God’s Word for You
1 Peter 3:18 He descended into hell (Part 1)
by Pastor Timothy Smith on Monday, May 2, 2022
THE DESCENT INTO HELL
18 For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive by the Spirit, (NIV)
This verse begins a brief section which teaches the doctrine of Christ’s descent into hell. The “why” of the descent into hell is given in Colossians 2:15: “And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.” Jesus entered into hell to preach his triumph to those who were there, especially the devil and his demons. He did not go to suffer, but for the purpose of proclaiming his victory. We will say more about this with verse 19. Here in verse 18 and also in 19, we learn some important details about Jesus’ descent, including the “when” and the “where.”
First, we must not dismiss the first sentence of verse 18. This is the full purpose of his suffering, which ended the moment of his death on the cross. He died for sins once for all. He was doing this as “the righteous for the unrighteous.” He allowed this to happen to him “to bring you to God.” As Peter said earlier in this letter, the Old Testament prophets searched for the time and circumstances when the suffering of Christ would take place (1 Peter 1:11), which meant “the salvation of your souls” (1 Peter 1:9). Here we also see Peter’s chronology of the events:
1, He was put to death in the body
2, He was made alive by the Spirit
There is a grammatical question about these words. The words “body” and “spirit” are in the same dative case in Greek with no preposition. These two datives (often indirect objects in a sentence) should be translated in a similar way since they are in a parallel construction. If “body” cannot be “He was put to death by the body” because his own body is not being held to account in this case, but the description of what died, then he must have been put to death, as the NIV correctly says, “in the body.” That is to say, his body died.
But then why, in a parallel construction, would we translate “spirit” in a different way? Shouldn’t it also be “in the spirit,” that is to say, his spirit returned to his body on the third day after his body died, as he himself prophesied and as the Scriptures attest (Mark 8:31; Acts 10:40)? Yet however we translate these phrases, the chronology remains the same. Christ died, and then he came to life again.
Christ certainly suffered the pains of hell on the cross, but this was not his descent into hell. When he said, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46), he was suffering the agony, the pain, the suffering of damnation without being in the particular location or place (Greek πoῦ) of hell. Consider these prophetic words from David:
Enemies open their mouths wide against me,
like a lion that tears its prey and roars.
Like water I am poured out.
All my bones are pulled apart.
My heart has become like wax.
It has melted in the middle of my chest. (Psalm 22:13-14)
These were his sufferings; he suffered hell without being there. His descent into hell, however, was not about his suffering, but about something else.
Returning, then, to the question of the “where” of hell, we know that it is not within the planet earth, nor is hell on some other planet or world, since all of the worlds, suns, moons, stars, and so on, will be destroyed on the last day (2 Peter 3:5,10; Matthew 24:19), and this world will be remade. So hell must be a location which is outside of those places that are accessible to mankind apart from the transformation after death and translation to heaven or hell. So in a way that is similar to heaven being outside of the visible universe, so also is hell, yet both heaven and hell are places, locations, which can house all those who will exist in them for all eternity. We also reject the idea set out by some theologians that ‘hell’ is simply identical to the grave.
The descent into hell is the first step of Christ’s exaltation. In verses 18-19, the descent is described. In verse 21, the resurrection is described, and in verse 22, the ascension of Jesus into heaven. Therefore the order here is:
(1) Christ’s death on the cross and burial
(2) revivification or coming to life again on the third day
(3) descent into hell in his physical body
(4) preaching to the spirits in hell
(5) return to the grave
The Apostles’ Creed follows the same order in a condensed form. My conclusion is that Jesus came to life in the tomb first (verse 18), but he had not yet begun to make appearances outside the tomb. So, having come to life in the grave, he descended into hell according to both his natures, both truly God and fully human. Therefore the descent had to be after his coming to life once again since prior to that his body and spirit were temporarily separated as ours will be, in death.
Our Lutheran fathers touch on this point when they say in the Formula of Concord: “We also believe, teach, and confess that it was not a plain, ordinary, mere man who for us suffered, died, was buried, descended into hell, rose from the dead, ascended into heaven, and was exalted to the majesty and omnipotent power of God, but a man whose human nature had such a profound and ineffable union and communion with the Son of God that it has become one person with him” (Epitome, Art. VIII Thesis 8 (Par. 13).
What Jesus did, he did for our sakes: the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring us closer to God. We will learn even more about the descent of Jesus into hell in the verses that follow, but remember that all of this was for your eternal good. If it will help you to think of it in this way, think of the descent into hell like the signing of the surrender at Appomattox Courthouse. Or a similar incident aboard USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay ending World War II. The ceremony showed the victor and the vanquished. The victory is won. “He’s judged; the deed is done.”
Pastor Timothy Smith