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. (1 Peter 3:18-20)
It’s a question that used to nag me a bit around this time of year.
Jesus went to the terrible cross on Friday and was laid to the tomb.
He arose bodily on Sunday defeating death itself.
But where was the Son of God in between those two universe-shaking events?
1 Peter 3:18-20 seems to indicate some answer for us. As we know, fools rush in where angels fear to tread. Martin Luther, after studying and meditating on this passage said: “This is a wonderful text and a more obscure passage than any other in the New Testament so that I do not know for certainty what Peter means.”
The three most common views of this verse are:
Christ preached the gospel to the dead saints and unbelievers
Many (maybe most) Christians believe after the cross, Christ literally descended into hell (or place of the dead, or purgatory) and preached the gospel to the pre-Christ Old Testament saints so that they may be set free for the fullest experience of heaven. A majority of Catholics hold to this interpretation. A more controversial branch of this view is that Christ actually went and preached the gospel to unbelievers (IE those who died in the flood) and gave them a second chance to repent and believe on Him. The Apostle’s Creed seems to intimate some variation of this doctrine: “[He] was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended into hell. The third day He arose again from the dead.”
Christ preached the gospel through Noah during the days of Noah
There is also a pre-existent Christ view of this passage that reflects the view of many modern Reformed theologians. This view states that Jesus was the one preaching in the actual days of Noah, possibly through Noah himself. So through the mouth of Noah, through the words of Noah, the pre-incarnate Christ was preaching to spirits in prison, understood metaphorically as those who are in spiritual darkness. The Spirits in prison were humans that were in spiritual bondage in Noah’s day. Many believe this was St. Augustine’s view and it seems to confirm the meaning of 1 Peter 1:10-11.
Christ preached His triumphant reign to the spiritual world
A final view of this passage is that Jesus proclaimed His triumph to those who are in hell and to the demonic realm itself. This view holds that Christ preached His triumphant proclamation over the spirit world not in between the cross and resurrection, but in between the resurrection and ascension. This was a view widely held in the 17th century. It states that Peter seems to be speaking here in a sequential, chronological way. He speaks about the death of Jesus (v. 18), he speaks about the resurrection of Jesus (v. 19), and then the ascension of Jesus (v. 22). In between mentioning the resurrection and the ascension, he mentions this preaching to the spirits in prison (v. 19-20). Christ wouldn’t be preaching the gospel to the unsaved, rather heralding his triumph over sin, death and over all spiritual principalities, even Satan. The “spirits” in prison hearing the message of Christ’s victory would be the demonic realm He defeated at the cross.
Both the second and third views would suppose Christ was in “paradise” between the cross and resurrection, just as He promised the repentant thief on the cross (Luke 23:43)
I lean to the second view being most plausible, but it is only a slight lean. Some of my favorite theologians hold the third view I can see it as a solid explanation. And yet the first view has a strong historical witness that favors it. There is much more that can be said about all three views. I would have to defer to Luther’s previous statement above before dying on any three of these hills.
Regardless, I believe proponents of all three major views can rejoice over the cross of Christ where our due wrath was taken by the God-man, and the resurrection of Christ where He decisively proved that death was truly put to death forevermore. Such gospel truths are beautifully and simply clear to us in Scripture (1 Corinthians 15:-1-3).
As Martin Luther wrote in his classic hymn (A Mighty Fortress Is Our God):
And though this world with devils filled Should threaten to undo us
We will not fear for God has willed His truth to triumph through us
The Prince of Darkness grim We tremble not for him
His rage we can endure For lo his doom is sure
One little word (He is risen!) will slay him
One things for sure. The Son already went through hell on the cross in such a total terrifying way, the Father was eternally satisfied (Psalm 22). All is quiet this Saturday in Jerusalem, but Sunday is coming peeps.
Peace and grace,