Note: I have adapted this article from one that I wrote for my own blog.
On a recent Dividing Line, a caller asked whether Jesus descended into hell between the crucifixion and the resurrection. One of the texts often cited to support this claim is 1 Peter 3:18-20. But is that what the passage says? Is there, in fact, any biblical support for the idea that Jesus preached to souls in hell?
I admit up front that this is not the easiest passage of Scripture to interpret. However, its difficulty does not exempt us from trying. All Scripture is God-breathed, after all–even the difficult parts! This exegesis is my best attempt to make sense of the passage within the context of the letter, and within the context of Peter’s audience.
Let’s start with what the passage says:
18 For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, 19 in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, 20 because they formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water [ESV].
Certain elements in this passage appear to support the idea that, during those three days while his body was in the tomb, Jesus went spiritually to preach to the dead in hell:
- It says that Christ was put to death and made alive in the spirit, indicating that he was still spiritually active.
- It says that he went in the spirit to proclaim to spirits “in prison.” We would hardly consider heaven and the presence of God to be a prison, so this can only be a reference to hell.
- That this “prison” is hell has further support from the fact it says that the spirits are those who were disobedient during the days of Noah. Such was their disobedience that it tested God’s patience!
From this, a whole host of theories about Jesus’s ministry in hell have been thrown around. These include the idea of Jesus proclaiming victory over the grave to Satan and the lost, or Jesus preaching to condemned souls awaiting the lake of fire (Revelation 20:15) offering them one last chance to repent. There are, however, problems with these theories:
- Revelation 20 speaks about what will happen to those whose names are not in the Book of Life. They end up in Hades and then, ultimately, in the lake of fire. There is no mention of a second chance.
- Nowhere in the New Testament does it suggest that Jesus went to hell when he died. On the contrary, he told the thief hanging on the cross next to him, “Today, you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43). This suggests that Jesus expected his soul to be in Paradise, i.e., heaven (see Revelation 2:7) that day, not in hell.
- What has all this got to do with Noah? Why is Noah relevant to the discussion? Did Jesus only preach to those who were disobedient in Noah’s day? There are a lot more souls in hell than that. Why didn’t Jesus preach to every soul?
If 1 Peter 3:18-20 is not teaching that Jesus preached in hell, what is it saying? To whom did Jesus preach “in the spirit,” where, and why?
Examining 1 Peter 3:18-20
When trying to understand any seemingly difficult passage, the first thing we look to is the context. In this case, we go back to verse 13. Peter is talking about the necessity for those who are in Christ to continue to do good even if they suffer for it. It’s no big deal to be punished for doing evil. That’s called justice. But when you do good and you are punished, particularly when the good you are doing is what God has commanded you to do, that is commendable in the eyes of God. Human justice is not always just, and often misses the mark of God’s standards. There are countries that outlaw the preaching of the gospel, or the expression of certain biblical points of view. Societies will mistreat those who hold to biblical standards of speech and conduct that run contrary to cultural norms. In these instances, Scripture encourages Christians to stand firm in their convictions, and do what is right even if it costs them socially or legally.
In verse 18, Peter supports his argument by pointing to Christ, the ultimate example of someone who was unjustly punished by a human government. However, that punishment brought about our reconciliation to God. So while it was unjust, God used the ungodly, corrupt worldly system to bring about the salvation of ungodly and corrupt people.
There are a couple of ways the end of verse 18 and beginning of verse 19 could be translated. The Greek presents a classic men… de construction, which students of Greek recognize as meaning “on the one hand this… but on the other that…” Here, it’s thanatōtheis men sarki, zōopoiētheis de pneumati: on the one hand having been put to death in the flesh, but on the other having been made alive in the spirit. You could translate “in the spirit” as “by the spirit” (or even “by the Spirit,” indicating the Holy Spirit). However, I would suggest that if you translate it “by the spirit/Spirit,” you would need to translate the preceding men clause as “having been put to death by the flesh.” Otherwise, the parallel (“on the one hand… on the other”) wouldn’t work as powerfully. I suppose you could say “by the flesh,” referring to the Jewish and Roman authorities, but that would be an odd use of the word “flesh” that you would need to justify. The idea of “in the flesh” versus “in the spirit” is far more common, biblically speaking. It can contrast our fallen nature in Adam over against our regenerated nature in Christ (e.g., Romans 8:8-9). It can also refer simply to one’s mortal existence as opposed to one’s soul or spiritual existence (e.g., 2 Corinthians 10:3; Galatians 2:20; Philippians 1:22-24; 1 John 4:2). I believe Peter is using the term here in this latter sense. Jesus’s body was put to death, but he was spiritually alive and continued to live.
Verse 19 begins “in which”–en hō in the Greek–which can also be translated “by which, by whom, in which, or in whom.” How you translate this phrase depends, I think, on how you understand the passage, and what exactly Jesus did spiritually with regards to the “spirits in prison” who were disobedient during the time when Noah was building the Ark.
So what has Noah got to do with all this?
You can find the story of Noah, the Ark, and the Flood in Genesis chapters 6, 7, and 8. In the preceding chapters, mankind was getting increasingly rebellious to the point where the “sons of God” were taking wives from the “daughters of men.” Genesis 6:5 begins, “The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth.” Even the intentions of their hearts were constantly evil. So God planned to wipe mankind off the face of the earth. Only one man walked with God: Noah. God determined to spare Noah and his family (Noah’s wife, and his three sons and their wives). He told Noah to build an Ark, a very large boat, that would contain his family along with two of every kind (not species–there’s a difference) of creature. These included birds, animals, and “creeping things,” a male and a female of each. He also needed to keep a food store for all the Ark’s inhabitants.
God’s plan was to make it rain for forty days and nights. When the rains began, Noah gathered everyone in the Ark. All those within the Ark were saved from the flood waters, but the rest of mankind perished. Jesus tells us that during this time, the people ate, drank, and married until the flood came suddenly and swept them away (Luke 17:27). It would makes sense that Noah tried to warn them, just as the Lord expected his disciples to preach the gospel and warn those around them of the coming judgment of God. Clearly the wicked in Noah’s time ignored him and carried on life until disaster struck.
So Peter is holding up Noah as an example of someone who obeyed God contrary to those around him, and was blessed by God for his faithfulness. The Genesis account doesn’t mention any hardship on Noah’s part, but Peter suggests that Noah suffered for his faithfulness. Indeed, it’s difficult to believe Noah could have worked on such a large construction project solely on the basis of faith in what God had told him without experiencing ridicule from those around him. But he endured for the salvation he knew his work would bring about. This is how Noah is an example of Christ-like behavior.
That explains why Peter uses the example of Noah, but what about Jesus preaching “in the spirit” to those who perished in Noah’s time? Why did that happen. How did it happen?
I believe the clue to understanding this is in chapter 1. Peter says that his readers show their love for Christ by their faith, and their inexpressible joy over the salvation they have through him. Then he says:
10 Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired carefully, 11 inquiring what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories. 12 It was revealed to them that they were serving not themselves but you, in the things that have now been announced to you through those who preached the good news to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven, things into which angels long to look [ESV].
Peter says that the Spirit of Christ was in the prophets when they predicted Christ’s sufferings and glory. They wondered when it would happen, but that information was kept from them. They understood that these promises were for a future generation. That idea, that the prophets spoke through the Spirit of Christ is, I believe, at the heart of what Peter says in 3:19. He is saying that it was the Spirit of Christ who preached through Noah to the souls who are now languishing in Hades, “prison,” for their disobedience.
To summarize by means of paraphrase: Christ died bodily, but was alive spiritually, and it was that same Spirit of Christ who preached through Noah to the people who were disobedient to Noah’s God-given message. Faithful Noah was saved, but the souls of those who mocked and persecuted him are now in prison, Hades, awaiting final judgment.
I think this makes best sense of the passage given the context, and the language Peter uses elsewhere in the letter. It is also consistent with what Scripture says with regard to death, Hades, and the judgment of unbelievers (see Matthew 25:31-46; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; Revelation 20:11-15).