Summary: Many Christians balk at the words "He descended into hell" and wonder if this is really taught in Scripture. I’m attempting to clarify what occurred between the cross and the empty tomb.
“I Believe” Sermon Series on the Apostles Creed
“The Conquering Victory” (“He Descended into Hell”) I Peter 3:18-22 Pastor Bob Leroe, Cliftondale Congregational Church, Saugus, Massachusetts
A victory is an experience we don’t forget, whether it’s a military, sports or personal triumph. This morning we’re considering the victory won by the Captain of our salvation. His battle was waged against all the forces of sin, hell and death. He heralds His victory in a most striking way, as described by Peter, and mentioned in the Apostles Creed, which has troubled and puzzled many people: “He descended into Hell”. Some believers do not recite these words and I understand their reluctance. Some congregations change the words to “He descended to the grave.” How can we affirm something we suspect may not be in the Bible? Scripture says very little about what occurred between the cross and the empty tomb. Some people have offered imaginative speculation, like the Mormons who claim Jesus went to America and preached to Indian tribes.
Let’s think through Peter’s explanation. Peter viewed the empty tomb and the linen wrappings left behind. He describes the activity of Jesus during those few days before His spirit was reunited with His body.
First off, let’s say what did not happen. Some claim that, as part of His payment for our sins, Jesus suffered the torments of Hell in His descent. Most Biblical scholars maintain that the agony of Jesus was limited to what took place on the cross. God-the-Son bore our sins and suffered separation from God-the-Father. Before yielding to death, Jesus cried out, “Father, into Your hands I commend My spirit.” It seems unlikely that the Father would then add to His Son’s suffering. Jesus’ final words indicate an end to His pain.
The descent into Hell, as Peter reports, appears to be a preaching mission. At the heart of this passage is a central truth: the establishment of Christ’s dominion over angels, authorities, and powers, extending even to the strongholds of “disobedient spirits”. The future is assured because our God reigns. I wish we had a copy of our Lord’s sermon to these spirits. The very first Easter sermon was preached by Jesus! It was most likely a message announcing His triumph over evil and the binding up of the demonic powers.
Some have objected, pointing to Jesus’ promise to the repentant thief on the cross: “Today you will be with Me in Paradise.” How could Jesus be in Paradise that very day if He descended into Hell? There is no punctuation in the Greek manuscripts, and I suggest that translators may have made an error in omitting a comma. Jesus’ words could easily be rendered, “I say to you today, you will be with Me in Paradise.” It’s less specific regarding the timing, but a promise nonetheless.
In verse 18 Peter uses the word “spirit” pneuma, to say that Jesus “was made alive in the spirit”. Jesus preached as a spirit to the spirits, just as in His earthly life He preached as a man to people of flesh and blood. Peter is setting up an analogy: “On the one hand, He was put to death in the flesh; on the other hand, He was made alive in spirit.” Jesus went without His body, in spirit form, and spoke to spirits. Now we need to determine:
a. Who are these “spirits”?
b. Where is the “prison”?
c. What was the message “proclaimed”?
a) The spirits have been understood to mean either those who have died without trusting God, fallen angels, or Noah’s sinful contemporaries (or all 3).
Though I believe the Genesis flood was an historical event, it is also serves as a metaphor of human disobedience and divine judgment. Because the flood was so often used to describe punishment for sin, many feel our Lord’s proclamation isn’t limited to the Genesis “flood victims,” but to all who have alienated themselves from God. Those who perished in flood are representative of all who have rebelled against God.
In a figurative sense, Jesus is our ark—He who demonstrated power over the waters brings us to safety from the flood tides of sin and spiritual death.
Peter uses another image, that of baptism, an outward sign of an inward reality. Through baptism we share in/identify with Jesus’ death; we are “buried with Him through baptism”. Note: faith leads to baptism; water alone does not have the power to save.
So what is the identity of these “spirits”? It is likely that Jesus was addressing both people who died without faith and fallen angels. The word “spirit” is often used in the NT to refer to demons. In Philippians 2 we read that, “at the Name of Jesus every knee should bow in heaven and on earth and under the earth” (vs 10). Paul is likely referring to the evil spirits reluctantly bowing to Jesus at His proclamation of victory.