The following comes from the late R.C. Sproul in his 2009 commentary on John, part of the St. Andrew’s Expositional Commentary series. It can be purchased on Kindle here.
Where Did Jesus Go?
There is great debate as to what happened to Jesus between His death and His resurrection. Where was He? We know where His body was—lying in Joseph’s tomb. But where was His soul? There are many in the history of the church who believe that in the interim between His death and resurrection, Jesus visited hell. In fact, the Apostles’ Creed states that Jesus “suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried: he descended into hell; the third day he arose again from the dead” (emphasis added). However, it is important to note that this phrase does not appear in the earliest versions that we have of the Apostles’ Creed. It did not appear until the middle of the third century, so the phrase itself is textually questionable, not to mention theologically suspect.
Why would Jesus have gone to hell during the time He lay in the grave? One theory is that in order to pay fully for our sins, He had to experience some time in hell. Thus, the belief is that He went to hell as part of His atoning work of satisfaction for His people.
Others, such as the Roman Catholic Church, believe Jesus went to hell to release captives who had been held in limbo from Old Testament days. He went there not to punish or to be punished, but to continue His work of redemption, to set the captives in hell free from their condition. The text that is most frequently cited to support this theory is 1 Peter 3:18-20:
Peter refers to a mission of Jesus to the spirits in prison. Many commentators understand the spirits in prison to be Old Testament saints who were still being held, waiting for the day of rescue. The prison mentioned here is assumed to be hell.
John Calvin had a different view. He believed that Jesus did descend into hell and thought that Christians should recite this article in the Apostles’ Creed, but he believed the creed’s wording should be changed to say, “... suffered under Pontius Pilate, crucified, descended into hell, dead, and buried.” It was Calvin’s view that Jesus’ experience of hell took place while He was on the cross. That’s what the atonement was all about—He received the full measure of punishment for sin, enduring the wrath of God as it is experienced by those in hell.
The question of where Jesus went during His time in the grave raises the issue of the relationship of the divine nature and the human nature in Christ. On the cross, the divine nature did not die, because the divine nature is immutable. If God had been dead for three days, that would have been the end of all things. If God dies for two seconds, everything else goes. In short, God did not stop being God on the cross. Jesus suffered and died in His human nature.
But what was the relationship between Christ’s divine and human natures in that three days? His divine nature had been perfectly united with a human nature in a healthy body. After the crucifixion, the divine nature was perfectly united with a human corpse. The union of the two natures still existed, but the living soul of Christ was absent from the body. Where was it? It was in heaven. How do we know that? We know it because Jesus said to the thief on the cross who made a profession of faith, “Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43). It is theoretically possible that Jesus died, made a quick trip to hell, and went to heaven that same day, but that scenario requires us to really torture the text.
Even that statement by Jesus isn’t accepted by everyone. Some point out that there is no punctuation in the original Greek, so Jesus may have said, “I say to you today, you will be with Me in Paradise.” In other words, the “today” may have been referring not to when Jesus was going to be with the man in paradise, but to the moment when Jesus was making this promise. We could put it like this: “I’m telling you today that sometime in the distant future, you and I are going to be together in paradise.”
However, I cannot believe that the Son of God, gasping for breath in His dying moments, would have added unnecessary verbiage in His words to the robber. I think it is clear what Jesus said. He made a promise to this man: “This very day, you will be with Me,” and it wasn't going to be in hell but in paradise.
We also know that at the end of His experience on the cross, He said, “Father, ‘into Your hands I commit My spirit’” (Luke 23:46). So we have every reason to believe that at the moment Jesus died, the divine nature remained united to His soul, which was in heaven, and to his body, which was in the tomb, waiting to be reunited at the moment of resurrection.
Preaching in Resurrection Power
What, then, are we to do with the text in 1 Peter? In the final analysis, I don’t know If we consulted ten commentaries on this portion of 1 Peter, chances are we would get ten different opinions about it. We will look at it closely, and I will tell you what I believe it means, but I cannot state definitively what Peter had in mind.
Peter writes that Jesus was "put to death in the flesh but made alive by the Spirit, by whom also He went and preached to the spirits in prison" (3:18b-19). If we apply basic principle of biblical interpretation, seeing how phrases are used elsewhere in the New Testament, we find that the phrase "made alive by the Spirit" almost certainly refers to His resurrection. So Jesus died bodily and then was made alive again by the Spirit. Also, He went and preached to the spirits in prison by the Spirit.
Notice that Peter speaks of Jesus preaching to the spirits in prison after he apparently speaks about the resurrection. There is an order here death, resurrection, then this visit to the spirits in prison. If we follow this sequence, we must say that Jesus’ visit to the spirits in prison took place not between His death and resurrection, but after the resurrection. On the other hand, the fact that these events are mentioned in a particular order does not necessitate a temporal sequence. We have to be careful that we don’t read a temporal sequence into this passage, because Peter doesn’t say, "After He was raised by the Spirit, then He went and preached to the spirits in prison." He simply says that it was by the same Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead that He ministered to the spirits in prison.
The assumptions that many bring to this text are that the word spirits refers to dead people and that prison refers to hell. That may be what Peter has in mind here. On the other hand, the term spirit is used in biblical language many tinges for living people. Genesis 2:7 says that God “formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul” (KJV). We use the same speech patterns in our own vocabulary. If you were to ask me, “How many people were in church last Thursday night?” I might say, “There wasn’t a soul there.” I wouldn’t be saying that there were no ghosts there; I would mean that there weren’t any people there. So the fact that Peter refers to spirits does not necessarily mean he was thinking of departed spirits.
What about the prison? It is possible Peter was referring to hell. On the other hand, the condition in which Israel found herself during the period of Jesus’ incarnation was one of bondage to sin. It was the mission of the Messiah to "proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound" (Isa. 61:1b). So Peter may be reminding us that the same power by which Jesus was raised from the dead accompanied His earthly ministry of releasing the captives from the prison house of sin.
As I said, I am not certain as to what Peter is saying. But I am confident about what John is telling us in his Gospel. He wants us to see that God was not willing to allow the humiliation of His Son to continue one second longer than was necessary for Him to pay our debt. His body was treated tenderly and given an honorable burial in a rich man’s tomb that had never been used before. This was like getting a burial with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery rather than being thrown into the garbage heap or being left to the vultures.
Our Lord was exalted in the manner of His burial, but that was simply a hint of what was to come the resurrection. The Scriptures say "it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him" (Acts 2:24b NIV). So as honoring as the linen and the precious spices and ointments were to Jesus, they were absolutely unnecessary, a waste of good linen and good fragrance.