When Jesus died, did He immediately go to heaven? Did He descend into hell to free those held captive by sin? Was He in a state of limbo, purgatory, or in hell? We know that Jesus’ died, was buried, and on the third day was resurrected, but where was He in between the days of His death and burial and His resurrection?
The Apostle Peter makes reference to Jesus going to preach to those “imprisoned spirits” in 1 Peter 3:18-20:
“For Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, so that He might bring us to God, having been put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit; in which also He went and made proclamation to the spirits now in prison, who once were disobedient, when the patience of God kept waiting in the days of Noah, during the construction of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through the water.”
Jesus was put to death “in the flesh but made alive in the spirit” means that death could not hold Him. He was sinless and death are the wages of sin (Rom 6:23) but since Jesus never sinned, His spirit remained alive, even though He suffered death “in the flesh” (1 Peter 3:18). Death cannot truly occur to a Spirit Being, like Jesus was and is God. The grave has no power over sinless flesh and that is why those who are Christ’s will be raised to eternal life because His righteousness is accounted to those who believe in Him.
The interesting thing here is that Peter writes that Christ made a proclamation to the imprisoned spirits. Was this the proclamation of the gospel? Did Jesus proclaim the gospel to those who had perished in the flood or to those of Noah’s family who were saved but awaiting Jesus’ redemptive work at Calvary? Did Jesus do this while His body was in the grave? There are many complexities in these verses. Some believe that Jesus preached (proclaimed) the gospel to those who died in the flood and had never heard the gospel and those killed in the flood could now here it since Jesus had not yet died to save them. Those who died in the flood had the judgment of God on them through the flood, however this is inconsistent with many Scriptures in the Bible like Hebrews 9:27 which says, “And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment.” It does not say after death they will have another chance. Were these who perished in the flood the ones that Peter referred to as the ones being “in prison?” It does not seem to fit in these verses or in the context of biblical doctrine.
Still others feel that Jesus went to those old saints of the Old Testament who were in Paradise but not yet in heaven because Jesus had not made atonement for them yet. We remember that Jesus said to the Thief on the Cross that “Today you will be with me in Paradise (Luke 23:43)” and Jesus didn’t say “Today you will be with me in heaven.” Are Paradise and heaven the same place? What is Peter talking about in these verses? It does not appear that the Old Testament saints needed to hear a proclamation from Jesus since there are all mentioned as being secure in God’s redemptive plan in the so called Hall of Faith in Hebrews 11.
Jesus’ Proclamation to the Demons
Jesus was said to have made a proclamation “to the spirits now in prison.” Nowhere in the Bible are humans referred to as “spirits” so this seems to refer to demon spirits that are bound in the abyss and these demons are the fallen angels who were permanently bound because of heinous wickedness. This is what John MacArthur’s Study Bible (ESV) has in their study notes (p 1894). This seems to fit Jude 6-7 which says, “And the angels who did not keep their positions of authority but abandoned their proper dwelling—these he has kept in darkness, bound with everlasting chains for judgment on the great Day. In a similar way, Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding towns gave themselves up to sexual immorality and perversion. They serve as an example of those who suffer the punishment of eternal fire.”
More support for this is found in 2 Peter 2:4-5, “For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but sent them to hell, putting them in chains of darkness [some manuscripts read, “gloomy dungeons” or “abyss“] to be held for judgment; if he did not spare the ancient world when he brought the flood on its ungodly people, but protected Noah, a preacher of righteousness, and seven others.” In both Jude 6-7 and 2 Peter 2:4-5, these fallen angels are in a prison, a kind of holding tank, until the day that they will be cast into the lake of fire (Rev 20:10). They are bound with “everlasting chains for judgment on the great Day” (Jude 6) and this proclamation “to the spirits now in prison” was where Jesus apparently was for at least part of the time between the day of His crucifixion and death and His resurrection. How long of a time it was is not clear. No wonder then that the Apostles Creed states that Jesus descended into hell as part of their Creed. These fallen angels bound in prison were sent to hell (2 Peter 2:4) and so Jesus must have went there and proclaimed His victory over the Devil and all his fallen angels (demons). Jesus may have well ascended into heaven after this and remained there until His resurrection on the third day. I could find no other Scriptures to give an account for his whereabouts during the remaining time of His death on the cross and the resurrection.
Jesus Descends into Hell
Second Peter 2:4 says, “For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but sent them to hell, [Greek for hell is Tartarus] putting them in chains of darkness [literally gloomy dungeons] to be held for judgment.” Peter intentionally uses the Greek word for hell in verse 4, Tartarus, which in Greek mythology is a place lower than Hades itself and is reserved for the most despicable and evil of all human beings, god, and demons. Peter was emphasizing that this was the worst place in all of God’s creation of eternal torment and suffering (MacArthur’s Study Bible, p 1905). The Jews used this term as the abode of the lowest of the low – the deepest pit there was. The demons that were there then and must by necessity be there now, had to have been the most evil of all fallen angels. Even the demons begged and pleaded with Jesus not to cast them into the abyss when instead Jesus allowed them to go into the swine in Luke 8:31. Jesus went down to hell to proclaim His victory but did not go there to suffer because, in reality, Calvary was a living hell in itself, since hell is the absolute absence of God and Jesus was for a time separated from the Father. He went in spirit to hell to proclaim His victory over evil and His conquering of the grave too. This seems to fit the meaning of the verses in 1 Peter 3:18-20.
Many Bible scholars and theologians believe that these bound demons will be released during the Great Tribulation mentioned in Revelation 9 even though we know there are many demons now roaming the earth under the sway of Satan (Rev 12:7-9).
The Abyss Opens Up in Great Tribulation
The abyss mentioned in Luke 8:31 and Matthew 8:29 is opened up for all of the most evil and destructive of these fallen angels (the worst of the demons) to punish those who refused to repent before the Great Tribulations began. The church have gone by now. Revelation 9:1-3, 10-11 speaks of these wicked spirits: “The fifth angel sounded his trumpet, and I saw a star that had fallen from the sky to the earth. The star was given the key to the shaft of the Abyss. When he opened the Abyss, smoke rose from it like the smoke from a gigantic furnace. The sun and sky were darkened by the smoke from the Abyss. And out of the smoke locusts came down on the earth and were given power like that of scorpions of the earth. They had tails with stingers, like scorpions, and in their tails they had power to torment people for five months. They had as king over them the angel of the Abyss, whose name in Hebrew is Abaddon and in Greek is Apollyon (that is, Destroyer).”
These now incarcerated wicked spirits (demons) are awaiting their final judgment and know that they will ultimately be cast into the lake of fire along with Satan (Rev 20:10) so they will be filled with sheer rage when they are released because they hate humans. They cannot harm the believers so they take out their insane anger on the unrepentant, who are also ultimately headed to the lake of fire (Rev 20:15).
Hell Was Not Made for Humans
Jesus clearly states that hell was not originally intended to be the abode of humans. In Matthew 25:41b Jesus says that “the eternal fire [is] prepared for the devil and his angels.” No one has to go to hell. They have a choice. God never puts anyone into hell…they put themselves there by their rejection of God’s One and Only Son (John 3:18). Jesus died for all those who would place their trust in Him and promises to deliver them from the lake of fire (John 3:16). If you are not a believer in Jesus Christ today – that is if you have not placed your trust in Him and received the faith that saves, – you are headed to hell. He is not forcing you to go there, you are going there by your own choice. God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked (Ezek 18:32) and He most certainly doesn’t want anyone to perish (2 Pet 3:9), so come to Him today and ask for His forgiveness, repent of your sins, confess them, and you will be saved. That is my prayer for you because if He comes again in the Second Advent before you are saved, I hate to think of your eternal destiny and the future fate of yours for time without end.
Resources – New International Version Bible. THE HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®, NIV® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.