Did Jesus go to hell? (part three)
Cameron Reilly would have been part of history, a Scots Guardsman guarding the royal palace for Friday’s wedding. Then he called Kate Middleton a “stuck up cow” on Facebook and lost his job for the big event. Now he’s part of history in a way he never imagined.
God’s love for us is not so conditional, a fact proven by Jesus’ death and resurrection for sinners like you and me. A reader asked over the weekend, “Did Jesus go to hell?” Following Good Friday and Easter Sunday, it seems an appropriate way to launch a forum on tough texts in the Bible. The question leads us to 1 Peter 3:19-20: “[Jesus] was put to death in the body but made alive by the Spirit, through whom also he went and preached to the spirits in prison who disobeyed long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built.”
The most common interpretation of our text is that these “spirits” were men who rejected the preaching of Noah while he built the Ark. They are now “spirits in prison,” awaiting their final judgment. How did Jesus preach to them? It is possible that he did so through a personal manifestation of himself (a “Christophany,” or appearance of Christ before his incarnation), though no text suggests this event. And we wonder why they would warrant such a unique privilege.
Some suggest that he preached to them between his death and resurrection. This is the option which gave rise to the belief that Christ “descended to hell.” However, Peter’s syntax seems to indicate clearly that he preached to the spirits during the time Noah was building the ark. Nothing in the text requires that we locate Jesus’ preaching to the spirits between his death and resurrection. And it is hard to see why this one group of people would receive a second opportunity or a unique declaration of their condemnation.
The most likely option is that Jesus preached “through the Spirit” in Noah’s preaching. In other words, he motivated and inspired Noah’s preaching by the Holy Spirit. If this is the correct option, Peter uses this fact to show that the same Spirit who brought Jesus to life also gave spiritual life to people as far back in history as the time of Noah. This was the approach favored by Augustine, and followed by many interpreters today.
To conclude: our tough text does not seem to indicate that Jesus went to hell when he preached to the “spirits in prison.” Remember his promise to the penitent thief: “Today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). So it is for all who trust in Jesus—when we die, we don’t. When we close our eyes here, we open them there. And our crucified Savior welcomes us home.
The worst thing that could happen to you today is the gateway to the best thing that could happen to you today. This is the assurance of God.