Q. What does the Bible mean when it says that God would not leave Christ’s soul in Hell?
That is a great and interesting question.
The passage under consideration is Psalm 16:10, a passage which the apostle Peter quotes in Acts 2. Peter’s commentary on the verse is,
“He seeing this before spake of the resurrection of Christ, that his soul was not left in hell, neither his flesh did see corruption.”
Most of our ministers define Hell in this verse as the grave. When we say that, what we really mean is “the abode of the dead.” The Greek word is hades and at times had reference to the afterlife in general, whereas another Greek word, gehenna, refers to what most people mean in 2021 when they say Hell, which is the place of punishment for the wicked. The majority of times in the New Testament, the word hades translates Hell but it also translates “grave” in 1 Corinthians 15. And so it is my position that Hell in this passage has reference to Christ’s corporal deadness – as a man – between cross and crucifixion.
Further, the original Hebrew word for Hell in the Old Testament passage Peter quotes is sheol. If you take a concordance and peruse its usage, you see men like Jacob using it to describe their own deaths. This word does commonly translate as “grave.” It can have reference to the righteous like Jacob or the wicked, obviously being a very different place for the righteous than the wicked. We might use the word “afterlife” as a contemporary choice. In my opinion, carefully choosing my words, Psalm 16:10 is saying Christ will not remain deceased but will be resurrected, His body seeing no corruption (decomposition).
What do we know for certain?
We know from Luke 23:43 that Jesus would be in paradise the day of His crucifixion and death. He plainly says as much in His conversation with the thief on the cross. Also, Hebrews 9:14 depicts Jesus as offering His sacrificial work through the eternal Spirit to God. This would be the “into thy hands I commit my spirit” moment on the cross, so from this passage in Hebrews it seems that Jesus immediately presented the work of salvation to the Father.
Spirits in Prison?
It’s a fairly common teaching that at His death, Jesus went and engaged with some people who were, at the time, in torments. Opinions on how and what took place vary. The passage most people who hold this position use to teach this is 1 Peter 3:19-20. Christ, by the Spirit, went and preached unto spirits in prison. Notice this says nothing of Hell, nor does it say anything of rescuing people from there in a literal sense. Romans 3:25 says God allowed deceased saints into Heaven through “forbearance,” having total confidence in Christ’s redemptive work. In other words, dead saints were with God in Heaven, not suffering in torments.
Peter seems to be saying that in Noah’s day, Christ preached through the Spirit to spirits in prison. This could be referring to 1) Christ comforting Noah and his family imprisoned in the ark, 2) Christ preaching through the Spirit to persecuted saints before the flood who were imprisoned for their faith or some other reason, or 3) Christ preaching through the Spirit through NOAH to that wicked generation. That passage is one without a lot of consensus, being somewhat unclear. Peter’s overall context is persecution though. And, in Peter’s second epistle, he referred to Noah as a “preacher of righteousness” which gives option 3 greater likelihood. That is the perspective in both the commentaries of Joel Beeke and John Gill, and is the position I have come to embrace.
If that be the case, Peter’s point in 1 Peter 3 is that we preach righteousness to and are rejected by the untoward generation around us, people from whom we find deliverance from via baptism (discipleship), very much as Noah did by the floodwaters.