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What Doess the Bible Say About … JESUS VISITING HELL?

Did Jesus visit hell when He died?

First of all, may I encourage you to read the answers to last week’s question: According to the Bible are there two different kinds of hell? To be found at:

Last week we discovered that people do not go to hell when they die. Hell is reserved for the unrighteous after judgment day when “hades” or “sheol” (the dwelling place of the unbelievers) will be thrown into the lake of fire (see Rev 20:14-15).

However, when people die they go to “sheol” (in Hebrew) or “hades” (in Greek), which refers to the realm of the dead. We also discovered last week that “sheol” or “hades” is divided in two parts: one for the wicked and one referred to “Abraham’s bosom” or “heaven” for the righteous. So this week’s question should be modified to: Did Jesus go to the part reserved to the wicked of “hades” or “sheol”?

Some people believe that Jesus went and preached to the wicked that had died and did so right after His death on the cross. They base this on this text:

1 Peter 3:19-20: “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. In it only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water.” NIV

It is important to look at the context of a text to thoroughly understand it; otherwise false conclusions could be reached. Let us do this now:

1 Peter 3:13-17 “13 Who is going to harm you if you are eager to do good? 14 But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed. “Do not fear what they fear; do not be frightened.” 15 But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, 16 keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander. 17 It is better, if it is God’s will, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil.”

The introductory context is an exhortation from the apostle Peter to do good to the people around us. He encourages the Christians of Asia Minor to “suffer for what is right”, this being much better than “doing evil”.

1 Peter 3:18 “18 For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive by the Spirit,” He then points out that Christ suffered and died for them with the purpose “to bring” them (and us for that matter) “to God”.

Notice that the text doesn’t stop at His death. It also talks about His resurrection where he was “made alive by the Spirit”.

Now the apostle Peter introduces us to the text in question:

1 Peter 3:19 “19 through whom also he went and preached to the spirits in prison 20 who disobeyed long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built. In it only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water, 21 and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also-not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a good conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ, 22 who has gone into heaven and is at God’s right hand-with angels, authorities and powers in submission to him.”

Just looking at the context, we have a problem assuming that Jesus preached to “the spirits in prison” at His death. After mentioning the fact, the apostle Peter points out that Jesus was “made alive by the Spirit”. Jesus was resurrected through the power of the Holy Spirit. And it’s “through” the Holy Spirit that he preached to “the spirits in prison”.

Now who are these “spirits in prison”?

We have learned from the text that they are those “who disobeyed long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built”. It’s a very specific group of people and clearly not referring to all those who are in the part of “hades” or “sheol” reserved to the wicked.

Notice also that nowhere does it say that these spirits accepted Jesus’ preaching. If He went to “hades” and preached there, His preaching was futile.

If you look further, the apostle Peter is not putting the emphasis on preaching to these “spirits in prison”, but on the fact that Noah and seven others “were saved through water, and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also-not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a good conscience toward God.”

In mentioning the triumph of Jesus at His resurrection, Peter refers to Noah and his family who “were brought safely through the water”. Why would this be important to the readers of Asia Minor, to whom Peter was writing this letter? Because these once-pagan readers are now being ostracized for being Christians, and they are reminded that Noah and his family underwent the same kind of suffering. Noah persevered, although the whole world was also against him. He and his family were saved. The rest of the world was not.

Now baptism serves the same function. How? 1 Peter 3:21 “It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” NIV In other words without Jesus’ resurrection, baptism would be useless! It is not the outward washing that saves, referred by “not the removal of dirt from the flesh”. Baptism is a “pledge” or an “answer” to God “from a good conscience”. It’s our identification with Christ that saves, not the act of baptism by itself.

The apostle Peter is encouraging the Christians of Asia Minor to persevere although they may be suffering. He then points out that Jesus suffered as well for their salvation and so did Noah and his family just before the flood, and they were “brought safely through the water”. Suffering is just an inconvenience compared to the glorious salvation obtained for us by Jesus Himself.

Looking at the context, we can only assume that the apostle Peter was referring to Noah being led by God’s Spirit to preach to those in his time. It is Noah’s preaching that is referred to here. His preaching was not his own, but came through God’s Spirit from the Holy One Himself: Jesus Christ. The people in Noah’s time were “in prison” of their own sins and addictions. This kept them from accepting salvation from the flood. This is in agreement with many Bible scholars:

“It would then be implied here, that though the instrumentality of Noah was employed, yet that it was done not by the Holy Spirit, but by him who afterward became incarnate.” (from Barnes’ Notes )

“John Owen, Calvin’s translator and editor (John Calvin, Commentaries on the Catholic Epistles, p. 116, note), cites the explanation adopted by Beza, Doddridge, Macknight, and Scott, that the time of the action was in the ministry of Noah, when Christ by the Spirit (“by which”) preached through Noah to the wicked who at Peter’s later writing were spirits in Hades. And all this while the longsuffering of God waited, delaying the flood. The reference to the time spent in building the ark seems to corroborate this interpretation. Reference to the small number of those saved would encourage the “little flock” in Asia.” (from The Wycliffe Bible Commentary)

“The inhabitants of the antediluvian world, who, having been disobedient, and convicted of the most flagrant transgressions against God, were sentenced by his just law to destruction. But their punishment was delayed to see if they would repent; and the long-suffering of God waited one hundred and twenty years, which were granted to them for this purpose; during which time, as criminals tried and convicted, they are represented as being in prison-detained under the arrest of Divine justice, which waited either for their repentance or the expiration of the respite, that the punishment pronounced might be inflicted. This I have long believed to be the sense of this difficult passage, and no other that I have seen is so consistent with the whole scope of the place.” (from Adam Clarke’s Commentary

The most poignant evidence that Jesus did not go to the part reserved to the wicked of “hades” or “sheol” is the following text pronounced by Jesus Himself while hanging on the cross. He was addressing this promise to the thief on the cross who asked Him to remember him when He would come into His kingdom.

Luke 23:43 “Jesus answered him, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.” NIV

When Jesus died He went to the part of “hades” or “sheol” called “paradise” and so did that thief on the cross next to Him. He never went to the part reserved to the wicked.

That He went to “hades” is confirmed in Acts 2:31 “He looked ahead and spoke of the resurrection of the Christ, that HE WAS NEITHER ABANDONED TO HADES, NOR DID His flesh SUFFER DECAY.” NASU

Jesus died with a purpose: to bring us to God (see 1 Peter 3:18). John 3:16-17: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” NIV He died for you. Why? Because He cares for you and wants to be your friend. He died so that you could have eternity in front of you. Not an eternity in suffering and misery, but eternity in happiness and peace. Unbelievable but true. All you need to do to receive this is accept His offer. You need to welcome Him into your life and experience His power that leads to total freedom from any addictions. Why won’t you do this now by accepting His call at:

Rob Chaffart