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QUESTION: What Did Jesus Do While He Was Dead?

I received two similar questions within a short time of each other, so I answer them together.

What was Jesus doing during His three days in the tomb? – Eddie.

I have heard that when Jesus died he went to Hades for 3 days to bring the key of death to free us from the devil. I have read Ephesians 4: 8-10 about it, but I wanted the chapter of the Bible that shows He went to bring the key. My friend did not understand that Jesus went to Hades and I need to prove to her what I know is true. – Illy

The Bible is virtually silent on what Jesus did during those three days, except that He was in Joseph of Arimathia’s new tomb.

The passage you may be thinking of is Revelation 1:18, where Jesus said,

I am the Living One; I was dead, and behold I am alive forever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades.

The word Hades is not an English word. It is a “transliterated” Greek word. That is, it is a Greek word with an English spelling. The translators chose not to translate this word. The word literally means, “place of the dead.” It is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew word Sheol, which is also transliterated (not translated) from the Hebrew into English. The Hebrew sheol simply means “the grave.” For Jesus to hold those keys means He has power over death and the grave.

Some people believe 1 Peter 3:18-20 speaks of Jesus’ activity during those three days, but I do not think so.

For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He 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 who disobeyed long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built….

This passage speaks of His preaching through the Spirit to “the spirits in prison,” identified as those “who disobeyed long ago … in the days of Noah.” No one has satisfactorily explained why, if this is what He did during the three days, He only preached to those who disobeyed while Noah built the ark.

Further, this does not speak of Jesus Himself doing this preaching, but of doing it “through the Spirit.” Noah was a preacher of righteousness (2 Peter 2:5). A logical assumption is that He preached through the power of the Holy Spirit. If so, 1 Peter 3 likely refers to Noah’s work of preaching, “while the ark was being built.” Jesus used the Holy Spirit in Noah to preach then, just as He used the Holy Spirit in Peter to preach on Pentecost.

Ephesians 4:8-10 speaks of Christ descending “to the lower, earthly regions” (NIV), though some translations make this the “lower part of the earth,” as a reference to Hades. The ascent is His return to Heaven (see Acts 1:9). He ascended to Heaven from Earth (Acts 1:3). From Heaven, he poured out the Holy Spirit on all flesh, giving gifts to men (Acts 2:31-33). Some believe the “captives He led in his train” are the “spirits of just men made perfect” (Hebrews 12:23) whom, in this understanding, Jesus freed from Hades during the three days.

Yet, in Hebrews 11:40 the writer says these righteous men will become perfect only together with us. This sounds like the general resurrection in the last day, not an activity of Jesus during the three days He was in the tomb.

In his sermon on the Day of Pentecost, Peter quoted from Psalm 16:8-11, which says in part,

…my body also will live in hope, because you will not abandon me to the grave, not will you let your Holy One see decay. – Acts 2:26-27

Peter explained that David’s tomb was with them to that day. He spoke here as a prophet of the Christ, and that God did not abandon Christ to the grave and nor let Him see decay. The word translated here in the NIV as grave is the word Hades. The KJV translates it as hell. This leads some to believe Jesus went down into hell – as some of the historic creeds declare. I believe the NIV gives a correct translation (grave), not a transliteration (Hades), or a mistranslation (hell), as many other translations of the Bible do.

All of this shows that speculation about what Jesus did during the three days is very “iffy.” Men draw this theory from little hints mixed with much conjecture – plus, for reasons not discussed above, Greek Pagan philosophy.

In the absence of a definitive statement of Scripture, I hesitate to speculate about where Jesus was, other than in the grave, or what He was doing, other than waiting. Could He have been in Hades freeing the prisoners there? That may be true, but frankly, I do not know, and I doubt it.


12 Responses

  1. Jerry,

    There is a very interesting and as best I can tell probably correct take on Jesus preaching to the Spirits in prison during his time in the grave. Rather than re-writing a post on that I will give you the link. I would love your feedback.


    The gist of it is this. Peter had an understanding of Enoch (as he refers to him several times in 1-2 Peter). Enoch tells us that the spirits who led mankind astray in the days of Noah were locked up in prison. These are who Jesus presumably preached to that Peter is referring to. He wasn’t preaching the message of salvation to them. He was preaching his victory and their defeat. It is an interesting take…see the post for a way more thorough explanation. I would love to hear if you think it is plausible given your thoughts here.



  2. Matt,
    Thanks for the reference to your blog. I cannot recall if I have ever read the Book of Enoch, though I was slightly exposed to this genre of literature while in grad school.

    What you wrote is plausible, especially since the word in 1 Peter 3:19 for Jesus’ preaching is kērussō, not euaggelizō. That is, this is the word meaning to herald, or announce rather than the word used for to announce the good news. The word Peter uses is the word that in secular use refers to a Herald announcing news on the street corner. It would be comparable to todays’ news anchor reading the news to his audience.

    Thanks for sharing your insights.


  3. This view specifically answers what you wrote in the post that, “No one has satisfactorily explained why, if this is what He did during the three days, He only preached to those who disobeyed while Noah built the ark.”

    Answer – Because he wasn’t preaching the message of salvation or second chance to people but to disobedient spirits from the time of Noah. This is attested to in 2 Peter 2:4, that Peter knew exactly what Enoch wrote on this matter.

    It is an interesting take, at least 🙂

  4. Matt,
    I have always understood (or perhaps misunderstood?) the “sons of God” in Genesis 6 to be of the righteous seed of Seth and the “daughters of men” as being of the ungodly seed of Cain – even though in Job 1 the “sons of God” do seem to be angels.

    It’s hard for me to accept, though, that angels had intercourse with human women, which Genesis 6 would imply if there the sons of God are angels. Didn’t Jesus say that in the resurrection there would be no marriage, but that we will be like the angels?

    So, while there are some aspects of your idea that are appealing, I still have some problems with it.

    Thanks for the comments, though! You are making me think, and that’s good!

  5. Jerry,

    For me that issue is easily resolved by saying, “If Peter believed Enoch was right through inspiration, then I have to go along with Peter.” That certainly doesn’t mean Enoch is always correct but Peter references him on several occasions through inspiration. So, while I don’t go along with Enoch for the most part, I do agree with Enoch where Peter agreed with Enoch. There are just too many parallels here with Peter and Enoch for me to discount this interpretation.

    As far as making one think…the feeling is certainly mutual! Thanks for all you do here.

  6. Matt,

    Certainly even Pagan poets sometimes got it right, as Paul’s sermon on Mars Hill states. He could quote that “We are His offspring,” without endorsing everything they said.

    However, even if the spirits involved were the angels who sinned in the days of Noah and the message was one of triumph, not the gospel – would 1 Peter 3 establish that this took place during the three days Jesus was in the tomb?

    What Jesus was doing during those three days was the subject of the questions I was trying to answer. And, I think I still stand by my conclusion:

    In the absence of a definitive statement of Scripture, I hesitate to speculate about where Jesus was, other than in the grave, or what He was doing, other than waiting. Could He have been in Hades freeing the prisoners there? That may be true, but frankly, I do not know, and I doubt it.

    Much of what we have been discussing here is speculation based on a few hints, not clearly taught. As such, we can have our opinions but these will always have more or less “doubt” connected to them. I enjoy this discussion, but at the same time I realize it is somewhat speculative. I just hope it is not vain speculation!

    Jerry S.

  7. True…we don’t know when those events took place no matter how you interpret it. It would stand to reason it was during the three days but that is speculation as you noted. While fun to consider it is certainly not something to put any emphasis on.

  8. Its obvious you have great doubt on the position the Yeshua was busy during those 3days. You’re limited faith and assumption leads you to believe he took a 3day nap. Open up your eyes and open them big! Jesus ministered to the people in Noah’s day through angels? Haha, where does it say that? In Jude 1:6 it states that the angels of authority did not keep there positions but abandon there home. Are kept in darness bound with everlasting chains until judgment day.” 1Peter 3:19 is backed up by this verse in Jude 1:6. So we do know that Jesus ministered to those fallen angels’demons’. We also know that Jesus was in Abrahams Bosom ‘paradise’ Luke 16. those 3days as well. It clearly states in Ephesians 4 that he led captives in a train on high. What he led living men and women on earth on a train on high? Yeah that’s balanced(sarcasm). Those captives were those from Paradise. Why would Jesus tell the criminal on the cross that “today you will be with me in paradise”. So we know Jesus was not cat napping during that time. Matthew 12:40 Jesus makes it clear he will be in the heart of the earth just as Jonah was in the belly of the fish. I have so much more scripture to back up Jesus activity in Hades during those 3days to make your head spin! There is to much evedince pointing to that facts!

  9. You guys are way above my head about the bible.
    I am just a simple or stupid man has St Peter said.
    All i know is that Jesus went down into hell,and has the both of you pointed out Jesus must have been doing something.
    I wished i could have your understanding of this?
    You are right there is very little said about this.
    This has got me thinking now?

  10. If the sins of the world were placed upon our Lord for us all. He was separated from the Father in apparrent anguish and had to pay the price in full. His perfect sinless blood must have been purged by hell’s fire and found perfect in Himself and sinless, but needing punishment for everyone’s sins that were placed on Him. Speaking of all those who have accepted and received Him as Lord and savour. Just a thought Mea Culpa if I’m wrong. ~ עד

    • This is an interesting thought, though “hell” in the KJV is it’s rendition of the Greek word hades and simply means “the place of the dead.” This word is used to translate the Hebrew sheol, which usually means “the grave.” 1 Peter 3 suggests that in hades he announce his victory over sin and death to the spirits in prison (but also says those to whom he announced this lived in the days of Noah). In other words, it is difficult to give a definitive answer to the question of where Jesus was during the three days – except that He was in the place of the dead, or the grave. Beyond that, I find it hard to say much more without speculating. This may well be one of the secret things that belong to God (cf. Deuteronomy 29:29).

  11. May I offer a simple explanation?

    1) Jesus was literally dead for three days and three nights.
    2) Jesus wasn’t doing anything while he was dead. That’s what being “dead” means.
    3) The “spirits” referenced are literally spirits. Not men, but spirits.
    4) We can tell which spirits are referenced because they are disobedient spirits (devils) rather than obedient spirits (angels of God)
    5) Look again at the grammar to see what did the preaching:

    1Pe 3:18-20 KJV
    (18) For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit:
    (19) By which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison;
    (20) Which sometime were disobedient, when once the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls were saved by water.

    It doesn’t say Jesus did anything by being dead, but that his resurrection itself did the preaching. “By which” points to “quickened by the Spirit”

    6) I think the book of Enoch is unnecessary (it is non-canonical for a reason) and probably a red herring.
    7) It might be relevant to look for the sense of Peter by looking elsewhere at Peter, such in his second epistle:

    2Pe 2:4-5 KJV
    (4) For if God spared not the angels that sinned, but cast them down to hell, and delivered them into chains of darkness, to be reserved unto judgment;
    (5) And spared not the old world, but saved Noah the eighth person, a preacher of righteousness, bringing in the flood upon the world of the ungodly;

    He uses that same theme of angels that sinned and the time of Noah, adding support that the “spirits” … “which sometime were disobedient” would be literal spirits that were literally disobedient during the time of Noah… those “sons of God” that took to themselves “daughters of men” (… and why would this be remarkable if they were sons of men?)

    If I were to summarize this verse another way, Christ preached victory over the devil by his resurrection from the dead. His death would have preached nothing, but his victory over death carried a wallop.

    … and if we pay close attention to the grammar of the verse, it does not actually imply that Jesus was actively doing anything during those three days (other than being dead.)

    That seems to be the simplest explanation to me, allowing the words to be interpreted in as literal sense as possible. It also doesn’t seem to cause any contradictions for any other passages of canonical scripture.

    Take care,

    P.S. Concerning when Jesus said that the angels of heaven do not marry or give in marriage, wasn’t he referring to obedient angels? The devils are not always obedient. Besides the reference to the “sons of God” in Genesis, the Greek gods (perhaps referencing devils) were well known for intermingling with mortals, there are named types of demonic manifestations including the incubus and succubus,and so forth…

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