to use the defective King James use of "hell") refers to the fact that death was conquered and defeated when Christ entered that realm. The righteous saw the Light and the victory, and the state of being dead was now in fact transformed - it was the state of being "with the Lord." Hence, Christ trampled the power of death and transformed paradise; he symbolically translated the spirits, just as living Christians are also translated even now into the Kingdom of God's beloved (Colossians 1:13).
As a result, the thief was not the first to enter paradise, that would be an incorrect view. However, he entered a new paradise, one already radiant with the indestructible life (Hebrews 7:16) of his Savior.