1 Peter 3:18-22

The Harrowing of Hell

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1 Peter 3:18-22

The Harrowing of Hell

Dr. Mickey Anders

It may be a little harder to go to Hell this year. You see, the bridge on the main road leading to Hell is badly in need of repair—a project that could close the road for three months. The business owners fear that the disruption in traffic could force some stores into bankruptcy. In fact, Jim Ley, president of the Hell Chamber of Commerce says, “It’ll close the whole town.”

Oh, I detect some confusion about this. Of course, I am talking about Hell, Michigan! It’s a town that has a lot of fun, and gets a lot of publicity out of its name. In fact, they love to say that their plans to fix the road to Hell spring from good intentions. And they also note that the road has to be fixed regularly because Hell freezes over almost every year. You can even look up this information on their web site which is (1)

A couple of years ago, our small Bible study group studied our text for today which is often referred to as the “descent into hell.” The descent into hell is a doctrine of the Christian Church that most folks are not very familiar with.

In case you have never heard it, let me recount the doctrine’s basic points. The idea behind this doctrine is the problem of salvation for those people who lived before Christ died on the cross. Classic theology says that Christ’s death on the cross provided the way to escape from hell to heaven. The people who lived before Jesus never had a chance to have faith in his saving acts. The Bible offers hope for them in the book of Hebrews which says that Abraham had faith and his faith was accounted to him as righteousness. Others suggest that people before Christ were saved if they had faith in the coming of the Messiah.

But this doctrine focuses on those three days Jesus spent in the tomb between his death on Good Friday and his resurrection on Easter Sunday. This doctrine says that during those three days Jesus descended into hell and preached to all of those who died before Christ. He preached to them the meaning of his crucifixion, and those who responded Christ took to heaven.

But this is an obscure doctrine because it is based on obscure Scriptures. The passage that we study today is the clearest one in the Bible about this issue. There are other vague references, but this is the key text.

Look again at verse 19 and 20 and note what it says and what it doesn’t say. “In which he also went and preached to the spirits in prison, who before were disobedient, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, while the ship was being built….”

Obviously, this talks about the dead as being in prison. And the only people specifically mentioned were the people who did not obey during the time of Noah. You must admit that this is shaky Scriptural grounds on which to build a whole point of doctrine.

We must raise many questions about this doctrine. What exactly does the phrase “the spirits in prison” mean? Does this equate hell with prison? Was he preaching only to those who were alive during Noah’s time? Or was he preaching to all of those people who lived before Christ’s death? And was he preaching only to those who “were disobedient” or was he preaching to men and women of faith like Abraham? If Jesus went and preached in hell once, has he preached or will he preach there again?

We might reason together about all of these issues, but we must note that the answers to our questions are not spelled out clearly in Scripture. Sometimes Christian doctrine is built on reason and logic and not necessarily based on clear Scriptural evidence.

But this is classic Christian doctrine. In fact, it is included in the Apostles’ Creed which says, “I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker 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, He suffered, died and was buried, descended into Hell, and on the third day rose again and ascended into Heaven.” In recent years the phrase “descended into Hell” has been changed to “descended to the dead,” as it is in our hymn book.

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This newer translation reflects a problem with the many Hebrew and Greek words used to describe hell. Many of the words translated “hell” merely refer to the place of the dead. Others describe a place of torment in more traditional fashion.

In the Old Testament, there isn’t much of a view of an afterlife at all. In places like Genesis, 1 Kings, Psalms, and Job we find the idea that all of the dead go to a gloomy underworld. In these passages, the word used is “sheol.” For example in Genesis 37:35, Jacob grieves for Joseph by saying, “I will go down to Sheol to my son mourning.” “Sheol” means “the place of the dead.” There was no distinction between those who were wicked and those who were worthy.

The New Testament often uses the word “hades” in a similar fashion. But the New Testament also uses the word “gehenna” which refers to the desolate Valley of Hinnom, south of Jerusalem, where trash fires burned incessantly. When people tried to imagine a horrible place like hell, they said, “It’s like living in the trash dump that burns all the time.”

The point is that some references just indicate the place of the dead and other references clearly talk about the place of torment. For example, the book of Revelation declares that any who are judged unworthy will be “thrown into the lake of fire” (20:15) along with Satan and his followers.

Let’s consider the various views concerning exactly what hell is. The first point of view says that hell is a physical place. Many theologians believe this. Perhaps none was more noted for such a belief than the famous preacher Jonathan Edwards. He touched off the Second Great Awakening through his vivid preaching and descriptions of the nature of hell. He pictured sinners as dangling from a thread, hanging over the pit of hell. In one of his sermons he said, “The pit is prepared. The fire is made ready. The furnace is now hot, ready to receive them. The flames do now rage and glow. The glittering sword is whet, and held over them, and the pit has opened her mouth under them. . . . O sinner! Consider the fearful danger you are in.”

For centuries, preachers used the threat of hell as an incentive to refrain from evil and cling to faith. For preachers like Edwards and his spiritual heirs, the eternal stakes were frightfully clear. There was a hell to shun and a heaven to gain. For them, hell and its flaming torments were very real.

Personally, I think the use of hell to scare people into heaven is probably not the best tactic. I’m not at all sure that a fear of hell is the same thing as faith in God. It is far more healthy to point people toward faith rather than fear. I’m not sure you can scare people into heaven.

But today, not everyone agrees with this view of hell as a physical place. In fact, not everyone believes in hell at all. Sometimes the pollsters publish their numbers to show just how many people believe in hell. Not everybody does. But the interesting fact is that all the people who believe in hell think they are not going there! And there is a lot disagreement about the nature of hell.

A second point of view is well explained by recent statements from the Catholic Church. A couple of years ago, the Catholics touched off quite a debate about the nature of hell when one of their most influential magazines declared that hell “is not a ‘place’ but a ‘state of being,’ in which a person suffers from the deprivation of God.” A few days later, Pope John Paul II told an audience at the Vatican that “rather than a place, hell indicates the state of those who freely and definitively separate themselves from God.” He suggested that the Bible uses symbolic language that tries to picture in the worst possible way what it means to be separated from God. (2)

I think our Catholic friends have hit upon a good explanation because, regardless of your idea of what hell is, at its root it means “the awfulness of separation from God.” Whatever the mental image, separation from God is an awful thing that we do not want to experience.

Some people suggest that the image of a burning fire may have communicated well to an earlier generation, but not to ours. Their greatest fear was the burning and pillaging of their villages. Those images brought up a sense of horror. One person said, “If you had described hell to them in terms of relationships and psychological experiences like loneliness, they wouldn’t have known what you were talking about.”

Others point out that there is quite a bit of hell right here on earth. Most of us will agree that there is such a thing as hell on earth. Humans have learned how to create their own hell. In fact, the imagery of hell sometimes pales in comparison to the flames of Hiroshima and the Holocaust. Liberal theologian John Dominic Crossan, professor emeritus at DePaul University in Chicago, says, “Once we discovered we could create hell on Earth, it became silly to talk about it in a literal sense.” (3)

Most of us can at least understand this point of view because we have experienced times in our lives that felt like hell. Some people may be experiencing it now through their loneliness, anxieties and guilt.

But whatever our definition of hell is, the Scripture for today gives a message of hope. In our text, we find that Jesus is in the business of breaking up death and breaking up alienation and separation from God. Jesus invaded hell to preach the gospel there.

The old English term for this doctrine is the “harrowing of hell,” which I have used for the title of this sermon. Most people today are not familiar with the word “harrowing.” The Random House Unabridged Dictionary defines it as “extremely disturbing or distressing.” Jesus was disturbing and distressing hell.

Many farmers are familiar with the harrow, which is a plow that breaks up the soil. The harrow is a broad tool with spike-like teeth that drags behind the tractor and breaks up the larger clods of dirt into smaller pieces. So the idea behind the “harrowing of hell” is that Jesus is breaking up hell. This is a wonderful message because we know that Jesus at least one time went to the place of the dead and took away from there the people who had faith in him.

Now I want to pause and tell you that this creates a theological problem for me. Personally, I would have preferred that the Scripture not talk about this descent into hell. Such a doctrine opens a crack in the door of what might happen after this life. My conviction is that we have this life to decide for Christ or not. I believe when we die, our decision is made and our eternal destiny is set. I don’t believe in a second chance after we die. I have met some Christians who believe there is a second chance after you die. Some people also believe in reincarnation, but I don’t. I think such a belief discounts this life. And I don’t think there is a chance to accept Christ after we die.

But then I wrestle with this Scripture that says that Jesus descended into hell on one occasion. For me, I must say that was a one and only occasion for the benefit of those who lived before Christ came. It doesn’t happen again.

I know this is a message of hope no matter what your definition of hell. If you view hell as a physical place, then this Scripture tells us that Christ disturbs that hell. God does not want anybody to go to there. The first verse of our passage today is the key verse. It says, “For Christ also suffered for sins once, the righteous for the unrighteous….” That tells us that Jesus provides the way of escape. He died for our sins so that we do not have to go to that hell.

If you view hell as separation from God, then our text says Christ is disturbing hell. Verse 18 ends with these words, “…that he might bring you to God.” Jesus has declared war on separation from God. He is the bridge that brings us to God. We can walk the bridge of Christ who is the mediator to bring us to God.

And if we are experiencing hell on earth. Christ wants to disturb that too. He doesn’t want our lives to be isolated and distraught. He wants to bring us peace, joy and happiness. He wants us to have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. And he calls Christians everywhere to join him in “harrowing hell. He wants us to break up the hardened ground, the dark places where his children have fallen. Christ did not create us to be held as prisoners of such hell.

On all three counts, we can say that Jesus is still harrowing hell. This obscure doctrine tells us that there is no limit to which Jesus will not go to reach us. If, at least once, he went all the way to the place of the dead to draw people to him, then there is certainly no place that we can go where he will not find us. There is no guilt that we can experience, no hopeless place where we find ourselves that is beyond the love, the care and the calling of God. Jesus is in the business of destroying hell.

“Christ also suffered for sins once, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring you to God.”


1), retrieved 3/1/2001.

2) U.S. News & World Report, January 31, 2000

3) Ibid.

Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.

Copyright 2003, Dr. Mickey Anders. Used by permission.