On Christ's Descent to Hell
A friend asked me over Christmas break in 2012 about the meaning of "Christ's descent to hell" alluded to in 1Peter 3.18-20. It is only appropriate that I should post this today, on Holy Saturday, which yearly commemorates Jesus' "harrowing of hell". The text in question is one of the many Scriptures that is used to assert that Jesus "descended to the dead" or "descended to hell" during the time of his death, to release those in bondage in the realm of the dead.
The texts most commonly used to support this assertion include:
 For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit,  in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison,  who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water.
 But they [i.e. sinners] will have to give an accounting to him who stands ready to judge the living and the dead.  For this is the reason the gospel was proclaimed even to the dead, so that, though they had been judged in the flesh as everyone is judged, they might live in the spirit as God does.
 Therefore it is said, “When he ascended on high he made captivity itself a captive; he gave gifts to his people.”  (When it says, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth?  He who descended is the same one who ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things.)
And a few others are seen as typological references.
The Protestant Scholar Craig S. Keener has to say this in "The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament"
"The idea here is that Jesus was resurrected by the Spirit of God, by whom also he went (presumably after the resurrection) to proclaim triumph over the fallen spirits. Of the many views on this text, the three main ones are (1) that between his death and resurrection, Jesus preached to the dead in Hades, the realm of the dead (the view of many church fathers); (2) that Christ preached through Noah to people in Noah’s day (the view of many Reformers); (3) that before or (more likely) after his resurrection, Jesus proclaimed triumph over the fallen angels (the view of most scholars today).
In early Christian literature, “spirits” nearly always refers to angelic spirits rather than human spirits, except when explicit statements are made to the contrary. The grammar here most naturally reads as if, in the Spirit who raised him, he preached to them after his resurrection; further, v. 22 mentions these fallen angels explicitly. The view that these were instead spirits of the dead often rests on 4:6, but the point of 4:6, which caps the section, is that martyrs put to death in the flesh will be raised by the Spirit as Christ was in 3:18.
Except for most later rabbis, nearly all ancient Jews read Genesis 6:1-3 as a reference to the fall of angels in Noah’s day (1 Pet 3:20); after the flood, they were said to be imprisoned (so also 2 Pet 2:4; Jude 6), either below the earth or in the atmosphere (cf. 1 Pet 3:22). Then, according to a commonly known Jewish tradition, Enoch was sent to proclaim God’s judgment to them; here Christ is the proclaimer of triumph over them."
HOWEVER, I would politely disagree with Keener, and insist that his view of the evidence is tainted by his Protestant sensibilities. Instead, I would go with the earliest hypothesis of the evidence, that of #1 above:
The ancient Church from the earliest times has put forward the view that after Christ died, he took the full extent of the consequences of sin, and descended to the furthest level of alienation from God the Father (the realm which we typically refer to as "hell", but which is more accurately described by the Greek term hades or the Aramaic term gehenna).
This seems to be fulfill (a) the logic of the Incarnation; (b) the mission of Christ's life; and (c) the fuller context of the Scriptures above.
A. The logic of the Incarnation is that, in Jesus, God goes through all the consequences of being fully human, including the fullest consequences of our sin (even though he is sinless) so that he might ransom and redeem us from sin. If alienation from God (i.e. hell) is the fullest consequence of sin, it would seem that in order to fully heal us, he would have to endure that consequence by actually descending to hell.
B. The mission of Christ's life was to reach out to the least, the last, and the lost. We witness this in his earthly ministry in the people he hung out with and healed. If he is Lord of the living and the dead, why would he arbitrarily stop his mission among those who are alive only for 70-80 years max? Why would he not also extend his mission among the dead? The Scriptures above indicate that he did descend into the heart of death. Why would he go there and do NOTHING? If he was to go there, and if he was victorious over hell, then why not offer victory to those in hell if they would repent?
C. The fuller context of the Scriptures above indicate this as well. In 1Peter 3, if Jesus "suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous", and if he went to proclaim to the "spirits in prison", why on earth just stop at a few of those spirits? Why not proclaim to everyone? In 1Peter 4, the obvious context is proclaiming the Gospel to sinners who mock the Gospel itself. This seems to be a proclamation to EVERYONE who is dead and who mocks the Gospel. And in Ephesians 4, the effects of Christ's "descent" is to eventually win a victory in which "captivity itself a captive". How can captivity be made captive if there are still captives left un-freed by Jesus (or at least not offered the good news of freedom in Jesus?).
One might pile on obviously "universal" readings of the effects of Christ's death and resurrection, such as:
John 12.32 And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.
Romans 5.18 Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all. 19 For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.
1Corinthians 15.21 For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; 22 for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ.
Colossians 1.19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20 and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.
Romans 8.31 What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? 32 He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? ... 35 Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? ... 37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
So, if one looks at the "cosmic" implications of the Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection of Christ, it leads us to a very wide hope that the Love of Christ can and will reach everyone, from the heights of heaven to the depths of hell, both in this life and beyond.
The only reason I can think of to radically cut off this hope, and narrow down the scope of what Jesus did in descending to the dead, is if someone is trying to build a theology that is not Christ-based, but Institution-based. What I mean is this: Jesus seems pretty clear that he is not going to give up until he rescues everyone who will respond to him in faith. There is ample evidence that this mission extends from this world into the next.
However, if someone is institution-based, they are interested in constructing a theology that says "our institution alone is right, join us or perish!" Then it behooves them to read the Scriptural data in such a way that it boosts their claim, and forces people to join them to be "saved". They may not even know they are doing it. They may have just been taught "this is the only way to read the Bible". And so they do that. Even scholars do that.
I would rather say that Scripture teaches (a) that salvation is found in Christ alone; (b) Christ never gives up, in this life and the next, getting this good news out; (c) Christ works in surprising ways, even descending into the heart of hell itself, to carry out his mission; (d) our mission as Christ's followers is to make this good news clear to all around us in word and deed.
That is more than you asked... But that's what I think!
This is a bunch of stuff to make us think hard about our incredible love affair with the God of the universe, our astounding infidelities against him, and his incredible grace to heal and restore us through Christ. Everything on this site is copyright © 1996-2015 by Nathan L. Bostian so if you use it, cite me... otherwise you break the 8th commandment, and make God unhappy. You can contact the author by posting a comment.