I’m upset. How could I have been reading the Bible for so long and missed something so obvious? I think I know how. I read Protestant commentaries. Some of those commentaries are especially good at listing various interpretations of a passage but never coming to a decisive conclusion. The passage I’m talking about is 1 Peter 3:18-20 and admittedly it has its difficulties. Here’s how it reads in four different versions:
1 Peter 3:18-20
- 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; 19 in which also He went and made proclamation to the spirits now in prison, 20 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. (NASB)
- 18 For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit. 19 After being made alive, he went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits— 20 to those who were disobedient long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built. In it only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water (NIV)
- 18 For Christ also suffered for sins once for all,
the righteous for the unrighteous,
that He might bring you to God,
after being put to death in the fleshly realm
but made alive in the spiritual realm.
19 In that state He also went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison 20 who in the past were disobedient, when God patiently waited in the days of Noah while an ark was being prepared. In it a few—that is, eight people—were saved through water. (HCSB)
- 18 Christ himself suffered on account of sins, once for all, the righteous one on behalf of the unrighteous. He did this in order to bring you into the presence of God. Christ was put to death as a human, but made alive by the Spirit. 19 And it was by the Spirit that he went to preach to the spirits in prison. 20 In the past, these spirits were disobedient—when God patiently waited during the time of Noah. Noah built an ark in which a few (that is, eight) lives were rescued through water. (CEB)
Questions about 1 Peter 3:18-20
I admit there are several things that are not explicitly stated in this passage.
- What did Christ preach to these imprisoned spirits? Was it the good news of salvation or the bad news of judgment?
- Who were the imprisoned spirits? Were they deceased human beings, rebellious angels, or something else?
- When exactly did Christ preach to the imprisoned spirits? Was it during the time between his death and resurrection or was it after his resurrection?
- What was the result of Christ’s preaching?
The Main Points of 1 Peter 3:18-20
While certain things are unclear, I believe many of these things start to clear up when we broaden our horizon in 1 Peter and use common sense. Here’s what we know about 1 Peter 3:18-20 and its reference to Noah.
- Christ preached to spirits in prison.
- Christ preached to these spirits by the Spirit or in the Spirit (spirit) or in the spiritual realm. The emphasis is on Christ being in some type of spiritual state when this preaching was accomplished.
- These spirits were beings who were disobedient during the time of Noah (Noah lived at least two millennia before Christ).
- Disobedient humans grieved God during Noah’s time and were wiped away in the flood. While the flood narrative in Genesis may contain a reference to angelic rebellion (some view the “sons of God” in Genesis 6 as angels), the primary focus is on human rebellion. Peter’s reference to the spirits in prison then is most likely referring to rebellious humans who lived during Noah’s time. That corresponds with Peter’s statement that the gospel was preached to the dead, meaning dead humans in 1 Peter 4:6. And it is how many Church Fathers understood it.
- From the context of this passage (it mentions Christ’s death and his resurrection), this preaching was accomplished either during the three days he was buried or some time after his resurrection.
What an incredible passage! Christ preached to rebellious people who lived two thousand years before he lived. And that means not even the wicked people who perished in the flood were excluded from Christ’s mission.
The Content of Christ’s Preaching
But what did Christ preach to these imprisoned spirits? Our text doesn’t explicitly say, but essentially there are two options: the bad news of condemnation or the good news of salvation. I think Christ preached the good news of salvation to them for the following reasons:
- It is in line with his mission. He said, “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (Lk. 19:10). And John wrote “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him” (Jn. 3:17).
- It is in line with his character. He was despised for spending time with sinners (Mk. 2). And throughout his ministry, he loved people and sought to heal, teach, and restore them. From what I know of Jesus in the Gospels, I can’t see him going to the imprisoned spirits and announcing their condemnation. If he went to them, he would have gone with the goal of saving them.
- It fits the context of 1 Peter. References to preaching in 1 Peter are focused on the preaching of good news (see 1 Peter 1:12, 25).
The Result of Christ’s Preaching?
What happened after Christ preached the good news to these imprisoned spirits? Admittedly, we are now moving into a more speculative realm, since that question is not directly answered in Scripture. But again, if we reason from prior revelation, is it too far of a stretch to imagine that if Christ went to preach the good news to them, then, at least some of them were delivered from their state of imprisonment? After all, Jesus said that he was anointed to proclaim freedom for the prisoners (Lk. 4:18).
So far, what I have said about 1 Peter 3:18-20 was accepted by many Church Fathers (with the notable exception of Augustine). In the book Christ the Conqueror of Hell, the author analyzes early church leaders’ views on Christ’s descent to Hades—the realm of the dead. And this passage was a key part of their thinking on that topic. Here are a few quotes:
- “It was for this reason, too, that the Lord descended into the regions beneath the earth, preaching his advent there also, and [declaring] the remission of sins received by those who believed in Him” (Ireneaus of Lyons)
- “Do not [the Scriptures] show that the Lord preached the Gospel to those that perished in the flood, or rather had been chained, and to those detained ‘in ward and guard’? . . . And, as I think, the Saviour also exerts his might because it is his work to save; which accordingly he also did by drawing to salvation those who became willing, by the preaching [of the Gospel], to believe on Him, wherever they were. If, then, the Lord descended to Hades for no other end but to preach the Gospel, as he did descend, it was either to preach the Gospel to all or to the Hebrews only. If, accordingly, to all, then all who believe shall be saved, although they may be of the Gentiles, on making their profession there.” (Clement of Alexandria)
- “and how he humbled himself, and died and debased his divinity and was crucified, and descended into Hades, and burst the bars which from eternity had not been broken, and raised the dead; for he descended alone, but rose with many, and thus ascended to his Father” (Apostle Thaddeus, according to Eusebius)
- “He showed the way to salvation not only to us, but also to the spirits in hell; having descended, he preached to those once disobedient, as Peter says.” (Cyril of Alexandria)
- “The soul [of Christ] when it is deified descended into Hades, in order that, just as the Sun of Righteousness rose for those upon the earth, so likewise he might bring light to those who sit under the earth in darkness and the shadow of death: in order that just as he brought the message of peace to those upon the earth, and of release to the prisoners, and of sight to the blind, and became to those who did not believe, a denunciation of their unbelief, so he might become the same to those in Hades: “That every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth.” And thus after he had freed those who had been bound for ages, straightway he rose again from the dead, showing us the way of resurrection” (John Damascene)
- Christ descended into hell “in order to liberate all those who were locked there.” In another passage, Jerome says that Christ descended to hell to bring out “the souls of saints who were locked there.” (Jerome)
The early church leaders arrived at these conclusions from 1 Peter 3 and from other New Testament statements. Knowing what the ancient church leaders said about Christ’s descent encourages me to understand 1 Peter 3:18-20 as I think I originally understood it before I started reading commentaries.
Yes, Augustine disagreed with this interpretation, but his view is an anomaly. He believed that 1 Peter 3:18-20 refers to Christ spiritually preaching through Noah to the rebellious people of Noah’s time. I find that to be an imaginative interpretation that unfortunately triumphed, at least in the West, over the interpretations above. (Augustine, however, did believe that Christ descended to Hades to deliver the righteous and predestined souls, he just didn’t believe that’s what 1 Peter 3:18-20 was talking about.)
In conclusion, while the doctrine of Christ’s descent to Hades has some fuzzy edges, it was an accepted teaching by many early church leaders and it has the potential to open up a new dimension of Christ’s work of redemption.
But in order to appreciate the potential ramifications we must use our knowledge of Christ’s character and our God-given reason to make sense of what happened during this descent. Sometimes to understand the Bible all we have to do is connect the dots. At other times we must draw the next dot, but we must only draw it in line with the other well-established dots.
This post has been revised and included in my new book Surprised by Hell: Unexpected Discoveries in the Bible and Church History.