Christians have long been troubled over what these words in the apostle’s creed actually mean.
1 Peter 3:19 says that Jesus preached to those “spirits in prison” who had been disobedient in Noah’s day. If “prison” equals “hell,” then why should these people be singled out for such an honor, and who, if anyone, did Christ save with his preaching in hell? Also, Jesus could not have come only to take the “righteous men” from hell, for they were already separated from the condemned, as demonstrated in the story of the beggar Lazarus and the rich man in Luke 16.
Many Roman Catholics resolve this problem by saying Christ descended to two places—hell and purgatory—and that his purpose in each was different. In hell, he put unbelievers to shame, while in purgatory, he gave sinners hope for glory and the righteous deliverance.
Other Christians believe Christ descended to hell, but offer no clear cut explanation for the event. We may never be certain on this side of eternity what Christ did between the cross and the resurrection, but we do know from His own lips that He was in Paradise between His death and resurrection (Luke 23:43).