Did Christ Descend Into Hell?


Vologda, late 15th century

It is because the sufferings of Christ extend out of time into eternity that some students of the Bible have come to believe that Christ actually physically descended into hell. For example, one of the statements of faith, a version of the Apostles' Creed which one usually recites (for instance) in a Sunday Episcopalian worship service, has a reference to Jesus Christ descending into hell. At first we might suppose that this refers to a visit by Jesus to the "underworld" which took place sometime after His death on Good Friday, but prior to His resurrection on Easter Sunday morning.

The Apostles' Creed reads:

"I believe in God, the Father almighty,
maker of heaven and earth;
and in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord;
who was conceived by the Holy Ghost,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, dead and buried.
He descended into hell.
The third day he rose again from the dead.
He ascended into heaven,
and sitteth on 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 Ghost,
the holy catholic Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen."

This particular creed, known since the Third Century in the Western Church, draws reliably from the New Testament in general. However the phrase "He descended into hell" was evidently derived from an unusually-worded portion of Peter's First Epistle which says:

"He (Jesus) was put to death in the flesh, but he was raised to life in the Spirit, in which also he went and preached to the disobedient spirits who were in prison in the days of Noah when God waited patiently while the ark was being built...For this is why the gospel was preached even to the dead so that, although they have already been judged in the flesh like men, they might have life in the Spirit like God." (1 Peter 3:18-20; 4:6)

The first thing to note in this passage is that the Greek word "Hades"---translated "hell" in the Apostles' Creed---is the underworld of Greek mythology, not necessarily the place of permanent punishment of those utterly lost forever. Whatever preaching took place (as described in this passage from Peter) was, in my opinion, not in hell. It was in the world of the men, and evidently the world of those men who lived prior to the flood, that is amongst the Antediluvians. As noted in the first paragraph, there are those Bible commentaries who take this passage in Peter to mean that those who died before the flood were present as spirits in some sort of subterranean holding-tank, a division of Sheol known as Hades. It is supposed that Christ went to them after His death to offer them a second chance to know Him.

I do not believe that the Bible suggests in any way that anyone gets a second chance to hear and respond to the gospel after we die. For example, Hebrews 9:27, 28 says, "And just as it is appointed for men to die once, and after that comes judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him."

The gospel has gone out to the world in our generation, and indeed in every generation since Christ rose from the dead, but what knowledge of God's saving grace was available in to the population of earth who lived before the Flood of Noah?

Other Bible scholars have argued that the "spirits in prison" referred to by Peter were fallen angels (as mentioned by Jude) who were removed from the world scene at the time of the flood and "...have been kept by him in eternal chains in the nether gloom until the judgment of the great day." (Jude 6) The difficulty with this argument is that nowhere in the Bible is redemption offered to the angels. For example, the demons begged Jesus to give them more time, not to grant them mercy in the incident at Gadera with the demon possessed man who allowed a multitude of demons to indwell a herd of pigs, (Matthew 8:28-34). Still others argue that Christ preached only to the spirits of the righteous dead who lived before His time, and when He did so, He emptied Hades, leading those who were waiting there out and into Paradise.

Various arguments about Sheol and Hades and temporary intermediate-state compartments in the underworld have never made much sense to me. The Old Testament revelation of life-after-death is vague. Sheol is a general term meaning simply, "the grave." Only in the New Testament do we get the additional revelation that clearly defines the events that follow death for the non-believer and for the believer. In a separate paper, "Time and Eternity" will be found a discussion that I think resolves the issue. When a person dies he or she leaves time and enters eternity. See also "Time Warps." It is, in eternity, only a split second between a person's death and their resurrection. Events that may be separated by hundreds or thousands of year in our earth-time frame, can pass in eternity, "in a moment in the twinkling of an eye." For the Christian the scripture is clear, "to be absent from the body is to be at home with the Lord."

The Gospel Sent Forth in Every Age

All of the variant views mentioned above force the Scripture beyond what it really says, in my opinion. The clearest way to loosely rephrase Peter's teaching so that it makes sense to me and takes into account the nature of time and eternity, is this:

"In the days of Noah, while the Ark was being built, the Gospel was preached by Christ, who spoke by means of the Holy Spirit through Noah to the men and women of his generation." For God to endure patiently the wickedness of perhaps several billion people while giving them every chance to be saved demonstrates His longsuffering love for sinners and great desire that none should be lost.

Actually we know from Jude 14 that Enoch, the seventh from Adam, preached to his generation foretelling not only the coming flood, but the final coming of the Lord, which we in our time are still waiting for. Adam's personal and detailed knowledge of God was certainly passed down from father to son, from Adam to Noah, and announced to the world by each of these Antediluvian patriarchs. Good news of God's free salvation was made freely available to mankind then as it is now.

In actual fact, only Noah, his three sons, and their wives, (eight persons in all), took heed to the message. "The spirits in prison" could then refer to those who had not been regenerated---this is the general condition of mankind after the fall. The New Testament announces that all men in their natural state are "dead through (the) trespasses and sins...following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air (Satan), the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience." (Ephesians Chapter 2:1, 2)

In Ephesians 4:9, following a description of Christ's triumphant ascension into heaven there is a parenthetical reference as follows, "[In saying, 'he ascended,' what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth.]" My interpretation of this passage is that the descent of Christ to districts of earth is indeed a very great descent in comparison with the grandeur of His position in heaven before his incarnation (in line with Philippians 2:6-11). Some Bible commentators have taken this passage to be a second New Testament reference to Christ's descent into hell. If this is so, hell is assumed (in the Greek world view) to be a subterranean region or cavern beneath the earth. The Old Testament, however, was vague about what happened after death; Sheol meant "death" or "the grave" but little else is specified or revealed. To make the case that hell is literally in the center of the physical earth may be reading too much into scripture.

Only as the New Testament unfolds, do we receive an understanding of "the Lake of Fire" as the place "prepared for the devil and his angels" where the wicked (and the devil) are ultimately cast, (Revelation 19-20). Likewise the "heavenly places" are the realm of the Spirit into which all believers have already been placed, though our bodies are not yet redeemed.

So I do not believe that the New Testament is talking about waiting rooms for the spirits of either the righteous or the unrighteous dead, nor of an intermediate state between death and resurrection, nor of the spirits of the dead being without a body for more than an instant of time! Although the righteous who have died are said to have "fallen asleep in Christ," this is, I am convinced, merely an accommodation to our earthly reference frame to remind us that the terrors and fears of death are gone for us who are in Christ Jesus. And while the notion of purgatory is foreign to Scripture, yet believers should not take lightly the possibility of great and painful losses at the judgment seat of Christ, (1 Corinthians 3:11-15; 2 Corinthians 5:10). None of us should presume that any of us shall enter heaven without a thorough evaluation and full disclosure of the actual quality and content of our lives since we first believed.

When Christ "dismissed his spirit," commending Himself into the hands of the Father, the work of the cross having been finished, the spirit and soul of Jesus as well as that of His companion, the forgiven thief, went immediately into heaven. In so doing, they left our zone of linear space-time and stepped into eternity. Furthermore, Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:1-5 that resurrection bodies are already waiting and prepared for all believers in heaven and that to be absent from the body is to be at home with the Lord. Our problem is one of not understanding that we are constrained by our present fallen, mortal bodies to linear time (which always flows from past to present to future) whereas spirits live in the eternal dimension already. Thus, to die physically today and appear at the resurrection of the dead (which may occur 100 years from now in calendar time) means that the intervening 100 years, to the person who is dying, is but "a moment, the twinkling of an eye."

Peter tells us in his sermon on the Day of Pentecost, quoting from Psalm 16, that the body of Jesus did not begin to decay in the tomb between the time of His death and His resurrection, although the April weather in Jerusalem at Passover would have been warm and no embalming of the corpse had been done:

"Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs which God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know---this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. But God raised him up, having loosed the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it. For David says concerning him, 'I saw the Lord always before me, for he is at my right hand that I may not be shaken; therefore my heart was glad, and my tongue rejoiced; moreover my flesh will dwell in hope. For thou wilt not abandon my soul to Hades, nor let thy Holy One see corruption. Thou hast made known to me the ways of life; thou wilt make me full of gladness with thy presence.'" (Acts 2:22-28)

We All Get to Heaven at the Same "Time"

In the letter to the Hebrews, after reciting a great list of the works of faith by many righteous men and women in the Old Testament, the writer concludes, "And all these, though well attested by their faith, did not receive what was promised (New Jerusalem), since God had foreseen something better for us (that is, believers in the present day under the New Covenant), that apart from us they (these Old Testament saints) should not be made perfect." (Hebrews 11: 39)

If we think of death as the leaving of time and entering into eternity, this passage speaks of the gathering of all believers together at some future event. In the experience of any individual who dies, whether today or 4000 years ago, the time interval between death and resurrection is but a moment in eternity. Understood in this light, all believers reach heaven at the same moment, and the Second Coming of Christ coincides with the moment of one's death. That great event in eternity will one day intersect a point in earth-time described for us in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18:

"But we would not have you ignorant, brethren, concerning those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming (parousia) of the Lord, shall not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, (to raise the dead), with the archangel's call (to call Israel back to Himself), and with the sound of the trumpet of God (to transform those believers who are alive at the time). And the dead in Christ will rise first; then we who are alive, who are left, shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air; and so we shall always be with the Lord. Therefore comfort one another with these words."

There is, therefore, in my opinion, no reason to believe that Christ "descended into hell" or Hades after He died on Good Friday, and no reason to believe there are "waiting rooms" for disembodied spirits who are waiting for the resurrection. I do not believe there is an intermediate state after death; and in fact I believe no one is in heaven as yet (except our Lord Jesus). Prayers to Mary or to other saints who have "gone on before" are therefore without meaning. Mary, Jude and others will arrive in heaven the same time we do!

As Hebrews 12 says, all believers, whether Old Testament or New, are already in New Jerusalem, in spirit, as a great assembled company. We are merely awaiting the revelation, the unveiling of our Lord, and the redemption of our bodies so that we will have eyes to see the invisible world of heaven around us and new bodies that can experience the multiple dimensions of time and space in that realm where God dwells. There Christ sits at the right hand of the Majesty on High. The "heavenly places" are all around us, and not far beyond the reaches of space, death is merely the lifting of a veil that separates the physical from the spiritual. All those who are "in Christ" are seated with Him, now, in the throne room of God, in His very presence and do not need a spaceship to reach their heavenly home!

The real life and death issue now, today, is knowing the risen Jesus personally. He is available.

"Behold,  I stand at the door and knock.  If anyone hears My voice and opens the door,  I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with Me. To him who overcomes  I will grant to sit with Me on My throne, as I also overcame and sat down with My Father on His throne." (Revelation 3:20,21)

Addendum: He Descended into Hell, by Peter Toon (Heaven and Hell: A Biblical and Theological Overview, Thos. Nelson, 1986)

In the textus receptus of the Apostles' Creed is the clause descendit ad inferna, which has been traditionally translated into English as "he descended into hell?' A variant reading has inferos, which is used to translate "Hades" in the Vulgate of Matthew 16:18. Inferna originally meant the underworld, the realm of the dead and came to refer specifically to hell, as the place of punishment within Hades, in the period of the Middle Ages. However, the English word "hell" likewise had a wider meaning in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries than it has now. In the AV (= KJV) of 1611 the Greek word, "hades" is translated by the word "hell" on ten out of the eleven occasions it is used. And as hell is also used to translate "Gehenna" the word hell has a wide meaning. In fact it originally signified "that which is covered over or concealed" and is etymologically related to Hohle, a cave.

Taking inferna to mean the place of punishment in the afterlife (cf. Dante's Inferno), medieval theologians portrayed Jesus, as a human spirit, descending into hell in order to triumph over Satan and his demons, and to announce to them the deliverance of the believers of the old covenant from their limbum patrum. We are all aware of the theme of the harrowing of hell in the art and drama of the Middle Ages. Calvin rejected the doctrine of the harrowing of hell and took this clause figuratively to refer to Christ's experience as our Substitute in bearing the curse and wrath of God against guilty sinners, especially revealed in his cry of dereliction on the Cross. In general this has been adopted by Reformed theology, and G. C. Berkouwer makes much use of it in his reflections upon the preaching of hell today. The Lutheran position is stated in the Formula of Concord:

It is enough to know that Christ went to hell, destroyed hell for all believers, and has redeemed them from the power of death, of the devil and of eternal damnation of the hellish jaws. How this took place is something that we should postpone until the other world, where there will be revealed to us not only this point, but many others as well, which our blind reason cannot comprehend in this life but which we simply accept.

In modern translations of the Apostles' Creed we have, "He descended to the dead?" This is an attempt to convey the idea of Hades as the realm of the departed and remove the medieval doctrine of the descent into hell to triumph over Satan. This is a reasonable translation in that the origins of the doctrine of the descent of Jesus (in his death) into Hades are clearly there in the early Greek theologians, and it was from the Greek-speaking part of the early Church that the teaching was taken and made into an article of this western creed, where it was a late addition rather than an original article. Thus the original Latin of the Apostles' Creed translated Hades rather than Gehenna; only within the developing western theology did the idea of a descent into Gehenna become prominent, though it never totally removed the descent into Hades, the place of departed spirits.

Obviously by inserting this article, those who used the Apostles' Creed intended that it should add something to "he died and was buried?" At least it pointed to his death being a real death with the separation of body and soul and the entrance of the soul into Hades. Thus while Calvin's explanation is thoroughly biblical, it can hardly be a right interpretation of this article. The meaning must be sought in the fact that in death, while his body remained in the sepulcher, Jesus in his naked human spirit passed through into that transcendent, supernatural realm of departed spirits. Whether he did visit as it were the gates of hell or whether he enjoyed the beatific vision without interruption we cannot wholly say. To be our Savior from death and its consequences he had to endure all that death means and do this really and truly. He died, was buried, and descended into Hades both as our Substitute and our Representative. In Resurrection his naked spirit/soul reunited with his body to be raised from Hades to the right hand of the Father in heaven.

One fruitful line of meditation upon the descent of Christ is to think of Holy Saturday as the day when Christ rested from his work of new creation. On the Cross he achieved victory of Satan and offered a perfect sacrifice for the sins of the world: His redeeming work was completed when he cried out, "It is finished!" He died, was buried, and in his naked human spirit descended into Hades. There on the Sabbath, which is the seventh day of the week, he rested, just as God had rested when he had completed the old creation. Having brought the new covenant and new creation into being, Christ, resting in the peace of Hades, saw what he had made: And behold it was very good. He looked upon the travail of his soul and he was satisfied (Isaiah 53). (added 5/25/05)


1. Commentary on I Peter 3:18-22, 4:5-6, The Bible Knowledge Commentary, John F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck, editors, Chariot Victor, Colorado Springs, 1983.

J.M.E. Ross wrote that verse 18 is ,one of the shortest and simplest, and yet one of the richest summaries given in the New Testament of the meaning of the Cross of Jesus" ("The First Epistle of Peter," in A Devotional Commentary. London: Religious Tract Society, n.d., pp. 151-52). Christ died for sins (cf. 2:21, 24). The phrase "for sins" (perihamartion) is used in the Septuagint in regard to the sin offering for atonement. However, once for all (cf. Rom. 6:10; Heb. 9:26, 28; 10:10) is clearly a contrast with the Old Testament yearly sacrifice on the Day of Atonement and declares the complete sufficiency of Christ's death. The substitutionary nature of Christ's death is indicated by the phrase the righteous for the unrighteous (dikaios hyper adikion). Christ, the "righteous One" (dikaios), uniquely qualified to die as the substitute for (hyper, "for. " "in place of," or instead of") the "unrighteous ones" (adikon). The divine purpose for Christ's sacrificial death was man's reconciliation, bring people to God.

C. Peter concluded his summary of Christ's redemptive work by referring to His resurrection. Though Christ was put to death in the body (sarki, "flesh"), He was made alive by the Spirit. "By the Spirit" translates one word, pneumati, which could refer to the third Person of the Trinity as the agent of Christ's resurrection. Or it may refer to Christ's human spirit in contrast with His human (cf. 1 Peter 4:6).

3:19-20. Through whom ... He ... Preached to the spirits in prison has been subject to many interpretations. Some believe Peter here referred to the descent Christ's Spirit into Hades between His death and resurrection to offer people who lived before the Flood a second chance for salvation. However, this interpretation has no scriptural support.

Others have said this passage refers to Christ's descent into hell after His crucifixion to proclaim His victory to the imprisoned fallen angels referred to in 2 Peter 2:4-5, equating them with "the sons of God" Moses wrote about (Gen. 6:1-2). Though much commends this view as a possible interpretation, the context seems more likely to be referring to humans rather than angels.

The "spirits" (pneumasin, a term usually applied to supernatural beings but also used at least once to refer to human "spirits," cf. Heb. 12:23) are described in 1 Peter 3:20 as those who were disobedient when God waited patiently for Noah to finish building the ark. They had rebelled against the message of God during the 120 years the ark was being built. God declared He would not tolerate people's wickedness forever, but would extend His patience for only 120 more years (Gen. 6:3). Since the entire human race except Noah (Gen. 6:5-9) was evil, God determined to "wipe mankind...from the face of the earth." The "spirits" referred to in I Peter 3:20 are probably the souls of the evil human race that existed in the days of Noah. Those "spirits" are now "in prison" awaiting the final judgment of God at the end of the Age.

The problem remains as to when Christ preached to these "spirits." Peter's explanation of the resurrection of Christ (3:18) "by the Spirit" brought to mind that the preincarnate Christ was actually in Noah, ministering through him, by means of the Holy Spirit. Peter (1:11) referred to the "Spirit of Christ" in the Old Testament prophets. Later he described Noah as "a preacher of righteousness" (2 Peter 2:5). The Spirit of Christ preached through Noah to the ungodly humans who, at the time of Peter's writing, were "spirits in prison" awaiting final judgment.

This interpretation seems to fit the general theme of this section (I Peter 3:13-22)--keeping a good conscience in unjust persecution. Noah is presented as an example of one who committed himself to a course of action for the sake of a clear conscience before God, though it meant enduring harsh ridicule. Noah did not fear men but obeyed God and proclaimed His message. Noah's reward for keeping a clear conscience in unjust suffering was the salvation of himself and his family, who were saved through water, being brought safely through the Flood.

3:21. And this (ho, relative pronoun--"water" is the understood antecedent) water symbolizes baptism (baptisma). Baptism represents a complete break with one's past life. As the Flood wiped away the old sinful world, so baptism pictures one's break from his old sinful life and his entrance into new life in Christ. Peter now applied to his readers the principle he set forth in verses 13-17 and illustrated in verses 18-20. He exhorted them to have the courage to commit themselves to a course of action by taking a public stand for Christ through baptism. The act of public baptism would "save" them from the temptation to sacrifice their good consciences in order to avoid persecution. For a first century Christian, baptism meant he was following through on his commitment to Christ, regardless of the consequences.

Baptism does not save from sin, but from a bad conscience. Peter clearly taught that baptism was not merely a ceremonial act of physical purification, but (alla, making a strong contrast) the pledge (eperotema, also trans. "appeal," cf. NASB) of a good conscience (syneidesoes; cf. v. 16) toward God. Baptism is the symbol of what has already occurred in the heart and life of one who has trusted Christ as Savior (cf. Rom. 6:3 5; Gal. 3:27; Col. 2:12). To make the source of salvation perfectly clear Peter added, by the resurrection of Jesus Christ (cf. I Peter 1:3).

3:22. Mentioning Christ's resurrection returned Peter's thoughts to his original example, so he concluded his digression and completed his first illustration with a reference to Christ's reward and blessing. Having witnessed Christ's physical Ascension (cf. Mark 16:19; Luke 24:51; Acts 1:6-11), Peter wrote that Christ has gone into heaven. The reward for. Christ's faithfulness is seen in His exaltation over all things. He is enthroned at God's right hand (cf. Ps. 110:1; Heb. 1:13; 8:1; 10:12; 12:2), the seat of supreme honor, to rule and reign over all creation (cf. Col. 1:15


4:5. Those who have spent their lives in indulgence and idolatry will someday give account (apodosousin logon, lit., "give back a word or an account"; cf. Matt. 12:36; Luke 16:2; Acts 19:40; Heb. 13-17). Peter warned that these people must one day face the One who is ready (i.e., willing) to judge. No one will escape this final judgment of the words and works of his earthly life, when Christ will judge both the living (zao) and the dead (nekrous) (cf. Acts 10:42; Rom. 14:9; 1 Thess. 4:15; 2 Tim. 4:1).

4:6. For this . . . reason, because everybody must give an account to God, the gospel was preached even to those ... now dead. This has been interpreted as referring to (a) those who are spiritually "dead in sin," (b) those who heard and believed the gospel but have since died, (c) those who died without hearing or believing the gospel. Barclay preferred the third interpretation, assuming that 3:19 refers to Christ's preaching to the dead. Consequently he believed that here "Was a breathtaking glimpse of a gospel of a second chance." This interpretation has no scriptural support and is contrary to Orthodox Christian doctrine (cf. v. 5).

In verse 6 Peter, in contrast with verse 5, encouraged his readers with the fact that rather than facing judgment for their sins, those who had heard and believed the gospel of Jesus Christ faced all altogether different future. The Penalty for their sin has been paid by Christ on the cross. The last earthly effect of sin is physical death. Believers still die Physically, they are judged ... in regard to the body (cf. suffering in this life "in his body," v. 1). But for Christians Physical death does not lead to judgment but to eternal life. They live ... in regard to the Spirit. Those armed with a Christlike attitude will live forever in God's presence. ---Roger M. Raymer.

From Through the Bible with J. Vernon McGee (1983)


For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit [I Peter 3:18].

It is important for us to see that Jesus Christ became a human being, and it was in His humanity that He died on the cross. He died on the cross, and it was the Holy Spirit who raised Him from the dead.

By which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison [1 Peter 3:19].

This has been a most misunderstood passage of Scripture. The key word to this entire passage is in verse 20; it is the little word when

Which sometime were disobedient, when once the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a-preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls were saved by water [I Peter 3:20].

When did Christ preach to the spirits in prison? "When once the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah." In Christ's day, the spirits of those men to whom Noah had preached were in prison, for they had rejected the message of Noah. They had gone into Sheol. They were waiting for judgment; they were lost. But Christ did not go down and preach to them after He died on the cross. He preached through Noah "when once the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah." For 120 years Noah had preached the Word of God. He saved his family but no one else. It was the Spirit of Christ who spoke through Noah in Noah's day. In Christ's day, those who rejected Noah's message were in prison. The thought is that Christ's death meant nothing to them just as it means nothing to a great many people today who, as a result, will also come into judgment.

The like figure whereunto even baptism doth also now save us (not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God,) by the resurrection of Jesus Christ [1 Peter 3:21].

"The like figure whereunto even baptism doth also now save us." To what baptism does this refer? It is not water baptism but the baptism of the Holy Spirit. The baptism of the Holy Spirit is real baptism, and water baptism is ritual baptism. Now I believe in water baptism, and I believe immersion is the proper mode. However, the important thing here is to see that it is the baptism of the Holy Spirit which puts you into the body of believers.

"Not the putting away of the filth of the flesh"--it is not just by water, for that will not put away the filth of the flesh. "But the answer of a good conscience toward God, by the resurrection of Jesus Christ"--that is, a faith in the resurrection of Jesus Christ which brought the work of the Holy Spirit into your life and regenerated you.

Who is gone into heaven, and is on the right hand of God; angels and authorities and powers being made subject unto him [1 Peter 3:22].

This verse is speaking of the Lord Jesus Christ. You and I are little sinners down here, but we can come to Him, receive Him, and thus join the great company of the redeemed. We are baptized by the Holy Spirit into the body of Christ because He is raised from the dead and is today at God's right hand.

Exposition by Bill Baldwin: 1 Peter 3:19-22 (part 1) The Heavenly Preacher

I. When did Christ do this preaching and to whom?

A. After his resurrection
1. There is no thought here of a descent into hell

a. The Roman Catholic church still teaches a doctrine called "The Harrowing of Hell"

i. Between his death and resurrection Christ supposedly went into hell and gathered together all the OT people who had trusted in him

ii. He burst the gates of hell at his resurrection, releasing them to heaven

b. Even the Apostles' Creed, unfortunately, makes a statement that many interpret this way

i. "He descended into hell"

ii. We don't know who wrote this creed, but it is probable that the original author(s) actually believed that Jesus went to hell after his death

iii. However, officially, they are simply quoting Psalm 16:9, which the apostles applied to Jesus in the NT

* "But you did not leave his soul in Hell"

* The meaning of this becomes apparent with the next phrase, though: "Nor did you allow your Holy One to see corruption."

* The "corruption" means decay.

* So the whole statement is, You didn't leave Jesus in the grave, nor did you allow his body to undergo decay

* So when we say, "he descended into hell," we mean that Christ went down into the grave, not that he entered the place of eternal torment.

* His torment was on the cross and was finished there. When he died he went to be with his Father in paradise, there to await his resurrection (and so it will be with us as well).

2. 3:18 "made alive in the Spirit", remember, refers to the resurrection. So it was after the resurrection that he went and preached

3. And the "went" is a big clue as well since the identical word with the identical tense (lit. After having gone) is used in v. 22. These are not two separate goings.

a. The statement is 1. Put to death in the flesh 2. Made alive in the Spirit, 3. Gone up into heaven - like a creed

b. Anything that happens then, happens after the "gone up into heaven part of the creed"

B. To spirits now in prison

1. Spirits

a. Usually in the NT refers to evil spirits, i.e. to demons

i. Many suggest that that's what's going on here

ii. Jesus went to the demons and proclaimed to them his victory and their defeat.

b. However, the word can mean the spirits of humans who have died, as in Heb 12:23 which speaks of heaven containing both angels and "the spirits of just men made perfect."

c. For reasons that will come out as we go along, this is the preferable definition here

2. In prison

a. These spirits are being held captive (with Satan and his angels) until the righteous judge comes and throws them in hell forever.

b. This is their present, miserable estate, and is meant to contrast markedly with the glorious freedom of the children of God.

c. But, I repeat, this is their present estate. Christ did not preach to them while they were in prison, but preached to those who are now in prison in the time of Noah

C. In the time of Noah

1. Translation - "He went and preached to the spirits now in prison during their former disobedience in the days of Noah."

2. Explain Noah

3. How did he do this? In (or by) the Spirit

a. But this immediately creates a problem for some, i.e. if it was the Christ preaching by the Holy Spirit back then, he didn't really go and do this after his resurrection. It happened long ago.

b. But to say this is to misunderstand Peter's doctrine of Christ and the Holy Spirit.

c. Remember way back to 1:10 - Peter spoke of "the Spirit of Christ" working in the prophets

i. When did he work? Back then.

ii. Where did he come from? The future.

iii. Technically there was no "Spirit of Christ" back then because Christ was still future.

* The second person of the Trinity was in existence, yes. He is eternal.

* But he had not taken to himself a true body and a reasonable soul, being conceived by the HS in the womb of the virgin Mary

iv. Peter conceives of the spirit of Christ - of the resurrected Christ - reaching back into time and inspiring the prophets of the OT with visions of his suffering and subsequent glory.

d. So here. Christ died. Christ rose again. Christ ascended into heaven. And from that seat of power he reached backward in time so that he could speak not only to you and me but to all who had died before his birth.

e. First, Peter mentions he did this through the prophets. Now he's saying Christ did it as well through Noah. (And if you're beginning to catch on, Christ did this through Abraham and Moses and David as well - through everyone endowed with a prophetic gift by which Christ might speak from a heavenly glory that was, from their perspective, yet future.

Heady stuff. Let's recap before we go on. Christ died. Christ rose again. Christ ascended into heaven. At that time, he preached to the imprisoned spirits of men. But he did it not in the present but in the time when they walked the earth in the days of Noah.

II. What did he preach? (A: The Gospel)

A. The word can mean "preached the gospel" but doesn't have to

1. The word "preached" sometimes just means "proclaimed."

2. However, this sense is rare in the NT (more common in OT)

3. Rev 5:2 "Then I saw a strong angel proclaiming with a loud voice, 'Who is worthy to open the scroll and to loose its seals?'"

4. Paul speaks of "preaching circumcision"; The book of Acts talks about "preaching Moses."

5. But without something explicit, it's hard to take this word as meaning anything other than "He preached the gospel"

B. He preached the gospel

1. In fact every other time the word is used where Jesus is doing the preaching, it always means "preaching the gospel"

2. Furthermore, we have the evidence that the spirits now in prison were "disobedient"

a. In the NT this word almost always means unbelieving, i.e. disobedient to the gospel

b. And Peter uses the word exclusively that way

i. 2:8 They stumble because they disobey the word

ii. 3:1 Even if some (husbands) don't obey the word

iii. 4:17 what will be the end for those who don't obey the gospel

3. And take a look at 4:6 which pulls in a lot of the vocabulary of this passage and seems to function as a summing up. It says "the gospel" was preached to the dead (more on that when we get there.)

4. (This BTW is clear proof that the "spirits" are not fallen angels and that Christ isn't preaching to the spirits while they're in prison. EXPLAIN)

III. Why bring this up now?

A. Jesus (through Noah) preached even to men of such wickedness

1. It was a Jewish proverb that "The generation of the Flood have no share in the world to come."

2. They were so supremely wicked that God wiped them all out. He couldn't stand the sight of them anymore.

3. But Jesus, through Noah, preached even to them.

4. By using them as the example of the "worst" sinners, Peter encourages those to whom he writes to follow his example by preaching the gospel to those of their own generation.

5. They might be tempted to think there's no point in speaking of Christ to their neighbors, but if Jesus preached to the flood generation....

B. Noah was grossly outnumbered

1. It was a few people, pitifully few, who escaped into the ark.

2. The Christians of Peter's day are pitifully few as well.

a. They are surrounded unbelief

b. They are mocked, as Noah's generation mocked him

c. They are encouraged to forego laying up treasure in heaven as Noah was encouraged to give up building the ark

d. They are fearful. Humanly speaking, this mob could overwhelm and destroy them in an instant

e. And they wait and wait for God to come in judgment and destroy the wicked and vindicate their hope

3. Where is Christ? They cannot see him for he is hidden in the clouds . . . even as Noah could not see Christ and yet Christ was preaching through him

4. So the invisible Christ preaches through them and their very process of ark building - of forsaking the passing pleasures of sin for the treasure of heaven - is a testimony that the judgment of God will again come upon the disobedient even as in the days of Noah.

C. He escaped through great peril to the new world

1. They were saved "through water", i.e. in the midst of grave danger.

a. These are the waters of judgment coming down from heaven to destroy mankind.

b. And they would have destroyed Noah and his family as well without the ark to take them safely to a new earth, freed from all those unbelievers and wicked men

c. The very waters that destroyed them float Noah and family to safety.

d. But God saved them and brought them, symbolically into a fresh new creation

2. So he promises to do for all his children as well, and pictures that in Baptism

D. And this was a picture of what Baptism signifies and seals

1. Jesus had a baptism to undergo, his crucifixion

2. The waters of God's judgment closed in over his head and engulfed him.

3. Like David, he cried out Psalm 69:1,2"1 Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck. I sink in deep mire, where there is no foothold; I have come into deep waters, and the flood sweeps over me."

4. But God had forsaken him and was judging him (the just for the unjust)

5. But he was raised again, vindicated, justified. He emerged from the waters alive.

6. And so, because of him, we say with the Psalmist

a. Psalm 18.16 "He sent from above. He took me. He drew me out of many waters."

b. Psalm 32.6 "Surely in a flood of great waters, they shall not come near me. You are my hiding place. You shall preserve me from trouble. You shall surround me with songs of deliverance."

c. Psalm 66:10ff "For You, O God, have tested us; You have refined us as silver is refined. 11You brought us into the net; You laid affliction on our backs. 12You have caused men to ride over our heads; We went through fire and through water; But You brought us out to a spacious place"

7. Baptism does all this

a. not by outwardly washing you (removing filth of the flesh)

b. But as you lay hold of it by faith, you have your conscience sprinkled clean Heb 12:22,23 "let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. 23Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful."

c. We can actually answer to God, "Yes, I have a good conscience" because our insides have been washed by the blood of Christ.

d. So we have a good conscience not just before men (3.16) but before God as well

e. Because Jesus has died to sin and been raised to new life.

f. More on the resurrection and ascension next week.

But, There Really is a Hell

Jesus spoke about hell, giving us this account of an actual happening (not a parable!):

"There was a rich man, who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, full of sores, who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man's table; moreover the dogs came and licked his sores. The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham's bosom. The rich man also died and was buried; and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes, and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus in his bosom. And he called out, 'Father Abraham, have mercy upon me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in anguish in this flame.'

But Abraham said, 'Son, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.' And he said, 'Then I beg you, father, to send him to my father's house, for I have five brothers, so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.' But Abraham said, 'They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.' And he said, 'No, father Abraham; but if some one goes to them from the dead, they will repent.' He said to him, 'If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced if some one should rise from the dead'." (Luke 16:19-31)

A similar motif is recorded in the closing verses of Isaiah:

"For as the new heavens and the new earth
which I will make
shall remain before me, says the LORD;
so shall your descendants and your name remain.
From new moon to new moon,
and from sabbath to sabbath,
all flesh shall come to worship me,
says the LORD.

"And they shall go forth and look upon
the dead bodies of the men that have rebelled against me;
for their worm shall not die,
their fire shall not be quenched,
and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh."
(Isaiah 66:22-24)

Additional References:

On Everlasting Destruction
In the Cross
John Calvin on "the Descent into Hell."

History of the Apostle's Creed
Arthur Custance's Discussion (from Journey out of Time).
The Descent into Hades, by Ted G. Davy
Christ's Descent into Hell and His Resurrection, by Fr. William G. Most
The Descent into Hell (Catholic)
The Descensus ad Inferos (Traditions, Myths, Bibliography)
The Complexities of Time
Jesus' Six Hours of Eternity on the Cross
New Bodies for Old--On the Resurrection Body

Lambert Dolphin
Recent Articles Since 2018

June 1987. Edits, February 6, 2002. March 12, 2004. September 1, 2020.