In a previous post, we started looking at one of the most difficult and strange passages in the New Testament, 1 Peter 3:18-22. Many Christians avoid passages like this because they are difficult and hint at content that doesn’t fit well with their own theological views.
Let’s take another look at it with an attempt to clarify its meaning.
1 Peter 3:18–22
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, in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, 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. Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him.
In the previous post, I explained the two main views that Christ either “went” somewhere in his spirit body during his death on the cross or he “went” after he resurrected BEFORE he ascended into heaven. Then I proved that the “spirits in prison” were not humans but the angelic powers who had fallen during the days of Noah, and were imprisoned much like the book of 1Enoch says. (And Peter is borrowing from 1Enoch)
The last two questions we now want to address are:
Where did he go to proclaim to the spirits? (v. 19)
What did he proclaim? (v. 19)
Where is the “Prison”?
One interpretation of the prison is that it is a metaphor for human beings on earth who are “imprisoned” in their sin. But the context of the passage mitigates against this view.
When the New Testament refers to preaching the Gospel to people on earth, the Greek term for “soul,” is used (psyche). But this is not a term about a ghost in a machine, but rather an expression of the life of an individual human, their inner being, their “person,” or their “self.” Thus, Peter writes in 3:20 that “eight persons (psyche) were brought safely through the waters” in the ark during the Flood.
When Peter preaches the Gospel in Acts 2, it says that “those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls [psyche]… and awe came upon every soul [psyche]” (Acts 2:42-43). “Soul” could be used synonymously with “individuals” or “persons.”
But in 1 Peter 3, the distinct Greek term for “spirit” (pneuma), not “soul” (psyche), is used in contrast to the physical flesh. And these “spirits” are those who were disobedient in the days of Noah (v. 20), so they could not be people on earth at the time of Christ. Christ was proclaiming to spirits.
During the time of Christ, those who were around in the days of Noah could only be in one place according to the Old Testament: The underworld of Hades or Sheol.
What was Hades?
Hades was well known in the Greco-Roman world as the holding cell of the spirits of the dead until the judgment. Sheol was the Hebrew equivalent for Hades so the two could be used interchangeably. Prisons in that time period were exactly that, holding cells for punishment. So when Peter refers to a prison for spirits, this view concludes that he is referring to Hades, just as he did in 2 Peter 2:4 when he said that the disobedient angels were cast into Tartarus, the lowest prison region in Hades.
There are orthodox traditions of Christian scholars who have supported this passage as referring to Christ’s proclamation as occurring at his physical ascension into heaven and others as referring to Christ’s spiritual descent into Hades. I take the position in Jesus Triumphant that Christ spiritually descended into Hades. So did early church fathers like Tertullian, Augustine, Jerome, Clement of Alexandria, Irenaeus, Cyril, and Origen, as well as Medieval scholastics like Robert Bellarmine, John Calvin, Thomas Aquinas, and modern scholars like Charles B. Cranfield, and Bo Reicke. But I also incorporate the post-resurrection interpretation as well, with its fascinating possibilities.
1 Enoch, which seems to be the source of the Biblical text, does in fact depict Enoch as visiting the place of the condemned Watchers who were “formerly in heaven” (1 Enoch 16:2), and that place is described as a “deep pit,” in the bottom of a mountain, just like Tartarus of Hades (Sheol), “an empty place with neither heaven above nor an earth below” (1 Enoch 21:1-2).
The descent of Christ in 1 Pet. 3:19 is poetically structured to counterbalance the ascent of Christ into heaven in verse 22. In the same way that Christ went down into Sheol, he later ascended up into heaven. But more importantly, if Christ makes a proclamation to the spirits in prison, those dead and bound prisoners are certainly not in heaven. They are most likely in Sheol.
Another passage, Ephesians 4:8 quotes Psalms 68:18 about Christ “ascending on high and leading a host of captives.” Paul then adds a parenthetical,
“In saying, ‘He ascended,’ what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower regions, the earth? He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.”
Christ “descending into the lower regions, the earth” can legitimately be interpreted as referring to Christ’s incarnation or even his descent in the Spirit on Pentecost. But other scholarship argues that the phrase is better translated as “descending into the lowest parts of the earth,” in other words into Sheol.
This underworld (Sheol) interpretation would seem to coincide with the memes presented in 1 Peter 3. The contrast of the heights of heaven with the depths of Sheol, and the tying of Christ’s death, descent into Sheol, resurrection, and ascension into the totality of his victory over the angelic principalities and powers.
Psalm 68 says that after leading the host of captives, God “received gifts from men,” a reference to the notion of ancient victors receiving tribute from their conquered foes. Paul changes that “receiving of gifts” into “giving of gifts” as a expansion of that victory over foes into a sharing of victory with his army, the people of God. Perhaps this is the meaning of the Old Testament saints resurrected at the time of Christ’s resurrection (Matt. 27:52-53). They too were sharing in the long awaited victory train of Messiah to free them from Hades and ascend into heaven.
The context of conquest over the angelic powers is also apparent in Eph. 1:20-21, “when he raised [Jesus] from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named.”
Christ’s death on the Cross becomes the apparent defeat by God’s enemies, led by angelic principalities and powers. But it turns around and becomes a disarming of those spiritual powers and the beginning of his triumph over them (Col. 2:15). In this view, Christ goes down into Sheol (in his spirit or later, in his resurrected body) to make a proclamation to the original minions of evil, now held captive. After he raises from the dead, he ascends into heaven to be coronated as king over all authority and powers of heaven and earth (Eph. 1:20-21). And that victory over spiritual powers brings us to the next element of 1 Peter 3:18-22.
What was the Proclamation?