The final and most tedious passage of Scripture to scrutinize in the topic, "Did Christ Descend into Hell?" is 1 Peter 3:18-19: “For Christ suffered once for all, 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.” To say this is a puzzling passage is an understatement. There is almost universal disagreement on the exact meaning of this passage of Scripture. Numerous interpretations are given of what exactly the spirits in prison are, the linchpin of the passage. Are they spirit or human? There are four summary views of who the spirits are.
The first speculation is that after Christ died, He went to hell and preached to the fallen angels. This verse takes into account Genesis 6:1-4, another puzzling passage, where the sons of God are fallen angels and they cohabited with human women. This cannot be so, for angels are without sex; neither male nor female. Moreover, Jesus affirmed their “sexlessness” when He taught in Matthew 22:30 that angels neither marry nor are given in marriage. This interpretation also presses an alien meaning upon Genesis 6:1-4, where it is not entirely clear if the sons of God are indeed angels. Now in other passages of Scripture, notably Job 1:6, 2:1, and 38:7 it seems that the phrase "sons of God" is used interchangeably with "angels," though it does not seem to be the case in Genesis 6:1-4.
A second conjecture is that the spirits in prison are human. They are possibly people that were already in hell before the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ and Jesus went to hell to preach a message of triumph over death and evil to those lost souls. A question of necessity must be asked; why would Jesus do this? People were saved the same way in Old Testament times as they are in New Testament times, by way of belief in Jesus Christ. In the Old Testament, it was looking forward to the cross, in the New, it is looking backward to the cross.
The punishment also remains consistent on both sides of the cross. Would those in hell not know that they are there? In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31), Jesus taught that the individual consigned to hell would be fully aware of his fate: “But Abraham said, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things; but now he is comforted and you are tormented.’” Why would they need Jesus to come and let them know they are in a place of eternal punishment?
Maybe Jesus went to proclaim release to those who repented just before the flood. This view is also unsound because for the saved individual, heaven is the guarantee (John 3:16), not temporary consignment to a place from where one must be released. Moreover, 1 Peter 3:20 teaches that only eight souls were saved. Some say that possibly Jesus went to those in hell to offer a second chance at salvation. The Bible clearly teaches in Hebrews 9:27 that “it is appointed unto men to die once, but after this the judgment.” After death there is no second opportunity to respond to the free gift of salvation through Christ.
A fourth and more justifiable view is that Jesus preached through Noah when Noah was building the ark. 1 Peter 1:10-11 teaches that the Spirit of Christ preached through the Old Testament prophets and it stands to reason that Jesus could have done the same through Noah. The Spirit of Christ preached through Noah, where Jesus Himself pleaded for souls yet none were saved. Peter calls Noah a preacher of righteousness in 2 Peter 2:5 and though not proof positive that Jesus was preaching through Noah, it does indicate that Noah was more than just a shipbuilder. Noah had the unenviable task of explaining why he was building a big boat and for what reason. Genesis 6:17 says that “every living thing that is on the earth shall die.” This could then make the spirits in prison the people whom Noah attempted to reach before the flood—now in the prison of hell for their disobedience (1 Peter 3:20). Peter is speaking of those disobedient souls in their present condition, though they were not in that condition when Noah reached out to them. It is possible to speak this same way in English; for example, one could say, “I knew Pastor Tony when he was in college” (though he was not a pastor then).
This interpretation seems to be the most harmonious with the rest of Scripture and by far seems to be the most likely solution to the conundrum of 1 Peter 3:18-20. A word must be said in regards to proper biblical interpretation and a rejection of the building of a doctrine upon an unclear passage of Scripture. It is sound biblical interpretation to build doctrine upon clear passages of Scripture, of which obviously 1 Peter 3:18-20 is not completely clear.
For instance, a doctrine of the virgin birth could be built upon Galatians 4:4; “But when the fullness of the time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law.” Paul could be referring to His belief in the doctrine of the virgin birth. More likely, he is referring to Jesus’ humanity by making mention of the fact that Jesus was born of a woman. It is not to be doubted that the Apostle Paul believed in the virgin birth, though none of his writings mention it. Galatians 4:4 could lend additional weight to the doctrine but could not be called upon to justify it altogether. Rather, a doctrine should be built upon Scripture that clearly teaches the particular doctrine; in this particular case, Luke 1:26 teaches unambiguously that Mary was a virgin. 1 Peter 3:18-20 does not present a persuasive case that Jesus went to hell during the three days of His death and neither does any other passage in the Bible. Therefore, a doctrine of the descent of Christ into hell is unjustifiable simply based upon sound methods of Bible interpretation. Though Scripture does not support a descent of the Savior into hell, it is still widely taught and preached. It is difficult to let go of a tradition.
The doctrine of the descent into hell is not a recent development. It actually finds roots in the mid fourth century in the development of the Apostle’s Creed, a creed still recited in many contemporary worship services, notably Episcopalian and Presbyterian. Many denominations record this as an essential doctrine, necessary to the understanding of Christ’s atoning work. The basis of the doctrine is found not in Scripture, the only sure and certain source of doctrine, but rather in many years of church tradition. The doctrine of the descensus ad inferos, the Latin phrase used by most theology texts and biblical commentaries to refer to this teaching, translated “descent into hell (literally, underworld),” is fraught with problems.
It is surprising that the actual phrase “descended into hell” is found nowhere in Scripture. It was formulated and incorporated as an essential teaching of Christian faith in the Apostle’s Creed, which took shape not at an individual church council as many creeds, but rather through the process of several editions over about five hundred fifty years (200-750 A.D.). The text of the Apostle’s Creed is as follows, not to mention it has been popularized by deceased contemporary Christian music artist Rich Mullins in his song Creed, recently remade by Third Day ;-) :
I believe in God the Father; Maker of heaven and earth. And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord; who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary; suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried. He descended into hell. The third day he rose from the dead; he ascended into heaven; and sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead. I believe in the Holy Spirit; the holy catholic church; the communion of saints; the forgiveness of sins; the resurrection of the body; and the life everlasting. Amen.The insertion of a statement into a creed, even though this creed is about 1500 years old, hardly makes it essential to doctrine and a creed is simply a tool, not a reliable source for adopting orthodox doctrine. (See my previous post, What are the Demands of Orthodoxy?) This is the nature of a creed; it is simply a statement of belief, and just because one believes something does not necessarily make it correct. Moreover, there is discord among denominations as to the use of the creed, omitting the questionable phrase “he descended into hell” in their recitations of it.
One argument proposed for the use of the phrase in the Apostle’s Creed is that it lends additional support to the fact that Jesus actually died and His death was not faked, nor was it a “swoon” as some claim. This is a noble objection to the proposition that something other than death occurred at the conclusion of the crucifixion yet a strained effort to offer additional credence to the fact that Jesus actually died. The weakness of the argument becomes apparent in that the inclusion of “he was buried” affirms the death of Jesus just as readily.
This was precisely the preface of Paul’s argument at the beginning of 1 Corinthians 15, the apostle’s defense of the resurrection and its historical reliability. “…Christ died according to the Scriptures and that He was buried and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures” (verses 3-4). The burial actually took place, confirming Jesus’ death, therefore giving further historical support to the fact of the resurrection. Logic demands that if a burial took place, it was naturally preceded by death. If not, there could have been no resurrection. Hence, using the descensus phrase lends no support to the fact that Jesus really died.
Though it is true that Jesus died and He continued in that state until resurrection morning, Scripture does not support a descent into hell during that time. A descent into hell makes for excellent drama, fascinating literature, startling works of art, and especially good preaching. What well-meaning Christian would desire not to deny that Jesus endured hell, the imposing, rightly feared, nether world of lost souls and demons? This speculation is referred to by the Catholic Church as Christ’s “harrowing of hell,” an engaging drama indeed.
However, holding such a view undermines the true atoning work of Christ and makes Jesus out to be a super-hero rather than a Savior. All the passages stated earlier are at best vague and ambiguous regarding a descent and provide insufficient evidence to adopt the descent as a definite doctrine. Moreover, sound biblical interpretation mitigates against the building of a doctrine of the descent of Jesus into hell simply because there is not a single passage of Scripture that teaches such a “doctrine” clearly. It is even more dangerous to formulate doctrine based on tradition (Mark 7:13) which is where the descent is steeped. A close analysis of the Biblical evidence regarding a descent of Jesus Christ into hell between His death and resurrection drives the answer to the question to be decisively no.
As always, all Scripture is taken from the NKJV.