The Wartburg Project

November 28th, 2023

96. An Announcement to the Spirits in Prison

In 1 Peter 3:19 what does it mean that “Jesus went and made an announcement to the spirits in prison”?

This verse is the only New Testament passage that offers any specific information about Jesus’ descent into hell. There are a few other passages that may allude to it.

Christ also suffered once for sins in our place, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in flesh but was made alive in spirit, 19in which he also went and made an announcement to the spirits in prison. 20These spirits disobeyed long ago, when God’s patience was waiting in the days of Noah while the ark was being built. In this ark a few, that is, eight souls, were saved by water. 21And corresponding to that, baptism now saves you—not the removal of dirt from the body but the guarantee of a good conscience before God through Jesus Christ.

Christ made an announcement to the spirits in prison (that is, to the Devil, the evil angels, and all the inhabitants of hell) during his descent into hell after his triumphant death on the cross and after he was made alive in spirit. At his death Jesus’ soul went to heaven not to hell, as is shown by his statements, “Today you will be with me in Paradise” and “Father into your hand I commit my spirit.” The descent of hell took place after Jesus was alive again.

Colossians 2:15, which we will examine next, shows us that the imagery here is that of the victory parade of a Roman general, in which he displayed the results of his victory. When Jesus descended into hell, he publicly displayed before all who were there that he had defeated Satan and his evil angels. Peter mentions the unbelievers of Noah’s day as a prime example of the spirits in prison, who witnessed Jesus’ descent. The time of Jesus’ descent into hell was apparently immediately after he had risen from the dead and before his post-resurrection appearances.

Colossians 2:14-15 does not explicitly refer to the descent to hell, but it seems to allude to it.

God erased the record of our debt brought against us by his legal demands. This record stood against us, but he took it away by nailing it to the cross. 15After disarming the rulers and authorities, he made a public display of them by triumphing over them in Christ.

The time is the aftermath of Jesus’s death, by which he had crushed the power of Satan. The words triumphing over them picture the victory parade of a Roman general. Rulers and authorities are terms used in Ephesians 6:10 to refer to Satan and the evil angels.

Ephesians 4:9 has traditionally been understood as another allusion to the descent to hell.

Now what does it mean when it says, “he ascended,” other than that he also had descended to the lower parts, namely, the earth?

As translated in the EHV, this passage does not refer to Jesus’ descent to hell, but to Jesus’ descent to the earth or to the grave when he died to be our Savior. A literal rendering of the Greek, however, is to the lowest parts of the earth. Some of the church fathers understood this as a reference to hell, which was seen as being under the earth.  Others have understood the term simply as a reference to the earth itself. The EHV understands the genitive of the earth as the so-called explanatory genitive, “the lowest parts, namely, the earth.” It seems safest to leave this passage out of the definition of the teaching about the descent to hell.

We believe that Jesus’ descent to hell was a declaration of victory. There are other explanations that cannot be reconciled with Scripture.

  1. Jesus descended to hell to suffer. We cannot accept this view because when Jesus died, the payment for sin was complete, as he himself declared, “It is finished” (John 19:30). No additional payment was possible or necessary.

  2. Jesus descended to the underworld to rescue the Old Testament believers who had been kept in storage there. The rationale for this belief was the mistaken idea that Old Testament believers could not enter heaven until Jesus paid for their sins. As believers, they could not be put into hell, so there must have been someplace in between heaven and hell to hold them temporarily. That place was called the limbo of the fathers. Limbo was a sort of suburb of hell (limbo means edge). The people in limbo did not enjoy the beatific vision of heaven, but they did not suffer the agony of hell. Jesus’ rescue mission was called the harrowing (plundering) of hell.

    This view is the view of the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, beginning with many of the Church Fathers. It has some affinity to the doctrine of purgatory, and it appeals to some liberal theologians (at least as a figurative interpretation) since it indicates that hell is not final. The reason that this view is wrong is that it implies that the Old Testament believers did not have real forgiveness of sins. Both Psalm 32 and Romans 4 teach that the faith and forgiveness of Abraham and David and our faith and forgiveness are essentially the same. The Old Testament believers were, so to speak, saved on God’s credit card. They were credited with the payment and the results of the cross before the payment was made. Yes, until Christ’s death, Satan could plausibly claim that the Lord was not a holy God if he had let a murderer and adulterer like David into heaven. Satan’s whining, however, is silenced by the resurrection of Christ. See Romans 3:23-26 and Revelation 12:10.

    Another problem with this view is that it has Christ declaring victory before his resurrection, which was the seal of his victory.

  3. Jesus did not descend to hell. This is the view of Calvin, most Reformed theologians, and many Evangelicals. It does not seem that Calvin had any thought of removing the descent from the Apostles Creed (he just understood it in a figurative sense). It is not possible, however, to interpret the descent as a reference to Jesus’ suffering on earth or to his burial, because the Creed cites the descent as a separate article after Jesus' burial. Some Evangelicals do not recite the words about the descent into hell when they recite the Creed. They have a good argument for dismissing Ephesians 3 from the discussion of the descent, but the clear wording of 1 Peter 3 is not so easily dismissed.[1] If the visit to the spirits in prison does not refer to hell, what is it describing?

Scripture says very little about Jesus’ descent to hell. The one clear statement is that after he was alive, he descended to hell and proclaimed his victory. He did this as the God-Man. Beyond this, there is little to say. When a controversy about the nature of Jesus’ descent arose after the Reformation, the Formula of Concord responded with this statement:

There should be no disputation concerning it, but it should be believed and taught only in the simplest manner. How this occurred we should not curiously investigate, but reserve until the other world, where not only this mystery, but also still others will be revealed, which we here simply believe and cannot comprehend with blind reason. May the Holy Spirit guide us with the Word in the truths of Christ’s descent to hell.

This is good advice.

[1] Questions have been raised about the positioning of the article on the descent to hell in the Apostles Creed. The article about the descent comes after the article about the burial but before the article about the resurrection. This order is certainly open to the misunderstanding that Jesus went to hell before he was alive again, and it is open to the misunderstanding that Jesus went to “hell” to rescue Adam and Eve, Abraham, and other believers. But notice that the Creed does not offer any explanation of the descent. It simply confesses the fact of the descent without adding any interpretation. The explanation most often offered by people who believe in both Jesus’ descent and his resurrection is the one offered above. Jesus’ first stop after his body was made alive (some call this vivification) was his victory parade in hell. After this, he began his resurrection appearances on earth, which are the focus of all the resurrection accounts.