Suffering for Doing Right
He Descended into Hell
1 Peter 3:18-22
Have you ever attended a church that did not descend to hell? I do not mean a church devoid of conflict or strife, hellish manifestations of evil in the church. I am speaking in a creedal sense. Some churches omit the phrase “He descended into hell” from their recitation of the Apostles' Creed.
The basis for including the affirmation about Christ descending to hell is derived from our text in First Peter. Admittedly, the passage is difficult to interpret. Martin Luther, the father of the Protestant Reformation, wrote of our text, “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 certainty what Peter means.”
The first part of verse 18a is perfectly clear. “For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God.” Christ suffered for our sins. Jesus was crucified. Crucifixion was an ignominious and excruciating death. It was shameful and torturous. Jesus endured the cross despising the shame for our sake, for our sins. He was the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
Jesus’ terrible death was “once for all.” Christ’s sacrifice for sin was of a different order than any other sacrifice. It was perfect and final. Christ suffered and died to pay the price for sins fully and finally. No other sacrifice will ever be needed.
Finally, Christ’s sacrificial death was “in order to bring us to God.” We are reconciled to God by the death of God’s son. All of this is plain to see in this verse of scripture and in the entirety of the Bible, but things become much less clear as we dive deeper into the text.
Peter says, “Christ was put to death in the flesh,” that is, in his mortality as a frail creature of dust, Jesus died. Jesus was fully human. He was a mortal just as we are. However, Jesus was “made alive in the spirit” (vs. 18b). The question is, what does “made alive in the spirit” mean? Is it a euphemism for the resurrection? In that case, Jesus rose from the dead, descended to the dead, made proclamation to them, and then returned to appear to the disciples.
Or is Peter describing a reanimation of Christ’s soul? The New Revised Standard Version understands the phrase in this later sense because “spirit” is not capitalized but rendered in the lower case. We might dynamically translate the phrase, “made alive in his spirit.” No doubt it is the Holy Spirit who does the reanimating, but this is not yet the resurrection. The Apostles' Creed also seems to adopt this understanding. It states, “He was crucified, dead and buried; he descended into hell; the third day he rose again from the dead; he ascended into heaven.” Jesus’ crucifixion, death, burial, descent, resurrection, and ascension seem to be distinct events listed in sequential order.
Verses 19 and 20 are perhaps the most challenging for us as interpreters of scripture. “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 people, were saved through water.”
Where did Jesus go after being made alive in the spirit? The Creed says, “He descended into hell,” but that is an unfortunate translation. The Greek word employed by the creed is “Hades.” “Hades” is the New Testament equivalent of “Sheol” in the Old Testament. Hades, or Sheol, is the abode of the dead.
Sheol is described in Psalm 88: 3-6, 12. “For my soul is full of troubles, and my life draws near to Sheol. I am counted among those who go down to the Pit; I am like those who have no help, like those forsaken among the dead, like the slain that lie in the grave, like those whom you remember no more, for they are cut off from your hand. You have put me in the depths of the Pit, in the regions dark and deep. Are your wonders known in the darkness, or your saving help in the land of forgetfulness?” Sheol or Hades is described as a place of darkness and forgetfulness. The prophet Isaiah adds to our understanding of Sheol. God speaking through the prophet names the inhabitants of Sheol as “the shades.” They still exist, but they are literally a shadow of their former selves (Isaiah 14:9-11).
It is important to note that Sheol or Hades is not Hell. The closest word to hell in the New Testament is Gehenna. Gehenna was a burning garbage dump located in the Valley of Hinnom near Jerusalem. Jesus employs this term metaphorically to speak of Hell. Hell seems to be a reality that comes into existence at the time of the Last Judgment. It is called in Revelation “the second death” or “the lake of fire” (see Revelation 20). In the general biblical world view, the dead descend to sheol/hades awaiting the resurrection and the day of judgment.
In the time between his death and resurrection, Jesus descends to the abode of the dead, but Jesus is unlike the shades of Sheol. He makes a proclamation to the spirits in prison. Peter narrows the focus of Jesus’ preaching from all the inhabitants of Sheol to the antediluvian generation of Noah’s day. The group envisioned are those who rejected Noah’s preaching while the ark was under construction.
I wonder whether Jesus’ preaching was only to the antediluvian generation. In Ephesians 4:8a, Paul quotes Psalm 68. “When he ascended on high, he made captivity itself a captive.” In a parenthetical remark, commenting on Psalm 68, Paul continues, “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.” The specificity of the audience Jesus addresses in Hades is difficult to determine.
A similar question arises as regards the content of Jesus' preaching. Peter says nothing about the message Jesus delivered. What did Jesus say to the inhabitants of Hades? Some have speculated that Jesus proclaimed the gospel to the shades. His sacrificial death, impending resurrection, and ascension to heaven must have been paramount on Jesus’ mind. What else would there be for him to speak of unless it was of judgment. That is possible, but it seems more reasonable to assume that Jesus proclaimed his death for the forgiveness of sins, his impending resurrection and ascension to the right hand of God with angels, authorities, and powers subject to him.
This is even more likely because from the early days of his earthly ministry, Jesus spoke of “the year of the Lord’s favor.” Jesus quoted the prophet Isaiah at the synagogue in Nazareth. He said, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19). In quoting Isaiah 61:1-2, Jesus omits the reference to “the day of vengeance of our God.” The day of judgment will come but not until Christ comes again. For now, for all of human history, we live under “the year of the Lord’s favor.” Today is still the day of salvation. This message would have been mighty good news for the shades of Sheol! The truth is we do not really know what Jesus proclaimed. It might have been a word of judgment, but it could also have been a word of grace.
In any case, Christ descended to Sheol as a victor and not like a shadowy shade. Jesus promised his disciples that the gates of Hades would not prevail against them (Mt. 16:18), and they were not able to keep Jesus out either.
This is where we discover the good news in our wonderful and murky little text. Peter makes a connection between Christian baptism and the Noahic flood. Just as the waters of the flood delivered Noah and his household from the evil world of Noah’s day, baptism delivers us from our evil world. Through baptism we are united with Christ in his death and resurrection (see Romans 6:3-4). The result of our baptism into Christ is that we are able to make “a pledge to God from a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (vs. 21). We do not depend on our own merits but on the merits of Jesus Christ.
The end result is that we can endure the trials of this life. The Christians in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, and Bithynia, to whom the letter was originally addressed, were suffering because of their faith and way of life. As they lived out their God-given vocation together as a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, their pagan neighbors took notice and disapproved of their religion and practice. The King James Version rendered the phrase “God’s own people” as “a peculiar people.” The first Christians were a peculiar people, and we are too. As one modern commentator has observed, “To be holy is weird.” As peculiar and odd as Christians may seem in this godless world, we are truly on the right side of history. The arch of history bends toward Jesus Christ who triumphed over sin, death, and evil. He is the Victor.
Jesus suffered for sins once and for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring us to God. Jesus was made alive in the spirit. Jesus went and made proclamation to the spirits in prison (We are a church that descends to hell!). After three days, Jesus rose from the dead. Now Jesus has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him.
We are still living under the year of the Lord’s favor, but Christ will come again to judge the living and the dead. Then every knee shall bow, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.
Come what may: sin, suffering, sickness, or even death, we are rightly aligned with God through Jesus Christ. We have a clear conscience because of Jesus. Therefore, we will not fear.
Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord who will yet cause us to triumph. Alleluia! Amen.