It is perfectly acceptable for people to ask hard questions of the Bible. They must be prepared to be disappointed at times because the Bible is not given to us to answer every question that is posed. Church tradition sometimes forces us to ask the question, “Is that in the Bible?” For Bible readers, on the Saturday between the death of Jesus Christ, on the Cross, and His bodily resurrection on Sunday, a good question is, “Did Jesus go to hell or to paradise after His death?”
The presence of skeptics in every generation compels us to state the obvious, “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures (1 Cor 15:3b).” Yes, the Messiah died, and from the Apostle Paul’s statement, we understand the purpose of Christ’s death. It was productive. It dealt with the sins of His people (Mt 1:21), wherever and whenever they are manifest in the whole world (1 Jn 2:2). He bore our sins in His body on the Cross (1 Pet 2:24), and after that He was buried (1 Cor 15:4a).
Jesus’ lifeless body was sought by Joseph of Arimathea (Mk 15:43; Jn 19:38). The prominent member of the Council went in and asked for the body of Jesus. Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea, granted permission. Pilate had confirmed the death of Jesus from a trusted centurion (Mk 15:44). Joseph, helped by Nicodemus (see John 3), prepared Jesus’ dead body, according to Jewish burial custom (Jn 19:40).
With Christ’s death and burial now confirmed and conducted, as it is written, we can turn our focus to Jesus’ location between His death and resurrection, “for He was raised on the third day according to he Scriptures (1 Cor 15:4b). There is confusion in this matter because of the intrusion of church tradition, and the subsequent misinterpretation of the Scripture to support the tradition.
The inclusion of “He descended into hell” was not in the fourth century Nicene Creed (A.D. 325), but it did appear in the eighth century Apostles’ Creed, which itself suffers with such an inaccurate label. It was not the creed of Jesus’ apostles. The questionable clause itself appeared in the sixth century for the first time, and it was accepted by the majority opinion, as being true, two hundred years later. Is it true?
Many people do not take the time to consider the discrepancy between the clause, “He descended into hell,” and Jesus’ own words on the Cross. Luke records these words of Jesus, speaking to the repentant robber hanging next to Him, “And He said to him, “Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise (Lk 23:43).”
The repentant robber, in the grip of death, had been granted the grace of God unto salvation (Eph 2:8–9). Jesus’ words were blessed assurance to the one who had made his request known, “Jesus, remember me when you come into Your kingdom (Lk 23:42)!” According to Jesus, He would be coming into His kingdom, today. He referred to His kingdom as “Paradise.” This man would be with Jesus, in Paradise, today. Is that hell?
To support, “He descended into hell,” proponents turn to 1 Peter 3:19–20, “in which also He went and made proclamation to the spirits now in prison, 20 who once were disobedient, when the patience of God kept waiting in the days of Noah, during the construction of the ark…” At first glance, it really does appear that Jesus went and preached to demons in hell, after His death and burial and before His resurrection.
The proper use of this text, however, implores us to see the context of Peter’s Noahic illustration. The instruction of the apostle, to his readers, is for them to suffer well for the sake of righteousness (1 Pet 3:13, 17)…like Jesus did when He went to the Cross (1 Pet 3:8)…and like Noah did when he and his sons were constructing the Ark (Gen 6).
Noah was a preacher of righteousness (2 Pet 2:5), who had been saved by the baptism of the Holy Spirit, like Peter’s readers (1 Pet 3:21). Being filled with the Spirit of Christ, Noah preached to demon-influenced and demon-possessed people, who ended up in hell, together. It was Christ who went and made proclamation to them…way back when, warning them of the wrath of God to soon come upon them (Great Flood).
Jesus Christ, through His faithful vessel, Noah, had something to say to those in impending doom. What in hell would Jesus have to say to them after His death? In context, Peter was arguing for Christians to endure suffering, in the midst of persecution by the unrighteous (spirits and people), just like Noah, who preached and warned them of wrath to come, as he built his ark of salvation, not unlike Jesus building His church (Mt 16:18). We, too, warn people of the wrath to come at the end of the age, preaching to them in the Spirit, from the position of righteousness in Christ. We, too, will be hated (Jn 15:18) and persecuted (Mt 5:10–11).
It is my hope that my reader can see the misuse of this text (1 Pet 3:19–20) to support the unfortunate clause “He descended into hell” added, in part, to the Apostles’ Creed in the sixth century A.D. and widely accepted by the eight century A.D.
Christian, Jesus’ hell was on the Cross, while He was still alive, in His body of imputed sin. He defeated sin and was victorious over death, first in His soul, as He went to Paradise that day with one of His own, and then victorious in His resurrection life, manifest in His glorified body on the third day…resurrection Sunday.
Beloved, you, too, will soon find it very much better to be with the Lord in Paradise (Phil 1:23), first in soul, after the death of your body of sin, and then in a resurrected and glorified body, on the day of His return in glory (Jn 5:25–29; Rom 8:30; 1 Thess 5:23). As for today, preach Christ (1 Cor 2:2; Col 1:28), in the Spirit of Christ, warning every man to flee from the wrath to come (Mt 3:7; Lk 3:7; 1 Thess 1:10; 2:16; Rev 6:17). Many will go to hell, but some will be with the Lord in Paradise on that day, when it is called, “today”.
Spokane Valley, Washington
November 27, 2022