I have often been asked the question, “Did Jesus descend into hell?” It is usually asked after someone has heard the Apostles’ Creed read, which says in part, “He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried; he descended to hell.” When people hear that Jesus descended into hell, they often say to themselves, “What?” Most people know that hell is a place where the damned suffer for their sins. Since Jesus was sinless, why would He descend into hell? Did He go there to suffer for our sins and if so, why did He die on the cross? Jesus descending into hell doesn’t seem right.
Others who have a Roman Catholic background might wonder if Jesus’ descent into hell relates to purgatory. Purgatory is a false doctrine, invented by the Roman Catholic Church, which says most Christians, except for the super godly ones, have to go to purgatory after they die, to suffer and pay for the sins they have committed in this life. After suffering, maybe even for millions of years, they eventually become worthy to enter into heaven. This, of course, is not taught in the Bible and is a denial of the sufficiency of Christ’s sacrifice. We are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in the person and work of Christ alone, apart from any works done while living or dead. Jesus suffered for and paid the price for all our sins.
Two questions stand out: 1) Did Jesus actually descend into hell? 2) If Jesus did descend into hell, why? Get your Bible. You are going to need it as we search the Scriptures to answer these two questions. In the process, we will also find an answer to a third question, “Who are the sons of God in Gen. 6?” If you like solving mysteries, you will love this
Does Eph. 4:9 Speak Of Jesus Descending Into Hell?
Two key texts are used to support Jesus’ descent into hell. The first text is Eph. 4:9 which reads, “(Now this expression, “He ascended,” what does it mean except that He also had descended into the lower parts of the earth?” The theme of Ephesians chapters 4-6 is the believer’s walk. The Apostle Paul begins chapter 4 by exhorting us to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord and to seek biblical unity, which is unity around agreed upon doctrine (vss. 3-6). Paul then addresses spiritual gifts (vs. 7) that are given to the church saying, “But to each one of us grace was given according to the measure of Christ’s gift.” He is speaking of the spiritually gifted people given to us by the grace of Christ Jesus, who is the Head of the Church. Paul then quotes Psa. 68:18 in Eph. 4:8, “Therefore it says, “When he ascended on high, he led captive a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men.”” This verse is quoted to support vs. 7, the fact that the Church has been given spiritual gifts and spiritually gifted people by Christ, the Church’s Head.
Eph. 4:9 is referring back to vs. 8, and the emphasis is not on Jesus’ descent into hell, but Jesus descent to earth to die, to establish and build His Church by giving gifts to men whom He saved by grace. Verse 11 gives a sampling of gifted human resources that Christ has given to His Church e.g., apostles, prophets, evangelists, and pastor-teachers. In vs. 12, he states the purpose of why these gifted people are given to the Church, “for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ.”
Eph. 4:9, when taken out of context, may seem to indicate that Jesus descended into hell, but when considered within its context, it clearly refers to Jesus’ incarnation and His giving gifted people to His Church to equip believers and build up the body of Christ.
Does I Pet. 3:18-20 Speak Of Jesus Descending Into Hell?
The other key text often cited to support Jesus descent into hell is I Pet. 3:18-20, which reads:
18 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; 19 in which also He went and made proclamation to the spirits now in prison, 20 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.
This text raises several questions, which if answered, leads us to the answers we are in search of, namely, “Did Jesus descend into hell?” and if so, “Why?” In answering these two questions, we will also answer an additional question for free, namely, “Who are the sons of God in Gen. 6?” First, we need to note that I Pet. 3:18 speaks of Jesus’ substitutionary sacrifice for sinners. Jesus the “just” died for the “unjust.” It also tells us the purpose of Jesus’ substitutionary death, “to bring us to God,” that is, to rescue us from the wrath to come. It required, as the end of vs. 18 states, Jesus “being put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit.”
Jesus died physically, but His spirit did not die, just like our spirit doesn’t die when we die physically. We have an immortal spirit that continues to live, even after we die physically. The spirits of believers go to be with the Lord after our bodies die (II Cor. 5:8; Phil. 1:23). Physical death, leads to the temporary separation of our spirits from our physical bodies. Our physical body returns to the dust from which it was created (Psa. 104:29; Eccl. 3:20). At the resurrection, our spirit is again reunited with our body, but with a better body that is glorified, fit for eternity (I Cor. 15:50-57; I Thess. 4:13-18).
When Peter writes at the end of vs. 18, “He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit.” He is speaking of Jesus’ physical death, and the separation of His spirit, from His physical body. Jesus’ spirit was only separated from His physical body for 3 days before being reunited with a glorified version of His body and then He was resurrected from the dead. Peter is telling us what Jesus did between His death and resurrection.
Verse 19 follows on the heels of verse 18. Verse 19 continues the thought of vs. 18 and contains the rest of the sentence. The last thing Peter mentions in vs. 18 is Jesus’ “being made alive in the spirit.” Verse 19 then tells us what happened during that short time period after Jesus’ death, but before His resurrection, after He was “made alive in the spirit.” Verse 19 reads, “in which also He went and made proclamation to the spirits now in prison.” Here we are told what Jesus did between His death and resurrection, and where Jesus went.
What did Jesus do? Verse 19 tells us, “He went and made proclamation.” The word proclamation is often translated “to preach,” or “to proclaim.” Here it refers to a victory speech, the victory of Jesus conquering sin and death by dying on the cross, to bring sinners to God, as vs. 18 in the near preceding context tells us. But who was the audience? The text tells us at the end of vs. 19, “to the spirits now in prison.” You might be asking yourself, “What spirits? What prison?” We will need to look at multiple other Scriptures in order to find out exactly what imprisoned spirits are being referred to and where their prison is located. But let’s finish with I Pet. 3:18-20 first. It is obvious that the spirits being referred to in vs. 19 are demons as they are described as “in prison” a place of incarceration for crimes committed. Demons are disobedient angels, spirit beings.
I Pet. 3:20 gives us a few more clues to help us solve the mystery of the imprisoned spirits. Verse 20 reads, “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.” There are multiple clues in vs. 20. First, the spirits in prison were “disobedient, when the patience of God kept waiting in the days of Noah.” Here we are given a helpful time reference. The spirits or demons who sinned, did so “in the days Noah,” the days preceding the flood. We know this because vs. 20 tells us the demons were sinning, “during the construction of the ark.” The ark took about 120 years to build. Genesis 6:5 gives us the reason why God sent a flood upon the earth, “Then the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great on the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” That is about as bad as it gets! The wickedness of man tried the patience of God leading to the judgment of the flood. It was during the time period, before the flood, that the spirits or demons in prison sinned. This identifies for us, to some degree, the group to whom Jesus made a victory proclamation between His death and resurrection. This entices us to go to Genesis and search for more information about the sin of the demons, but we will save that for later. Let’s stick like hounds to the trail of the imprisoned spirits, who sinned before the flood.
More Helpful Intel About “The Spirits In Prison” From II Pet. 2:4-9
Thankfully, Peter discusses these same disobedient spirits who lived in the days of Noah in more detail in II Peter 2:4-9 which says:
4 For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell and committed them to pits of darkness, reserved for judgment; 5 and did not spare the ancient world, but preserved Noah, a preacher of righteousness, with seven others, when He brought a flood upon the world of the ungodly; 6 and if He condemned the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to destruction by reducing them to ashes, having made them an example to those who would live ungodly lives thereafter; 7 and if He rescued righteous Lot, oppressed by the sensual conduct of unprincipled men 8 (for by what he saw and heard that righteous man, while living among them, felt his righteous soul tormented day after day by their lawless deeds), 9 then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from temptation, and to keep the unrighteous under punishment for the day of judgment,. . .
The theme of II Peter is false teachers. In II Pet. 2:1-3 Peter gives a profile of false teachers so the church can recognize and be on guard against them. In II Pet. 2:4, a comparison is being made between the certain judgment that will fall upon the coming false teachers and, you guessed it, “angels when they sinned.” Sinning angels are demons. Peter says the sinning angels were “cast into hell.” This is the location of “the spirits now in prison” (I Pet. 3:19).
At this point, both of our major questions are answered. Peter says Jesus went to hell and made a victory proclamation to fallen angels, demons, spirits who were incarcerated in hell. But there is more to learn, so let’s keep sleuthing.
The Greek word translated “hell” in II Pet. 2:4 is Tartarus, the only place it is used in the New Testament. Peter borrows the term from Greek mythology. In Greek mythology, Tartarus is the place where the dead are incarcerated, held captive, like a prison. But Peter isn’t speaking of a mythological place, though he borrows a term from Greek mythology. He is speaking of a literal place, a prison for demons (I Pet. 3:19). The place where the demons are incarcerated is described in vs. 4 as “pits of darkness, reserved for judgment” (II Pet. 2:4, NASB). The ESV has “committed them to chains of gloomy darkness, to be kept until judgment.” It is clear that the incarcerated demons are going to be in prison until the judgment of the great day (Rev. 20:11-15). They are “cast,” “committed” or incarcerated in the dungeon of tartarus/hell/pits of darkness, “reserved for judgment” (II Pet. 2:4). These are the spirits Jesus went and made victory proclamation to after “being put to death in the body, but made alive in the spirit” (I Pet. 3:18).
Peter, again, locks in the time period of when the demons sinned and were incarcerated, alluding to Noah again in II Pet. 2:5, just like he did in I Pet. 3:20. Remember that in II Peter 2:4-9, Peter is speaking of the judgment that is sure to fall upon false teachers. He is giving an example of how God did not spare the ungodly in the past, saying in vs. 5, “and did not spare the ancient world, but preserved Noah, a preacher of righteousness, with seven others, when He brought a flood upon the world of the ungodly.” He again mentions the time of Noah, as in I Pet. 3:19. A judgment, which came upon the earth, in part, because demons sinned and sinned so grievously, they have been kept in prison from that time for the great day of judgment.
Peter, then gives another example of the sure judgment of God which will fall on false teachers, a judgment that is compared to God’s judgment of Sodom and Gomorrah (II Pet. 2:6-8). Peter says:
6 and if He condemned the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to destruction by reducing them to ashes, having made them an example to those who would live ungodly lives thereafter; 7 and if He rescued righteous Lot, oppressed by the sensual conduct of unprincipled men 8 (for by what he saw and heard that righteous man, while living among them, felt his righteous soul tormented day after day by their lawless deeds),
Notice the parallels. God brought judgment on the ancient world of Noah, but rescued the few who entered the ark. Peter gives another similar illustration, God brought judgment on Sodom and Gomorrah, but rescued the few, Lot and his daughters. He tells us that Lot was “oppressed by the sensual conduct of unprincipled men” (vs. 7). Sodom, Gomorrah, and the cities of the plain, were, like the ancient world of Noah, saturated in wickedness, immorality, even homosexuality. This is what Peter is referring to as “the sensual conduct of unprincipled men.” If you read Genesis chapters 18-19, you will discover that the men of Sodom wanted to have homosexual relations with Lot’s guests, the two angels, thinking they were men. Even after being struck blind by the angels, the men of the city continued to grope for the door in unbridled sensual lust (Gen. 19:5, 11).
Though the theme of I Peter is suffering and the theme of II Peter is false teachers, Peter references the same demons who disobeyed in the days of Noah. In I Peter, Peter speaks of the suffering of Jesus, who between His death and resurrection, made a victory proclamation to spirits who are now in prison. In II Peter, Peter speaks of the judgment that is sure to fall on false teachers. His point is that even angels, when they sinned in the past, were cast into hell, to await a greater judgment to come, so be assured, the false teachers won’t get away with anything. We need not fear that God’s judgment will come upon us when He judges the ungodly. As an example, Lot and his daughters were saved while Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed, like the ancient world of Noah, for their wickedness. There is more still if we look at the book of Jude.
What Does Jude 6-7 Teach Us About The Angels In Prison?
The theme of the book of Jude is the same as II Peter, false teachers. Jude says many of the same things that are found in II Peter. However, the verb tenses in II Peter tell us that Peter is predicting the coming of false teachers, while the verb tenses in Jude describe what Jude is currently dealing with. What Peter predicted, Jude is experiencing. Jude then repeats much of what Peter said in II Peter, putting it into commentary form about what is happening in his own day. Jude also speaks of the same disobedient spirits in Jude 6-7.
Jude elaborates on the sin of the angels, why their sin was so terrible, and why it led to their incarceration until the great day of judgment. Jude says in Jude 6-7:
6 And angels who did not keep their own domain, but abandoned their proper abode, He has kept in eternal bonds under darkness for the judgment of the great day, 7 just as Sodom and Gomorrah and the cities around them, since they in the same way as these indulged in gross immorality and went after strange flesh, are exhibited as an example in undergoing the punishment of eternal fire.
Jude tells us that the angels who sinned in the days of Noah, "did not keep their proper domain, but abandoned their proper abode” (vs. 6). Angels live in the spiritual realm. But we know they can appear to men when God permits. They can eat food and they look just like men. In fact, they are often described as men and angels in the same context (See Gen. 18:1-2, 16-17, 20, 22, 33; 19:1, 5, 15). This is why we can entertain angels without knowing it (Heb. 13:2). They look just like humans, but are, in fact, spirit beings. Yet, it is not God’s will that angels appear to mankind except in rare instances when He instructs them to do so.
The spirits in prison Jesus preached to left their spirit realm and appeared to mankind. This is what Jude 6 is telling us. In fact, he uses a very strong word, “abandoned their proper abode” which indicates they didn’t just appear for a moment to mankind, but came to live with men on earth. The word translated abandon means to desert, leave behind, abandon, or forsake. They forsook the spiritual realm to live among men. But Jude isn’t finished telling us about the nature of their sin, he gives us even more!
Jude 6 affirms that as a consequence of living with men (abandoning their proper domain), without God’s permission, the disobedient angels are being “kept in eternal bonds, under darkness, for the judgment of the great day.” This is the same place Peter describes in I Pet. 3:19 as “prison” and in II Pet. 2:4, as “hell” and “pits of darkness reserved for judgment.” This is where Jesus went to make His victory proclamation speech after dying on the cross, but before rising from the dead.
Then Jude says something very insightful in Jude 7, "just as Sodom and Gomorrah and the cities around them, since they in the same way as these indulged in gross immorality and went after strange flesh.” Here we learn more about the nature of the sin of these disobedient spirits, angels, or demons. Their sin was like the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah, cities rife with homosexuality. Remember, the men of Sodom even lusted after angels who came to rescue Lot, thinking they were men. Jude says the demons committed sins, “in the same way as these.” Keep that in mind, we will return to it in a minute.
The root word used in vs. 7, translated “gross immorality” (NASB) is the normal word for immorality with a prefix added to it that amplifies its meaning. This is why the NASB translates it “gross immorality,” the ESV “indulged in sexual immorality,” the NKJV “having given themselves over to sexual immorality,” and the NIV has “gave themselves up to sexual immorality.” The idea is that the lives of those in Sodom and Gomorrah were totally given over to sexual immorality of every kind, which in itself is a judgment of God (Rom. 1:24-32). The demons “in just the same way as these” sinned, committing acts of gross immorality! Woe!
Sins of immorality have differing degrees. For instance, there is the sin of immoral lust, the least degree of immorality. Then there is fornication, where two unmarried people commit sexual acts, sinning against God, each other, their own bodies, and any potential future spouses (I Thess. 4:3-8). Then there is the sin of adultery, when one or more persons are married, which adds sin to all the parties involved by committing acts of fornication, and along with that, there is also sin against the person’s spouse and the breaking of the marriage covenant. Homosexuality is one degree worse still, as you add to all the above, another layer of sexual perversion, men with men, women with women (Rom. 1:26-27). There is another kind of sexual perversion, bestiality, for then you have sexual acts outside human kind. This is similar to what Jude describes. The sin of the men of Sodom is described as “gross immorality” men, lusting in sexual passion after men and angels. Amazingly, Jude says the angels in prison sinned, “in just the same way as these!” The “these” refers to those men who committed gross immorality in Sodom. This is made even clearer as we note what Jude says.
Consider what happened at Sodom when the angels came to rescue Lot! Men, wanted to have relations with angels. A sexual perversion of the greatest kind, men with angels, two different kinds, as with the sin of bestiality. This is why Jude describes it as, “gross immorality.” Keep in mind that Jude is speaking of the sin that led to the incarceration of the demons now in prison whom Jesus preached to, saying, “since they in the same way as these. . .” Jude, amplifies his meaning by saying that the incarcerated demons, like the men of Sodom, “went after strange flesh.” Literally, flesh of a different kind. Fallen angels abandoned their proper abode, the spiritual realm, and committed acts of gross immorality with mankind, “strange flesh” or flesh of a different kind.
Jude, speaking at the end of vs. 7, says that these demons, who abandoned “their proper abode” or “habitation,” who engaged in sexual acts with mankind, "are exhibited as an example in undergoing the punishment of eternal fire.” This is clearly a synonym for hell, which Peter describes as pits of darkness, etc. This is where Jesus went to make a victory proclamation after being "put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit” (I Pet. 3:18). He descended into hell, not to suffer, or to do penance, or to be made worthy to get to heaven, but to proclaim victory over sin and death to the fallen angels, who, since the days of Noah, have been incarcerated for abandoning their proper spiritual domain, to live with and commit acts of gross immorality with mankind. Now let’s turn our attention to Genesis and see what we can learn from Genesis 6.
What Does Genesis 6 Teach Us About The Angels Who Sinned?
You might be wondering if Genesis mentions the sin of these angels. Peter is referring to something he knows about from the days of Noah. Genesis is the only inspired record of that time period. Unless the Holy Spirit revealed to Peter historical information never mentioned in the Bible, which is possible, but not likely, we should be able to find what Peter is talking about in the pre-flood narrative in the book of Genesis. And it just so happens that we do learn what happened in Gen. 6:1-4 which says:
1 Now it came about, when men began to multiply on the face of the land, and daughters were born to them, 2 that the sons of God saw that the daughters of men were beautiful; and they took wives for themselves, whomever they chose. 3 Then the LORD said, “My Spirit shall not strive with man forever, because he also is flesh; nevertheless his days shall be one hundred and twenty years.” 4 The Nephilim were on the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of God came in to the daughters of men, and they bore children to them. Those were the mighty men who were of old, men of renown.
We read in vs. 2 that, “the sons of God saw that the daughters of men were beautiful; and they took wives for themselves, whomever they choose.” Some say that this is a reference to the godly line of Seth taking wives for themselves (Gen. 4:26). But it is not a convincing view based on what we have seen so far from I & II Peter and Jude. First, Gen. 6:1-4 is the explanation for why “the wickedness of man was great on the earth and every intent of the thoughts of his heart were only evil continuously” (Gen. 6:5). Genesis 6:5 is the reason why God sent a flood upon the earth to destroy it. Thus, Gen. 6:1-4 is the reason things got so bad. Commenting on the genealogy of the godly line of Seth does not explain why the wickedness of man was great on the earth or why God would judge the world.
Verse 2 says the sons of God “took wives for themselves.” The phrase “sons of God” is a reference to angels, as can be seen from texts like Job 1:6; 2:1; 38:7. This also fits well with what Peter and Jude say, that spirits sinned, angels were disobedient in the days of Noah. They abandoned their proper abode, the spiritual realm, and engaged in gross immorality, the same kind of sin that the wicked men of Sodom wanted to engage in when they lusted after angels. Verse 2 is telling us that angels cohabitated and took wives for themselves from the daughters of men. Then vs. 3 says, “Then the LORD said, “My Spirit shall not strive with man forever. . .” I believe this is what Peter is referring to when he says, “when the patience of God kept waiting in the days of Noah” (I Pet. 3:20). God’s Spirit was striving with the wickedness of man, which was amplified by the wickedness of demons—the result of the sons of God taking wives for themselves.
Some object, saying that such an interpretation cannot be true as “angels neither marry nor are given in marriage” (Mt. 22:30). However, in that context Jesus is speaking of the holy angels in heaven. It is true, holy angels in heaven don’t marry and they are not given in marriage. Jesus doesn’t comment on their ability to procreate, nor their ability to abandon the spiritual realm without permission. Remember, Jude makes it clear that the angels engaged in “gross immorality,” a word that describes unbiblical sexual relations, and “in just the same way as these,” referring to the extreme immorality of Sodom and Gomorrah. They went after “strange flesh” or flesh of a different kind, having left their proper domain, the spiritual realm.
This view, that view that demons took wives for themselves, is further supported by the near following context of Gen. 6:4, which indicates that the result of the sons of God cohabitating with women was not only that it tried the patience of God in the days of Noah (I Pet. 3:20), but vs. 4 reads, “The Nephilim were on the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of God came in to the daughters of men, and they bore children to them. Those were the mighty men who were of old, men of renown.” Satan tried to corrupt the human race so that mankind, like demons, would be unredeemable. If you are going to redeem a person, you need a perfect, fully human person to die in substitution for them, which is what Jesus did on the cross. He was perfectly God and man. However, if you have even a speck of demon DNA in your system, you become unredeemable.
Thus, the angels who abandoned their proper domain and engaged in gross immorality, not only committed fornication, adultery, and homosexuality, but in taking women for themselves, they perverted God’s plan for humans to engage in sexual acts with humans only, one man and one woman, to be married for life (Gen. 2:24). The result of the angel’s actions would not only be a great perversion of God’s intention for sexual relations within marriage between a man and woman, but also a perversion of sexual relations between two different kinds. The result was “mighty men who were of old, men of renown.” The disobedient spirits did, very same thing the men of Sodom and Gomorrah lusted to do, but were prevented by the holy angels.”
There is no doubt, based on the clear testimony of Scripture, that Jesus “descended into hell.” Why did He descend into hell? To make a victory proclamation to the demons, who abandoned their domain and who committed acts of gross immorality in the days of Noah. Jesus proclaimed to the demons in prison that fact that He had conquered sin and death. Think about it. Mankind knew Jesus died, conquering sin and death. The holy angels knew that Jesus died, conquering sin and death. The fallen angels, or demons, knew that Jesus died, conquering sin and death. But there was one group who wouldn’t know. What group is that? The angels who sinned in the days of Noah, who had left their proper domain and engaged in gross immorality and were therefore, incarcerated in pits of darkness reserved for judgment, the very dungeon of hell itself. Jesus wanted even them to know He had conquered sin and death.
This why the church, from earliest times, believed Jesus descended into hell, and why it appears in the Apostles Creed.
I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit
and born of the virgin Mary.
He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended to hell.
The third day he rose again from the dead.
He ascended to heaven
and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty.
From there he will come to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic* church, (*not Roman Catholic, but “holy universal church")
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen.
Notice that even the Apostle’s Creed was very precise in describing Jesus’ descent into hell as being after He died and was buried, but before He ascended into heaven. They must have studied their Bibles!