After Jesus said, “It is finished,” on the cross, “he bowed his head and gave up his spirit” (John 19:30). His dead body remained on the cross until it was taken down and placed in a nearby tomb (John 19:40–42). His spirit, however, was elsewhere. Three days later, His body and spirit were reunited, and He rose from the dead (John 20). There is some speculation about where Jesus was—that is, where His spirit was—for the three days between His death and resurrection.
The clearest indication we have in Scripture of where Jesus was between His death and resurrection comes in His conversation on the cross with one of the thieves crucified next to Him. The believing thief asks to be remembered when Jesus comes into His kingdom (Luke 23:42), and Jesus replies, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise” (verse 43). So, after His death, Jesus went to the place of blessing where God is—heaven. And that’s where the believing thief went, too.
In the discussion of where Jesus was for the three days between His death and resurrection, another passage is often mentioned. First Peter 3:18–20 says, “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 because they formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared” (ESV). Some take this to mean that Jesus, sometime between His death and resurrection, went to hell/Hades and made an announcement of some type to the “spirits” imprisoned there. Within this interpretation, the spirits Jesus addressed could be either demonic or human.
If the spirits mentioned in 1 Peter 3:19 are fallen angels, then those spirits were probably imprisoned because they were involved in a grievous sin before the flood in Noah’s time—Peter mentions Noah’s flood in verse 20. Peter does not tell us what Jesus proclaimed to the imprisoned spirits, but it could not have been a message of redemption, since angels cannot be saved (Hebrews 2:16). If these were fallen angels, what Jesus proclaimed was probably a declaration of His victory over Satan and his hosts (1 Peter 3:22; Colossians 2:15).
But there is another interpretation of the 1 Peter passage. In this interpretation, the “spirits” are people currently in hell, but Peter is not saying Jesus made a special trip to Hades/hell to preach or proclaim anything. Rather, Peter is giving parenthetical information about something Jesus had done previously in history, namely, that He had “in spirit” preached to the people of Noah’s day while they were still living on earth. That wicked generation heard the message, rejected it, perished in the flood, and are now in prison. The word now in 1 Peter 3:19 is provided for clarity in the Amplified Bible and the New American Standard Bibles of 1977 and 1995, and it contrasts with the “long ago” (NIV) and “formerly” (ESV) of 1 Peter 3:20.
According to this alternate interpretation, Christ was in Noah (spiritually) when Noah preached to his doomed neighbors. To better explain, here is a paraphrase of 1 Peter 3:18–20: “Jesus was put to death in the flesh, but He was made alive in the Spirit (it was through this same Spirit that Jesus long ago preached to those who are right now in prison—those souls who disobeyed during the time of God’s great patience when Noah was building the ark).” According to this view, Jesus preached spiritually to the people of Noah’s time, and He did this through the prophet Noah, in much the same way that God speaks through us today when we proclaim God’s Word.
Ephesians 4:8–10 is another passage used in the discussion regarding Jesus’ activities in the three days between His death and resurrection. Quoting Psalm 68:18, Paul says about Christ, “When he ascended on high, he took many captives” (Ephesians 4:8). The ESV puts it that Christ “led a host of captives.” Some say this refers to an event not elsewhere described in Scripture, namely, that Jesus gathered all the redeemed who were in paradise and took them to their permanent dwelling in heaven. That is, after securing their salvation on the cross, Jesus brought Abraham, David, Joshua, Daniel, the beggar Lazarus, the thief on the cross, and everyone else who had previously been justified by faith, and led them from Hades (the abode of the dead in general) to their new spiritual home.
Another view of Ephesians 4 is that ascended on high is a straightforward reference to Jesus’ ascension. Christ returned to heaven victoriously, as God. In His triumph, Jesus had defeated and taken captive our spiritual enemies: the devil, death, and the curse of sin.
All of this is to say that the Bible gives scant information about what exactly Christ did for the three days between His death and resurrection. The only thing we know for sure is that, according to Jesus’ own words on the cross, He went to paradise. We can also say with confidence that, His work of redemption finished, Jesus did not have to suffer in hell.