What did Jesus do for three days after he descended into hell?

Q. I have a question.  What do you think Christ “did” for three days after he descended into hell?

The Bible doesn’t tell us very much about what Jesus did between the time he died on the cross and when he was raised from the dead, but it does give us a couple of tantalizing hints.

Peter writes in his first letter, “Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit, in which also he went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits—to those who were disobedient long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah when the ark was being built.”

This suggests that Jesus, between his death and resurrection, went in the Spirit and actively preached the gospel to those who had perished centuries before in the great flood.  Perhaps these people, because of the great wickedness on the earth at that time, were considered not to have had a reasonable opportunity to respond to God, and so Jesus came and proclaimed the gospel to them in its fullness, in light of his just-completed death on the cross.

Even though Peter doesn’t mention people from other historical periods, since his concern in this part of the letter is to develop an analogy between baptism and rescue from the flood in the ark, it’s possible that on this occasion Jesus also proclaimed the gospel to other “imprisoned spirits” who had lived at different times.  Peter says more generally later in this letter that “the gospel was preached even to those who are now dead, so that they might be judged according to human standards in regards to the body, but live according to God in regard to the spirit.”

Paul gives us a suggestion that some of those who heard the gospel under these circumstances responded positively.  In Ephesians he quotes from Psalm 68, “When he ascended on high, he led captives in his train,” and then applies these words to Christ: “What does ‘he ascended’ mean except that he also descended to the depths of the earth?”  The “captives” would be the souls whom Jesus led out of their “imprisonment” after they responded positively to the gospel when he proclaimed it.

From these biblical hints about what Jesus did between his death and resurrection, the community of his followers later developed the doctrine of the “harrowing of hell.”  To “harrow” means to despoil; the idea is that Jesus triumphed over hell and released its captives.  This doctrine has a rich history in the art and literature of the church.

Duccio di Buoninsegna, "The Harrowing of Hell"
Duccio di Buoninsegna, “The Harrowing of Hell”

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is a writer and biblical scholar who is also an ordained minister. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the Scriptures that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He has an A.B. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

6 thoughts on “What did Jesus do for three days after he descended into hell?”

  1. My women’s group is doing an inductive on I Peter. It was helpful to pass this on to them. I Peter 3:19-20 is freaking confusing!

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