Many people know that Jesus Christ died on a Friday and rose from the dead the following Sunday. However, what’s unclear is where he was and what he did between those events. Where Jesus went after his crucifixion and why has been one of the most discussed theological issues in Christian history.
The most common view today among Bible scholars is that after Jesus died, he willingly went to hell to announce sentencing on, and victory over, the fallen angels who married human women in the days of Noah. His announcement was a declaration of his triumph over Satan.
Why would Jesus travel to hell after he died? How exactly does Peter describe what Jesus did after he died? What did Jesus proclaim to the spirits in prison? Who were they, and why were they there? Keep reading to learn the answers to these questions and others.
Why would Jesus travel to hell after he died?
While most Bible scholars believe the New Testament mentions what Jesus died after he died (see below), the most well-known statement about his destination is probably the Apostles’ Creed. The Creed reads, in part, that Jesus “suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried. he descended into hell; the third day He rose again from the dead; he ascended into heaven” (emphasis added).
But why did Jesus go to hell? What was he doing there? Did the Father send him there as a punishment? Did he travel there to do or say something to Satan or fallen angels? Did he do or say something to the people in hell? People who know the Apostles’ Creed and have read the New Testament passages listed below have asked and discussed these questions for centuries.
How does Peter describe what Jesus did after he died?
The key New Testament passage that mentions what Jesus did after he died on the cross is 1 Peter 3:18-19. It reads, “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” (ESV, emphasis added).
This passage has perplexed some of the greatest minds in Christian history. About these verses, the German Reformer Martin Luther (1483-1546) said, “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.”
What questions do people ask about the passage? (1) Who are the “spirit in prison” (ESV, NASB, KJV, NKJV) or the “imprisoned spirit” (NIV)? Who are the spirits? What is the prison? (2) Why did Jesus go to them, and what did he proclaim (ESV, NIV, NASB) or preach (KJV, NKJV)? Why was after his crucifixion and death the right time to travel to this place and make such an announcement?
What is the prison? Knowing that the spirits are in “prison” helps determine their identity because the word implies the unlawfulness or wrongdoing on the part of the residents. The Greek word translated as “prison” refers to a place where captives are kept. When the corroborating evidence is taken into account, it becomes clearer that the prison Peter refers to is hell.
Who are the spirits in prison?
The word “spirits” is a common way to describe fallen angels in the New Testament. For example, Mark writes, “[Jesus] commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him” (Mark 1:27; cf. Mark 3:11, 5:13, 6:7). Similarly, John writes, “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1).
Did Jesus speak to the spirits? The word translated as “proclaimed” or “preached” isn’t the most well-known Greek term for preaching the “good news,” euaggelion (εὐαγγέλιον), which is where English gets the word, evangelize. The word Peter uses is kérussó (κηρύσσω) and can either refer to an announcement of good news or bad news. So what did Jesus say to the spirits in prison?
What did Jesus proclaim to the spirits in prison?
Most scholars today oppose the interpretation that suggests that Jesus was offering the imprisoned spirits salvation. In other words, he wasn’t giving them a second chance at salvation and inviting them to repent and believe the gospel. The Bible teaches that there is no second chance for salvation after death (Heb. 9:27). Furthermore, the gospel does not extend to fallen angels, only people.
Instead, the most common view is that his announcement was a declaration of sentencing in light of his victory over sin and death on the cross. Jesus’ death sealed their fate. New Testament scholar Craig Keener writes, “If the verb [kérussó] does refer to the good news of Christ’s exaltation, this proclamation nevertheless remains bad news to the fallen angels and their hostile intentions for humanity.” 
1 Peter 3:22 corroborates this interpretation when it states that Jesus “has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him” (ESV). In this sense, the English word “subjected” means that fallen angels have been placed under Jesus’ permanent and sovereign authority because he triumphed over them when he died on the cross (cf. Col. 2:15).
New Testament scholar Thomas Schreiner summarizes this view when he writes, “The point of the passage, then, is not that Christ descended into hell but, as in 3:22, his victory over evil angelic powers.” 
Other views on where Jesus went when he died
There are several unique interpretations of 1 Peter 3:18-19 that large numbers of Christians have held, which partly demonstrates the obscurity of the description. Most scholars identify three to five views of the passage. However, some comment that there are many others because some readers and scholars combine viewpoints, mixing and matching ideas in ways they believe are consistent with the text.
Jesus preached salvation in Hades
Jesus preached salvation in Hades to those in Noah’s generation. Some Christians held this view in the first few centuries of the church. For example, Clement of Alexandria (150-215) argued for this interpretation. The early church father, Origen (185-253), developed further, suggesting that Jesus offered salvation to those in hell. What’s unclear in this view is why Jesus would limit his gospel invitation to Noah’s generation.
Pre-Incarnate Jesus preached to Noah’s generation
Augustine of Hippo (354-430) argued that Jesus, before his incarnation in human flesh, preached through Noah via the Holy Spirit to the unsaved in the Flood generation. Hell has nothing to do with the passage, according to this view. What’s unclear in this view is how people in Noah’s day were “spirits in prison.”
Even though Augustine confessed uncertainty about this interpretation, many theologians in the Middle Ages and the Reformation era held his perspective.
Jesus liberated the repentant in Noah’s day
Robert Bellarmine (1542-1621) taught that after Jesus died, his soul traveled to hell to free those who repented before dying in the Flood in Noah’s day. This interpretation is common in the Roman Catholic Church.
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