Did Jesus Preach the Gospel to People in Hell During the Two Days He Was Dead?

Does the Bible tell us where Jesus went for the three days between his crucifixion and resurrection? Down through the ages, some Christians have taught that during these two days between Good Friday and Easter morning Jesus went to Hades and preached the gospel to people there. 

That is based on 1 Peter 3:18-22:

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.

Now, in my view, there are a lot of problems with interpreting this as saying that Jesus preached the gospel in hell or Hades during these two days. Let me give you a couple of reasons why. 

First, it contradicts very clear passages of Scripture. The Bible in many places says there's a chasm that's fixed between heaven and hell think of Luke 16:26 the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. “It is appointed for men to die once and after this the judgment,” Hebrews 9:27)

Jesus promised the thief on the cross (Luke 23:43) today you will be with me in paradise. Old Testament saints didn't go to Hades, much less to hell. There's no purgatory in the Bible. On the contrary, Jesus says that Old Testament believers went to what he called the “bosom of Abraham” (Luke 16:22). 

Furthermore, Jesus’ body lay in the tomb. It could only have been his soul that visited the underworld. However, Jesus cried out on the cross “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit,” Luke 23:46 with no mention of a sort of detour to Hades or hell.

Second, is 1 Peter itself saying that Jesus visited hell or Hades during these two days? No, I don't think it's saying that. 1 Peter doesn't say that Jesus preached the gospel to everyone in Hades, giving them a chance to repent. He only mentioned Noah and his family.

Peter doesn't say Jesus literally went to the underworld, all he says is that he was present in spirit, as it were, during the days of Noah. In other words, he was preached in advance of His incarnation. In fact, Peter explains this “this judgment, through which Noah and his family were saved through water,” he says, “is a type of our baptism into Christ.” 

Christ is our Ark. He bore our judgment and hid us safely in himself, that's what baptism means, Peter says. Peter’s offering a warning to his readers to enter Jesus, the ark of salvation, to avoid the coming flood of God's final judgment, and that warning would have been totally lost on Peter's audience if he was talking about Jesus preaching the gospel to other people in the underworld. It wouldn't have had any significance to the people he was talking to. The good news is that Jesus experienced hell on the cross for us. The main thing is that Jesus, the eternal Son of God, in our humanity was hanged on a cursed cross, judged by God's law and condemned as a sinner even though he’d done nothing wrong. And he did that for us. He suffered hell in our place. 

Hell is the judgment of God and that's what he suffered. So he did go to hell, not just spiritually but in the unity of his person and in his body as well as his soul. 

It's exactly what Peter says earlier in 1 Peter 1:1-12: “Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired carefully inquiring what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating when he predicted the sufferings of Christ, and the subsequent glories. It was revealed to them [to the prophets] that they were serving not themselves but you in the things that have now been announced to you through those who preach the good news to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven, things into which angels long to look. 

He went to the cross and then he was glorified, raised again three days. I don't know how you get any more horrific picture of hell than the cross. God the Son, hanging on a curse of cross suffering for the sins of millions. You don't get a more vivid picture of hell. Peter is saying, I'm telling you right now and this was preached all the way back then.

Adapted from an answer given on Episode 151 of the Core Christianity Radio Show. 

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Michael Horton

Michael Horton (@MichaelHorton_) is the Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California. The author of many books, including Core Christianity. He lives with his wife Lisa and four children in Escondido, California.

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