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1 Peter 3:18-20: Did Jesus Preach in Hell?

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:

  1. It says that Christ was put to death and made alive in the spirit, indicating that he was still spiritually active.
  2. 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.
  3. 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 mende 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).

A Quick Plug…

A few weeks ago, Dr. White gave a positive shout-out to Rosaria Butterfield’s book THE SECRET THOUGHTS OF AN UNLIKELY CONVERT. The sub-heading is “An English Professor’s Journey into Christian Faith.” In this book, Rosaria recounts her conversion to Christ from what appeared to be a “good life” with a steady, tenured teaching position at a respected university where she counseled students. She and her partner opened their home to young people who shared her convictions and drew inspiration from her. But as good as her life seemed to be on the outside, her homosexual lifestyle and active, vocal support of the “gay” movement put her in direct conflict with Christ. The gospel stood opposed to everything she considered of value; coming to Christ would cost her dearly. But through the patient ministry of a pastor and his church, Rosaria did indeed bow the knee to the Lord, and she is now married with children to a Reformed Presbyterian minister.

If you have a heart for ministry to homosexuals, or you have homosexual neighbors or co-workers, I can’t recommend this book highly enough. As James said, it is very well written (as one might expect from a former English professor!), but it’s also written from the perspective of one who understands the homosexual mindset first-hand. This, alongside Michael Brown’s work, and the book by Dr White and Jeff Neil, will equip you to reach out to homosexuals with gospel truth, but also with gentleness and respect. The book is available for Kindle from Amazon (paper versions are available there also via third-party sellers).

I also wanted to mention that Rosaria will be speaking at my local church, Christ Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Winterville, NC (just outside Greenville, NORTH Carolina–the other Greenville) this coming Thursday, March 19th, at 7pm. If you happen to be in the area, please drop by. She visited us last Fall and both her presentation and the Q&A afterwards were extremely helpful and edifying. Click HERE for details on how to get to our church. Childcare will be provided for infants through 5th grade.

Confessions of a Former Charismatic, Part 2: Why I’m No Longer a Charismatic

In part one of this “confession,” I talked about some of my experiences as a Charismatic, including the time I encountered Benny Hinn. For the formative years of my Christian life, I fully embraced the Charismatic viewpoint. I spoke in tongues, believed that God raised up healers and prophets today, and considered churches that weren’t practicing “The Gifts” to be dead. In this second part, I want to talk briefly about why I changed my views.

Before I begin, let me be clear on this point: I believe there are many sincere, genuine Christians who are Charismatic in their pneumatology. They truly love the Lord, do much good in His name, and are trying to serve Him faithfully. I have known many such people over the years. The majority of Charismatics I’ve known would want nothing to do with the Word-Faith movement. While they might share Benny Hinn’s belief in the continuity of the Apostolic gifts, they would reject much of what he teaches with regard to health, wealth, prosperity, and would cringe at his irreverent—even blasphemous—“Holy Spirit ministry.” As a Charismatic, I never really bought into the health and prosperity teachings. What captured my attention were the supposed manifestations of God’s activity in “words of knowledge,” “slaying in the Spirit,” “speaking in tongues” and so forth.

My conversion to cessationism (for want of a better term) was not the result of a single event or a particular book. It was a process that began after I left university and started giving more time to considering the questions I had previously shelved. If God is sovereign—and I was becoming more impressed in my studies at how extensive God’s sovereignty is—why does He need to be a “gentleman,” as Benny Hinn would say? Surely He could impose the Spirit on us and have us all speaking in tongues, if that was His will for every Christian. There are examples in Scripture where God sends spirits of one kind or another without regard to people’s feelings. He sent an evil spirit upon Saul, and I’m sure He didn’t ask Saul’s permission (1 Samuel 18:10). When the church was filled with the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost, it was an act of God done in His timing, and in the way He desired (Acts 2:4).

Through books like A Different Gospel by D. R. McConnell, and Christianity in Crisis by Hank Hanegraaf, I became increasingly aware of the bad theology undergirding the Word-Faith movement. As I said above, many Charismatics would distance themselves from the Word-Faith teachers, but I had to wonder: would God bless bad, even heretical theology with the miraculous? If the miracles in Acts were used of God to confirm the gospel message, would God perform tongues, healings, and “slayings” to confirm Benny Hinn’s gospel? If not, then why do these things happen at Benny Hinn crusades? If the “miracles” at a Benny Hinn meeting are not of God, then could it be that the same things happening elsewhere are also not of God? How would one know?

As time went on, I found that while I still clung to a belief in the continuity of the Apostolic gifts, that belief had absolutely no impact on my life. I stopped speaking in tongues. I spent less time waiting for an audible voice of God and more time studying His Word to know His will. In short, I became a practicing cessationist. And to my shock, my Christian growth wasn’t stunted as a result! This led me to wonder exactly why I still believed in the continuity of the Apostolic gifts. What purpose did they serve in the church today? If the canon of Scripture is closed, why look for prophets with new revelation? If Scripture is everything that 2 Timothy 3:16-17 tells me it is, then what else do I need to hear from God other than the inspired Word He has already revealed?

I felt no loss at leaving the Charismatic movement behind, and I still don’t to this day. I do, however, feel sad at the wreckage I’ve seen among former Charismatics who have since left the faith. I’ve heard too many testimonies of self-proclaimed atheists who were formerly members of Charismatic churches. Our culture has a fascination for the supernatural. Popular television shows and movies betray a hunger for unexplainable manifestations, and weird, seemingly-spiritual experiences. If Christianity is nothing more than another flavor of strange supernatural stuff, then its no wonder worldly-minded people go elsewhere. And when people like the English mentalist Derren Brown can use hypnotism and other psychological techniques to fake Benny Hinn-type manifestations, we shouldn’t be surprised when people who have trusted in that kind of thing as their evidence of the truth of Christianity walk away.

A few years after my experience with Benny Hinn at the Birmingham N.E.C., I returned to that same venue, this time to see Paul McCartney in concert. The place was packed out, and Paul put on a dazzling two-and-a-half hour show. I have no doubt, that if Mr. McCartney had called me up onto the stage, I would have experienced the same kind of adrenaline rush, and light-headed excitement I felt that day with Benny Hinn. With the right set of psychological expectations, I would have been just as susceptible to being “slain in the Spirit.” I don’t say that because I’m now skeptical of Charismatic experiences, but because I have, over the years since that time, recognized those same feelings in different contexts.

Where I Am Today

I believe God can do the miraculous. He can grant someone the ability to speak a foreign language. He can heal the sick without the intervention of medicine. But I don’t believe God guarantees that He will always do this. Instead, the Word indicates we can expect persecution, tribulation, distress, and famine (Romans 8:35). Indeed, God ordains sickness and trials in order to glorify Himself (Genesis 50:20; John 9:3). And there are harsh words in the New Testament regarding those who seek signs and wonders (Luke 11:29; John 2:23-25; John 4:48).

One of our problems is that we have become so used to God’s grace in our lives, we fail to recognize the miracles He is working in our midst every day. The fact that our propensity for sin is restrained, the fact that hard-hearted sinners become lovers of God and servants of Christ, the fact that the penalty for my sin has been paid by Another—these are all miracles, no less remarkable than the raising of Lazarus from the dead. And what was the raising of Lazarus other than a sign pointing to that greater wonder: the resurrection of dead souls to new life in Christ?

My study into the gifts of the Spirit have lead me to the conclusion that the sign gifts displayed and described in the New Testament were given at that time for a specific purpose. Nothing in the Scriptures convinces me that those gifts were intended to be permanent. They served the purpose of establishing the church and validating the message of the Apostles. We have that message in Scripture, and we have the confirmation of that message in the Holy Spirit dwelling within us, testifying to us of the truth of the gospel. First Corinthians 12-14 is not a manual on how to use spiritual gifts, but was written to correct the abuse of those gifts within the church at Corinth. While those gifts are no longer functioning within the church, the truths Paul preaches regarding the supremacy of love and the necessity for order within the church are certainly applicable to us today.

I believe the Holy Spirit is alive and working within the church. His ministry is evident in the lives of believers as they grow in the grace and knowledge of Christ. The unity I see between believers within my local church, and throughout the world, is evidence of the Spirit’s activity. How else could the body of Christ hold to various positions on secondary issues, and yet speak with unanimity on the essentials of the faith? How else could brothers in the Lord like James White and Michael Brown disagree in love, and defend the faith shoulder-to-shoulder? As I see lives transformed by the gospel, marriages healed, and the kingdom of God advanced, I am convinced the Holy Spirit is continuing to do His work in Christ’s church today, as He has for the last two thousand years.

I hope this brief summary of my journey is beneficial to you. May the Lord use it to help and encourage His people.

Confessions of a Former Charismatic, Part 1: Me and Benny Hinn

The venue was the National Exhibition Center in Birmingham, England, the largest exhibition center in the UK. Five of us squeezed into a small car and drove the sixty-plus miles from Hereford to what we thought at the time was the biggest spiritual event of the year. Christ for All Nations, evangelist Reinhard Bonnke’s ministry, was hosting a conference, and one of the main attractions was Benny Hinn.

This was the late 80s—1988, I believe—and for most of the British population, television consisted of four stations. And none of them was TBN. This meant the only way we would ever hear the cream of American televangelists was on video or audio cassette tapes obtained either by mail-order subscription, or at conferences. The friend who drove us to Birmingham had obtained by one of these means a video of Benny Hinn, which he had shared with our church youth group some months previously. The presentation on the tape consisted of about thirty minutes of teaching—mainly Hinn recounting how his “Holy Spirit ministry” started, and then talking about how to relate to the Holy Spirit. He’s a gentleman, Hinn taught, and won’t come unless you ask. And don’t grieve the Spirit, otherwise He’s like a child, and you’ll lose His trust. There was no trace, as I recall, of his wackier teachings that I would later be made aware of. After the talk, there followed a solid hour or more of “slaying in the Spirit,” and people getting out of wheelchairs. Although four of us in the car were students of theology (two just starting University, and my best friend and I in our last year of A-Levels), we were all charismatic in our pneumatology, and Arminian in our soteriology. Within those parameters, we found a home for Hinn. More on that later.

The auditorium was at least two-thirds full. I don’t recall who the first speaker was that morning, or what he spoke about. I do remember a refreshment break, and then hurrying back to our seats to be sure we didn’t miss any of Benny Hinn’s presentation. He came out, he taught—I don’t remember any details of his teaching, though I daresay it was largely what we’d already heard on the video—and then the show started. The organ played, he set the mood, and then started with the “words of knowledge.” A lady over there being healed of something. A man somewhere at the back has been suffering with X and the Lord wants him to know he’ll be well before he leaves. Then he began calling people up on stage. People reported healings, people were in tears, and all of them were slain in the Spirit at the touch of Hinn’s hand.

I should note at this point that I was no stranger to the “slaying in the Spirit” phenomenon. It was only five years earlier that I came to the Lord through the witness of my best friend (the same friend who sat beside me at the NEC event). Since I was not in a Christian home, his family took me under their wing, and began the work of discipling me. This sounds ideal, except for the fact that they were heavily influenced by teachers such as Oral Roberts and Kenneth Hagin, and about as deep into the charismatic movement as I have known anyone to be. My best friend’s mother was the most “on fire” of them all. His father was supportive, but not as vocal. Nevertheless, they would take me to revival meetings and church events where speaking in tongues and “slaying in the Spirit” were commonplace. I spoke in tongues, too, and I had at least wobbled in the Spirit—I had never experienced a full “slaying.” At least not yet…

Suddenly, Hinn invited anyone in the audience who wanted a healing to come down to the front of the stage. I had been having problems with my sinuses, and I mentioned that to my friend. Should I go forward? It seemed so trivial compared to the people on crutches and with misaligned legs. My friend encouraged me—why not? What’s the worst that could happen? So I did. I made my way down to the front of the stage and stood there along with probably a few hundred other people. I don’t recall if Hinn prayed over us, but I do remember him pointing at various people in the crowd and summoning them up on stage. I could hardly believe my eyes when his finger pointed at me. Me? Really? Before I knew what was happening, I was coaxed forward and helped up on stage.

From where I stood at the side, the audience seemed to melt into darkness. The lights were so bright I could only really see half the auditorium. A couple of people were ahead of me, and Hinn made short work of them. Then it was my turn. He didn’t even ask what was wrong, why I was there, what the Lord had done for me. But he was close enough that I could smell his aftershave. He looked at me and said, “The devil’s not gonna get you,” and he blew on me. I went wobbly, and it’s possible I went down. I don’t remember exactly. My next memory is sitting up at the side of the stage watching as other people came forward and were “slain.” There was definitely a vibe up there. A buzz. The feeling was something akin to a huge adrenaline rush, an intense excitement, and a feeling of light-headed clarity, all rolled into one. No-one came to check on me, or talk to me, so I made my way off the stage and rejoined my friends.

Not long after this, I started my theology studies at university. I remained a charismatic the whole time I was there, and went to “happy clappy” churches. But it was around this time that I began seriously questioning much of what I had previously assumed. If God is sovereign, why does He have to have my permission to come to me? If it’s so important that we speak in tongues, why doesn’t every Christian speak in tongues? And why do Christians have to learn how to speak in tongues? If we have the Holy Spirit, and He is sovereign, can’t He just do it for us? And what about those Christians who don’t use tongues, and aren’t charismatic? Are they really spiritually dead? If so, how come they seem to be as passionate for Christ as my charismatic friends—in some cases even more so? Since I was moving in predominantly charismatic circles, both at church and within the university’s Christian Union, I decided to set these questions to the side, resolving to study them more another time.

A few years after graduating, I stopped being a practicing charismatic. Not long after that, I turned my back on the charismatic movement altogether. In my next post, I’ll discuss some of the reasons why I walked away from my former charismatic convictions.

Checking the Cultural Barometer

Some of you might be aware of the show “Sister Wives” that runs on the cable station TLC. If you don’t, it is a reality show centered around a polygamous household. I believe they either belong to an off-shoot of the LDS Church, or they are not affiliated with any particular LDS Church but follow the beliefs of the original founders. In any case, the man is a practicing polygamist, has children by each of his four “wives,” and has chosen to use reality TV as a vehicle to show that polygamous relationships can “work,” and the children raised within that environment can be just as healthy and happy as children raised in a “traditional” home. Sound familiar? Well, it seems the man is now going to court to try to have polygamy tolerated. He’s not seeking to have polygamy legalized–he just wants the government to leave them alone to live their lives according to their beliefs.

According to the article on CNN (linked below):

One case that could figure as important in the case is the Lawrence v. Texas case in 2003, when the majority of the Supreme Court struck down laws banning consensual sex between same-sex couples. That case involved two consenting adults who didn’t seek recognition of their relationship, were not involved in any crimes and whose behavior was private, Turley [his attorney] said.

If you have heard Dr. White address homosexuality, and in particular if you listened to his dialog with Dr. Michael Brown on the subject of “gay marriage” and the homosexual agenda, you will know that he and others have drawn parallels between the arguments used by “gay rights” activists to legitimize their behavior, and the arguments used by others (polygamists, pedophiles, etc.) to justify their behavior, for a while. Now we have a legal challenge to polygamy law that is in part based upon the freedom allowed to same-sex couples. If this challenge succeeds, hold on to your seats. You know where this will go.

May the Lord have mercy on us.

Here’s the CNN article: Reality TV Sister Wives to Challenge Utah Anti-Polygamy Law.