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.