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Did Jesus Really Descend Into Hell?

“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: By which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison;” (1 Peter 3:18-19).


Throughout the Church’s history, 1 Peter 3:18-19 has proved highly divisive, with interpretations ranging from the bizarre through to (so as to avoid controversy) the nonexistent. Yet this text reveals some exciting truths we ought to be aware of. After all, it was specifically written to encourage people in similar circumstances to those facing many Christians today. This article, then, outlines briefly several popular interpretations before exploring the text for itself. However, I must state from the outset that this is a problematic passage (Martin Luther considered it the Bible’s most difficult!), and space constraints here hardly do it justice. Instead, my hope is this brief discussion will ultimately provoke interest and encourage further independent, in-depth study.

Many cite this text as evidence for a doctrine of Probation (the view that Jesus descended into hell to preach the gospel in order to save lost souls). A second view likewise suggests Christ descended to hell, not to preach the Gospel, but rather to proclaim His triumph over its inhabitants so that their condemnation was final. A third suggestion is that Christ, after His death, was sent to hell to preach to Noah’s generation (v. 20) in order that they might be set free. Yet another interpretation argues that the imprisoned spirits were fallen angels (or their offspring) from Noah’s day (see Gen. 6:1-6), who are now imprisoned in hell awaiting final destruction. Thus, Christ was sent to proclaim triumph over them.

Before exploring the text, let us consider briefly several problems these views raise. Firstly, with reference to Jesus’ preaching (v. 19) Peter employs the Greek verb kjrusst, meaning to proclaim, rather than euangelizt (to preach the Gospel). This casts doubt on the first and third views, which state Christ preached to save lost souls. In fact, there is little additional biblical evidence for a doctrine of Probation (some cite 1 Pet. 4:6, but this is better translated “to those who have since died”). Meanwhile, regarding the third view, one might well ask why, out of countless others, Noah’s generation alone should be singled out to receive Christ’s attention. (This is also a weakness with Augustine’s interpretation; he rejected Christ’s descent into hell, suggesting He preached to Noah’s generation in a spiritual sense; again, however, one wonders why that particular generation alone should receive such an honor.) The second view assumes the captive spirits are people. Yet consider Peter’s reference several verses on to principalities (i.e., spirits) being subjected to Christ, (1 Pet. 3:22). This idea is also echoed in 2 Peter 2:4 and Jude 6, (note that 2 Peter and Jude have a lot in common). In light of this recurring theme of imprisoned spirits as fallen angels, it seems unlikely that 1 Peter 3:19 was referring to people now in hell. Moreover, why should Christ descend to hell merely to gloat over lost souls?

This leaves us with the fourth view. But this interpretation, together with the three that precede it (except Augustine’s, see above), all yield a much more serious problem, namely, the idea that Christ Himself descended into hell after death. Surely such a view is inconceivable. Hell is reserved for Satan and his angels, and hardly the Son of God. Moreover, how could Christ have spent His days in the grave when, in Luke 23:43, he told the repentant thief, “Today I will see you in paradise”? Some cite Ephesians 4:9 as additional evidence of Christ’s descent into hell, yet such an interpretation is problematic, not least because it assumes hell is located beneath the earth’s surface (a medieval rather than a biblical concept). In fact, in the context of verses 8-10 Paul here is surely referring to the Incarnation, that is, Christ originally descended from Heaven to earth at birth and, upon His resurrection, ascended far above all the heavens.

Christ’s descent into hell appears to be more of a creedal statement (the product of church tradition) than a biblical doctrine. It appears in several 4th century creeds, including the Apostles’ Creed (which is far removed historically from the apostolic period). It also appears in the Thirty-Nine Articles (III). Thus, after many centuries of this tradition’s incorporation into Christian thinking, many people today automatically (and unwittingly) approach 1 Peter 3:18-19 with a preconceived idea, or presupposition, that Christ descended into hell. This is not exegesis (biblical interpretation), but rather eisegesis (reading into the text something that is not there). An extreme example in the case of 1 Peter 3:18-19 is the doctrine promoted within the faith movement, which argues that Christ descended to hell, lost His divinity temporarily as He took the world’s sins upon Himself, was plagued by demons, and ultimately had to be born again in order to show us the faith-way. Certainly, Christ became sin on our behalf (2 Cor. 5:21), but only insofar as He bore our sins on the cross (Is. 53:6, 12; 1 Pet. 2:4) and suffered the ultimate consequence of sin, that is, death (Rom. 6:23, 7:11). Thus the Holy One of God, who was free from the clutches of sin, suffered the consequences of sin by dying so that we might live.

So if Christ did not descend into hell, what does 1 Peter 3:18-19 mean? At this stage, let us return to a basic rule of exegesis: to examine a passage in the context of the entire text (remember, “A text out of context becomes a pretext”). This epistle, written to Christians scattered throughout Asia Minor, is an exhortation to remain righteous and faithful in the midst of great suffering. Again and again, Peter returns to this theme, and it is clear his readers were experiencing suffering. Moreover, this is the immediate context leading up to 1 Peter 3:18-20. In verses 13-17, Peter encourages his readers to remain righteous, despite facing suffering and slander (v. 16), for it is better to suffer for doing what is right than what is wrong (v. 17). He then goes on to illustrate this point by using Christ as a model. He, too, was righteous, but suffered nevertheless. Notice, then, the parallel Peter draws between the suffering of his readers despite their righteousness, and the suffering of Christ despite His sinlessness.

The climax of Peter’s argument is reached at the end of verse 18, where he states Christ suffered in the flesh, but was made alive in the spirit. A better translation is “in spirit”, (the Greek does not include the definite article “the”). We may paraphrase Peter’s remarks as follows: “Follow the example of Christ,” he writes, “who was also righteous; like you He suffered in the flesh, but ultimately was made alive in spirit.” At the very beginning of verse 19, we also read that it was in spirit Jesus went on to make His proclamation. What does “in spirit” mean? It is clearly the opposite of “in flesh” (v. 18). Christ came in flesh, He also died in flesh. Yet in spirit he was made alive. When Christ rose from the dead, He did so with a new, gloried, spiritual body; the corruptible was replaced with the incorruptible, the natural with the spiritual; the one must precede the other (1 Cor. 15:42-49). So shall it be with men (1 Pet. 4:6). Therefore, it was through Christ’s glorified, resurrected, incorruptible body that He made His declaration to captive spirits. The message was not so much vocal as visual; neither did Christ descend into hell to make this proclamation The enemies of God, the evil spirit world that undoubtedly gloated at the death of Christ (consider Ps. 22:12-13, 21 cf. 1 Pet. 5:8), were suddenly and unexpectedly confronted with the Resurrected Lord! Death was vanquished and Christ was the Victor (1 Cor. 15:54-55). Satan and his hosts were faced with a horrendous realization: Christ had won. Though He suffered in the flesh He was vindicated in spirit, hence the Christological hymn in 1 Timothy 3:16 (“He who was revealed in the flesh, was vindicated in the spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory.” NASB). It is the contention, of this article, then, that Christ’s resurrection was itself the proclamation or sermon detailed in 1 Peter 3:19. The Risen Christ was a testimony to fallen angels, a living word of the Living Word. Subsequently, these spirits, who had caused so much havoc in Noah’s time were imprisoned at that time when the Son ascended into heaven and principalities were placed under His subjection (1 Pet. 3:22). No wonder Ephesians 4:8 says that as Christ ascended He led captive a host of captives (who now await their final judgment, 2 Pet. 2:4). What better way for Peter to encourage his readers in the midst of suffering? Stand firm, he exhorts them, be faithful and remain righteous, because just as Christ did so and was vindicated, so it shall be with you.

All this raises one important question, namely, how many fallen angels were imprisoned? A misguided exegetical approach has led many Christians to regard the acts of Jesus and the Apostles as normative for all Christians. An example is the view that tongues is the initial evidence of having received the Holy Spirit, as detailed in Acts 2 (I have yet to see someone regarding Acts 2 as normative for all Christians to follow this view through to its logical conclusion, namely, that everyone’s initial tongues experience ought to have been accompanied by a rushing wind and tongues of fire alighting the head of each speaker!). By regarding Jesus’ ministry as normative for our own, many Christians have come to believe that the demonic world is in its ascendancy, at its zenith, and that believers should be in the business of casting out demons that lurk in every corner. (Their view is aided by using Mark 16:17-18 as a proof text; yet most scholars do not regard Mark 16:9-20 as the original ending of Mark: it does not appear in the oldest manuscripts and its style and language is different from the rest of Mark; moreover, how many of these believers also consider picking up snakes or drinking poison as normative? cf. v. 19). Thus, segments of today’s Church are quite obsessed with demons. In his preface to Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis wrote: “There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them.” How, then, does 1 Peter 3:18-19 help to place the demonic world in perspective?

Jesus began His ministry by proclaiming the arrival of the Kingdom of God (Mark 1:15). However, other passages suggest the Kingdom is eschatological (i.e. for the end times, cf. Matthew 6:10, 13:47-50 etc). Consequently, a debate has raged among scholars over many years: Is the Kingdom for the present or future? Is it realized or eschatological? The answer is both. In keeping with a Jewish approach, when studying the Scriptures we need to be aware of types, or patterns (after all, prophecy is merely repeated history). For example, the Paschal Lamb is a type of Christ (1 Cor. 5:6-8); the maiden’s son representing a sign of the salvation of Israel from her enemies (Is. 7:14) finds its ultimate fulfillment in Christ, who saves His people Israel (Matthew 1:23, Luke 1:68, Rom. 11:25f); Antiochus Epiphanes, Pompey, and Titus are types of the Abomination of Desolation (Dan. 9:27 cf. Matthew 24:15), while Antichrist is the ultimate fulfillment (2 Thess. 2:3-4). Thus when Christ initiated the Kingdom (Gk. basileia, meaning the act of ruling, rather than geographical kingdom  He reigns in our hearts), we see the Kingdom in its infancy (a type, if you like). Jesus’ ministry offers a glimpse of His eschatological kingdom, for example, sickness is healed (see the Messianic/Millennial passage of 35:5ff.), as expected by John the Baptist, (Matthew 11:1-6). A feature of the Kingdom was also God’s victory over the Evil One, as manifest in Jesus’ ministry against demons (Luke 11:20). The demons saw Christ and shuddered, fearing the appointed time (Matthew 8:29), that is, the time of their imprisonment and ultimately, their judgment (Eph. 4:8, 1 Pet. 3:22, 2 Pet. 2:4, Jude 6).

The arrival of the Kingdom, then, marks the beginning of Satan’s demise, while Christ’s resurrection goes even further, with the imprisonment of fallen angels. How many were imprisoned? Perhaps only the ones from Noah’s day, perhaps more, perhaps even most? One thing, at least, is clear. At the Resurrection, the Enemy suffered a death blow. Thus, demonic activity, which was at an all time high before Christ began to institute the Kingdom during His earthly ministry, began to diminish. By the book of Acts, there are far fewer reported cases than in the Gospels, while the epistles rarely dwell on the issue. I do not suggest there is no demonic activity today. After all, we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but rather, principalities (Eph. 6:12). However, since Calvary the primary task of our adversary the devil is to accuse the brethren (Rev. 12:10), and we must take great care not to portray Satan and his defeated hosts as God’s co-equal counterpart. Such dualism is the product of Greek philosophical thinking, which crept into the Church during the second and third centuries. Thus, by elevating Satan and the demon sphere far above their actually strength and number, not only do we demonstrate ‘an excessive and unhealthy interest’ in them (C.S. Lewis), but we also fail to recognize that, “Greater is He that is in me than he that is in the world” (1 John 4:4). Remember, the Risen Lord was a proclamation to demons that Christ is the Ultimate Victor and that Satan is a spent force. Thus, many fallen angels were imprisoned while Christ was fully vindicated. Peter surely could not have found a better way of encouraging his readers in the face of adversity and suffering, something from which we should also take comfort in times of suffering.



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