Anyone who has studied 1 Peter 3:18-22 understands that it’s a challenging passage of Scripture to exegete and teach. There are some rather difficult passages to unpack and yet, there is one specific line in that section of verses that has caused many people to embrace a false teaching about Jesus.
Peter writes, “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.” Did Jesus go to hell?
The Death of Christ Was Sufficient
A popular heresy the circulates from heretic to heretic is that Jesus’ death on the cross was insufficient, so when Jesus died, he had to go to hell and suffer for three days before his resurrection. According to the Roman Catholic Church’s catechism, Jesus went to hell:
Jesus “descended into the lower parts of the earth. He who descended is he who also ascended far above all the heavens.” The Apostles’ Creed confesses in the same article Christ’s descent into hell and his Resurrection from the dead on the third day, because in his Passover it was precisely out of the depths of death that he made life spring forth. 
Some renderings of the Apostle’s Creed says that Jesus “descended into hell” while others revise it to say Jesus “descended to the dead.” First of all, we must remember that the Apostle’s Creed wasn’t written by the apostles and while it serves as a summary of biblical truth, it isn’t holy Scripture. It’s also likely that some later revision altered the original to reflect a descent into hell. Either way, it’s not part of the biblical canon and should not serve as a cross reference of biblical truth when studying this subject.
Popular charismatic preacher and a modern day false prophet, Joyce Meyer, teaches that Jesus suffered for our sins in hell. She states the following:
He became our sacrifice and died on the cross. He did not stay dead. He was in the grave three days. During that time he entered hell, where you and I deserve to go (legally) because of our sin. He paid the price there. 
Following the same heretical path, Joel Osteen makes the following statement about Jesus going to hell. Interestingly enough, Osteen avoids the subject of hell in his teaching, but is willing to teach that Jesus went there. Notice what he says:
The Bible indicates that for three days, Jesus went into the very depths of hell. Right into the enemy’s own territory. And He did battle with Satan face to face. Can you imagine what a show down that was? It was good vs. evil. Right vs. wrong. Holiness vs. filth. Here the two most powerful forces in the universe have come together to do battle for the first time in history. But thank God. The Bible says Satan was no match for our Champion. This was no contest. Jesus crushed Satan’s head with His foot. He bruised his head. And He once and for all, forever defeated and dethroned and demoralized our enemy. 
What does the Bible say about Jesus’ death? Was it really insufficient? Was it necessary for Jesus to go to hell and suffer more under God’s wrath? According to Romans 3:25, Jesus’ blood served as the propitiation and satisfied the Father. That same truth is taught in 1 John 2:1-2. The most powerful verse that lays to rest the idea that God was not satisfied with Jesus’ death alone and required him to do more punishment in hell is found in Jesus’ own words from the cross in John 19:30 as John records the words of Jesus, “When Jesus had received the sour wine, he said, ‘It is finished,’ and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.”
What exactly was finished? It’s clearly a reference to the work of atonement that Jesus accomplished in his death. To suggest that Jesus had to descend into hell and suffer more is simply a heretical addition to the gospel that must be rejected.
Jesus’ Promise from the Cross
The Biblical text teaches that Jesus died on the cross for the sins of his people (John 10:11). It never teaches that Jesus went to hell for the sins of his people. That’s a foreign concept to the gospel.
When Jesus was dying on the cross, he was hanging between two criminals. As Jesus was suffering under God’s wrath (Isaiah 53:10), one of the criminals criticized and railed upon him saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us” (Luke 23:39)! However, one of the criminals embraced Jesus and was saved. He confessed his sin and called out to Christ (Luke 23:40-42). It’s essentially the only death bed conversion that we see in Scripture. Jesus made a promise to this criminal that echoes throughout the ages as a glorious promise of victory for all those who call upon the name of the Lord. Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43).
Jesus didn’t say, “I will be with you in paradise after I go to hell for three days.” Jesus made it clear that when he left that cross, He went directly into the presence of the Father—into Paradise. The criminal, now redeemed by Jesus’ blood, would join him. This is a glorious truth that dispels the false teaching of Jesus going into hell.
The Meaning of 1 Peter 3:18-19
What exactly did Peter mean when he referred to Jesus going to preach to the spirits in prison? Martin Luther admitted, “A wonderful text is this, and a more obscure passage perhaps than any other in the New Testament, so that I do not know for a certainty just what Peter means.”  The main interpretations are as follows:
- Peter was referring to the preaching of Noah and those who perished in the flood while they were imprisoned in their human depravity.
- Jesus was proclaiming victory to the Old Testament saints who died and were liberated by Christ between his death and resurrection.
- Jesus preached to the people who perished during Noah’s flood by descending to hell and offering them an opportunity to repent and be saved. This is postmortem salvation and must be rejected.
- Jesus proclaimed victory and judgment over the evil angels who had engaged in sexual relations with women and were imprisoned due to their sin (Gen. 6:1-4).
The key that unlocks the meaning which fits into harmony with the greater body of biblical teaching is Peter’s reference to Noah’s day. Peter says:
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.
As is the case when every sermon is preached, it’s not the preacher who communicates his own ideas to the people in the audience. It’s God himself. The preacher is the herald who serves as his representative, but it’s God who is communicating the truth. When Noah preached to the people—it was Jesus who was preaching to the people through Noah, by the Holy Spirit.
Admittedly this is a difficult passage, but the reference to Noah’s day is key and one that I believe sufficiently points us to the meaning of the text. Jesus had no need to go to hell to proclaim victory to angels. His resurrection would serve as the proof that all beings will bow before Christ and confess him as Lord (Philippians 2:5-11). Jesus’ death on the cross was sufficient to satisfy holy justice and to redeem fallen sinners. Therefore, when Jesus died, he ascended to the Father and would remain there until his bodily resurrection on the third day.
Imagine the thrill of the angels when Jesus returned after his bodily resurrection to assume the throne in human flesh!
- Catechism of the Catholic Church, 631.
- Joyce Meyer, The Most Important Decision You’ll Ever Make, (second printing, 1993), 35
- Joel Osteen, Easter service message at Lakewood Church, Sermon #CS_002 – 4-23-00, April 23, 2000, transcript formerly online at http://www.lakewood.cc/sermons/cs_002.htm, transcript archived online at http://web.archive.org/web/20040408215244/http://www.lakewood.cc/sermons/cs_002.htm, retrieved August 12, 2019; cf. Joel Osteen, Easter service message 2004 on Discover the Champion in You program, Trinity Broadcasting Network, April 26, 2004).
- Martin Luther, Commentary on Peter & Jude, 166.
Several years ago, The Shack by William Young made headlines because of his use of “God” as a character in his story that did not align with the clear teachings of the Bible. It likewise denied key doctrines such as hell and the substitutionary death of Jesus on the cross. When William Young was asked during an interview if he believes that Jesus Christ was the punishment for sin and a sacrifice on the cross, he responded by asking, “Uhuh…by who?” The man conducting the interview said, “By the Father.” Young responded, “Why would the Father punish His Son?”
Why was the death of Jesus on the cross significant? What made his death stand out over the multitudes of others who were put to death on the wooden cross that was known as “the infamous stake” among the Romans?
The Wrath of God was Satisfied
Although the cross has become the iconic symbol for Christianity and many people wear it as a piece of jewelry, for the first century Jew the cross was nothing more than a symbol of death. Everyone knew that the Roman cross was a sure death penalty with zero possibility of survival. The Phoenicians, Carthaginians, and Egyptians had all practiced torture and death penalty with the use of a cross, but it was the Romans who perfected it.
Some seven centuries before the birth of Jesus, Isaiah, the greatest prophet of the Old Testament days of Israel, penned these words:
Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush him; he has put him to grief (Is. 53:10).
For many skeptics, the scene of the cross is nothing more than cosmic child abuse. They cannot imagine how a good and loving God could put his own Son to death in such a ruthless manner. Famed atheist Richard Dawkins writes the following:
The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully. 
However, the reason why the death of Jesus on the cross doesn’t make sense to atheists like Dawkins is because they have an improper understanding of the wrath of God as connected to the justice of God and the need for holy justice to be perfectly satisfied. Since humans are all guilty of sin (Rom. 3:23), there is no means of reconciliation to God outside of a perfect sacrifice.
The sacrifice of bulls and goats is insufficient to take away all of the sins of all of God’s people—which brings us to the reality that such a dilemma required the death of God’s Son as a substitute for sinners. J.C. Ryle writes, “The sufferings described in it [the crucifixion] would fill our minds with mingled horror and compassion if they had been inflicted on one who was only a man like ourselves. But when we reflect that the sufferer was the eternal Son of God, we are lost in wonder and amazement.” 
Sinners Were Reconciled to God
When we celebrate Good Fridayas Christians—it’s not because we enjoy the image of Jesus dying on the Romans’ infamous stake. The picture of Jesus’ butchered body nailed to a cruel cross on a hillside is hardly a joyful image. The reason Good Fridayis so good is because of what actually happened on that day.
The grand truths related to our salvation such as justification, sanctification, and glorification—are all possible because of the death of Jesus in our place. Without Jesus’ substitutionary death, we would never be welcomed in God’s sight. Instead, he would look upon us as enemies. Peter writes these words to encourage believers who were struggling under intense pressures and persecution, “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” (1 Pet. 3:18). Isaac Watts described the death of Jesus with eloquent precision:
Alas, and did my Saviour bleed?
And did my Sov’reign die?
Would He devote that sacred head
For such a worm as I?
As Christ died on the cross in our place, he became a curse for us (Gal. 3:13) in order that he might bring peace between guilty sinners and our sovereign God (1 John 2:1-2). As Jesus died on the cross, while in immense pain and agony, he cried out, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). As Peter made clear, Jesus’ death was necessary for the great exchange—where he would receive our sins and where we would receive his righteousness (1 Pet. 2:24). As the scene of Jesus’ crucifixion reached its culmination with darkness covering the sky in the middle of the day—Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “It is finished” (John 19:30)! This was the announcement that every one of the sins of all of God’s people were paid for in the suffering death of Jesus.
Through the death of Jesus, we are brought near to God and our position changes. We are no longer enemies of God! Jerry Bridges observes the following about the cross of Jesus:
It is at the cross where God’s Law and God’s grace are both most brilliantly displayed, where His justice and His mercy are both glorified. But it is also at the cross where we are most humbled. It is at the cross where we admit to God and to ourselves that there is absolutely nothing we can do to earn or merit our salvation. 
- Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion,(London: Bantam Press, 2006), 51
- J.C. Ryle, Mark (Expository Thoughts on the Gospels), (Wheaton: Crossway, 1993).
- Jerry Bridges, The Gospel for Real Life: Turn to the Liberating Power of the Cross…Every Day, (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2003).
We often cling to phrases, while considering Jesus’ death, that say, “When he was on the cross, I was on his mind.” That is true to a degree, but we must not forget that when Jesus was on the cross, the Father was on his mind. He came to do the will of his Father. Therefore, in the truest sense, we can say that God satisfied God. In other words, Jesus died for God. Our natural mind often drives us to the center of the story of redemption, when in reality the whole story of redemption is centered on God.
Jesus Died for God as Planned
One of the key passages of Scripture that points to the preplanned redemption mission is in a sermon preached by Peter. At Pentecost, as Peter lifts up Christ as the Messiah before a Jewish audience, he drives to the reality that the cross was both murder and the glorious plan of our Triune God that spans back before the foundation of the world. Peter thunders these words:
this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men (Acts 2:23).
Years ago, I recall seeing the movie, “Passion of the Christ.” Following the film’s release, many people spoke of how they were driven to tears as they considered the horrific betrayal and crucifixion. While we must acknowledge the weight of such aspects of the death of Christ, we must balance the reality that it was not a sudden turn of events for Jesus. He had been warning his disciples all the way up to the cross that he was leaving (John 14:1-6) and that he would be put to death and be resurrected from the dead (John 2:19).
At this exact same time, we must never minimize the reality of pain and discouragement in Jesus’ death. When the text of Isaiah 53:10 says that the LORD crushed Jesus, that’s exactly what happened. There was nothing pleasant about the Roman cross, and to add the crushing wrath of the Father on top of it made it that much worse. Jesus experienced the totality of pain and discomfort as a human being. While being God, he was also man and his flesh was brutally murdered as the preordained blueprint of God’s redemptive rescue mission. In short, Jesus died as the fulfillment of the Trinitarian plan of redemption.
Jesus Died for God as a Substitutionary Sacrifice
Our culture often enjoys the lighter side of theology. That’s apparent in everything from the songs that we sing in church to the bumper stickers that appear on automobiles. People in general enjoy hearing that God loved them so much that he sent his Son to die for them on the cross. While that is true, we must never forget that Jesus was dying on the cross for God. Sin belittles the glory of God, and the death of Jesus exalts the glory of God to its proper level in the face of sinful humanity. As the second Person of the Trinity, Jesus was dying for God—in order to fulfill the Father’s will. John the apostle records these words of Jesus:
All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out. For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me (John 6:37–38).
When Jesus died on the cross, he was giving his life for the sheep (John 10:11). As the angel spoke to Joseph from the beginning, Jesus came to save his people from their sins (Matt. 1:21). Therefore, as Jesus died on the cross, he was dying in the very place of every one that the Father gave to him (John 6:37). While Jesus was dying on the cross for sinners, he was dying on the cross for God—in the place of sinners.
We must remember that Jesus was dying for God, in the place of sinners, in oder to satisfy God (1 John 2:1-2) which would ultimately result in the satisfaction and joy of salvation for all who believe (Rom. 10:13; ). When we talk about the death of Jesus, we should not be driven by sentimentalism and emotionalism. We should be driven to joy and worship as we are driven by the Spirit through clear application of what the Bible says. Jesus died for God, but the question remains, did Jesus die for you? Can you say, Jesus died for me?
I want to urge you to see yourself as a sinner who has transgressed God’s law and positioned yourself against God. He did not owe you anything nor was he forced to love anyone. However, he has chosen to demonstrate love and mercy to countless sinners. Come to the point to where you see yourself beneath God’s wrath and deserving of holy justice. See the death of Jesus as the fulfillment of God’s plan that settles the account for guilty sinners. See yourself there in this equation and respond in repentance of your sin and faith that Jesus’ death was poured out for God—in your place. Call upon the Lord and you will be saved.
How many songs do you know that ascribe beauty to the cross of Jesus? There are many songs that use the adjective “wonderful” in some form or another to describe the cross of Christ. Isaac Watts penned, “When I survey the wondrous cross.” In the song, he writes these words:
When I survey the wondrous cross
On which the Prince of glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss,
And pour contempt on all my pride.
When was the last time you were singing about the wondrous cross and paused to ask yourself why something so harsh could be considered so wonderful? The words wonderful and cross don’t seem to go in the same sentence naturally, and that points to the heart of the gospel (1 Pet. 2:24).
The Ignominious Cross
The Roman cross was an instrument of execution. To die on the Roman cross was by far the most shameful way to die. It was greatly despised by people in Jesus’ day and greatly feared. The Romans referred to the cross as “the infamous stake.” Every single movement while on the cross would send shocking waves of pain through the body. In order to breathe, the person nailed to the cross would press with his feet and move the body upward to inhale and then back down to exhale. That pattern would result in terrible pain.
Beyond the physical pain, execution by way of the Roman cross would deliver a heavy blow of emotional stress and pride crushing shame. As people watched the criminal hanging on a cross beam naked and exposed—words of derision would be hurled upward like spears. The Roman soldiers were not hospice nurses committed to making criminals comfortable. They were executioners who found joy in watching people suffer.
The Wonderful Cross
The only way we can describe the cross of Jesus as a wonderful thing is to look at the whole story of what was being accomplished on that horrid instrument of suffering and shame. Seven centuries before Jesus was born in Bethlehem, a prophet wrote these words, “Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush him; he has put him to grief; when his soul makes an offering for guilt, he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days; the will of the LORD shall prosper in his hand” (Is. 53:10). As horrible as the cross was, it was the plan of God to save sinners. It pleased the LORD to crush his own Son on the cross.
As we read in Psalm 22:1, we find these familiar words, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” As Jesus died on the cross, he was quoting Psalm 22 in his anguish and pain. Yet, we read on in the New Testament, and we find words of hope, words of light, words of salvation. For instance, in 1 Peter 2:24, we find these glorious words written by Peter to describe what was accomplished on the cross:
He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed.
Unlike the common criminal of the day, as Jesus was put to death, he didn’t take any of his own sins to the cross. He took the sins of his people on himself as he was nailed there as the lamb of God (John 1:29). It’s through Jesus’ death and suffering that we find hope and healing from the penalty of our sins. Jesus suffered in our place as he received the crushing blow of the Father’s wrath. Paul, writing to the church at Philippi, said these words:
Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil 2:5-11).
Jesus, in his humanity died, but not just any death. Notice the language of Paul as he emphasized the fact that Jesus was obedient to death—even death on a cross. The second Person of the Trinity took upon human flesh and died in the most painful and shameful way during his day—the Roman cross. Yet, it was a glorious scene of God’s saving grace. The drama is intense, but the outcome is a wonderful thing to behold as Jesus saves his people from their sins (Matt. 1:21). J.C. Ryle writes,
The sufferings described in it [the crucifixion] would fill our minds with mingled horror and compassion if they had been inflicted on one who was only a man like ourselves. But when we reflect that the sufferer was the eternal Son of God, we are lost in wonder and amazement.
Only the cross of Jesus could be described as a wondrous cross.
The providence of God is a beautiful doctrine. It can be overwhelming to study and at the same time a comfort to your soul in the midst of difficult circumstances. Have you paused to consider the way God interacts with creation? God is not the “clock maker” who creates and then stands back to gaze upon His work from afar. Instead, God is interested and involved with every minuscule aspect of His creation. What this means is that God is in the details of life and eternity.
On this day, April 3rd, in AD 33, Jesus of Nazareth was brutally murdered on a Roman cross under false charges. To be more specific, 1,982 years ago today, the Son of God was slain on a hill called Calvary. The charge was blasphemy, but His miracles proved otherwise. What greater miracle than the resurrection could prove the deity of Jesus? The virgin birth, the calming of the raging sea, and raising Lazarus from the dead were all mind blowing miracles, but the resurrection was the clincher. When the religious establishment wanted to silence Jesus, they killed Him. However, by killing Jesus, they became part of the validation process of Jesus’ deity because on Sunday morning Jesus rose from the dead.
The gloomy account of the crucifixion is an ignominious picture of human depravity. It hardly seems right to call this day, “Good Friday” seeing the darkness and depth of wickedness surrounding Jesus’ crucifixion. The Roman crucifixion was a horrible and painful way to die. The Romans had perfected the art of execution, and from the nails to the eventual suffocation under the bright sunlight, it was an utterly painful way to die. The religious establishment of Jesus’ day was angered with His preaching and their anger eventually culminated with Jesus’ death upon the cross. Although the movies often make it appear that Jesus’ death an unplanned and unfortunate set of circumstances, the Bible reveals quite the opposite. While wicked men crucified Jesus on the cross, it was the providence of God that directed human affairs to fulfill the will of God.
Wayne Grudem, in his Systematic Theology book explains the doctrine of providence in the following way:
God is continually involved with all created things in such a way that he (1) keeps them existing and maintaining the properties with which he created them; (2) cooperates with created things in every action, directing their distinctive properties to cause them to act as they do; and (3) directs them to fulfill his purposes.
Behind the dark veil of the murder of Jesus of Nazareth, there was a divine purpose at work. This divine purpose was orchestrated by the providence of God as He directs the affairs of human history. In one sense, as these men were nailing Jesus to the cross, God the Father was nailing Jesus to the cross. That may seem like a strange thing to say, but consider the words of the prophecy of Isaiah in Isaiah 53:10 – “Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush him; he has put him to grief.” The act of Jesus’ crucifixion was simultaneously an act of lawless murder and divine salvation. Through the providence of God, which is at times mysterious to us, God was working out the evil intentions of the Jews through His own intent of the cross to save sinners through His Son – the lamb of God (John 1:29).
In a similar way we see this take place in the book of Genesis when the brothers of Joseph sold him off into slavery. Their actions were evil. However, we have two specific verses that point to God’s providence that was at work in the entire story of Joseph’s slavery. In Genesis 45:5, Joseph said, “And now do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life.” Joseph places the focus upon God’s will as opposed to the evil sin of his brothers. Once again, in Genesis 50:20, Joseph said, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.” In a way that cannot be overlooked, Joseph confirmed that his brothers had an evil intention, but God had an intention as well. While God’s intent was good, it was nevertheless an intent.
As we examine the first sermon of the Christian church, we see Peter saying the exact same thing about the crucifixion of Jesus. In Acts 2:22-23, we read:
“Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know— this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.
We must note the powerful words of Peter. He called the death of Jesus the “definite plan and foreknowledge of God.” He went on to say that Jesus was crucified and killed by lawless men. At the exact same time that lawless men were killing Jesus, it was God’s decree and definite plan. God didn’t merely look through time to discover it. God planned the bloody cross in order to accomplish His saving mission for guilty sinners.
As we ponder the darkness of this day in human history, let us see the light of God’s divine providence shining to us from the cross. God had a plan! As the hymn writer William Cowper reminds us, God plants His footsteps in the sea and rides upon the storm. He is in complete control, and behind that frowning providence He often hides a smiling face. Let us see the light of God’s providence and remember that Sunday is coming! Only in the resurrection could this dark day be referred to as “Good Friday.”
William Cowper – God Moves in a Mysterious Way
- God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform;
He plants His footsteps in the sea
And rides upon the storm.
- Deep in unfathomable mines
Of never failing skill
He treasures up His bright designs
And works His sov’reign will.
- Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take;
The clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy and shall break
In blessings on your head.
- Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
But trust Him for His grace;
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face.
- His purposes will ripen fast,
Unfolding every hour;
The bud may have a bitter taste,
But sweet will be the flow’r.
- Blind unbelief is sure to err
And scan His work in vain;
God is His own interpreter,
And He will make it plain.