Did Christ Descend into Hell?

The following is a sermon excerpt preached at Sovereign Grace Baptist Church, Blackie, Alberta, on Sunday, March 16, 2008.

“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 t
he 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 ” (1 Peter 3:18-22).

…Concerning the preaching of Christ, it is conveyed to us in the 19th and 20th verses. Look at the 19th verse for starters. It says: “…in which He went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison…” Many of you will no doubt be aware that this verse and the ones that follow have been used in support of the assertion that Christ, after He died on the cross and before He rose again, descended into hell. Let me quote to you from both the Catechism of the Catholic Church and then the revered Apostle’s Creed. First, the Catholic Catechism, part 1, section 2, chapter 2, article 5, paragraph 1:

“Christ Descended into Hell. The frequent New Testament affirmations that Jesus was ‘raised from the dead’ presupposes [says the Catechism] that the crucified one sojourned in the realm of the dead prior to his resurrection. This was the meaning given in the apostolic preaching to Christ’s descent into hell: that Jesus, like all men, experienced death and his soul joined the others in the realm of the dead. But he descended there as Saviour, proclaiming the Good News to the spirits imprisoned there.”i

The Catechism continues:

“…Scripture calls the abode of the dead, to which the dead Christ went down, ‘hell’…because [says the catechism] those who are there are deprived of the vision of God. Such is the case for all the dead, whether evil or righteous, while they await the Redeemer: which does not mean that their lot is identical, as Jesus shows through the parable of the poor man Lazarus who was received into ‘Abraham’s bosom.’ It is precisely these holy souls, who awaited their Saviour in Abraham’s bosom, whom Christ the Lord delivered when he descended into hell. Jesus did not descend into hell to deliver the damned, nor to destroy the hell of damnation, but to free the just who had gone before him.”ii

Now, those of you who know your Bibles will find much in these statements to be out of step with the truth, least of all the fact that the redeemed of Christ do not await Christ in the abode of the dead. The one who reads the Scriptures will discover, by the grace and Spirit of God, that to depart is to be with Christ (Phil. 1:23) and “To be away from the body” is to be “at home with the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:8). At any rate, and concerning the matter at hand, it is clear: Roman Catholic doctrine asserts that Christ descended into hell. But by their allegiance to the Apostle’s Creed, a creed that is, by the way, the basic creed of Reformed churches, so do a large number of Protestants and even evangelicals.iii This is what that creed says:

]“I believe in God, the Father Almighty, the Creator of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord: who was conceived of the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended into hell.”

Calvin writes in his Institutes:

“…we must not omit the descent to hell, which was of no little importance to the accomplishment of redemption. For although it is apparent from the writings of the ancient Fathers, that the clause which now stands in the Creed was not formerly so much used in the churches, still, in giving a summary of doctrine, a place must be assigned to it, as containing a matter of great importance which ought not by any means to be disregarded.”iv

All of this is simply to say and show that there is a tremendous amount of weight asserting the notion that Christ went to hell. And it comes from sources against which we would, on one hand, outright reject and, on the other hand, with whom we would tend to agree, at least at many points. However, I do not think the Bible teaches Christ descended to hell. Wise and blessed is the man who wrote: “This passage is rather obscure. As is usually the case, the interpreters make it even more obscure with all their loud opinions. Those who dream of the descent of Christ’s soul into hell think this text sounds like that. But when these verses are examined, it is seen that this cannot refer to that.”v
Let us then set ourselves to the task of examination. Verse 19 [pay close attention here]: “in which he went and made proclamation to the spirits in prison.” Sounds like it might mean Christ went to hell. But I am convinced that is not what is in view here. Careful exegesis yields that the proper way to understand this phrase is not “in which he went” but “by, or through, whom he went.” This comes from the immediate context. Notice, if you will, the last phrase in the 18th verse. I am persuaded that the ESV and NASB probably aren’t the best here. Verse 18, last phrase: “…being put to death in the flesh but made alive, (not in the spirit, but) by the Spirit.” The KJV and NIV got it right.vi To say that Christ was made alive in the spirit would be to say that Christ had to previously die in the spirit. And to say that Christ had died in the spirit would be to deny the plain teaching of Scripture, would it not? On the cross, did He not say just before He breathed His last, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46)? Did Christ not also say to the thief on the cross next to Him, “…today you will be with Me in Paradise?” Does this not make it abundantly clear that Christ did not die “in the spirit” and thus did not require to be made alive “in the spirit?” Does this then not rule out the translation “made alive IN THE SPIRIT?” It must; and it does. So then, verse 19 ought to be understood as “by whom [i.e. the Holy Spirit] he [i.e. Christ] went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison.” So, whatever is meant by “spirits in prison,” we know that Peter does not mean to say Christ went there and preached directly, in person. He rather preached by means of, or through, the Holy Spirit.
The question then arises as to the identification of these ‘spirits in prison.’ The ‘who’ to whom Christ preached is answered by the ‘when’ Christ preached. Verse 20: “because *or, better, ‘when’+ they formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared.” The “spirits in prison” are, according to verse 20, the disobedient ones, rebellious people, men, women and children, who lived during the days of Noah. Christ preached to these ones prior to the flood, by means of or through the Spirit, when Noah was building the ark. The one who compares Scripture with Scripture will further conclude, and with good reason, that the human agent or mouthpiece of Christ was Noah himself. Chapter one, 10th & 11th verses: “Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied of the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired carefully, inquiring what person or time the Spirit of Christ within them was indicating when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories.” The prophets of old preached what they preached because of the Spirit of Christ that was in them. It is not too much to say, therefore, that Christ preached through the Old Testament prophets. Add to this that Noah was “a herald (or preacher) of righteousness,” (2 Pet. 2:5), and it becomes very difficult to avoid the conclusion that Christ was, in Noah, i.e. by means of His Spirit, heralding, or proclaiming righteousness to the disobedient in Noah’s day.
But how are we to understand the undeniable fact that verse 19 says these rebellious spirits (humans in Noah’s day) to whom Christ preached are “in prison?” That they are said to be in prison is to say they are now in an actual place of punishment reserved for lawbreakers, even awaiting final judgment, i.e., hell. It must be understood that Christ did not preach to them while they were in prison, but while they were on the earth. The apostle makes this undeniably clear. Listen: v.19- “in whom he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, 20*WHEN+ they did not obey, WHEN God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, WHILE the ark was being prepared.” When did Christ preach? WHEN they did not obey, WHEN God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, WHILE the ark was being prepared. In other words, at the time Peter wrote his letter, these spirits were in prison. They were in hell at that time. But when Christ preached to them through Noah, they were not in hell but on the earth in the time of the flood.
The inquiring mind will wonder what it was that Christ specifically preached. Peter doesn’t come right out and tell us, but he gives us some clues. Be mindful that verse 20 tells us that Christ preached to those who “did not obey.” First clue is chapter 4 and verse 6: “For this is why the gospel was preached even to those who are (now) dead…” Second clue is chapter 4 and verse 17: “For it is time for judgment to begin at the household of God; and if it begins with us, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God?” Third clue is back in chapter 2 and verse 8: “They stumble because they disobey the word.” Clue number four is in chapter 3 and verse 1: “…wives, be subject to your husbands, so that even if some do not obey the word…” Clue number five is 2 Peter 2 and verse 5: “if he did not spare the ancient world, but preserved Noah, a herald of righteousness, with seven others, when he brought a flood upon the world of the ungodly…” What did Christ preach? He preached the truth. He preached not just that which was to be trusted, but also that which was to be obeyed, even the gospel of God. Through the lips of Noah, Christ preached righteousness to a world that was far from righteous and to men who, as a result of their disobedience found themselves in their present position in hell. Loved ones, consider this: “If disobedience follows the preaching of the word, prison follows that disobedience. The word by which they would not be bound to obedience binds them over to that prison from which they will never escape or ever be released. Take note of this and know that you have been warned, you who will not receive salvation. You are every day in the way of disobedience, hastening to this perpetual imprisonment” (Leighton).
Be also mindful that Noah’s world was a world not unlike ours. Men, by far the vast majority of men, were spiritually dead, unresponsive to God, and thus far from interested in the things of God. Men were busy about their affairs, off to work, eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, oblivious, uninterested, indifferent, self-righteous, proud, and even antagonistic to the things of Christ. Church attendance and Bible study and thoughts of eternity were no where on their radar screens. The wickedness of man was so great, that every intention of the thoughts of the hearts of men was only evil continually. So supreme was the wickedness and corruption and hardened sinfulness of men that God said, “Enough!” “I will blot out man who I have created from the face of the land, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens, for I am sorry that I have made them. But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord” (Gen. 6:7, 8). Question: why does the apostle speak of these things at this point? Remember Peter’s aim. He is taking great pains to argue that it is better to suffer for doing good in a zealous pursuit of righteousness than for doing evil. So why speak of Christ’s truth through Noah’s mouth pre-flood? Let me suggest six reasons:
1) To encourage and even press us to speak and even preach and publish the Gospel and press obedience to the truth when, in view of surrounding unbelief, the temptation to quit is paramount. Noah lived in the middle of tremendous wickedness and rejection of God’s word. Nonetheless, by the mouth of Noah, Christ preached righteousness. That being the case, it is so pressed upon us, regardless of how hard the surrounding ‘soil’ might be, to also preach and publish and teach and speak the truth of Christ.
2) To encourage us by showing that the even the preaching of the most apt preacher and teacher of all, Jesus Christ, did not result in many conversions. Eight people were safe on the ark, not 80, 800, or 8000. Eight. That’s it. God did not spare the entire ancient world, but only preserved Noah with seven others. The example of Noah thus underscores the crucial imperative that we be interested not in numbers, but in the truth of the living God. Numbers do not measure the success of any ministry, the significance or value of any church, nor are they any indication of whether or not God is at work. God is always at work whether that be in the work of redemption or judgment. Noah tells us this.
3) To press us with the importance of persevering in obedience, even and especially when the target of great antagonism. A moment’s reflection is all that is needed to grasp something of the attacks Noah must have received. Can you imagine what the pagans must have said? “What on earth does this old man think he’s doing? He must be out of his mind, building a cruise ship in the middle of the desert. Surely, he’s got a few screws that need to be tightened, crazy old man.” But Noah, in humility, kept building the ark, obeying God’s instruction to him. Had Noah disobeyed and not kept on keeping on, there would be no ark and thus no salvation from the deluge of the impending judgment and wrath of God.
4) To press the truth that disobedience results in imprisonment. Those who did not obey in the time of Noah, were, at the time of Peter’s writing, and even now, “spirits in prison,” “committed to chains of gloomy darkness…kept until the judgment.” It is therefore imperative that we not grow cold or indifferent or the like, but keep ourselves in the love of Christ, and thus obeying the word of Christ; which is only to also say it is better to suffer for the sake of righteousness/obedience than for doing evil.
5) To press upon us both the Lord’s dealings with the ungodly and with a select, chosen few. Regarding the wicked, “God’s patience waited in the days of Noah,” says Peter. Tis true: there are basically two great wonders in the universe – the unspeakable mercy of God and the abundant disloyalty of man. What is before us in the case of Noah’s day is the incredible patience of God and the unshakable, unrelenting disobedience of man. Think about the vilest of unbelievers you know to be alive. God is exercising great patience with him. Why? Because God is slow to anger that’s why. God is patient. He is long-suffering and kind and forbears with the wicked in order that they might be led to repentance. So when we go hard after obedience and we become the target of verbal insult and blasphemy from the mouths of the unbelieving, know that God is being patient with them. He is being patient with them that they might repent. Regarding the Lord’s dealings with a select chosen few, mark well that God chose a select few. Noah and his family were vastly and pitifully outnumbered. That’s always the way it’s been. God’s chosen ones have always been the minority. They have always, like Noah, been surrounded by unbelief. They have always been mocked as Noah was mocked. And they have always persevered in faith that God would be faithful, not so much to them, but to His word. Hebrews 11:7 – “By faith Noah, being warned by God concerning events as yet unseen, in reverent fear constructed an ark for the saving of his household.” The proof that Noah believed God that He would destroy all flesh by means of a flood, the evidence of Noah’s faith in God, that God would be true to His word, is the very action of constructing the ark in obedience. Did Noah profit by his obedience? Let me ask this another way. Why was it better for Noah to suffer for doing good than for doing evil and disobeying God? Answer: It was better because Noah and seven others “were brought safely through water.” Do not interpret this to mean salvation by works. I’m not saying that. Scripture does not say that. But do interpret it to mean that the faith that saves is a faith that works.
Let me end this morning by quick summary. To the elect lovers of and believers in the invisible Christ, the apostle has been pressing righteous living. That they might see and know it is better to suffer for righteousness than for disobedience, he speaks of the person and work of Christ and then of the preaching of Christ in the days of and by means of Noah. Christ suffered for good. Thus, all who follow in his steps must be willing to suffer for good. The preaching of Christ through the lips of Noah fell, essentially, on deaf ears to the consequence of imprisonment. Let us therefore imitate Noah, obey the word of God in Scripture, and find ourselves among the chosen few who will be brought through the coming deluge of God’s judgment by the ark who is Christ. Amen.
i www.vatican.va/archive/ccc_css/archive/catechism/p122a5p1.htm
ii ibid
iii According to www.reformed.org, the Creed is “the basic creed of Reformed churches.”
iv Institutes of the Christian Religion on CD-Rom, Ages Software
v Leighton,
vi This comes at the end of much thought and study. Certainly, I do not wish to disrespect the translation committees of NAS and ESV. Nor do I make light of the difficulty of the interpretive issues. However, the use of the dative case is one of the reasons why I make this conclusion. “The use of the dative can be divided into three principle categories: a) the dative proper which signifies that to which or for which anything is done, b) the instrumental which signifies by which or with which anything is done, c) the locative which signifies the time or place in which anything is done.” (“TA STOICHEIA,” Rod Remin, class notes). Obviously, the only usage that fits is b) instrumental. Thus, Christ was “made alive by the Spirit.” The ESV phrase “in the spirit” translates the Greek “

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