The last supper with the disciples has ended. The betrayal in the garden of Gethsemane is over. Jesus has been arrested, beaten, tried, denied, and crucified. With His side pouring blood and water, His body is wrapped in a linen shroud and placed in a borrowed tomb.
As the stone is set against the entrance of Jesus’ tomb, Good Friday has come and gone.
Indeed it has. Yet, as some in my circles say, “But just you wait… for Sunday’s a-comin’!” Sunday surely is just around the corner, and tomorrow morning those who follow Jesus will once again celebrate his resurrection from the dead on Easter Sunday. For this Jesus who was taken down off of a cross and placed in a tomb is no longer there, for He has risen!
But what about Saturday?
Where was Jesus?
We know from the Gospel accounts where He was on Friday. They also tell us where He went and what He did on Sunday. But what about Saturday? Was Jesus in Heaven? Was He in Hell? Was He somewhere else altogether?
While the church just about wholeheartedly agrees on Jesus’ whereabouts on Friday and Sunday, there is division over what He was up to on Saturday, and this is primarily due to a variety of interpretations of 1 Peter 3:18-20.
For 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, in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, 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, ESV
From the progression of this passage, it looks like Jesus was in hell from Friday night through Sunday morning preaching the Gospel to those who were already there, doesn’t it? Some would say yes.
But a deeper look at the Bible shows “no”.
So if the answer is no, then who are these ‘spirits’ that Peter is mentioning? And what does Jesus have to do with them? There are three main interpretations.
Interpretation 1: The spirits are those of humans who had previously perished and are in hell awaiting judgment. After leaving his body, Jesus’ spirit meets theirs in hell, where He offers them a second chance at eternal life with Him in Heaven.
Why it doesn’t work: It blatantly contradicts Scripture. Hebrews 9:27 makes it clear that man dies once, then faces judgment. Works-based thoughts such as second chances after death, baptism for the dead, offering prayers and/or indulgences for the dead, working off your bad deeds, purgatory, etc. isn’t an option. Neither is a second chance to repent and believe in Christ after death here on earth.
Interpretation 2: These spirits that Jesus is seemingly meeting with are fallen angels that are mentioned in Genesis 6:1-8. This interpretation seems to be a better fit than the first, since Peter does mention Noah in v. 20. These fallen angels knew better, yet still denied, God, so Jesus is taking the time to proclaim his coming resurrection and triumph over them. Scholars argue for this interpretation due to the fact that the greek term pneuma or “spirit” is largely used in the New Testament to speak of supernatural beings like demons, which fits here.
Why it doesn’t work: While this interpretation is certainly more favorable than the first because it doesn’t blatantly contradict Scripture, I just don’t see Jesus taking the time at this point in redemptive history to visit hell where some fallen angels are being held to basically say “nah-nah-nah-boo-boo.” Evil spirits already know that Jesus wins. Just take his encounter with one in Mark 1:23-25, where a spirit He encounters asked him if He was going to destroy him. While many interpreters favor this, I think there’s still a better interpretation.
Interpretation 3: Peter’s point of vs. 18-20 is that the Gospel that Jesus’ Spirit (i.e. the Holy Spirit) preaches through him (Peter) is the same one that He (the Holy Spirit) preached through Noah. The proclaimer in 1 Peter 3:19 is not the pre-risen Jesus, but is the Holy Spirit.
This is tricky… but some context will help. First, look back at 1 Peter 1:11. Peter mentions that the prophets of old (including Noah) inquired of the Spirit of Christ (i.e. the Holy Spirit) just when Jesus would suffer then rise again. Now fast forward to 2 Peter 2:5, and notice that Peter calls Noah a “herald of righteousness.”
Put this all together and we can best understand 1 Peter 3:19. Jesus (through the Holy Spirit) has already heralded the Gospel to spirits (i.e. human souls) through His prophet Noah back in Noah’s day. They rejected His message and “did not obey”(v.20) and are now suffering judgment in prison (or hell).
So why in the world does Peter mention all of this? He does so because he wanted to encourage his dispersed church, for they, like Noah, were a persecuted minority that needed to be reminded of the hope they had in the Gospel. Just like Noah and his family boldly faced the trials all around them, and eventually triumphed over their persecutors, so too can the church in Peter’s day, which was suffering greatly because of their faith in Jesus and belief in His Gospel.
But this still doesn’t answer our initial question. If Jesus wasn’t in hell between his death on Friday and resurrection on Sunday, then where was he?
He was in paradise. In Luke 23:43, Jesus promises the repentant thief on the cross next to him that he will join Him in paradise that very day.
So where was Jesus on Saturday? He was in Heaven… but He didn’t stay for too long… for Sunday’s a-comin’!