God’s Word for You
1 Peter 3:19 He descended into hell (Part 2)
by Pastor Timothy Smith on Tuesday, May 3, 2022
19 through whom also he went and preached to the spirits in prison (NIV)
Another, plainer way of saying “through whom” he went and preached would be to say, “in which,” that is, in his risen body and spirit. Preaching to the spirits in prison is the “why” of the descent into hell. But we need to clear up what that means. There are some who insist that because Peter says later on that the gospel “was preached even to those who are now dead” (1 Peter 4:6) that this must mean that the preaching to the spirits in hell was salutary, which means that it was a gospel preaching that could bring repentance or conversion. But once a person has died, there is no more change of status. Either their spirit is brought to heaven, or it is sent to hell. There is no changing places after that. We need to make three points about what the descent into hell was not:
1, It was not to release the pious dead of the Old Testament out of any limbo they were in (such as the Catholic limbus patrum (limbo of the patriarchs), into paradise. When Adam, Noah, Abraham, Elisha and Isaiah died, they went to heaven, as did their wives and children and the other faithful up until the time of Christ (Luke 16:22).
2, It was not to preach the gospel so that the tormented spirits in hell’s prison might be converted to faith and enter into paradise. The damned are damned; their punishment is forever (Jude 1:13; Obadiah 1:10). “In the hereafter, there is no longer any preaching of salvation” (Hoenecke commenting on Luke 16:29, Ev. Luther. Dogmatics III:125). Also, when death comes, we have “finished the race” (2 Timothy 4:7). Thus at death the Christian race is finished according to this statement by the Holy Spirit.
3, It was not to suffer the pain of hell in the location of the damned. Christ suffered the full pain of hell on the cross, humbling himself to become obedient to it (Philippians 2:8) and completing his work of suffering there: “It is finished” (John 19:30).
So, since the descent into hell was not a preaching of the gospel (nor a moment, brief or eternal, of suffering for Christ) it can only have been a preaching of the law, and this is precisely what Paul says in Colossians 2:15: “Having disarmed the powers and authorities [that is, the devil and his demons], he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.” As I have pointed out before: Isaiah’s words, “Israel will possess those who possessed him” (Isaiah 14:2) are a proclamation that the one who ravaged God’s people will be conquered and triumphed over. In this way, that passage and also Jeremiah 49:2 are promises about Christ’s descent into hell, when Jesus proclaimed his victory over the devil, over death, and over sin. What was once the captor of God’s people (sin, death, and the devil) will itself be captured, and we will be healed forever.
In the same vein, the cry, “Babylon has been taken!” (Jeremiah 50:2) is similar to the victory cries of Revelation: “Fallen is Babylon!” (Revelation 14:9, 18:2,10,21). The downfall of Babylon there is a sign of the victory of Christ, the end of sin, and the coming of Christ’s eternal kingdom. It is the defeat of Satan and the proclamation of his downfall—which was the message of Jesus in his descent into hell on Easter morning.
Our great confession of Faith, the Formula of Concord, says with carefully chosen words:
“This article cannot be comprehended with our senses or by our reason, but must be grasped by faith alone. Therefore it is our unanimous opinion that we should not engage in disputations concerning this article of faith, but believe and teach it in all simplicity, as Dr. Luther of blessed memory, taught in his sermon at Torgau in the year 1533, where he explains this article in a wholly Christian manner, eliminates all unnecessary questions, and admonished all Christians to simplicity of faith.
“For it is enough to know that Christ descended into hell, destroyed hell for all believers, and has redeemed them from the power of death, of the devil, and of eternal damnation and the jaws of hell. How this took place we should postpone until the other world, where there will be revealed to us not only this point [or mystery], but many others as well, which our blind reason cannot comprehend in this life but which we simply accept.” (Formula of Concord, Epitome, Article IX:2-4).
“Christ descended into hell that we may ascend into heaven, just as he died that we might live” (Gerhard, Theological Commonplaces XXXIII On Hell §22:6). The descent into hell was the victory proclaimed over the devil’s head while Christ’s foot was on his very neck (figuratively at the very least, although Satan’s head and power had been crushed already on the cross), and the descent was also for our sakes in a small way. How? In this: We know that the devil has been informed of his defeat. He does not rage against us as if he doesn’t know that he has lost and that he is forever condemned. But this is a small matter in the broad scope of all the Bible’s doctrines, or else there might be more said about it. We can take comfort in it, and if we do not fully understand it, we have no cause for shame. We will know perfectly in Paradise.
Pastor Timothy Smith