Pastor and Christian Leadership Resources

Going to Hell for All the Right Reasons

  • Robert Smith Jr. Assoc. Professor of Preaching at Beeson Divinity School of Samford University, Birmingham, Alabama
  • Published Feb 12, 2009
Going to Hell for All the Right Reasons

We read the Apostles’ Creed very casually, especially when it comes to this statement: "He descended into hell." Because we read it so casually, it does not comfort us; it does not move us; it does not strengthen us; and it does not provoke our thinking.

"He descended into hell." Timothy George, the Dean of Beeson Divinity School, lifts up the term "a coincidence of opposites." I think that is what is embodied in this credo statement, "He descended into hell." There’s a paradox here. It begins with the Christ of heaven and ends with hell.

How do you talk about Jesus and hell in the same sentence? It’s easy to talk about Jesus and heaven in the same sentence. It really fits. Jesus said, "And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you may also be where I am" (John 14:3). Jesus and heaven go together. But Jesus descending into hell seems rather incongruous.

Paul says, "For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, those of my own race" (Romans 9:3). Jesus did more than wish; He descended into hell. Jesus, who came from heaven, descended into hell. That’s a "coincidence of opposites." Now this is a statement that we would like to just really circumvent or excise out of the Apostles’ Creed. It doesn’t seem to fit.

The wonderful thing about the Apostles’ Creed is that it has to be treated in an interrelational manner. Every part of it must be treated in light of the whole. Therefore, this statement has to be developed in the dark room of the entire Apostles’ Creed from the negative of 1 Peter 3:19: "He descended into hell."

It’s like expository preaching. The late celebrated expository preaching giant Dr. E.K. Bailey said, "Expository preaching is a message that focuses on a portion of Scripture in order to render the precise meaning of the text. The preacher then poignantly and passionately presents the message to move hearers to actions and attitudes that are dictated by the text." We have to treat this credo statement in light of the entire statement.

This is the most controversial statement in the entire Creed. The Apostles’ Creed was not recognized at Nicaea in 325; it is not expounded at Constantinople in 383; it is not reaffirmed in Ephesus or Chalcedon. In fact, it really doesn’t show up for the first time until it is published along with the other credo statements in A.D. 633 and in the seventh council of Toledo in 693.

It’s controversial. "He descended into hell." This was not written by the apostles. It was not cut in stone as if it had been penned by Peter, James, John and the other apostles. It is a digest, a summary of what the church believes and teaches. The architects of the Apostles’ Creed believed their confessions. We, their successors, often merely confess their beliefs. We give no thought to what they believed; we simply confess what they believed. Therefore, we know the "what" of our faith, but we don’t know the "why" of our faith. And when someone challenges us about why we believe what we believe, we give an untenable, indefensible response.

The Apostles’ Creed presents a systematic unfolding of what we ought to believe. Even the great reformer Martin Luther expressed his perspective on hell as a physical place. He said, "I think very little of the idea that there is a special place that is consigned for the damned dead to be put in prior to the final judgment."

Paul announces, "All Scripture is given by inspiration of God and is profitable for doctrine, for correction, for reproof, for instruction in righteousness that the man of God [and woman of God] might be perfect, thoroughly furnished, in all good works" (2 Timothy 3:16). Since the text in 1 Peter 3:19 says, "He went and preached to the spirits in prison," there must be something profitable from this inspired text. And so what is it?

We read the author, Simon Peter, and it’s as if we are reading his mail because Peter was not initially writing to us. Let’s read his mail. In 1 Peter 3:14, he acknowledges that we are going to suffer. He is not a proponent of prosperity theology. In verse 14, he admonishes us, "Don’t be paralyzed by fear. Don’t fear fear." In 1 Peter 3:15 we are challenged "to always be ready to give an answer for the reason of the hope that lies in you."

1 Peter 3:16 infers that, "You are going to be the kind of people who will lead the kind of life as a Christian that those who persecute you, put you in the Roman Coliseum and allow lions to dismember your body, when they see how you lie before them praising God and praying for the forgiveness of those who were persecuting them, they will be embarrassed and put to shame." In 1 Peter 3:17 he argues that, "You ought to be the kind of individual that is eager to do good, because it’s better to suffer for doing good and for serving God than to suffer for doing evil."

And then we are brought to 1 Peter 3:18 where Peter emphatically states, "Christ once and for all died." One time. It would no longer be necessary for mercy to make a yearly installment payment to justice at the annual great day of the atonement sacrifice. On that Friday when Jesus died once and for all, the curtain in the temple was rent from top to bottom, and God was sending a message. The message was: "I am tearing up the mortgage note once and for all."

Elvina M. Hall picked up the pen of illumination and dipped it in the ink of inspiration when she wrote, "Jesus paid it all, all to Him I owe. Sin had left a crimson stain, He washed it white as snow." He died one time, and that was enough.

He also died as the righteous one for unrighteous ones. This is a statement of vicarious, substitutionary atonement. A songwriter penned these words: "I should have been crucified, I should have suffered and died. I should have hung on the cross in disgrace, but Jesus, God’s Son took my place." He suffered as the righteous for the unrighteous in order to bring us to God—that is, to reconcile us. As the late great Clarence Jordan, Greek scholar, says in his Cabbage Patch version of 2 Corinthians 5:19, "God was in Christ ‘hugging’ the world back to Himself." Yes, He did it to bring us unto God.

Next Peter says, "He has been put to death in the flesh." What made Jesus’ death eligible? The incarnation! Dr. Gardner C. Taylor once said, "Before Christ came to earth, Christ couldn’t die. This is the pre-existent Christ—the Christ before Bethlehem. But when the Word became flesh and dwelt among us [John 1:14], Christ became death eligible, and He could be put to death in the flesh."

Next the text asserts, "But he was quickened by the Spirit." What does "quickened by the Spirit" mean? His dead body is quickened and made alive by the Spirit at the resurrection on Sunday morning. Christ took care of ensuring that His spirit was committed to His Father: "Father, into your hands I commit my spirit" (Luke 23:46). The Spirit of God raised Him up on Sunday morning. He was raised alive by the Spirit, by which He went and preached to the spirits in prison. Jesus did not go to the spirits in prison with a cross; but He went there with a scepter to declare that He was the victorious Lord.

1 Peter 3:20 says, "Eight in all were saved through water." However, this is not regenerational baptism. In Pauline theology, baptism is dying, being buried, and resurrected. Baptism, like a kite, is a symbol that points beyond itself. Peter explains: "Not the kind of baptism that washes your skin, but the kind that gives you a clean conscience." One is at peace with God. 1 Peter 3:21 refers to the water which symbolizes "baptism that saves." When the fallen angels disobeyed and followed Satan, they fell to the earth and were consigned to this prison referred to in the text as hell.

In the antediluvian age, Noah preached for 120 years, and the people didn’t obey his message and did not enter the ark. After 120 years of preaching, only Noah and his family entered the ark. Eight persons survived the flood. Why did God wait 120 years before He sent the flood? Peter addresses this question in 2 Peter 3:9: "The Lord is not slow in keeping His promise, as some of us understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance." 1 Peter 3:22 provides a purpose for this entire passage: all of this takes place as a result of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who ascended, and now everything is subject to Him: angels, authorities and powers.

Now this statement in the Apostles’ Creed is difficult for us to latch onto because we’ve been influenced and informed from the arena of arts: from the writings of Dante and John Milton, and from the painting of Michelangelo’s The Last Judgment. We’ve been informed and shaped by them. So what does prison really mean?

In the Gorée Island of West Africa, where the slave dungeons were, there is a door that is named "The Door of No Return." Slaves were taken through that door. What’s ironic is that there is no door there. But once they got beyond that door, and were put in the slave ships, their families were separated; and they would never see each other again nor come back to Africa again. Is this what this prison is? The Door of No Return?

Jean-Paul Sartre wrote a play titled "No Exit," where he talks about hell. Is that really what this prison is?

Could God’s hell be His love for human beings? When you love someone, you want that person to share everything you have. God wanted people to share everything with Him in the coming of Jesus Christ; however, Jesus came to His own, but His own received Him not (John 1:11). Couldn’t God have made it easier on Himself? Couldn’t God have just written a tax-deductible charity check for every human being on the face of the earth? This would have been an eternal euphemism, which would not have done us any good.

Instead of God transferring funds to us, He transferred Himself. As a result of taking on flesh, God felt what we felt and did not spare His Son from death. That’s God’s hell. It breaks the heart of God when people reject the person and work of Jesus Christ. Christ’s hell, if there is such a thing, is the absence of His Father. "My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?" (Mark 15:34).

Even Socrates, when he was dying, had friends around him. Before he died, he had a final philosophical discussion before drinking deadly hemlock. Jesus wasn’t alone in death. He was crucified between two thieves. His mother, John and the Roman officers were there. The weeping women and the crowd were there. But where was God? Peter is writing to encourage a little congregation in Asia Minor in the midst of their persecution. We must keep this in mind as we consider this text: "He went to preach to the spirits in prison."

In A.D. 64, Nero caused a fire in Rome. In October of that same year, after blaming Christians, he took Christians, and at night burned their bodies to light up his palace. Peter is encouraging Christians to be firm in the midst of their discouragement and persecution. Why? Because of Christ! Not only His suffering, not only His death, not only His resurrection, not only His ascension, but also for the fact that He went to the prison and preached to the spirits there. In going to preach to the spirits, He was making this announcement: "I have won, I’m victorious, and I sit on the right hand of the Father in the place of power, and make intercession for you."

What is hell? What does the term mean? Jesus gives us a picture of the valley of the Gehenna; it’s really a place of permanency. It’s a garbage dump. It’s the incinerator outside of the Jerusalem walls where there’s perpetual burning; people throw their garbage over into that valley. Jesus talks about hell. He says, "The worm doesn’t die; there’s weeping and gnashing of teeth."

Hades is not a final resting place for the damned dead; it’s a detention center for the damned dead. It’s like the county jail. Offenders don’t go there for a life sentence, or stay there for 50 years. They stay there and wait for the judge to call them for their sentencing. If guilty, they are sent to a correctional facility.

When did Jesus go there? Some would say Jesus went there right after He was buried; He went down to the prison, preached to the spirits, and rose on the third day. Perhaps Jesus went there after the resurrection; and on His way to ascend to the throne in heaven, He stopped off at the prison and made an announcement of His victory.

He did not appear in Hades as a prophet and say, "Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand." He did not appear as a priest and say, "I have laid down My life for you." However, He appeared as a King and said, "The kingdoms of this world have become the kingdoms of our God, and of His Christ, and He shall reign forever." Whether Jesus went to hell and preached to the spirits before the resurrection or after the resurrection is debatable. The fact is that He did it. We don’t have to worry about sequence or fight about chronology: the fact is that He did it.

Where is this prison? We think of heaven as being above us, so this prison must be beneath us, right? In John 11:41, Jesus gets ready to raise Lazarus. He looked up and talked to someone by the name of Father. On the day of Jesus’ ascension, the disciples are standing gazing into the sky as Jesus ascends into heaven (Acts 1:11). Heaven is up, therefore the prison must be down, right? If Paul is referring to himself in 2 Corinthians 12:2 as the one who was taken into the third heaven, if one believes in a multi-tiered heaven, then heaven must be up; therefore, the prison must be down, right? Paul states in 1 Thessalonians 4:17: "We shall be caught up together to meet Him in the air." Doesn’t this mean that the prison must be below?

Yet Paul says in Ephesians 2:2 that Satan is the prince and the power of air? Isn’t hell below us? And Ephesians 6:12 asserts that we don’t wrestle against flesh and blood, but against powers, against principalities, against spiritual weakness in high places. We sing, "I’ve got friends in high places." Christians have foes in high places. We cannot necessarily say hell is below.

Who’s in hell? Who’s in the prison? According to the text, the fallen angels, and those persons of the antediluvian age who did not listen to the preaching of Noah. But I think that they represent a microcosmic reflection of a macrocosmic reality of people who refuse to hear the gospel. The way one winds up in Hades is by rejecting the person of Jesus Christ. You may believe in Buddha, you may believe in Confucius, you may believe in all the other idol gods, but there’s no other name given among humans whereby we must be saved other than the name of Jesus (Acts 4:12)!

Why did Jesus go to the prison? Jesus went to the prison in order to say to disobedient spirits, "I won." The forecast for us is that the battle is already over. We are victorious. He went there to say that what was written in Matthew 16:18, "On this rock I shall build my church and the gates of hell shall not withstand it" is accomplished. The gates are not an offensive weapon. Gates are a defensive instrument! It’s the church that’s on the offense! And the gates of hell cannot prevail or withstand the approach of the church.

Jesus is saying to those in the headquarters of Hades, "Your time of authority is up." He’s saying in 1 Corinthians 15:25 that "I must reign until I have put every enemy under My feet, and the last enemy is death." He will say to death, "O death where is your sting? O grave, where is your victory? For the sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. Thanks be to God for giving us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ" (1 Corinthians 15:55).

Paul said in that wonderful Christological hymn in Philippians 2:5, that Jesus Christ, who was in the image of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God but had a "kenosis" experience. He emptied Himself, condescended, became a servant and was obedient to death, even to the death on a cross. But God had now highly exalted Him and given Him a name that’s above every name, that "at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, on earth, and under the earth."

The songwriter wrote, "When Christ shall come with shouts of acclamation, to take me home, what joy shall fill my heart? Then I shall bow in humble adoration, and there proclaim, ‘My God how great Thou art!’" Every knee shall bow to the lordship of Christ.

During the Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippin era, the Chicago Bulls were my favorite team. They were playing the championship game. I was at church that night. However, I had the game taped at home. I said to myself, I hope no one happens to come to pick up some worshiper and yells out the winner of the game. I wanted to really live with the suspense. Before I could get in my car after the conclusion of the evening service, however, someone blurted out, "The Bulls won! The Bulls won!"

I went home knowing the "who"—who the winner of the game was. I didn’t know the "how"—how it happened. I watched the game in its entirety to see how it happened. When the Bulls got behind because of errant passes, missed shots and missed dunks, I did not sweat. When they threw passes away, I was calm. I knew the game would turn out in my favor.

When Jesus went to the prison to preach to the spirits, He was giving us the "what." He was saying, "I’ve already won for you." He was saying that, "I’m already victorious." In John 19:30, Jesus said, "It is finished." According to Revelation 13:8, in the mind of God Jesus was already slain from before the foundation of the world. So when Jesus went to preach to the spirits, He did not go there to preach an evangelistic sermon. Like a herald, He went there to make an announcement. Jesus didn’t go there to preach the gospel. It’s not the gospel of a second chance.

When the seasoned black preacher used to imaginatively articulate what happened when Jesus went to hell to preach to the spirits, the black preacher would paint the picture and say: "Jesus put His shoes of dignity under the hall trees of time, and leapt into the womb of a virgin Mary. He took the train of nature, rode it for nine long months, and got off at a little town called Bethlehem. He was born in a stable, laid in a manger, and was wrapped in swaddling clothes.

"He walked the dusty road of Galilee for 33 years. He faced an unjust court. One day they marshaled Him to a place called

Calvary. They hung Him high, stretched Him wide, and dropped Him low. When they dropped Him low, three worlds lost their equilibrium: heaven, earth and hell. The chickens went home to roost at high noon, and midday looked like midnight. One Friday, He died. He died and stayed in the grave for three long days. But early one Sunday morning He got up. Jesus walked around for 40 long days, and 500 or more witnesses saw Him. He got on a cloud and started making His way back to glory."

On the way back home the black preacher said that, "He saw death, hell and Satan having a conversation. About that time, there was a loud clap of thunder, and an announcement was made at the prison gates of Hades. The announcement was, ‘Lift up your heads, O ye gates. And the King of Glory shall come in.’ The devil stood at the gates of Hades and asked the question, ‘Who is the King of Glory?’ And Jesus answered the question by saying, ‘The Lord strong and mighty. The Lord mighty in battle. Lift up your heads, o ye gates, and be lifted up, ye everlasting doors, and the King of glory shall come in.’ The devil asked the question again, ‘Who is the King of Glory?’ And Jesus said, ‘I told you before, and I’ll tell you again: the Lord strong and mighty. The Lord mighty in battle. He is the King of Glory.’

"The devil reinforced the gates to try and keep the King of Glory from coming in, but Jesus kicked in the gates, picked up the gates, and said, ‘Satan, I got an announcement to make: I am He who was dead. I’m alive forever more, and I have the keys to your house. I have the keys of death, the keys of hell, and the keys of the grave.’"

I’m so glad Jesus has the keys because when I die, death will not be a prison. He went to hell for all the right reasons. He went to vindicate Himself and to tell us we are victorious through His victory over death, hell and the grave!

In a hymn based on Psalm 46, titled "A Mighty Fortress is Our God," Martin Luther, the reformer, reminded the followers of the ascended Lord that they are victorious and Satan is defeated: "And though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us, we will not fear, for God has willed His truth to triumph through us, the Prince of darkness grim, we tremble not for him, his rage we can endure, for lo, below, his doom is sure. One little word shall fell him."