". . . He went and preached to the spirits in prison . . ." —I Peter 3:19
According to Scripture, human history covers a period of about six thousand years. The first epoch of mankind lasted less than two thousand years, punctuated at its end by the worst global disaster humanity has ever seen, the Noachian Flood. Somewhat more than two thousand years of history ensued before the coming of the Son of Man, Jesus Christ, and since then, about two thousand years have elapsed. It takes only moderate intellect to determine that the gospel of the Kingdom of God, as delineated by Christ Himself, has been preached only to the last third of human history. Certainly, salvation in the name of Jesus Christ (Acts 4:12) has been available only since His crucifixion nearly two millennia ago.
While the greater part of humanity has lived during the last third of its history, millions—even billions—of individuals lived before Jesus, before the gospel, before our Creator's inestimable act of self-sacrifice for us. This does not even consider the many millions or billions since that time who never heard Jesus' name or the gospel preached or God's offer of salvation and eternal life. For any reasonable, concerned individual, this fact generates disturbing questions: Did God withhold the opportunity for salvation from them? Are these people lost? Is God fair?
These are thorny questions even for Christian theologians. Most of them, subscribing to a heaven/hell ideology, can muster no satisfactory answer to this dilemma—essentially condemning untold billions to hellfire or some shadowy Hades. Some of them, realizing that such callousness is hardly the kind of attitude one would expect from a God of love, advance highly creative theories of salvation-after-the-fact for the "lost" dead.
For these latter scholars, I Peter 3:18-22, a very difficult passage, answers the question of how God deals with some of those who never heard the gospel or had a chance for salvation:
For Christ also suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive by the Spirit, by whom also He went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly were disobedient, when once the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight souls, were saved through water. There is also an antitype which now saves us, namely baptism (not the removal of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God), through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, angels and authorities and power having been made subject to Him.
However, under close scrutiny, this passage does not support these theologians' argument.
Dead Is Dead
The context of Peter's thought actually runs through I Peter 4:6, as Bibles that split passages into paragraphs show. The apostle is speaking about the efficacy of Christ's suffering and death in making possible a relationship between God and human beings. His conclusion, beginning in I Peter 4:1-2, is that, since Christ suffered so much to bring this about, Christians should respond by "ceas[ing] from sin" and living "for the will of God."
This means, of course, that in doing so, we no longer live as we used to, like the "Gentiles," like the world (verse 3). Seeing this, our friends who are still in the world wonder why our lives have changed so drastically, and they are likely to malign us for it (verse 4). But we need not worry because God, the just Judge, will bring them into account for their abuses of us (verse 5). In verse 6, he winds up his discussion by providing a general example to give us hope in this regard. He explains that the gospel had been preached in the past to people who are now dead, and even though their contemporaries may have judged them worthy to suffer persecution and death, God, conversely, has judged them worthy of eternal life. He implies that God would do the same for us.
Having read what Peter writes in I Peter 3:19, many have assumed that the "dead" in I Peter 4:6 are the souls of dead people who are "lost" in terms of salvation. However, this is not the case—in fact, the only real connection between "the spirits in prison" and "those who are dead" is that they appear in the same paragraph! In taking the latter verse apart and seeing it in the flow of the apostle's thought, one realizes that the "dead" are individuals who actually heard the gospel while they were alive, embraced it, and suffered and died for it, whom God accounted worthy of eternal life. Therefore, since they are not the lost dead, I Peter 4:6 is not a clarification of I Peter 3:19 and "the spirits in prison," as is often supposed. To whom, then, did Jesus preach in I Peter 3:19?
One significant, foundational point must be made before proceeding any further: Jesus could not have preached to anyone, dead or alive, while His dead body lay in the tomb. Why? Because He was dead! If He was not dead during those "three days and three nights in the heart of the earth" (Matthew 12:40), then His sacrifice for the sins of humanity was in vain!
Scripture says that, when Jesus died on the cross, like all men His "spirit [returned] to God who gave it" (Ecclesiastes 12:7; see Matthew 27:50; Luke 23:46; John 19:30). The spirit of a human is not conscious in death, for Solomon tells us plainly that "the dead know nothing" (Ecclesiastes 9:5). Thus, the spirit of a dead person cannot do anything: "for there is no work or device or knowledge or wisdom in the grave where you are going" (verse 10). As the psalmist writes, when a man dies, "[h]is spirit departs, he returns to his earth; in that very day his plans [thoughts, KJV] perish" (Psalm 146:4; see also Job 14:20-21; Psalm 104:29).
Jesus, in order to taste death like every man (Hebrews 2:9), had to die just as every man does. He was completely dead for three days and three nights; He was without life and consciousness both in body and in spirit. He could do no preaching to anyone, much less "to the spirits in prison," whoever they are.
"Spirits in Prison"
As mentioned before, this passage in I Peter 3, particularly verses 19-20, is quite difficult to translate from Greek to English. This is so because each of the nine Greek words in verse 19 can be translated in various shades of meaning, making interpretation tricky. We probably do best by translating them in their most basic meanings, thus: "in which also He went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison . . ." (author's paraphrase).
The "which" ("whom" in NKJV) in verse 19 probably refers back to "Spirit," its closest antecedent, in verse 18, suggesting that Jesus was no longer in the flesh but by this time had been changed into spirit. This follows the historical chain of events in order from the preceding verse: He suffered, died, was resurrected, and was thus changed to spirit, leading to the next key words, "He went."
What happened next in the gospel record after His resurrection to spirit? What did Jesus do after arising from the dead? Some might suggest that He revealed Himself to His disciples, which He did, but not by any stretch of meaning could it be described as going and proclaiming to imprisoned spirits! No, John tells us through the words of Jesus Himself to Mary Magdalene what the next momentous occurrence was: "[G]o to My brethren and say to them, 'I am ascending to My Father and your Father, and to My God and your God'" (John 20:17). When Jesus "went," He ascended in glory to the right hand of the Father in heaven!
At this point, we will skip to the phrase "spirits in prison." First, let us note that the Bible does not refer to human beings who have died as being imprisoned in any way, not even those who have rebelled against and rejected God. They may be said to be "destroyed" or "killed" or "cut off" or sent to "Sheol," which is a pit or grave, but they are never imprisoned. As we saw, humans who die return to the dust of which they are made (see also Genesis 3:19; Ecclesiastes 3:19-20).
However, the Bible speaks in several places about spirit beings—angels or demons—being imprisoned (see II Peter 2:4-5, where Peter again refers to Noah's time; Jude 6; and Revelation 20:1-3, 7). Rebellious angels, unlike mortal humans, must be imprisoned because angels or demons, being composed of spirit, do not die as humans do. The "angels who sinned," Peter and Jude say, were cast down to Tartarus ("a place of restraint," a prison) where they are bound until God judges them. This Tartarus, this "hell" where the demons are restrained, is none other than their "first estate," their "proper domain," earth (see Ezekiel 28:17; Revelation 12:7-9)!
Second, Peter's use of "spirits" is consistent with its use in the gospels (see, for instance, Matthew 8:16; 12:45; Mark 3:11; 5:13; 6:7; Luke 11:26; etc.). In the gospels, "spirits" consistently denotes "evil spirits," "demons," "wicked spirits." It is highly likely that Peter refers to demons in I Peter 3:19.
This is confirmed by the first phrase of verse 20, "who formerly were disobedient" (NKJV) or "who disobeyed long ago" (New International Version, [NIV]). Peter is speaking of a time in deep antiquity, a time before the Flood. Perhaps he does not intend us to think of Satan's original sin of rebellion against God (Isaiah 14; Ezekiel 28), although it may be included, but specifically of the demons' corruption of mankind between the Creation and the Flood.
This would explain his time marker in the next phrase, "when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built" (NIV). In Satan's sin, only the demons themselves were affected, but when they corrupted mankind, human beings who were potential sons of God were affected. Once men and women began sinning under the influence of Satan and his demon horde, the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ became necessary.
Peter's point, then, is that, though the wicked spirits seemed to be so successful in corrupting mankind, God patiently waited during Noah's 120-year ministry to save only eight people by bringing them through the Flood, delivering them through a kind of baptism. The demons had failed to destroy mankind. So also, by having Jesus crucified, the demons thought again they had won, but through the resurrection, Jesus had the victory instead. Baptism is a type of this same victory, as it is a symbolic death of the old, wicked man and of his resurrection to newness of life (see Romans 6:4).
This brings us back to the word in I Peter 3:19 that we skipped: "proclaimed" (or in many Bibles, "preached"). Most objective commentaries will note that this word in the Greek (ekeruxen from kerússo) means in general "to be a herald," "to proclaim," "to announce," "to publish," "to preach." Although it can be used as such, it does not necessarily mean "to preach the gospel to" or "to preach salvation to." Because Peter does not specify what Jesus "proclaimed" or "announced," to assume the preaching of the gospel is not warranted. The only clue we have of what He proclaimed appears in the immediate context: that He was "made alive by the Spirit."
If this is the case, verse 19 says simply that, after Jesus was resurrected, He ascended to heaven, proclaiming to the imprisoned evil spirits that He lived! The demons, once again, had failed!
Verse 22 backs this interpretation: "who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, angels and authorities and powers having been made subject to him." This agrees with many scriptures that speak of His exaltation over all things, for instance, Philippians 2:9-10: "Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth." Jesus' ascension to the throne of God proclaimed His victory over death and over Satan and his demons.
We can now return, then, to the original, theological opinion that this passage explains the fate of the lost of humanity. It actually does, just not in the way most understand it. Jesus, while dead Himself, did not bring the souls of the dead to salvation through preaching to them personally in some kind of nether world. Such a scenario is theologically ridiculous.
However, His resurrection did make salvation possible for the "lost" dead. By living again, He has broken the grip of death over mankind (see I Corinthians 15:20-22, 55-57; Hebrews 2:14-17). As Paul says in I Corinthians 15, each category of individual will be resurrected in a specific order: first Christ, then His saints at His coming (verse 23), then "the rest of the dead" (Revelation 20:5, 11-13), and lastly, the incorrigible wicked to the second death (Revelation 20:14-15). The "lost" of humanity will rise as "the rest of the dead" in the Great White Throne Judgment, and have the opportunity to hear and to accept or reject the good news of salvation. This will be their first opportunity to receive God's calling, an opportunity that God will extend to every member of humanity.
God is not callous by any means. Perhaps the best known of all Bible verses asserts this clearly: "For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life" (John 3:16). He will make sure that every human being has an opportunity to hear the gospel and have the choice to enter His Kingdom. God's victory over death and over Satan, won through His resurrection of the sinless Jesus Christ, will eventually be proclaimed to all people from all ages. That is a victory worth shouting about!