One of the most well-known belief statements in Christian history, The Apostles Creed, states that Jesus Christ descended into hell after he died on the cross. The line reads, “He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried; he descended to hell.” However, Bible scholars debate whether or not Jesus went to hell after he died and what he did there.
Most modern Bible scholars believe Jesus descended into hell when he died to pronounce condemnation upon the evil angels in Noah’s day (Gen. 6:1-4). Another view holds he was preaching the gospel to the deceased. Yet another is that he was freeing Old Testament believers.
What passage is the source of the debate about Jesus going to hell? What details in the verses do people debate? What are the most common viewpoints? What can people with different views on the details agree about in the passage? Keep reading to learn the answers to these questions and others.
Also, see Why Did Jesus Come to Earth? to learn more.
Jesus Makes An Announcement in Hell
One of the reasons people have debated the description of Jesus’ descent into hell over the centuries is because the Bible’s description of it in 1 Peter 3:18-21 is vague to many readers. Even some of the most influential figures in Christian history have admitted that the description is difficult to interpret.
For example, the German Reformer Martin Luther wrote, “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.” Even most Bible scholars who argue a certain view admit to some uncertainty.
Modern New Testament scholar, Karen Jobes, writes, “This passage in 1 Peter is one of the most debated and written about; from the early days of the church, it has been understood in very different ways… Even among today’s interpreters, this passage has the reputation for being perhaps the most difficult in the NT.” 
Jesus went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison
There is general agreement among scholars that the first part of the passage refers to the crucifixion of Jesus: “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, ESV).
Being “made alive in the spirit” refers to Jesus being conscious after his physical death. It’s not a reference to his physical resurrection, which occurred three days later.
It’s the rest of the passage that confuses: Jesus was made alive in the spirit “in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, 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” (1 Pet. 3:19-20, ESV).
What descriptions in the passage lead to disagreement?
People must seek explanations for a few important statements to interpret the passage. Sometimes scholars disagree on the meaning of one or two phrases; other times, they disagree about all three.
(1) The spirits in prison. Who are the spirits? Can the description refer to people? If they are angels, are they fallen or righteous? What is the prison? Where is it? It is a metaphor for a place on earth? Is it a euphemism for hell?
(2) Jesus went and proclaimed. Where did Jesus go? Did his spirit have to travel to the “prison”? What did he proclaim when he got there? Was he making an announcement or giving an invitation?
(3) In the days of Noah. Did Jesus, in spirit, travel to the prison immediately after he died? Is the description describing a past event? Why does Peter refer to Noah’s lifetime?
Also, see Where Was Joseph When Jesus Died? to learn more.
Four Views On Jesus Descending Into Hell
Below, readers will find summaries of four of the most common interpretations of the passage. View #4 is the dominant view among scholars today. However, it’s important to note that there are many views on this passage, and sometimes scholars take elements of different perspectives and piece them together to make a new view.
View #1: The spirit of Christ was in Noah in the days before the flood
This view argues that Jesus, in spirit, was preaching through Noah to those that drowned in the flood. The interpretation doesn’t believe that Jesus embodied Noah but that he spoke through him via the Holy Spirit. Saint Augustine held this view, and many who have followed him closely also have.
In this view, the spirits in prison refer to those lost in their sin in Noah’s day. So the view doesn’t interpret “spirits in prison” literally but believes it refers to people before the flood.
Opponents argue that this view doesn’t explain Peter’s description that Jesus “went” somewhere. They also question why “spirits” refers to people. If Peter meant people, why didn’t he just say that?
This view has nothing to say about Jesus literally descending into hell to announce condemnation or sentence unbelievers who are confined there.
View #2: Jesus was preaching the gospel to Old Testament believers
Another view is that Jesus went to hell to complete the redemption of Old Testament believers, freeing them from sin and giving them salvation. Believers who died before Jesus didn’t fully understand the gospel, including his crucifixion and resurrection. The French Reformer John Calvin held this view.
Therefore, Jesus’ descent into hell wasn’t to announce condemnation or invite unbelievers to accept the gospel. Instead, it enabled believers in previous eras to fully realize the result of their faithfulness.
Also, see What Happened to Jesus on Earth after His Resurrection? to learn more.
View #3: Jesus was preaching the gospel to deceased unbelievers
Others believe that Jesus was preaching the gospel to those in hell, giving them another chance to repent of their sins and put their faith in God for salvation.
Those who argue for this interpretation believe it’s moral and just of God to offer the dead an opportunity to hear the gospel, especially those who have never heard it in their life.
Many conservative scholars argue against this view. First, it violates New Testament teaching, such as all people die once and then God judges them (Heb. 9:7). It also contradicts other themes found in 1 Peter, like people are judged for their deads (1 Pet. 1:17; 4:17-18) and condemned for their disobedience (1 Pet. 2:7-8; 17-18).
View #4: Jesus is proclaiming victory over the evil angels of Noah’s day
Jesus is proclaiming victory over the evil angels that had sexual relations with human women (Gen. 6:1-4). In this view, “spirits” describes fallen angels. “Prison” aligns with Satan’s confinement (Rev. 20:2-3).
According to this view, the reason this story deserves special attention is due to the egregious nature of the sin, which resulted in a special punishment for the beings involved in it.
Two New Testament verses appear to support this view.
Jude 6 reads, “And the angels who did not stay within their own position of authority, but left their proper dwelling, he has kept in eternal chains under gloomy darkness until the judgment of the great day” (ESV).
2 Peter 2:4 reads, “For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell and committed them to chains of gloomy darkness to be kept until the judgment” (ESV).
Also, see What Day Did Jesus Rise? to learn more.
What Is the Point of the Passage?
People with different views on the details of 1 Peter 3:19-21 can find common ground on the theme of the broader passage. New Testament scholar Thomas Schreiner summarizes it well:
“The message for Peter’s readers is clear. In their suffering Jesus still reigns and rules. He has not surrendered believers into the power of the evil forces even if they suffer until death. Jesus by his death and resurrection has triumphed over all demonic forces, and hence by implication believers will reign together with him.” 
Also, see What Son of Noah Did Jesus Come From? to learn more.
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