Via Dolorosa – Did Jesus go to hell?
(Note: I apologize ahead of time for the heavy theological slogging and the length of today’s offering. It can’t be helped. Godspeed your efforts and thanks for reading! ~CJ)
While none of the gospels exhaustively disclose what Jesus was up to as his body occupied the borrowed tomb of Joseph, there has been no end of speculation in respect to this timeframe. Part of that speculation has led to some rather novel interpretations, perhaps even outrageous! Since I’ve no interest in being novel or outrageous, I’ll give you what I think this following passage means: 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. ~I Peter 3:18-20 The question before us then is this: Did Jesus go to hell?
The “weekend in hell” concept came to some prominence around 750 A.D. when it found its way into the Apostle’s Creed by way of the Arians. Arianism, for a number of reasons, was considered heretical as early as 325 at the First Council of Nicaea. One of the primary weaknesses of the Arians was their denial of Christ’s preexistence. If you recall our time in the first chapter of John’s gospel, Christ’s preexistence was a big deal – the biggest of deals. Hold that thought.
The teaching supporting the “weekend in hell” basically states that Jesus went to visit hell where he there proclaimed his victory and then preached to the previously damned. To what end offers another fork in the road. Some say it was for the redemption of these ancient reprobates – a second chance as it were for the Noah-mockers. Others say it was a brief moment of Messiah boasting. And there’s a more recent group that have taken it even further. Because of the sometimes curious teachings of E.W. Kenyon (1867–1948), a whole theology has been built up around Jesus actually going to hell and suffering its torments. It has made for some lively preaching.
But back to the text. Our understanding hinges upon how we fill in the blanks between Peter’s sparse prose: …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… My take on this section is that Jesus, now made alive in the spirit after he gave up his spirit on the cross – was also preexistent and preaching through Noah during the whole Ark episode. Let me tighten that up by adding some helping words to the text that do it no violence: …in which also He (once) went and made proclamation to the spirits (who are) now in prison. This idea of the Spirit of Christ preaching through Old Testament prophets, and in this case, Noah, is something that Peter established in the opening chapter of this same Epistle when he said: As to this salvation, the prophets who prophesied of the grace that would come to you made careful searches and inquiries, seeking to know what person or time the Spirit of Christ within them was indicating, as He predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories to follow. ~I Peter 1:10,11 I believe it the same train of thought in chapter three. Jesus didn’t have a “weekend in hell”. The Spirit of Christ preached through prophets and Noah back in the day. That’s my simple take. Jesus was a pre-existent preacher. The Arians were in fact wrong. Way to go Council of Nicaea!
Moreover, two things remain from what we’ve already learned. On the cross Jesus said, “It is finished.” I believe he meant it. The sacrifice was complete. There was nothing to add and nothing more to do. But if we back up just a few minutes earlier to that exchange between Jesus and the thief on the cross, Jesus told us exactly where he was going once he passed from this earth. He said to the hopeful thief these comforting words: “Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise.” ~Luke 23:43 It was not a hellish weekend, but a heavenly one.