The Apostles Creed begins:
I believe in God, the Father Almighty,
the Creator of heaven and earth,
and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord:
Who was conceived of the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried.
He descended into hell.
The third day He arose again from the dead.
Many of us were raised with the notion that Jesus went to hell on Friday after dying on the cross. For a day and a half, he preached in hell before his resurrection on Sunday. The Scriptural support given for this view primarily comes from a few passages in I Peter. Here’s one:
Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, (19) in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, (20) because they formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water. (1 Peter 3:18-20, italics added)
However, it is more natural to read I Peter 3:18-20 as referring to the earthly ministry of Noah, through whom the Holy Spirit preached. We see Peter refer to the Holy Spirit’s ministry through Old Testament men earlier in I Peter: “Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired carefully, inquiring what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories.” (I Peter 1:10-11, italics added) Peter is telling us that the “Spirit of Christ” spoke through the prophets and also through Noah (cf. II Peter 2:5, where Noah is called a herald (or a preacher) of righteousness). Of course, Noah’s contemporaries ignored the warning to repent and are now “in prison” (i.e., hell).
Here’s a related text in I Peter that is likewise challenging.
They are surprised when you do not join them in the same flood of debauchery, and they malign you; (5) but they will give account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead. (6) For this is why the gospel was preached even to those who are dead, that though judged in the flesh the way people are, they might live in the spirit the way God does. (1 Peter 4:4-6, italics added)
The simplest translation here is that Peter is referring to those who responded affirmatively to the gospel preaching, but had since died by the time of this letter. They are (presently) dead, and they were (recently) “judged in the flesh the way people are” (i.e., they died, cf. Rom 3:23), and are now alive in the spiritual realm (i.e., they are with God in heaven). Peter is encouraging his readers that those currently maligning Christians will likewise stand before God’s judgment soon enough.
It should be noted that this interpretation is consistent with Jesus’ promise to the repentant thief on the cross: “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” (Luke 23:43, italics added)
For more, see John Piper, who beat me to the punch, by posting on this topic a few hours ago.
(This post is from the night before Easter a year ago.)