This entry is part 87 of 90 in the series: Troublesome texts
- Genesis 1:26 – Why a plural name for God?
- Genesis 3 – traditional and revisionist readings
- Genesis 5 – the ages of the antedeluvians
- Genesis 6:1f – ‘The sons of God’
- Genesis 6-8 – A worldwide flood?
- Genesis 12:3 – ‘I will bless those who bless you’
- Genesis 22 – “Abraham, kill your son”
- Exodus – Who hardened Pharaoh’s heart?
- Exodus 12:37 – How many Israelites left Egypt?
- Joshua 6 – the fall of Jericho
- Joshua 10 – Joshua’s ‘long day’
- Judges 19:11-28 – The priest and the concubine
- 2 Sam 24:1, 1 Chron 21:1 – Who incited David?
- 1 Kings 20:30 – ‘The wall collapsed on 27,000 of them’
- Psalm 105:15 – ‘Touch not my anointed’
- Psalm 137:8f – ‘Happy is he who dashes your infants against the rocks’
- Isaiah 7:14/Matthew 1:23 – “The virgin will conceive”
- Daniel 7:13 – ‘Coming with the clouds of heaven’
- Jonah – history or fiction?
- Mt 1:1-17 and Lk 3:23-38 – the genealogies of Jesus
- Matthew 2:1 – ‘Magi from the east’
- Matthew 2:2 – The star of Bethlehem
- Matthew 2:8f – Can God speak through astrology?
- Matthew 2:23 – ‘Jesus would be called a Nazarene’
- Matthew 5:21f – Did Jesus reject the Old Testament?
- Matthew 7:16,20 – ‘You will recognise them by their fruit’
- Matthew 8:5/Luke 7:3 – Who asked Jesus to help?
- Matthew 8:5/Luke 7:7 – son? servant? male lover?
- Matthew 8:28 – Gadara or Gerasa?
- Matthew 10:23 – ‘Before the Son of Man comes’
- Matthew 11:12 – Forceful entry, or violent opposition, to the kingdom?
- Matthew 12:40 – Three days and three nights
- The Parable of the Sower – return from exile?
- Mt 15:21-28/Mk 7:24-30 – Jesus and the Canaanite woman
- Matthew 18:10 – What about ‘guardian angels’?
- Matthew 18:20 – ‘Where two or three are gathered…’
- Matthew 16:18 – Peter the rock?
- Matthew 21:7 – One animal or two?
- Matthew 24:34 – This generation will not pass away?
- Matthew 25:40 – ‘These brothers of mine’
- Matthew 27:46/Mark 15:34 – Jesus’ cry of dereliction
- Matthew 27:52f – Many bodies raised?
- Mark 1:41 – ‘Compassion’, or ‘anger/indignation’?
- Mark 2:25f – ‘When Abiathar was high priest’
- Mark 4:31 – ‘The smallest of all the seeds’?
- Mark 6:45 – ‘To Bethsaida’
- Mark 12:41-44/Luke 21:1-4 – ‘The widow’s mite’
- Luke 2:1f – Quirinius and ‘the first registration’
- Luke 2:7 – ‘No room at the inn’
- Luke 2:8 – Shepherds: a despised class?
- Luke 4:16-19 – An incomplete quotation?
- Luke 7:2 – ‘Highly valued servant’ or ‘gay lover’?
- John 1:1 – ‘The Word was God’
- John 2:6 – symbol or history?
- John 2:12 – Did Mary bear other children?
- When did Jesus cleanse the Temple?
- John 3:16f – What is meant by ‘the world’?
- John 4:44 – ‘His own country’
- John 7:53-8:11 – The woman caught in adultery
- John 14:6 – “No one comes to the Father except through me”
- John 14:12 – ‘Greater deeds’
- John 20:21 – “Just as the Father has sent me, I also send you.”
- Acts 5:1-11 – Ananias and Sapphira
- Romans 1:5 – ‘The obedience of faith’
- Romans 1:18 – Wrath: personal or impersonal?
- Rom 3:22; Gal 2:16 – faith in, or faithfulness of Christ?
- Romans 5:18 – ‘Life for all?’
- Rom 7:24 – Who is the ‘wretched man’?
- Romans 11:26a – ‘And so all Israel will be saved’
- 1 Corinthians 14:34 – ‘Women should be silent in the churches’
- 1 Corinthians 15:29 – ‘Baptized for the dead’
- 1 Corinthians 15:44 – ‘Raised a spiritual body’
- 2 Corinthians 5:21 – ‘God made Christ to be sin for us’
- Galatians 3:17 – How much later?
- Galatians 3:28 – ‘Neither male nor female’
- Galatians 6:2 – ‘The law of Christ’
- Galatians 6:16 – The Israel of God
- Ephesians 1:10 – ‘The fullness of the times’
- Ephesians 5:23- ‘The head of a wife is her husband’
- Colossians 1:19f – Universal reconciliation?
- 1 Thessalonians 2:14f – ‘The Jews, who killed Jesus’
- 1 Timothy 2:4 – ‘God wants all people to be saved’
- 1 Timothy 2:15 – ‘Saved through child-bearing’
- 1 Timothy 4:10 – ‘The Saviour of all people’
- Hebrews 6:4-6 – Who are these people?
- Hebrews 12:1 – Who are these witnesses?
- 1 Peter 3:18-20 – Christ and the spirits in prison
- 2 Peter 3:9 – ‘The Lord wishes all to come to repentance’
- Jude 7 – ‘Unnatural desire’
- Revelation 14:11 – ‘No rest day or night’
1 Peter 3:18-20 says, ‘Because Christ also suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, to bring you to God, by being put to death in the flesh but by being made alive in the spirit. In it he went and preached to the spirits in prison, after they were disobedient long ago when God patiently waited in the days of Noah as an ark was being constructed. In the ark a few, that is eight souls, were delivered through water.’
This difficult text raises a number of questions:
- What does it mean when it says that ‘through the Spirit Christ went and preached to the spirits in prison’?
- Who were the ‘spirits in prison’?
- What did Christ preach to them?
- What does it mean when it says that he went and preached to them ‘through the Spirit’?
- When did this take place?
‘Could it be that Christ is giving a second chance to people who have died? What does it mean that these beings are in prison? Could there be some type of purgatory after death where people are given a second chance?’ (HSB)
This verse must, of course, be read in context. Moreover, we look to the RSV and NRSV for a clearer rending of the passage. Peter is urging his persecuted readers to follow the example of Christ, who was put to death in the body rather, in the flesh but made alive by rather in the Spirit, v18. Through whom in this verse should accordingly be translated in which. It is clear that two spheres of existence are being described. Christ’s death ‘in the flesh’ was the gateway to his exaltation ‘in the spirit’. Cf. the contrast in Heb 12:2: ‘who for the joy set before him endured the cross’.
‘This difficult verse probably is to be seen as parallel with 1 Pet 3:22: by his resurrection and ascension Christ manifested his victory over the principalities and powers of the present world order.’ (Eph 1:20-23 Col 2:15 1 Tim 3:16) (DLNT)
Who were these spirits in prison? The next verse connects them with the days of Noah. They may have been the spirits of wicked people from those days? (cf. Gen 6:3-6,11) More probably, they to be identified with the ‘sons of God’, Gen 6:2? These latter appear to have been fallen angels, cf. Jude 6 2 Pet 2:4. There was a long Jewish tradition (cf. 1 Enoch 10-16; 21) of these fallen angels as having been kept in a prison. The latter is the interpretation favoured by HSB.
But what did Jesus preach to these spirits? The word preached is not only used in the NT for the preaching of the gospel. It is also used for other kinds of announcement or proclamation. (cf. Lk 12:3 Rom 2:21 Rev 5:2) In 1 Enoch (known to the early church and quoted in Jude), Enoch announces to these spirits their doom. This accords with the present passage, which ends on the triumphant note of v22 with angels, authorities and powers in submission to Christ. This victory of Christ over the spirit world is attested elsewhere in the NT, e.g. 2 Cor 2:14; Eph 6:11-12; Col 2:15; Rev 12:7-11.
HSB, whose interpretation is closely followed above, concludes its discussion of this passage as follows:-
‘The Christians in Asia Minor were facing persecution and possible martyrdom. Peter calls them to look at the example of Jesus. He was, from the human point of view, killed. Yet, in fact, he rose, not simply to renewed natural life, but to transformed life in the spiritual world, and in that world he proclaimed his victory to the fallen angels who were disobedient in Noah’s day. This may have been during his ascension, for while this text does not tell us where this prison was, some Jews located it in the “second heaven” and thus on the way between earth and the heaven where God dwells. Whatever the case, in the end of this section in 1 Peter Christ is in heaven with all spiritual beings subject to him. Peter’s point is that Christians through baptism have identified with Christ and so will be saved in the final judgment and share his triumph. They too will live with Christ in exaltation, no matter how human beings persecute or condemn them. As for their persecutors, unless they repent, what hope do they have, living as they do in the purely human sphere? Christ triumphed over his foes and proclaimed his victory. The Christians in Asia Minor (and today) will do the same if they remain faithful to this Christ.’
We might tentatively propose the following paraphrase, itself based on that of Grudem: ‘Long ago, Christ went, in the realm of the spirit, and preached through Noah to those who had disobeyed. To these people, now imprisoned in hell, God in his patience was giving an opportunity for repentance even while the ark was being built.‘
Grudem says that this passage, in its context, functions,
- to encourage the readers to bear witness boldly in them midst of hostile unbelievers, just as Noah did;
- to assure them that though they are few, God will surely save them;
- to remind them of the certainty of final judgement and Christ’s ultimate triumph over all the forces of evil which oppose them.
‘Don’t be afraid; don’t be ashamed of suffering in a good cause. Those who persecute you may hurt you, but they can do you no lasting harm. Christ, in suffering, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, suffered for doing good. And, though his suffering ended in his dying in the physical realm, it ended also in his being made alive in the spiritual realm. It is in the spiritual realm that he has gone and preached the gospel via his messengers to the spiritual captives. Among such spiritual captives had been those disobedient people who long ago in Noah’s day exercised God’s patience while the ark was being built. If a few people – eight in all – could be delivered in those far-off days long before the coming of Christ, how much more is your own deliverance assured now that his saving work is finished and his reign is supreme?
What a description of those outside of Christ! They are ‘spiritual captives’. What a captivity: condemned, waiting for their sentence. Yet it is not a hopeless imprisonment. The key that will liberate the captives is at hand. What a description of our Deliverer. He has taken our place; he has paid the price; he has secured the way back to God. He only can unlock the dungeon. He only can give life to dead soul. He has give life to many, and will give it to many more, as long as this day of opportunity lasts. What a description of Christian ministry. The work of evangelism is the work of Christ. The word of salvation, faithfully proclaimed, is the word of Christ himself. We are Christ’s voice on earth.
Moffat’s translation of this verse attracted particular criticism in its day: “Enoch also went and preached to the imprisoned spirits.”
J.I. Packer (God’s Words, p210) deals with the question of whether this verse, taken with v18) gives any support for the notion of post-mortem evangelism. In answering in the negative, he explains:-
- The spirits in prison are at least as likely to be fallen angels as fallen men (cf. Gen 6:1-4; Jude 6);
- The statement that Christ preached to spirits who disobeyed in Noah’s day more naturally implies that the preaching was not to others than that it was;
- ‘Preached’ (Greek kerusso, with the message unspecified, does not imply an offer of life any more naturally than it does a bare proclamation of Jesus’ triumph.