What Jesus’ spirit did during the time his body lay in the tomb for three days is rather mysterious. The scriptures tell us very little about this time. To this, there is leeway as to what one may interpret. We’ll start our discussion with this verse:
For Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, so that He might bring us to God, having been put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit; in which also He went and made proclamation to the spirits now in prison, who once were disobedient, when the patience of God kept waiting in the days of Noah, during the construction of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through the water (1 Peter 3:18-20).
Some say this means Jesus ministered to those who were in Hades to give them a chance to repent. Others say that this means he only proclaimed to them the truth as to who he is and why they were there—not proclaiming to them the gospel so that they may be saved. Still, others say he went to Abraham’s Bosom, a paradise where saints awaited to enter Heaven until the fulfillment of the atonement, where Jesus went to explain that he had just fulfilled prophecy and it was now the time to be released.
But perhaps it is a combination of these.
According to gotquestions.org, heaven.net and the blog, “Committed to Truth,” Sheol (Hebrew) and Hades (Greek) are both names which mean ‘the grave’ or ‘the place of the dead.’ Hades has a more ‘hellish’ connotation, but Hell specific is the place where those who are not in Christ are sent after the final judgment.
Sheol was or is a realm with two divisions: Hades and Abraham’s Bosom (also Paradise), separated by a great chasm (Luke 16: 19-31). At first, I was having a hard time believing the idea that there was one place of the dead with two divisions; and I was having an especially hard time with the concept of Jesus ‘descending’ into paradise. Then I was reminded of Jesus’ words to the thief on the cross: “Today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43). I know of no other way to interpret what he said to the thief and to interpret Eph. 4: 8-10 cohesively other than that Jesus must have descended into Paradise. Peter tells us Jesus specifically descended into Hades, to proclaim (something of himself) to those in prison there. Therefore, Jesus must have gone to both sides of ‘the grave,’ and for two different reasons. I don’t believe he released the prisoners in Hades since it seems too contradictory to other passages about death and judgment.
As to setting the spirits in Paradise free, Paul in Eph. 4 states that Jesus, in his ascent, ‘led captive a host of captives.’ This could be a reference to Matt. 27: 50-52 where the saints who were in Paradise walked the earth after Jesus arose. Whether they ascended to heaven afterward rather than going back to Abraham’s bosom is probable, considering Paul also states that after Jesus’ ascension, he ‘gave gifts to men.’ But others have interpreted this as having given gifts of the spirit to men when he appeared after his resurrection.