When my kids were young, they watched the wonderful "What's in the Bible?" series created by Phil Vischer. One of the segments that was featured in the show was called "Tricky Bits with Buck Denver." Buck Denver was one of the puppets on the show and he would explain some of the harder parts of the Bible to understand.
The book of 1 Peter has several "tricky bits." In fact, in my estimation, there aren't too many other books of the New Testament with more tricky bits than Peter's first letter. It's ironic that Peter describes Paul's writings as "hard to understand" when, in my opinion, Peter is easily more confusing than Paul!
There are two "tricky bits" in just three verses of 1 Peter 3 that have confused Christians for centuries, and have even been used as a justification for division between Christian denominations (just Google "Did Jesus go to hell?" and you will find dozens of answers and explanations!). The goal of this post, and the following post, will be to try to give an explanation for these tricky bits.
The first tricky bit from 1 Peter 3 comes in verses 18-19: "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..." These verses make it sound as though after his death, Jesus went somewhere - a "prison" - and spent at least a bit of time preaching to people who were incarcerated in such a prison. In the very next chapter, Peter also says that the gospel is preached to those who are dead. Could this mean after his death, Jesus preached the gospel to dead souls presently in hell? Seemingly in support of this notion, Paul says in Ephesians 4.9 that Jesus "descended into the lower parts of the earth."
These passages and one or two others have led some to believe that, after his death, Jesus spent at least some time in hell, doing something, although what exactly it was he was doing is still up for debate. This idea became so prevalent that even the Apostle's Creed, embraced and recited in churches around the world, says, "...he was crucified, dead, and buried; he descended into hell..."
So did Jesus go to hell and do something during the three days when he was "dead?" That's definitely a "tricky bit," and we'll try to answer that question now, although it should be noted that the answer I'm going to give is my own, based on my personal study, and is by no means definitive or authoritative. You are free to disagree. Just make sure that scripture carries your thinking. Also, note that this is far from a comprehensive study. I'm only addressing the two sections of 1 Peter that speak to this question.
First, let's be clear that the Bible never explicitly teaches that Jesus went "to hell." It might appear to imply or suggest it here and there, but it is never explicitly said.
Second, there are words used in the verses noted above that are frequently used in a variety of ways in scripture. Knowing how those words are translated and understood in the context of the passages they are in will determine our interpretation of these verses and help us to answer the question.
That being said, no, I don't believe Jesus ever went to hell. Let's look at the two verses we've already noted.
1 Peter 3.18-19 - In these verses Peter notes Christ's death and resurrection, and seems to imply that in the interim he went and preached to "the spirits in prison." In order to understand this verse, we need to know what Peter means by the words "spirits" and "prison." It seems unlikely that the "spirits" mentioned in this verse refers to disembodied souls in hell, or even in a "place of the dead" such as the oft-mentioned Sheol, because of what verse 20 says: "...because they formerly did not obey..." The idea of there being a second chance to hear and believe the gospel after death is contrary to every other teaching of scripture (see, for instance, Luke 16.19-31). Scripture is clear that the time that we have to hear and respond to the gospel is the time between our natural birth and natural death. The Bible never tells us that there is a second chance to hear and believe the gospel. If this is what Jesus did for spirits that were imprisoned in hell, it would be in contradiction with the rest of scripture.
Rather, because of Peter's comparison of what Jesus did to what Noah did, it seems more likely that the "spirits in prison" refer to human beings alive at the time of Peter's writing. The Bible describes Noah as a preacher of righteousness who preached God's judgment and salvation. Noah's audience were "spirits in prison" (of sin) who "did not obey." Jesus similarly came to preach God's judgment and salvation to "spirits in prison" who "did not obey" (us). And Just as Noah was saved from God's judgment by the ark, we are saved from God's judgment by the Ark of God's Son. Peter's readers were to see themselves as the people to whom Noah went and preached, and to see the ark that rescued Noah as the Ark that rescued them.
1 Peter 4.6 - In the next chapter, Peter says, "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." Many have understood this to mean that Jesus traveled to hell to preach the gospel to its dead inhabitants. Here again, we need to know what Peter means by the word "dead." The Bible frequently refers to human beings as "dead" even though they are very much alive. The implication is that the word "dead" describes their spiritual condition. For example, Ephesians 2.1 describes unregenerate human beings as being "dead in...trespasses and sins..." Paul clearly doesn't mean that we were dead and in hell in trespasses and sins, and we know that because he goes on to say that God made us spiritually alive. So it is unlikely that when Peter says that "the gospel was preached even to those who are dead" that he is referring to actual dead people who are in hell. Rather, it seems much more likely that Peter is referring to the dead spiritual condition of those to whom the gospel has been preached.
It is also possible that Peter is merely referring to a temporal distinction between those who are alive presently, and those who were alive in the past but are now dead. The previous verses indicate that God is the judge of "the living an the dead." The "living" certainly can hear the gospel presently, but the dead cannot. That is why "the gospel was preached even to those who are dead," meaning that, when they were alive, the gospel was preached to them, but now they are dead an cannot hear the gospel. It's just a temporal indication, not meaning that they were preached to while physically dead.
Does it really matter if Jesus went to hell or not?
It is possible for Christians with differing opinions on this question to have unity with one another. We need not separate ourselves over whether or not we believe that Jesus went to hell between his death and resurrection. In fact, those who argue that Jesus did go to hell have wonderful an gospel-affirming reasons for doing so. It is my opinion, however, that the Bible simply does not support Jesus going to hell during the time of his death.
Apart from that, we can be encouraged that Jesus experienced everything that we have or will experience - including death. And, like him, at our time of death, we will leave our bodies and join him in paradise, absent from the body but present with the Lord. As Jesus cried out on the cross: "It is finished!" There is no need for us to fear death or hell. We can live in confidence that he has paid the price for our salvation in full, and we can live each one of our days with confidence in his victory over death.