Did Jesus Go to Hell When He Died (1 Pet. 3:18-19)?
by Jack Cottrell (Notes) on Sunday, November 8, 2009 at 3:29pm
I HAVE HAD A COUPLE OF INQUIRIES about 1 Peter 3:18ff., which says: “He 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.” What does this mean? Did Jesus somehow “go to hell” after he died on the cross? If so, is this part of his atoning work? Or does it mean that he went and preached to the lost souls in Hades in order to offer them the same chance to repent that he now offers us?”
IN REPLY, here are the facts as I see them: 1. The atoning work of Christ was finished at the moment of his death (see John 19:30). His main suffering for sin was not just in his human nature (body and spirit), but mainly in his divine nature. Beginning in Gethsemane and continuing up through the moment of his death, Jesus was experiencing the fullness of the Father’s wrath in our place. Especially in his divine nature, he was suffering the equivalent of eternity in hell for the entire human race. He did not have to “go to hell” for this to happen.
2. At the time of Christ’s death and following, hell itself, as the eternal destiny of Satan, his demons, and lost human beings (Matt. 25:41), was not even in existence yet. The same is true of the eternal home of saved human beings (the new heavens and new earth). Both of these eternal abodes will be unveiled after the final judgment.
3. Jesus never “descended into hell” as such. The KJV of Acts 2:27, 31 (based on Psalm 16:10) says “that his soul was not left in hell,” but this is just a bad translation. The word in Psalm 16:10 is “sheol,” not hell; and in Acts, it is “hades,” not hell. In this context these words mean “the grave,” which receives the dead bodies of both the lost and the saved. The idea of these verses is that Jesus’ BODY would not remain in the grave, but would rise from the dead.
4. At death the bodies of most human beings are put into a grave, i.e., into one kind of “hades.” At the same time the souls (i.e., spirits) of the lost go to another place also called “hades” (Luke 16:23); the souls (spirits) of the saved go not to “hades” but to Paradise (Luke 23:43).
5. “The spirits in prison who disobeyed” (1 Peter 3) are the spirits of the lost in “hades”. That Jesus preached or “made proclamation to” these spirits does NOT mean that he preached the gospel to them in order to give them (another) chance to be saved. The word “preached” here is NOT “preached the gospel,” but simply “proclaimed, announced.” The point is that Jesus announced to his enemies that he was indeed triumphant over them, in the spirit of Revelation 1:18.
6. The only way to read a “second chance” preaching of the gospel into 1 Peter 3:18 is to assume that 1 Peter 4:6 is talking about the same event, but I am convinced that this is not the case. In the latter verse Peter says that the gospel was preached (this is a different Greek word) to those who have died, but he does not say that it was preached to them AFTER they died. As I understand it, he is talking about Christians who heard the gospel and believed it and who are now dead. They (like Christians still living) are “judged according to the flesh” by wicked men who persecute and blaspheme God’s people (see 1 Peter 2:12; 3:16, 18; 4:1-2) even to the point of martyrdom, but “according to the spirit” they are living for God and with God. The point of 1 Peter 4:1-6 is to give comfort to those Christians who are suffering persecution. It has nothing to do with giving a first or second chance to the wicked dead.
7. For further information on the intermediate state, heaven, and hell, see my book, “The Faith Once for All,” chs. 29, 32, 33.