Did Jesus go to hell?
Millions of Christians have recited the Apostle’s Creed as a basic part of their weekly worship. This fourth-century compendium of basic Christian beliefs, likely edited from documents even older, was not written by the apostles. However, it contains a brief summary of teachings considered to be theirs, and so has been authoritative for centuries. Its fourth clause contains this affirmation: Christ “suffered under Pontius Pilate; was crucified, dead, and buried; He descended into hell.”
Did Jesus really go to hell? If so, why? Does the Bible teach this doctrine? This subject is probably the most confusing issue related to Christology (the doctrine of Christ). The Nicene Creed, also fourth century in origin, makes no mention of such an event. The Athanasian Creed, dated to the sixth century, does. What should we believe? Why does it matter?
Preaching to “the spirits in prison”
The text at the heart of the issue is 1 Peter 3:18-20, typically regarded as one of the most difficult in all the New Testament. It begins: “For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God” (v. 18a). Remember, he died one time for all of humanity. You’ll need that fact later in this essay.
Peter continues: “He was put to death in the body but made alive by the Spirit…” (v. 18b). The Holy Spirit was the power by which Jesus was raised from the dead. Now the confusion begins: “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” (vs. 19-20a). Who were the “spirits in prison”? And when did Jesus preach to them?
“Spirits” typically refers to spiritual beings such as angels, though the word can refer to humans as well. They were “in prison” as a result of their disobedience to the word and will of God. Some have suggested that these were the offspring of the “sons of God and daughters of men” (Genesis 6:1-4). But that text nowhere states that this offspring disobeyed God, or that their origin was sinful. And they were born before Noah was called by God.
These “imprisoned spirits” disobeyed God during the period when Noah was building the ark , Noah was also a “preacher of righteousness” (2 Peter 2:5). Thus Peter most likely refers to those who refused Noah’s call to repentance during the 100 years he spent building the ark. “Through the Spirit,” Jesus preached to them.
When? Peter’s Greek grammar is clear: he did this while Noah was building his Ark and calling the people to repentance and salvation. Those people are now, in Peter’s time, “spirits in prison,” awaiting their final judgment for their rejection of God’s grace.
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.
Note Peter’s earlier comment: “the prophets who spoke of the grace that was to come to you searched intently and with the greatest care, trying to find out the time and circumstances to which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow” (1 Peter 1:10-11, emphasis mine). If the Spirit of Christ was preaching through the prophets, he could preach through Noah.
Did Jesus descend to hell?
I am aware of no other text which is used to justify this belief. Such an interpretation raises two difficult questions: (1) why did those who were in hell at the time of Jesus’ death receive a visit from him which has been (apparently) unavailable to those since? (2) what would be the purpose of such a visit, given that no second chance is offered in Scripture (cf. Hebrew 9:27-28)? As we have seen, Peter’s statement, while difficult to interpret, seems clearly to locate Jesus’ preaching “to the spirits in prison” as occurring during the time of Noah, not between his death and resurrection. The clearest answer to these questions is to deny the premise which requires them.
In addition, Jesus promised the thief at his side, “Today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). He could not have descended to hell and been in paradise at the same time. And his last words convey the opposite impression of a journey to hell: “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46).
Remember Peter’s first affirmation: “Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God” (1 Peter 3:18). The paradise he offered the thief who died at his side is now available to any who will die in the same way.