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.
In our postmodern culture that plays by the tolerance rules of modern times, we have been taught to be “nice” and to pursue happiness at all costs. After all, if we can’t say anything nice, we shouldn’t say anything at all. For the majority of people within our urbane culture, hell is the sort of topic that is not discussed in the local coffee shop nor is it the center of attention in most Sunday sermons. Let’s face it—hell is not relevant to a sophisticated culture. But, why has hell become irrelevant?
Our Culture Loves Itself To Death
It is not excuse that our culture is filled with self-love. We enjoy making much of our amusements and entertainment is almost viewed as a basic human right in our culture. We have trivia shows, all sorts of game shows, and even shows that spotlight other people’s funny videos designed to keep us laughing. Neil Postman, in his classic work, Amusing Ourselves To Death, observes the following:
Everything in our background has prepared us to know and resist a prison when the gates begin to close around us . . . But what if there are no cries of anguish to be heard? Who is prepared to take arms against a sea of amusements? To whom do we complain, and when, and in what tone of voice, when serious discourse dissolves into giggles? What is the antidote to a culture’s being drained by laughter? 
Just fifty years ago, funeral directors anticipated lengthy mourning periods for family gatherings at the funeral home. Today, the typical funeral is over from start to finish within a couple of hours. Historically speaking, after the death of a loved one, families would mourn for days or weeks, but today’s culture is quick to acknowledge the death—but families are quick to jump right back into the typical fast-paced ruts of life immediately afterwards. Nothing can stop entertainment—not even death!
Within a culture of entertainment, not very much is going to be said about hell. In fact, even when people die who weren’t religious and didn’t have a life committed to Christ—it’s common to hear their close friends and family reassuring everyone that their loved one is in a better place now. Heaven is real, but hell has been relegated to a mythological land fit for the story books. The culture that loves entertainment hates hell and such a culture supports the idea of universalism—where everyone dies and goes to the great Disney World in the sky. For that reason, hell has become irrelevant within our entertainment saturated culture.
Preachers Fear Man
The trap of many ministers is the fear of man. We live in an age of success where pastors have been relegated to the position of campaign manager or evangelical fundraiser for the success of ministries and expansion projects for the church campus. Therefore, sermons filled with the intense heat of a literal hell don’t exactly fit the profile of a man who is looking to raise funds for ministry incentives. Ministers who approach the pulpit with that mindset will likely avoid sequential expository preaching which would force them to deal with the doctrine of hell. For that reason, hell is irrelevant in most local church ministries.
When most ministers are hired by a congregation, they’re often asked something about a vision for their church. The expectation is that the minister will lead the church to golden years of growth and success, so for a minister to say anything in the pulpit that doesn’t make people happy or that may lead prospective members out the door dissatisfied is often avoided like the plague. Just a quick consideration of the Bible’s language on hell is not exactly fitting with the typical sermon series on happiness.
Consider the terms used in Scripture to describe the place of hell:
Beyond specific references to hell, the Bible likewise uses other references in a more indirect manner to describe the judgment of God upon sinners. Such references include:
The great question for preachers to consider is whether they fear man or God? Will the minister of the Word actually minister the Word to the congregation—including the whole counsel of God’s Word? Joel Beeke observes:
Modern pastors who do not preach on hell may fear the consequences of preaching on such an offensive topic on a Sunday morning. Vocal critics might fault a minister for being too negative. Visitors shopping for a church might find the topic a colossal turn-off. Regardless, God has called us to declare “all the counsel of God” (Acts 20:27) concerning the way of salvation. 
The greatest example for modern preachers is none other than Jesus Christ in his earthly ministry. He declared more about hell than he did about heaven, and yet who among us holds the position that he wasn’t filled with love for the people? The pastor who loves the people will indeed warn the people of a real hell and point them to a real Savior—Christ the Lord.
One-Dimensional View of God
A common mistake when thinking of God is to manufacture a god of your own imagination and call it “God” when in reality your idea of God is not in line with his self-revelation in Holy Scripture. This is the way culture seeks to define God. Sadly, it’s the way many Sunday school classes and Sunday sermons define God as well.
It’s not uncommon to hear people talk about the God of the Old Testament in radical contrast to the God of the New Testament. It was a famous skeptic in history, Bertrand Russell, who wrote in his book Why I’m Not a Christian that Jesus’s teaching on hell is “the one profound defect in Christ’s character.” The one-dimensional view of God is one that tragically separates the love of God from the wrath of God or even views God’s wrath as a defect. We must not forget that Jesus not only preached on hell, but Jesus created hell. In like manner, Jesus was not absent and disconnected when hell was raining down from heaven upon Sodom and Gomorrah.
Hell is irrelevant to a people who focus merely upon the “God of love” and see him as the New Testament meek and mild God of acceptance. Not only is that a gross misrepresentation of God, it’s a tragic neglect of God’s character to suggest that we must separate hell from the God who is love. In fact, God loves his holiness so much that he created hell. The love of God for sinners is demonstrated in a hellish assault upon his own Son on the cross in order to satisfy the holy demands of the law and to pay for our sin (Rom. 5:8; 8:1-4; 1 Peter 2:24; Is. 53:10).
Our religion becomes irrelevant as we seek to make hell irrelevant. Such an attempt undermines the gravity of our sin and the holiness of God.
- Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, (New York: Penguin, 2006), 156.
- Joel Beeke, Encouragement for Today’s Pastors: Help from the Puritans, (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2013), 179.
In today’s chipper church growth culture, hell has been forgotten. It’s common to hear preaching about things that make us happy, subjects that bring delight, and sermons that result in joy. Hell doesn’t do any of that—and for that reason, hell is often neglected, overlooked, and forgotten by many pastors. Why is this such a tragedy?
People Forget Hell In Pursuit of Success
In many ways, today’s sophisticated evangelical church culture is in constant pursuit of success, and hell doesn’t appear sophisticated nor does it deliver success. If the modern church today is running on the fuel of pragmatism, the subject of hellfire must be avoided like the black plague.
Joel Osteen, in an interview on a special Easter edition of CBS Sunday Morning said, “They already feel guilty enough. They’re not doing what they should, raising their kids—we can all find reasons. So I want them to come to Lakewood or our meetings and be lifted up, to say, ‘You know what? I may not be perfect, but I’m moving forward. I’m doing better.’ And I think that motivates you to do better.”
In a tragic move toward being “happy,” people like Joel Osteen avoid the reality of hell and end up with a temporal joy that will fade away in due season rather than the eternal joy that is rooted in the person and work of Jesus Christ. If you embrace Jesus, you must embrace Jesus’ teaching on hell as well.
Forgetting the Message of Hell Diminishes the Glory of Heaven
In the final days of his life as he was preparing to leave this world, Robert Murray M’Cheyne’s preaching became stronger. In his final days, he preached with greater zeal about the reality of hell. The glory of heaven was before him, but he never could escape the horrific reality of hell for the unconverted. In his final nine months, M’Cheyne preached at least four sermons on hell to his own congregation. His final sermon from the pulpit of Andrew Bonar was described as “a sermon so solemn that one said it was like a blast of the trumpet that would awaken the dead.'”
One of the reasons that M’Cheyne preached about the awful reality of hell was based on the glorious reality of heaven. The love of Christ and the fear of God compelled him to preach on the subject repeatedly as he prepared to enter glory. If everyone who dies goes to heaven, as our secular culture seems to believe, there isn’t much reason at all to think or preach on the subject of hell.
Shame for Hell Results in Shame for the True Gospel
To our culture, hell is a shameful subject. Consider the terms used in Scripture to describe the place of damnation:
- Matthew 5:22 – “hell fire”
- Matthew 8:12 – “outer darkness” and “weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
- Matthew 22:13 – “outer darkness” and “weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
- Luke 13:28 – “weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
- Mark 9:44-48 – Three times the Bible mentions “worm dies not” and “fire is not quenched.”
- Mark 9:47 – “hell fire”
- Revelation 20:14 – “lake of fire”
Beyond specific references to hell, the Bible likewise uses other references in a more indirect manner to describe the judgment of God upon sinners. Such references include:
- Pit (2 Pet. 2:4).
- Falling into the hands of the living God (Heb. 10:31).
- Second death (Rev. 20:14).
- Blackness and darkness forever (Jude 13).
When hell is minimized, it’s necessary to minimize the cross as well. To preach on the substitutionary sacrifice of Jesus on the cross without a healthy proclamation of the doctrine of hell simply doesn’t make sense. Some time back, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) contacted Stuart Townend and Keith Getty with a request to print an altered version of the hymn, “In Christ Alone.” They were seeking permission to change the text from, “Till on that cross as Jesus died/the wrath of God was satisfied” to “Till on that cross as Jesus died/the love of God was magnified.”
The request was denied and as a result, the hymn was banned from their hymnal. The representative, Mary Louise Bringle, from the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) explained:
The song has been removed from our contents list, with deep regret over losing its otherwise poignant and powerful witness. The “view that the cross is primarily about God’s need to assuage God’s anger” would have a negative effect on the hymnal’s ability to form the faith of coming generations, and it would do a disservice to this educational mission.
We’re living in strange days in the modern evangelical church where people are trying to clean up the bloody cross and silence the message of hell. The fact that God judged His Son and continues to judge sinners is unacceptable.
Before you try forgetting hell, you should remember that in Jesus’ day, He preached far more about the judgment of God than He did about the glory of heaven. As we draw closer to heaven it should break our hearts that more people are not coming with us. They must hear the truth about the coming judgment of God. Our culture would rather read books titled, Heaven Is For Real, while completely forgetting that hell is too.
To think earnestly of hell for more than five minutes would bring a person to their knees. Hell is a horrible subject, but one worthy of our attention. When you think of the population of hell, what faces do you see? Have you ever considered the reality that many ministers will spend eternity under the wrath of God? It’s not only possible for a minister to go to hell, but it’s a reality that many ministers will hear the fearful words, “I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness” (Matt. 7:23).
In Matthew 7:15-20, we see a clear warning about the pervasive attack of false teachers. Jesus said, “Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matt. 7:19). According to Revelation 22:18, those who persist in their false teaching will experience plagues of God’s eternal wrath. Paul passionately guarded the door of the church in Galatia that he scolded the church for allowing those who contradicted the true gospel. He writes, “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed” (Gal. 1:8). The word “accursed” used by Paul there is the Greek term “ἀνάθεμα” literally meaning – damned by God (damned to hell). But, what about those who are earnest in their beliefs, but earnestly wrong?
John Wesley: When John and Charles Wesley went to Oxford to study, they were serious young men. They were not living open and immoral lives. They were so serious, they formed a club known as the “Holy Club” where they would covenant together to live sober lives before the Lord and to give themselves to the study of God’s Word. The club would grow to include several others and John would eventually become their leader. These men would be given the derisive title, “Methodist” because of their methods of strictness in God’s Word.
After returning to England after ministering in Georgia, John Wesley wrote of his experience in Georgia, “I went to America to convert the Indians; but, oh, who shall convert me?”  He would soon thereafter write, ““I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”  Although often debated, it seems that Wesley was not converted until after his mission in Georgia ended. He had ministered the gospel, but he was unconverted.
Martin Luther: On July 2nd 1505, as Martin Luther was making his way home from law school, he was caught in a thunderstorm and with a nearby thundering bolt of lightening, Luther was brought immediately to the ground. He cried out in fear, “Help me, St. Anne; I will become a monk” He kept his word and entered the monastery. He was 21 years old when he became an Augustinian Monk. In 1507 he was ordained to the priesthood. On October 19th, 1512, Luther received his Doctor’s degree in theology, and Staupitz turned over to him the chair in Biblical Theology at the University of Wittenberg.
Luther was steeped in religion, was capable in theology, and had progressed nicely within the Roman Catholic system, but Martin Luther was not yet a Christian. He was full of man-centered religion, and was on his way to hell. When lecturing on the Psalms in 1518, Luther was being confronted with the true gospel. He writes:
I had indeed been captivated with an extraordinary ardor for understanding Paul in the Epistle to the Romans. But up till then it was … a single word in Chapter 1 [:17], ‘In it the righteousness of God is revealed,’ that had stood in my way. For I hated that word ‘righteousness of God,’ which according to the use and custom of all the teachers, I had been taught to understand philosophically regarding the formal or active righteousness, as they called it, with which God is righteous and punishes the unrighteous sinner.
Though I lived as a monk without reproach, I felt that I was a sinner before God with an extremely disturbed conscience. I could not believe that he was placated by my satisfaction. I did not love, yes, I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners, and secretly, if not blasphemously, certainly murmuring greatly, I was angry with God, and said, “As if, indeed, it is not enough, that miserable sinners, eternally lost through original sin, are crushed by every kind of calamity by the law of the decalogue, without having God add pain to pain by the gospel and also by the gospel threatening us with his righteous wrath!” Thus I raged with a fierce and trouble conscience. Nevertheless, I beat importunately upon Paul at that place, most ardently desiring to know what St. Paul wanted.
At last, by the mercy of God, meditating day and night, I gave heed to the context of the words, namely, “In it righteousness of God is revealed, as it is written, “He who through faith is righteous shall live.” There I began to understand [that] the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous lives by a gift of God, namely by faith. And this is the meaning: the righteousness of God is revealed by the gospel, namely, the passive righteousness with which [the] merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written, “He who through faith is righteous shall live.” Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates. Here a totally other face of the entire Scripture showed itself to me. Thereupon I ran through the Scriptures from memory …
And I extolled my sweetest word with a love as great as the hatred with which I had before hated the word ‘righteousness of God.’ Thus that place in Paul was for me truth the gate to paradise. 
The righteousness of God, as revealed in the text of Romans 1:17, was what opened Luther’s eyes. For the very first time, he understood that it was an alien righteousness that must be received by faith, one that originated extra nos – outside of him – it was an external righteousness that comes from God. Although Luther was extremely committed to his religion, he was not born again until years after progressing in his religion. In short, Luther was an unconverted minister.
How many ministers of the gospel have labored in vain, died in their sin, and found themselves immediately beneath the wrath of God? That number we may not know, but if Luther, Wesley, and others were fooled for years – what about you? How do you know that you’re a true Christian? When you examine yourself, do you find that you’re in the faith or do you find that you’re of the world? Is your religion a mere check-box salvation or is it genuine, real, and alive?
How wonderful it will be as a minister of the gospel to see the glories of heaven after studying and preaching about it for years. How terrible it would be for a minister to read about hell, preach about hell, warn about hell, and write about hell—only to die and go there.
A.W. Pink once said:
There will be many in the Lake of Fire who commenced life with good intentions, honest resolutions and exalted ideals – those who were just in their dealings, fair in their transactions and charitable in all their ways; men who prided themselves in their integrity but who sought to justify themselves before God by their own righteousness; men who were moral, merciful and magnanimous, but who never saw themselves as guilty, lost, hell-deserving sinners needing a Saviour. 
- John Wesley, Journal, January 24, 1738.
- Ibid., Journal May 24th, 1738.
- John Dillenberger, ed. Martin Luther: Selections from His Writings, pp. 11-12.
- A.W. Pink, Another Gospel.
“Is Rob Bell truly a Christian, or is he one of those dangerous deceivers Scripture warns us about repeatedly (Acts 20:29; 2 Corinthians 11:13-15; Colossians 2:8; 2 Peter 2:1; etc.)?” That’s the question that John MacArthur explores in his blog post. He seeks to answer that question from Scripture! Click here for the full blog article.
That’s the question that Time Magazine is asking in their new cover story. Why? Because of the conversation that has been sparked by the Rob Bell firestorm controversy. The Bible actually has an answer to that question in Matthew 10:28.