What does it mean when Peter talks about Jesus descending into hell?
This question references 1 Peter 3:19. The whole section runs from 1 Peter 3:8-22. But we will focus on 1 Peter 3:18-22. There are actually a few questions that would come out of this text. But let us mainly deal with Jesus preaching to the spirits in prison (1 Peter 3:19).
The entire section concerns suffering for the sake of righteousness. Jesus is the ultimate example of this. He is referenced at the beginning of the paragraph (1 Peter 3:18). So this whole paragraph is about him.
To understand this passage, we must define who the spirits in prison are, where Jesus went, why Noah’s generation is mentioned, and how baptism fits in,.
Let’s start with the question of who the “spirits in prison” are. There are three interpretations throughout history of this group:
- People from the days of Noah who were disobedient and did not listen to Noah before the flood.
- Old Testament persons who did not receive a complete view of redemption before Christ died on the cross.
- Demonic spirits in the abyss.
Interpretations about where Jesus went include:
- Sheol, the place where all of the Old Testament people went, also known as the pit. They would join their fathers in the grave.
- Hades or Hell where demonic spirits exist so XO that were limited to the understanding.
The word that is often understood as going down only says going. We don’t know what direction. Why is Noah and his day mentioned?
- It either refers to Noah’s generation and day literally
- Or it refers to Noah as a type of wickedness that happens in all ages.
What does baptism have to do with this section? The common understanding is that just as the water in baptism naturally washes away dirt, the death and resurrection of Christ clean conscience and bring salvation.
Now let’s take each interpretation of the “spirits in prison” and explain how all these options work. If we take the spirits in prison to refer to Noah’s generation, the situation goes like this:
People from the days of Noah lived in the midst of such wickedness that God planned through Noah to start over. The wickedness of humanity grieved God’s heart. Noah comes on the scene right after the sons of God and the daughters of men violated God’s laws.
The spirits in prison would refer to the people of Noah’s time that did not listen to him about God’s coming judgment. These would be the people who made fun of him and mocked him. Jesus proclaims himself to them to be the Savior.
In the second scenario, the spirits in prison would be Old Testament persons who died before they discovered Jesus to be the Messiah and Redeemer. These people would have died and gone to Sheol, a holding place for the spirits of the dead. It is not Hades or Hell. It is better described as “the pit” or the grave.
Christ, then, at his own bodily death, his spirit would have traveled to Sheol before the resurrection three days later. He would proclaim himself to be the Messiah and Redeemer that they died trusting in (if they were saints) or that they did not believe in before their death.
After hearing Jesus’ message, they would be given the opportunity to trust in Jesus or not. Those who trusted in Jesus would then be released to heaven and those who did not would stay in Sheol.
This passage answers one of the questions in the early church about where Jesus went in the three days between the cross and his resurrection. It also answers the question of how Old Testament saints ended up in heaven.
The final option would refer to the literal days of Noah. The spirits in prison would be the fallen angels known as the sons of God who violated God’s laws by marrying and having children with the daughters of men.
These fallen angels would be in Hades or Hell. His proclamation to them would be about his victory over the devil and all of the evil spirits. His resurrection in three days would prove his power over these evil forces.
Jesus is dead in the flesh, referring to the fact that he died for the sins of the world. He is made alive, or his spirit is alive and will remain alive to his bodily resurrection and beyond. Many scholars believe this entire section to be a creedal statement by the early church.
Some believe that Peter is making reference to 1 Enoch, and Old Testament apocryphal book about angels. One of the major difficulties of accepting angels as the spirits in prison is that they are never offered anywhere in Scripture an opportunity to repent through preaching of any kind. But human spirits are on several occasions.
It seems to me that the best two options are Noah’s generation receives this opportunity or that Old Testament peoples receive it. Every scholar I have looked at or read has a different interpretation and choice.
As I have said with other questions, many of these questions could be studied for years without receiving a clear understanding of the answers. The church seems to accept, at least in the earliest years, that Peter was speaking of Old Testament peoples who lived before the time of Christ’s ultimate one time sacrifice for the sins of the world.
Either one of these views about Noah and his time which seems to fit the text, or the church-accepted view about Old Testament peoples being preached to is an acceptable view. There are up to five different interpretations of this passage.
The larger issue and theme of this passage, despite its difficulties, is that Jesus is our example of suffering who has obtained victory through his death and resurrection. We also will be victorious because we are on Jesus’ side. Suffering may be painful now but Christ was victorious even though he suffered, and we will be also.