Did Jesus Go To Hell Today?

Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, (19) in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, (20) because they formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water. (1 Peter 3:18-20)

It’s a question that always nagged me a bit around this time of year.

Jesus went to the terrible cross on Friday and was laid to the tomb.

He arose bodily on Sunday defeating death itself.

But where was the Son of God in between those two universe-shaking events?

1 Peter 3:18-20 seems to indicate some answer for us. As we know, fools rush in where angels fear to tread. Martin Luther, after studying and meditating on this passage said: “This is a wonderful text and a more obscure passage than any other in the New Testament so that I do not know for certainty what Peter means.”

The three most common views are:

Christ preached the gospel to the dead saints and unbelievers

Many (maybe most) Christians believe after the cross, Christ literally descended into hell (or place of the dead, or purgatory) and preached the gospel to the pre-Christ Old Testament saints so that they may be set free for the fullest experience of heaven. A majority of Catholics hold to this interpretation. A more controversial branch of this view is that Christ actually went and preached the gospel to unbelievers (IE those who died in the flood) and gave them a second chance to repent and believe on Him. The Apostle’s Creed seems to intimate some variation of this doctrine:  “[He] was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended into hell. The third day He arose again from the dead.”

Christ preached the gospel through Noah during the days of Noah

There is also a pre-existent Christ view of this passage that reflects the view of many modern Reformed theologians. This view states that Jesus was the one preaching in the actual days of Noah, possibly through Noah himself.  So through the mouth of Noah, through the words of Noah, the pre-existent Christ was preaching to spirits in prison, understood metaphorically as those who are in spiritual darkness.  Many believe this was St. Augustine’s view and it seems to confirm the meaning of 1 Peter 1:10-11.

Christ preached His triumphant reign to the spiritual world

A final view of this passage is that that Christ Jesus proclaimed His triumph to those who are in hell and to the demonic realm itself. This view holds that Christ was preached His triumphant proclamation over the spirit world not in between the cross and resurrection, but in between the resurrection and ascension.  This was a view widely held in the 17th century.  It states that Peter seems to be speaking here in a sequential, chronological way.  He speaks about the death of Jesus, he speaks about the resurrection of Jesus, and then the ascension of Jesus.  In between mentioning the resurrection and the ascension, he mentions this preaching to the spirits in prison. Christ wouldn’t be preaching the gospel to the unsaved, rather heralding his triumph over sin, death and over all spiritual principalities, even Satan. The “spirits” in prison hearing the message of Christ’s victory would be the demonic realm He defeated at the cross.

I lean to the latter view being most plausible, but it is only a slight lean. Some of my favorite theologians in the world hold the second view. And yet the first view has a strong historical argument that favors it. There is much more that can (and should) be said about all three views.  I really would have to defer to Luther’s previous statement above before dying on any three of these hills.

Regardless, I believe proponents of all three major views can rejoice over the cross of Christ where our due wrath was taken by the God man, and the resurrection of Christ where He decisively proved that death was truly put to death forevermore. Such gospel truths are beautifully and simply clear to us in Scripture (1 Corinthians 15:-1-3).

I’ll defer to the words of the 16th century Reformer once more, these penned to his classic hymn (A Mighty Fortress Is Our God):

And though this world with devils filled   Should threaten to undo us
We will not fear for God has willed   His truth to triumph through us
The Prince of Darkness grim  We tremble not for him
His rage we can endure For lo his doom is sure
One little word (He is risen!) will slay him

It’s Saturday, but Sunday is coming peeps.

Peace and grace,

Bryan Daniels

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Author: Bryan Daniels

I am a follower of Jesus, a husband to Jessica, and a father of three boys: Josiah, Gideon and Judah. I teach high school math as a job, read reformed theology as a hobby, and write this blog just for kicks. With the rest of my time I coach football and track.

41 thoughts on “Did Jesus Go To Hell Today?”

  1. Good study of this passage. I would have a tendency to go along with the second interpretation of this passage. But as you say… the most important issues are His death and resurrection that brought salvation to His people. Thanks for the interesting posting. Lord bless you.

  2. Bryan,

    Good handling of the views of this passage. I tend to lean towards the Noah view myself… but it is always good to present the different interpretations of a passage and let the Holy Spirit confirm or deny what is good and right.

    TransitionalG

  3. Very interesting post Bryan, thanks. That passage never did make a lot of sense to me as I cannot seem to understand it very well.

    This I can understand, Christ died to save us all…we need only accept His offer of forgiveness and life.

    Blessings to you Bryan.
    Greg

  4. I just try not to figure out some things; but it’s because my shallow mind will not dive that deep. So, I am glad to see you wading out into the waters and showing us what you’ve found! Very interesting.

    And, yes, Sunday is just around the corner! (Peeps — that reminds me…my husband loves those little marshmallow Easter treats called Peeps and I didn’t buy him any!)

    1. Better go get him some now Cristal! : ) This passage stretches my mind a bit too, I don’t know how deep I got but that is the best I can do for now. Peace and grace to you and your this resurrection Day!

  5. It’s an impossible conundrum but my guess he went forward in time rather than back and visited Disney World. After such a rubbish Friday he obviously felt he deserved a bit of fun. And rightly so, I say!

      1. It’s always important in religious discussions to maintain an open mind.
        Even Eusebius had a sense of humour.

  6. Hell is not strong enough to contain Christ. And in essence, Hell is Hell because Christ is not there. If my chair had not God in any way surrounding it or it or on it, then technically speaking, my chair would be Hell – the last place I would ever want to be.

  7. I love the mental picture of the repentant thief, in Abraham’s bosom, encouraging the OT Saints: “Really, guys, it’s not much longer, any minu….Look! There He is!”

    The resurrection is coming.

  8. I still need to study this issue some more…But if Jesus was a perfect and righteous man — even if he did have our sins imputed to him — and if he had a normal human soul (which he did because he was 100% human!), it doesn’t make a LICK of sense that he would descend into the part of Hades where the condemned are. It would make sense that he is preaching to those who were waiting for him, who were promised his coming yet never saw it in their life time!

      1. @Clark Bunch: I think you are probably using the KJV or NKJV, because the Greek says Hades and so does my translation (the ESV). It is my impression that hell, properly used as a term, IS the lake of fire, and Hades is the realm where dead souls are held until judgment before they are thrown into the lake of fire.

        @Chiefofleast: Yes that’s the best explanation I have right now. I think he showed up in Hades and said, “Hey boys, time to go home.”

  9. I like Luther’s response, “I do not know for certain.”

    I can’t prove that Jesus DID NOT go to hell for three days, so I don’t argue with people that believe. I tend not to think so, but then what to do with this verse in 1 Peter? I am confident he took God’s full wrath toward sin on the cross; the cross was hell for Jesus. Isaiah says it was God’s will to crush him. The sins of the world were placed on his back and God turned his face away. Jesus was totally separated from God the Father for the first time ever.

    Jesus told one of the thieves crucified with him “This day you will be with me in paradise.” Did Jesus go straight to Paradise after yielding up his spirit? Did he divide his time between two or more places? Or is it possible none of us really understand what Peter was talking about? Good question.

  10. After Jesus died He went to paradise (Luke 23:43) which is in Hades. Hades is what is meant by the scriptures in Acts 2:27 and not the Gehenna Hell that so many think of.

    The Spirit of God had been warning people to believe God for millenia (Nehemiah 9:30), so I would say that the second explanation fits best. The prison very likely refers to the spiritual prison of sin that they were caught in and the judgment that Noah’s faithful actions warned about.

    Great question.

  11. None of these are technically unbiblical. But I guess I always lean instinctively away from the most “spiritual being” oriented and towards the most “preachy and repentance” interpretation, that being number 2 in this case.

    Good work, Chief. Keep them coming.

  12. How do we know He didn’t rise from the dead on the Saturday? We only know that he appeared to Mary on the Sunday…he could have risen on the Saturday but because it was the Sabbath and they weren’t allowed to visit his body until the day after he could have risen the day before but NO-ONE KNEW?!?!

    Although, having played Devil’s Advocate there for a minute we do know that he rose on the third day because we are told that he did so “in accordance with the scriptures”. As he did with every other detail of his life and death, so yeah, he rose on the third day.

    As for hell in the middle? I’m not so sure. I need to have a think about that some more.

  13. Very good post about a very interesting question. I honestly can’t say any one of them is wrong or right. For myself, whatever Jesus did or wherever He was between the death on the cross and the Glorious Resurrection, DOES NOT MATTER! The “fact” that He conquered sin and death which gave everyone the “Bridge” between God and man is what it was all about.
    Any who do not know His forgiveness in a personal way (by walking that Bridge), I pray their eyes be opened “and believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and be saved”.
    Have a blessed Easter as all the saints raise their voices in resounding thanks and praise for Jesus death, burial and resurrection into glory.
    ~streim~

  14. Thanks for this post. Very intriguing. I was actually wondering about that not too long ago. Whatever Peter had in mind, like you say glory to God that his live, death, burial, and resurrection are crystal clear, and in them we find our hope, joy, and peace.

    Grace and peace to you,
    Eric

  15. I have always had trouble with that part of the Apostle’s creed. I know that he died and was resurrected but I don’t think I know what he did in between those two events. So, I sometimes don’t say that part of the creed. I wish I could feel okay with saying that part of the creed though.

    1. Well, the more I look into it; it seems that section of the creed was injected centuries later and maybe not a part of the original 150 AD creed. So your reservations may warranted! Peace and grace!

  16. Also the Apostle’s creed sometimes says death there while another version says “Hell.” I can say “death.” I just can’t say “hell” there. I may asked my one of my pastors about it. I just don’t want them to get sick of all of my questions. (I dream of going to Seminary and becoming a pastor, Bible teacher or something like that.)

  17. I’ve always had trouble with the idea of the Old Testament saints being in hell and awaiting Jesus’ death and resurrection. One of my rationales has been that if Moses were in hell then how was he able to be with Jesus at the Transfiguration? Frankly, I’ve always had a little bit of trouble with Paul’s logic in Ephesians 4:7-10. I thought that it was these verses that gave that part of the creed the part about Jesus descension and then ascension. Anyway, I try not to ponder this stuff too much because, when it comes down to it, I know God is in control, and if He wants to explain it to me one day He will.

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