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“Jesus Christ descended into hell” is based upon the mistranslation and misinterpretation of 1 Pet. 3:18-20.


The Nicene Creed does not state that Christ descended into hell.

For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried. On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures; he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. (either of two early creeds. The first was issued by the first Council of Nicaea 325.)

The Athanasian Creed states that Christ descended into hell.

He suffered death for our salvation. He descended into hell and rose again from the dead. He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the father.(Latin Creed expounding chiefly the doctrine of the Trinity and the Incarnation, regarded as  authoritative by the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches, and also some Protestant churches. Modern scholars believe it was composed in the 5 century.)

The Apostles’ Creed states that Christ descended into hell.

He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended into hell. On the third day he rose again. He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the father.(There are two early creeds. The first was issued by the first Council of Nicaea 325 to state orthodoxy against Arianism. The second was perhaps issued by the Council of Constantinople 381; much longer, it is used at Holy Communion in both Eastern and Western Churches. A creed ascribed to Christ’s apostles and maintained in its present form since the early Middle Ages.)


John Calvin accepts “Christ descended into hell” as the truth written in the Bible.

We ought not to omit his descent into hell, a matter of no small moment in bringing about redemption. Now it appears from the ancient writers that this phrase which we read in the Creed was once not so much used in the churches. Nevertheless, in setting forth a summary of doctrine a place must be given to it, as it contains the useful and not-to-be-despised mystery of a most important matter....The ‘descent into hell’ is an expression of the spiritual torment that Christ underwent for us.(John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian religion translated by Ford Lewis Battles. Philadelphia: Westminster Press. Vol. 2, Ch. 16, v. 8-11.)

     What is the origin of this statement, “Jesus Christ descended into hell” found in both the Athanasian Creed and the Apostles’ Creed? Is there any Bible passage to prove that it springs from the Scripture? Some cite 1 Peter 3:18-20. When these passages are thoroughly studied, it becomes apparent this conclusion is from a mistranslation of the Greek text.
 
1 Pet 3:18-20 ὅτι καὶ Χριστὸς...θανατωθεὶς μὲν σαρκὶ ζῳοποιηθεὶς δὲ πνεύματι· ἐν ᾧ καὶ τοῖς ἐν φυλακῇ πνεύμασιν πορευθεὶς ἐκήρυξεν, ἀπειθήσασίν ποτε ὅτε  ἀπεξεδέχετο ἡ τοῦ θεοῦ μακροθυμία ἐν ἡμέραις Νῶε κατασκευαζομένης κιβωτοῦ εἰς ἣν ὀλίγοι, τοῦτ᾽ ἔστιν ὀκτὼ ψυχαί, διεσώθησαν δι᾽ ὕδατος. 

KJV For Christ...being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit: By which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison; which sometime were disobedient, when once the long-suffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls were saved by water.
NKJFor Christ...being put to death in the flesh but made alive by the Spirit, by whom also He went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly were disobedient, when once the divine longsuffering waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight souls, were saved through water.
GWN His body was put to death, but he was brought to life through his spirit. In it he also went to proclaim his victory to the spirits kept in prison.
RWBChrist...being put to death in the flesh but made alive by the Spirit, by whom also He went and preached to the spirits in prison.
NIV Christ was put to death in the body but made alive by the Spirit through whom also he went and preached to the spirits in prison.
NRS He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, in which also he...and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison.
LB  Christ...through his body died, his spirit lived on, and it was in the spirit that he visited the spirits in prison.   
NJB Christ...In the body he was put to death, in the spirit he was raised to life, and, in the spirit, he went to preach to the spirits in prison.  
NAB Christ...Put to death in the flesh, he was brought to life in the spirit. In it he also went to preach to the spirits in prison.
NLT  Christ...He suffered physical death, but he was raised to life in the Spirit. So he went and preached to the spirits in prison.


The LB, NJB and NAB can be simply summarized as follows:

LB  Christ...through his body died, his spirit lived on
NJBChrist...he was put to death, in the spirit he was raised to life
NABChrist...put to death in the flesh, he was brought to life in the spirit


The following passages confirm the translation of the NKJ and NIV is correct.
2 Cor. 13:4  For though He was crucified in weakness, yet He lives by the power of God. (NKJ)
Rom. 8:11   But if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you. (NKJ)

     These texts testify that the Spirit of God raised Christ from the dead. The Spirit made Christ alive. The NRS translates it erroneously (Christ made alive in the spirit.), because “the spirit” (with a small “s”) is quite distinct from “the Spirit,” as already noted above. The NLT says, “Christ...suffered physical death, but he was raised to life in the Spirit.” To translate, “He was raised to life by the Spirit” would be more understandable. The LB translates it as “Christ…through his body died, his spirit lived on.” But this is a mistranslation since Christ’s spirit is quite distinct from the Spirit who is God the Holy Spirit. According to the literal words “Christ...through his body died, his spirit lived on,” one might conclude that both a human being’s body and spirit may die. While it is true that every human body can die, his spirit by no means dies. Jesus said, “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. But rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt. 10:18, NKJ). Jesus affirmed that the soul (the spirit) cannot be killed. The human spirit does not die.
     If the Greek en ho (ἐν ᾧ-1 Pet. 3:19) is not correctly translated, it is impossible to determine if “Christ descended into hell.” En ho (en ho kai…poreutheis ekeruxen -ἐν ᾧ καὶ...πορευθεὶς ἐκήρυξεν in 1 Pet. 3:19) can be translated as “by whom also he went and preached,” or “by which also he went and preached,” or “in which also he went and preached.” Which is correct? If the NLT translation is accepted, Christ descended into hell to preach the gospel to the spirits there. If the NKJ translation is accepted as right, Christ did not descend into hell.   
     The translation of en ho (ἐν ᾧ) is heavily debated in theological society. Both pneumati (πνεύματι) and en ho (ἐν ᾧ) are here used of two datives. The dative pneumati (πνεύματι) should not be “in the Spirit” or “in the spirit” but “by” or “through the Spirit” since Christ was made alive by (or through) the Spirit. The conjunctive [en + relative pronoun ᾧ] in v.  20 should be translated as “by whom” or “through whom” just as it is found in the NKJ, RWB and NIV. Since it is used of the dative like pneumati, en ho (ἐν ᾧ) in v. 19 cannot be translated as “by which” or “in which.” In English grammar the relative pronoun “which” cannot be used with “the Holy Spirit” since the Holy Spirit is God.
 
    Daniel B. Wallace insists, “The antecedent of the relative pronoun ho (ᾧ) in v. 19 is by no means certain. Some take it to refer to pneumati (πνεύματι) immediately preceding, the meaning of which might be either the Spirit or the spiritual state.” (Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar beyond the Basic, p.343)

     This argument is quite erroneous. The antecedent of the relative pronoun ho (ᾧ) in v.19 is certain. The antecedent should be only the Spirit.

What does the phrase mean, “Christ made alive by the Spirit, by whom also He went and preached to the spirits in prison”?  

1 Pet. 1:12  To them it was revealed that, not to themselves, but to us they were ministering the things which now have been reported to you through those who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven. (NKJ)

     This text testifies that the apostle Peter and others preached the gospel through the Holy Spirit sent by Christ in heaven. This means that by Christ the Holy Spirit went to Peter and preached through him. Therefore, it can be said that Peter has actually preached the gospel to them through the Holy Spirit sent by Christ. Consequently, “by the Holy Spirit, Christ went to Peter” is synonymous with “by Christ the Holy Spirit went to Peter.” The following passage must be examined to understand 1  Peter 3:18-20.

2 Pet.  2:5  and did not spare the ancient world, but saved Noah, one of eight people, a preacher of righteousness, bringing in the flood on the world of the ungodly. (NKJ)

     If this text is correctly interpreted, the meaning of 1 Peter 3:18-20 can be found. 2 Peter 2:5 says that Noah was a preacher of righteousness in his days. Through the Spirit sent by Christ in heaven Noah preached the gospel of righteousness to those who lived in the ungodly world. It can also be said that “by the Spirit, Christ” or “by Christ, the Spirit” sent Noah to preach. In summary, Noah sent by the Spirit through Christ who is in heaven, preached God’s judgment to his world.
 

What does “the spirits in prison” mean?

1 Pet.  4:6  For this reason the gospel was preached also to those who are dead. (NKJ)
NIV      For this is the reason the gospel was preached even to those who are now dead.

     When this text is carefully studied, the meaning of “the spirits in prison” in v. 19 becomes clear. The phrase “the gospel was preached also to those who are now dead” simply means that when they lived, the gospel was preached to them. Some received the gospel before they died. Others did not accept the gospel before they died so that their spirits were thrown into hell (prison). Therefore, it can be inferred that the gospel was preached to those who are now dead, that is, to the spirits of those who are now dead.  


2 Pet. 2:5  God did not spare the ancient world, but saved Noah, one of eight people, a preacher of righteousness, bringing in the flood on the world of the ungodly. (NKJ)

     God did not spare the ancient world in the days of Noah, but before they were destroyed by God’s flood, Noah had preached the coming judgment..Noah had preached to them, that is, to their spirits through the Spirit sent by Christ. Still they did not accept the word of God. As a result God’s flood killed everyone except Noah and his family. More correctly, their bodies were killed by God’s flood but their spirits did by no means die. Their spirits were thrown into prison after their bodies were killed by God’s flood. Consequently, the phrase “by whom also He went and preached to the spirits in prison” refers to the fact that before the flood the world was given an opportunity to repent. By choosing not to repent they died and their spirits were thrown into prison (hell). That is, before their spirits were thrown into hell, the Spirit sent by Jesus Christ had preached to them through Noah.

Luke 17:26-27 And as it was in the days of Noah, so it will be also in the days of the Son of Man: They ate, they drank, they married wives, they were given in marriage, until the day that Noah entered the ark, and the flood came and destroyed them all. (NKJ)

     Rightly interpreting this text helps us understand 1 Peter 3:18-20. Luke states that in the days of Noah all except Noah and his family rejected the message sent by the Spirit through Noah. Then God’s flood destroyed them. Their spirits were thrown in hell. By the Spirit Christ went to Noah, and Noah preached to them before their spirits were thrown into hell. In Luke 17:26-27 Jesus taught that those people who live in the days of the Son of Man will repeat the tragic example of Noah’s days. Likewise, many did not accept the gospel of Christ’s disciples who preached through the Spirit sent by God. Through the Spirit, Christ’s preachers preached to the lost. They failed to repent and their spirits were thrown into hell. This is the same meaning as 1 Peter 3:18-20.

Acts 4:25  You spoke by the Holy Spirit through the mouth of your servant, our father David: Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain? (NIV)

     Christ spoke by the Holy Spirit sent by God through the mouth of David the king. This is parallel to the phrase “by (through) the Spirit Christ” or “by (through) Christ the Spirit went and preached the gospel to the spirits in hell” in 1 Peter 3:18-20.   

Eph. 3:3-5  that is, the mystery made known to me by revelation, as I have already written briefly. In reading this, then, you will be able to understand my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to men in other generations as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to God’s holy apostles and prophets. (NIV)

     The apostle Paul sent by Christ preached the gospel to the Ephesians through the Spirit sent by Christ in heaven. By the Spirit Christ had preached the gospel to the Gentiles, that is, to the spirits of the Gentiles through the apostle Paul before they died. Many also did not accept the gospel. Their spirits were thrown into hell. Therefore, it can be summarized briefly: by the Holy Spirit Jesus went and preached to the spirits in hell. There is no scriptural reference to indicate that Jesus Christ descended into hell. The words “Jesus Christ descended into hell” are from the mistranslation and misinterpretation of 1 Peter 3:18-19.

Jesus’ body was buried in the tomb after dying. If so, where did His spirit go after dying?

1 Pet. 3:18-19 for Christ...being put to death in the flesh but made alive by the Spirit, by whom also He went and preached to the spirits in prison. (NKJ)

2 Cor. 13:4     For though He was crucified in weakness, yet He lives by the power of God. (NKJ)
Rom.  8:11    If the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you. (NKJ)

     These verses confirm that Jesus was crucified, buried in the tomb and made alive by the Holy Spirit after three days. Obviously his body was buried in the tomb after his death. If, according to a proper understanding of the Scripture, Jesus did not go to hell to preach the gospel to those in hell, where did Jesus’ spirit go before being made alive? When this question is answered using only the Scripture, 1 Peter 3:18-20 will be clearly understood.

Matt. 13:40  For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. (NKJ)

     Jesus said that the Son of Man is going to be in the heart of the earth or in the tomb for three days. Here, “the Son of Man” does not mean Jesus’ spirit but only His body. His body is to be in the tomb for three days.

Matt. 17:22-23 Now while they were staying in Galilee, Jesus said to them, “the Son of Man is about to be betrayed into the hands of men, and they will kill Him, and the third day He will be raised up.” And they were exceedingly sorrowful. (NKJ)

     The word “Him” in “they will kill Him (the Son of Man)” refers to Jesus’ body and not his spirit. No human being’s spirit is ever killed. “He” in “He will be raised up” refers to both His body and His spirit, i.e., His body with His spirit.

Matt. 27:50   Jesus  cried  out  again  with  a  loud voice, and  yielded  up His spirit. (NKJ)

     The text does not mention where Jesus’ spirit went. But the following passages reveal this in detail.

Luke 23:39-46  Then one of the criminals who were hanged blasphemed Him, saying, “If You are the Christ, save Yourself and us.” But the other, answering, rebuked him, saying, “Do you not even fear God, seeing you are under the same condemnation?...Then he said to Jesus, “Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom.” And Jesus said to him, “Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise”…And when Jesus had cried out with a loud voice, He said, “Father, into Your hands I commit My spirit.” Having said this, He breathed His last. (NKJ)

     Many scholars insist that the words “today you will be with Me in Paradise” do not mean Jesus’ spirit ascended into the kingdom of God after He died that day. This argument is quite erroneous because Jesus referred not to His body but to His spirit. Likewise, he spoke not of the body of the criminal but of his spirit. Their bodies would be dead and buried. Therefore, it is clear that Jesus was saying that the spirit of the King and the spirit of the criminal were to be together in Paradise after death.
     Many insist that Paradise is not the same place as the kingdom of God, but Jesus affirms here that they are one and the same. Jesus also said before He breathed His last, “Father, into Your hands I commit My spirit.” Whose hands? Jesus spoke of the hands of God the Father who is in the kingdom of heaven. God the Father received Jesus’ spirit into the kingdom that is in God the Father. This would be a reasonable interpretation. The following passages prove that Paradise is the kingdom of heaven.  

Rev. 2:7 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes I will give to eat from the tree of life, which is in the midst of the Paradise of God. (NKJ)
NIV  He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.
Rev.7:17for the Lamb who is in the midst of the throne will shepherd them and lead them to living fountains of waters. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes. (NKJ)
NIV     For the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd; he will lead them to springs of living water. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes."


     Rev. 2:7 states that the tree of life is in the Paradise of God. Rev. 7:17 states that the Lamb, Jesus, who is in the throne will lead them to living fountains of waters. Where the Lamb of God is, is the kingdom of heaven.
 
Rev. 21:27; 22:1-2  But there shall by no means enter it anything that defiles, or causes an abomination or a lie, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s Book of Life. And he showed me a pure river of water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding from the throne of God and of the Lamb. In the middle of its street, and on either side of the river, was the tree of life, which bore twelve fruits, each tree yielding its fruit every month. (NKJ)

     Proceeding from the throne of God and the Lamb is a pure river of water of life. There also is the tree of life. It is commonly said that the throne of God and of the Lamb is in the kingdom of heaven. Rev. 2:7 proves that the tree of life is in Paradise. Rev. 21:27, 22:1-2 prove the tree of life and a river of water of life are in the kingdom of heaven; therefore, the Bible clearly indicates that the kingdom of God is also called Paradise. Luke 23:39-46 reports the words of one of the criminals dying alongside Jesus. “Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom.” Jesus said to him, “Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.”
     This dialogue between the criminal and Jesus could read, “Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom.” Jesus said to him, “Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise which you said.” If God’s Paradise and God’s kingdom are different places, the response of Jesus made no sense. The criminal wanted to be with Jesus in Jesus’ kingdom. If the kingdom and Paradise are different places, it would make no sense at all. All Scripture proves that Paradise is the kingdom of heaven.

The apostle Paul witnesses that he went to Paradise after being stoned by Jews.

Acts 14:19-20 they stoned Paul and dragged him out of the city, supposing him to be dead. However, when the disciples gathered around him, he rose up and went into the city. (NKJ)

     The text of Acts 14:19-20 indicates that the apostle Paul was stoned by those stirred to action by Jewish instigators. They dragged Paul out of the city supposing him to be dead. They dragged him out of the city to dump his body because he was dead. If he had not been dead, they would not have dragged him out to dump his body. 2 Cor. 12:1-4 will prove this fact.

2 Cor. 12:1-4 It is doubtless not profitable for me to boast. I will come to visions and revelations of the Lord: I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago–whether in the body I do not know, or whether out of the body I do not know, God knows–such a one was caught up to the third heaven…how he was caught up into Paradise and heard inexpressible words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter. (NKJ)

     Paul testified of his experience fourteen years earlier. His words are “...whether in the body I do not know, or whether out of the body I do not know, God knows.” He means that his body was stoned and his spirit was caught up into Paradise. The “inexpressible words” he heard were the inexpressible words of God who is in Paradise. After stoning, Paul’s spirit ascended into heaven, that is, into Paradise. A similar situation happened in the stoning of Stephen in Acts 7:54-60.
     The Jews stoned Stephen and he died. Before dying, through his physical eyes, he saw the Son of God, that is, Jesus, standing in heaven at the right hand of God. Then he prayed these words: “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” He asked Jesus who is in the kingdom to receive his spirit into the kingdom of heaven after he died. Many verses of the Bible show Paradise to be the same place as the kingdom of heaven. Every Christian’s spirit will ascend into the kingdom of heaven immediately after death. Jesus’ spirit ascended after dying on the cross. He was followed by a forgiven criminal. Shortly afterwards came Stephen, the first martyr of the church. Jesus’ spirit did not go to the spirits who were in hell to preach the gospel. To say the Bible teaches that “Jesus descended into hell,” as do both the Athanasian Creed and the Apostle’s Creed, is a result of the  misunderstanding of the Scriptures.