1 Peter 3:18-22 (ESV):

For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, because they formerly did not obey, when God's patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water. Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him.

Thanks to the line in the Apostle's Creed that reads, "He descended into hell;", some commentators interpret the phrase "he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison" to mean that Jesus went to hell (or the underworld or Hades) after his crucifixion and before his resurrection. Other phrases (e.g., "right hand of God") reinforce the connection.

But is that what Peter intended us to understand by this phrase? If not, what does it mean?

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    You might also be interested in this post from Christianity.SE. – Richard Oct 24 '11 at 21:50
  • @Richard: I was! (In fact, I came up with the question from reading that very post. ;-) – Jon Ericson Oct 24 '11 at 23:14
  • Yes... there's a lot of C.SE posts that have spawned BH.SE questions. here's another – Richard Oct 25 '11 at 10:53

Wayne Grudem wrote a rather thorough article on this subject for the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, in 1991. The article can be found online:

He Did Not Descend Into Hell: A Plea for Following Scripture Instead of the Apostles' Creed

I believe the article is also reproduced as an appendix to his Systematic Theology.

The article discusses two things primarily:

  • A textual criticism approach to the creed itself, tracing its gradual development
  • The exegesis of the various passages that come to bear on this concept

Obviously, from the title of the article, you can see the he concludes that the text does not refer to descent into hell. But regardless if you agree with his conclusions, he provides, again, a quite thorough discussion.

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    Also just found a passage from Calvin's Institutes in support of the descent. – JKubecki Oct 29 '11 at 21:44
  • I'm not sold on his exegesis of this passage, but the rest of the article is very impressive. Personally, I think I'll stick to the Nicene Creed which seems to have a better pedigree. – Jon Ericson Oct 31 '11 at 16:43
  • It's not an appendix to Grudem's Systematic Theology but section C.2.f. of chapter 27, Atonement. – Peter Taylor Jun 16 '12 at 20:25

Yes, that is one interpretation of this text.

Another interpretation is that he descended into a temporary holding place for the dead, which was also paradise. This interpretation is a mix of the verse you site above along with this one:

Luke 23:43 (KJV)
And Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, Today shalt thou be with me in paradise.

This was spoken by Jesus to the thief on the cross. This verse shows that Jesus went to "paradise" after he died. The 1 Peter 3 verse shows that Jesus went to "proclaim to the spirits in prison". People mix these two ideas to come up with a temporary holding place, which is also paradise.

That interpretation (temporary paradise) along with the idea that Jesus descended into Hell are the two interpretations of the text.

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When Jesus died on the cross, his body physically expired. His heart stopped beating and he physically died.

His humanity did not go into heaven--that is, not until three days later. So what happened after his death is that his body went into the grave, and his immaterial being went to the place where the righteous had then rested -- i.e., the place of rest within the underworld of Hades.

Peter is very explicit that the body of Jesus went into the grave, and that his immaterial being, which Peter calls the "soul" (Acts 2:27) went into Hades. Peter mentions the event a second time to provide emphasis (Acts 2:31).

Why did not the PERSON go to heaven?

Well, the divine nature of the person did return to his Father (Jn 23:46). But his human nature could not go to heaven, because his eternal life (divine nature) was separated from his body through death. Thus his humanity entered both the grave (material humanity - "body") according to Acts 2:31 and well as entered Hades (immaterial humanity - "soul") according to Acts 2:27.

In other words, his eternal life did not reunite with his body until Sunday morning -- the day of the resurrection.

So the body of the PERSON was broken. That is, eternal life (divine nature) was separated from his humanity. His humanity was further subdivided since his soul was separated from his body (Acts 2:27 and Acts 2:31). That is, his soul was in Hades and his body was in the tomb.

To put it another way, the PERSON subsisted in two natures, and these two natures were split apart when he died on the cross. The humanity was further divided (broken) by the separation of soul (to Hades) and body (to the tomb).

So to summarize, in eternity past his divine nature was sired from the Father (the Old English word here is "begotten" -- that is, the PERSON was begotten by the Father) according to John 1:1-3 and 1 John 1:1-3. This occurred before the world existed (John 17:5). When Mary was later pregnant in Bethlehem, the PERSON then took on human nature, and so the PERSON was born a "second" time with respect to human nature; thus the PERSON subsisted in two natures, which were subsequently split when he died on the cross.

The most remarkable evidence of this venture into Hades is the parallel to the liberation from Egypt. Jesus is the greater Moses. His blood is the paschal lamb that redeems those who are slaves of sin (Egypt). He leads the captives free like Moses. He subsequently renders the powers of sin (Egypt) powerless through the "water" of his eternal life, which goes straight to the Promised Land.

The chart below depicts the illustration.

Please note that Hades = Sheol.

enter image description here

He was in the grave three days and three nights; and of course that was the amount of time that transpired when the Israelites escaped Egypt. Fifty days later, the Old Covenant was given at Sinai; fifty days later the New Covenant was given at Pentecost. The parallels are remarkable.

So the soul of the humanity of Jesus was in Hades (also called Sheol) after his death on the cross. He led the Old Testament believers out of the Paradise of Hades and into the Paradise of Heaven according to Ephesians 4:8-10 in addition to Romans 10:7. These verses from Romans and Ephesians indicate that it was Jesus in the lower parts of the earth or abyss. So Hades was an actual area of confinement deep in the earth, since Old Testament saints did not have the gift of eternal life, thus they "retired" to the rest of the underworld after death; but it was a confinement related to spiritual death, and thus the parallel to Egypt, since it is sin which binds us. (The story of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31 provides a glimpse of this two-compartmented area of the underworld.) So the humanity of the PERSON was the first to emerge (be born) out of spiritual death, and so he is the "firstborn" from the dead (Rev 1:5). By inaugurating the New Covenant "through his blood" (Luke 22:20), he now makes eternal life available to all who believe in him so that they will be able to go directly into heaven (John 3:16 and John 3:36). There is therefore no more place of rest in the underworld after death for the righteous. Our place of rest is our inheritance in heaven (1 Pet 1:3-5), where he lives today.

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  • I love the image of Jesus' Harrowing of Hell but I think some of scriptures upon which it is claimed are not interpreted correctly. Ephesians 4:8-10 for instance is more likely a reference to Christ's incarnation and not his decent into hades. Your chart also seems to have misidentified the day on which Jesus died. – Matthew Miller May 18 '13 at 16:57
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    @matthew - in the Hebrew Bible the Passover was a full-blown Sabbath day, and in AD 30, the Passover fell on a Thursday/Friday (15 Nisan). Jesus was crucified shortly before this Sabbath day had begun. Thus this Sabbath was not the "Saturday" Sabbath as many Christian scholars believe; no, it was the "Passover" Sabbath (Thursday/Friday), which was followed by the regular "Saturday" Sabbath (Friday/Saturday). In other words, Jesus was the Passover Lamb. Please see 1 Corinthians 5:7. – Joseph May 18 '13 at 21:51
  • @matthew - Do you believe that the Greek reading of Ephesians 4:9 supports that Jesus came "down" to the surface of the earth? It sounds that it may be that Jesus descended "into" the lower parts of the earth, which could mean inside of the earth. When Jonah descends "into" the lower parts of the earth (inside the Great Fish) we see the same Greek construct in the LXX. – Joseph May 18 '13 at 21:58
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    @MatthewMiller - Jesus compared his death on several occasions with Jonah. Please click here to see how this allusion relates to Jesus's descent to Hades (or Sheol). Also, my research indicates that 15 Nisan (Passover) fell on a Friday in AD 30. In fact, in my chart, the Passover never once fell on a Saturday between the years of AD 20 and AD 39. Please click here. – Joseph May 19 '13 at 3:04
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    @Sarah - I meant to say the 6th of Sivan was the Feast of Weeks (Festival of First Fruits). Anyway, every year the Passover falls on a different day of the week (like your birthday). Even so, that day is a Sabbath. So the Passover does not have to fall on a Saturday in order to be a Sabbath day; it could be any day of the week. The same is true with the Day of Atonement. Whatever day of the week that that day falls on is an automatic Sabbath. This misunderstanding is one reason that mainline Christian denominations believe that Jesus died on a Friday. – Joseph Aug 8 '14 at 13:59

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