Two things this weekend are clear: (1) Jesus died on Good Friday to bear the wrath of God against sin and sinners, and (2) Jesus was raised from the dead on Easter Sunday in victory over sin and death as the proclamation of the Father’s satisfaction in the Son’s work. Despites these clarities, there is one thing about this weekend that is most certainly cloudy—Saturday. What happened between Jesus’ death and resurrection? More pointedly, where was Jesus on Saturday, the day after his death and before his resurrection? Did Jesus spend Saturday in hell? If so, did he really preach the gospel to those who had died in their sins? Is there hope for those who die without Christ?
There have been many, many, many answers given to try to answer this major question—Did Jesus spend Saturday in hell? And there are many, many, many positions taken with regard to this question. John Calvin said, “[W]e ought not to omit his descent into hell, a matter of no small moment in bringing about redemption.” However, John Piper says, “[I]t seems best to me to omit from the Apostles Creed the clause, ‘he descended into hell,’ rather than giving it other meanings that are more defensible.” Two answers worth considering can be found here and here.
The Apostles’ Creed says, “[He] was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended into hell. The third day He arose again from the dead.” This ancient and hallowed creed asserts that between his death and resurrection, Jesus actually descended into hell. There are multiple interpretations of what this phrase actually means, and you can find many of them here. The debate is over what the creed means by “hell.” Is it figurative of the physical agony of his death? Is it actually gehenna, ya know, hell, the place? Is it simply referring to the place of the dead (Hades or Sheol)? This could go on forever. However, I want to ask, Is there any biblical basis for this? Well, sort of. There are a couple passages in 1 Peter that seem to indicate that Jesus preached the gospel to those in hell.
“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, 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 Pt. 3:18-20).
This passage is difficult to interpret and understand, but within the scope of the biblical witness, we are not left totally in the dark. This passage does indicate that Jesus preached something to the spirits “in prison.” That something, which Peter later says is the gospel (1 Pt. 4:4-6), was preached to those who are now in prison, but does 1 Peter 3:18-20 necessitate that we understand Christ as preaching to lost souls in hell? I agree with John Piper in that the passage does not demand this. He writes, “With regard to 1 Peter 3:19, I take these words to mean that Christ, through the voice of Noah, went and preached to that generation, whose spirits are now ‘in prison,’ that is, in hell. In other words, Peter does not say that Christ preached to them while they were in prison. He says he preached to them once, during the days of Noah, and now they are in prison.”
I find this interpretation to be compelling and consistent with the immediate context of 1 Peter, and also the overall witness of the rest of the Bible. I do not believe that Christ descended to hell because of his conversation with the criminal who was crucified next to him. Luke records Jesus saying, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43). Jesus also affirms that those who die in their sin have no hope after death. This is clear from the parable of Lazarus and the rich man in Luke 16:19-31. So, even though it is unclear where Jesus was and what exactly happened on the day between his death and resurrection, biblically it does not appear that Jesus descended into hell. And he most certainly did not preach the gospel to those who had died in sin for the purpose of their salvation.
There are a couple important implications to draw from this consideration. Firstly, all who are saved, old covenant saints and new covenant saints, are saved by the blood of Jesus. Peter writes, “Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired carefully, inquiring what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories (1 Pt. 1:10-11).
Secondly, this reflection should produce in us a spirit and attitude of urgency. Since all who die in their sin remain under the righteous wrath of God, we should eagerly evangelize those around us who are without Christ. Since there is no hope after death for all who are in Adam (Rom. 5:12-21), the most loving thing you and I can do is call them to God through the gospel of Christ, the only hope for sinners. The wrath that is upon those outside of Christ will be executed in an eternal hell. In light of the unavoidable and absolute reality and certainty of death and hell, may we passionately seek to share the gospel with our friends, families, and foes. In the words of David Platt, may we “weave gospel threads” every day in our neighborhoods and among the nations. Hell is for real. Christ has died to redeem sinners from the wrath of God, by bearing it in their place.
Take time today to pray for those you know who are not in Christ by faith. Take time today to pray for boldness to share the gospel with them. And with this being Easter weekend, take time to invite them to attend a worship service with you tomorrow. May God save sinners in droves by his grace on Easter Sunday, 2014.