Easter is tomorrow, the day that Jesus arose from the dead and conquered death.
Today is the third day of the holy weekend, called Holy Saturday...a day where we, um, celebrate...something. Most Christians really aren't sure exactly what happened to Jesus on Saturday, as a Beliefnet article today discussed. Indeed, there is quite a bit of argument about it. Some say Jesus went into hell and suffered for our sins. The Apostle's Creed, the early statement recited by Christians in churches, includes the phrase, "He descended into hell.", presumably to save those who died before Him. Others say He was in heaven in paradise. Which was it?
As usual, what we have here is a mixture of dozens of theories and impressions, often based around taking Scripture out of context. There are four key Scriptures which have led to the disagreements (all ESV):
"And He said to [the thief], 'Truly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise." (Luke 23:43)
"For Christ also suffered once for sins, ... being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, in which He went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison." (1 Pet 3:18-19)
"He foresaw and spoke about the resurrection of the Christ, that He was not abandoned to Hades, nor did His flesh see corruption." (Acts 2:31)
"For this is why the gospel was preached even to those who were dead..." (1 Pet 4:6)
Some point out that Luke 23 says that Jesus goes immediately into heaven with the thief. Others point out that 1 Pet 3 and 4 say that Jesus went down into hell and preached to the dead. And in Acts 2:31, some argue that Hades refers only to the grave and the lack of decay of Jesus' body, while others point out that Hades is used to refer to the afterlife for spirits everywhere else in Scripture.
So what gives? Did Jesus go up or down after His death? Where did He spend Holy Saturday?
For the first Christians, such as Tertullian, this was no problem: it is only when we reach the medieval times with Augustine, Aquinas, and others that we begin to reach a problem. Why? Because of a very bad assumption being made.
Did you see above the mistake I made? I made two mistakes in summarizing those passages, did you catch them? Probably not--most modern Christians don't.
You see, I used "Paradise" and "Heaven" interchangably, and "Hades" and "Hell" interchangably. But there is a problem with this...it is not Biblical! These refer to very different situations.
Those who have read my book will see a much more detailed description in chapters 16 and 17, but in short: when we die, our bodies go into the grave and our spirits go into a place the Hebrews called sheol, which was translated as hades in Greek. This location has both a bad part of suffering for unbelievers (which Peter calls tartarus, or "prison"), and a good part for believers (which Jesus calls paradise and Abraham's bosom). This existed in the Old Testament as well (you will see many examples of it if you look in OT passages), as well as in Luke 16:19-31, where a rich man goes to the 'tormenting' side of Hades but can look across a wide gulf and see the beggar Lazarus sitting with Abraham on the 'paradise' side.
At the Final Judgment after Jesus returns, something key happens:
"Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them...and if anyone's name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire." (Rev 20:13-15)
Do you catch that? Hades is not hell--Hades is where God gets the souls to judge, good and bad. Those who are not in the book of life get thrown into Hell--The Lake of Fire.
The problem is one of linguistics. The Bible itself clearly distinguishes between hades and the lake of fire...but starting in the Middle Ages, Christians began using the word "hell" to mean both of these. Thus we have gotten it all mixed up in our heads.
When you understand this point, then all of the Scriptures above make perfect sense!
Hades is the place where, when we die, we all go. Those of us who love God go to the side called "paradise," or "Abraham's Bosom." There we are with the righteous dead, from the Patriarchs on down to today. It was here that Jesus and the good thief went on the day of death (Lk 23:43). Across a wide gulf in hades is the prison for evil spirits and for the unrighteous (Lk 16:19-31). After arriving in hades on Holy Saturday, Jesus crossed this gulf and preached to those who were in prison (1 Pet 3:18-19, 1 Pet 4:6). But Jesus was not corrupted in hades, nor did He stay there: He returned to us in resurrection (Acts 2:31). When we die we will go to hades as well, to the paradise side to be reunited with all other believers throughout history. This is what we typically call "heaven"--though it is not God's throne room ("Heaven Proper"). At the end of time we will all be emptied out and judged; those who are not found in the Book of Life will go to the lake of fire--what we normally think of as "hell" (Rev 20:13-15). Those of us who are in the Book of Life will not return to hades (which is now destroyed), nor to God's Throne Room, but rather God creates for us a new heaven and earth where we live forever (Rev 21), called New Jerusalem.
(Note that I am not endorsing the Catholic theology of purgatory. The concept of purgatory essentially says that those who die with sins must be cleansed before they are judged. So in other words, it is like dying and going to the 'prison' part of hades, but after a period of suffering being allowed to cross the gulf to paradise part of hades. I don't see any Scriptural basis for this, and don't believe it.)
So did Jesus preach in hell? No--hell doesn't exist yet, it (the Lake of Fire) is where hades is emptied into it at the end of time. Did Jesus go to paradise/heaven on the day of His death? Yes, just as He said. But how then did He preach to the spirits in prison? Simple--He just crossed the gulf in hades and preached to those spirits in prison.
So yes, on Holy Saturday, Jesus did descend into hades and preach to the spirits in prison. And this is not the same as the burning inferno of hell, and it does not contradict His statement that today they would be together in paradise.