(1 Pet. 3:19-20) Where did Jesus go during the three days in the grave?

CLAIM: Peter writes that Jesus “made proclamation to the spirits now in prison, 20 who once were disobedient” (1 Pet. 3:19-20). What does this passage mean? Does it refer to Jesus going to hell in the three days between his death and resurrection?

RESPONSE: This passage has garnered a number of different interpretations. Systematic theologian Millard Erickson counted 180 different possible interpretations for this passage![1] Regarding this passage, Martin Luther writes, “A wonderful text is this, and a more obscure passage perhaps than any other in the New Testament, so that I do not know for a certainty just what Peter means.”[2] Let’s consider some of the major questions that can be asked of this passage and the different options for each question:

1. WHEN did this happen?

OPTION #1: This occurred in the three days between Jesus’ death and resurrection. Under this view, Peter is saying that Jesus went to make proclamation (v.19) between his death and resurrection (v.18). However, the Bible teaches that Jesus’ work was “finished” when he died on the Cross (Jn. 19:30; Heb. 9:12; 10:10), and he promised the thief on the Cross that “today you shall be with me in Paradise” (Lk. 23:43). This doesn’t fit with a trip to hell.

Normally, the Greek word for “spirit” (pneuma) in 1 Peter refers to the Spirit of God (1:2, 11, 12; 4:14), rather than Jesus’ soul being made alive.[3] Besides, how could Jesus’ immaterial spirit cease to exist and then come to life? This language fits better with after the resurrection. For these reasons, it is more likely that Jesus was resurrected by the Spirit of God, as the rest of the Bible teaches (Rom. 1:4).

OPTION #2: This occurred during the time of Noah. Under this view, the Spirit of Christ was preaching through Noah, which is mentioned in the context (v.20). Earlier, Peter spoke of the Spirit of Christ working through the OT prophets (1:11), which could be a similar scenario. However, this view doesn’t make good sense of Peter’s language that Jesus “went and made proclamation” (v.18). If Jesus merely spoke through Noah, why does this passage state that he went somewhere?

OPTION #3: This occurred sometime after Jesus’ resurrection. Advocates of this view point out that the physical resurrection is most likely understanding of verse 18. Therefore, Christ’s preaching would have to occur after his resurrection. They also point out that Jesus repeatedly appears and disappears in the 40 days after the resurrection, making it likely that he could have left to preach like this.

WHERE did this happen?

OPTION #1: This happened in hell. Peter says that Jesus preached to the spirits in “prison” (v.19). By this, some interpreters believe Peter is referring to hell. However, in contrast to this view, Jobes comments, “It should be noted, however, that none of the titles used at that time to describe the place of the dead—Hades, Tartarus, Sheol—are found in this text.”[4] She adds, “Furthermore, the place of dead people is not elsewhere in the NT referred to with the word ‘prison’ (φυλακῇ, phylakē).”[5] Blum adds, “There does not seem to be good evidence for seeing here a ‘descent into hell.’ The same word poreutheis (‘went’) is used in v. 22 of his ascension.”[6]

OPTION #2: This happened in Noah’s day. Because Peter uses the nebulous language of “spirits,” it is possible that he could be thinking about Noah’s time, rather than hell. Advocates of this view ask why Peter would mention “the days of Noah” (v.20), if he was referring to hell.

OPTION #3: This happened in some spiritual prison for specific demons. This would fit with the language of 2 Peter 2:4 and Jude 6, which states that demons of Noah’s day were sent to a special prison, because of their immoral acts with women (Gen. 6:1-4).

WHOM did he preach to?

OPTION #1: Jesus preached to the humans in Noah’s day. Under this view, when Peter refers to “spirits” now in prison, Peter could have been referring to those disobedient people from Noah’s day, who are in hell. If Jesus was preaching through Noah (2 Pet. 2:5), then he could have been preaching repentance to these people. However, the Greek word for “spirits” (pneuma) almost always refers to “malevolent supernatural beings.”[7] Typically, the word used for dead humans is the Greek word psychē, which Peter does not use here.

OPTION #2: Jesus preached to the evil spirits of Noah’s day. Peter is referring to the evil spirits, who produced the nephilim (Gen. 6:4; c.f. 2 Pet. 2:4). However, other interpreters ask why Jesus would only preach to these spirits from Noah’s generation and not others.

WHAT did he preach?

OPTION #1: Jesus preached a message of forgiveness. If Jesus was preaching through Noah to the people of his day, then this could refer to a message of forgiveness and repentance.

OPTION #2: Jesus preached a message of judgment or victory over Satan. If Jesus was preaching after his resurrection to demons, then this would be a message of victory over Satan—not forgiveness—because the Bible doesn’t teach demon-salvation (Heb. 2:16). Advocates of this view note that Jesus merely “went and made proclamation” (v.19). Peter uses the Greek word kēryssō here for “proclamation,” rather than the typical term euangelizō—used for gospel preaching (as in 4:6). Since this doesn’t explicitly say what type of proclamation was made, it’s equally possible that this was a proclamation of judgment over the demonic realm (Col. 2:15).


Because this is such an unclear passage, we shouldn’t build any serious doctrines on it. It is a hermeneutical rule that we should interpret the unclear in light of the clear.

This being said, my own personal view (based on the data above) is that Jesus proclaimed his victory over Satan and the demons sometime after his resurrection—not in the three days between the cross and resurrection. Since the demons of Noah’s day were sent to hell (2 Pet. 2:4), I assume Jesus went there—not as a prisoner—but as the warden! His message was not one of forgiveness, because demons cannot be saved (Heb. 2:16). Instead, he spoke a message of victory and judgment over the demonic realm (Col. 2:15). Since these demons brought on the original judgment in Genesis 6, it seems fitting that Christ would return to these spiritual beings to proclaim his rescue of sinners and proclamation of their judgment.

[1] Jobes, K. H. (2005). 1 Peter. Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (239). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.

[2] Luther, Martin. Commentary on the Epistles of Peter and Jude. Kregel, p. 168.

[3] Jobes, K. H. (2005). 1 Peter. Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (241). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.

[4] Jobes, K. H. (2005). 1 Peter. Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (243). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.

[5] Jobes, K. H. (2005). 1 Peter. Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (243). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.

[6] Blum, E. A. (1981). 1 Peter. In F. E. Gaebelein (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Volume 12: Hebrews Through Revelation (F. E. Gaebelein, Ed.) (242). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.

[7] Jobes writes, “In the NT and in 1 Enoch (Swete 1925), the word pneuma, especially in its plural form, is used overwhelmingly to refer to malevolent supernatural beings. The souls of deceased people are typically referred to with the term psychē in the NT. The one reference where pneuma in its plural form clearly refers to human beings (Heb. 12:23) is qualified by a substantive adjective, “spirits of the righteous,” and it is not completely clear that this is a reference to the deceased.” Jobes, K. H. (2005). 1 Peter. Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (250). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.