Allow me to offer a gentle reminder as we begin: “The word of God says what it says.” As we examine I Peter 3:18-20, we may vary on the meaning of the passage, but we are bound to agree on the words. What does this section of Scripture actually say? “For Christ…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,”-I Peter 3:18-20. Interpretations may vary, but we can all agree on how the passage reads.
The time period between Jesus being nailed to the cross and resurrected from the grave is fertile ground for speculation. There is good reason for it! It is the apex of history. Christ lived under one covenant and inaugurated another. Plus, Jesus death is different because of who he is (Son of God) and because he alone has risen from death never to die again. There are three passages people have questions about most often: 1) Was Jesus really separated from God because of our sin (Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34)? 2) Did the thief on the cross go to heaven? Where/what is “paradise” in Luke 23:41-43. 3) Did Jesus preach to sinners from the time of Noah between his death and resurrection?
We will deal with the first two questions at a later date. The verse in I Peter chapter three came up in our Bible study and I thought it would be a good time to examine two prominent explanations for the verse. Here is a summary of the positions.
- Jesus, between his death and resurrection, went to Hades and preached to the spirits of those who lived in Noah’s time.
- Jesus preached through Noah who was inspired by the Spirit of Christ.
Barton Johnson wrote a study Bible that would be the closest thing to a study Bible that would be recognized among churches of Christ. Here is his take on the issue, “The first view seems more in harmony with the context; the second furnishes fewer theological difficulties.”-The People’s New Testament. Amen.
View number one begins with the truth that when someone dies physically, they still live as a spiritual being or soul (Matthew 22:32). This view assumes the time of Christ’s proclaiming to be between his death and resurrection. This is not demanded by the text. Yes Jesus was alive “in the spirit” during that period of time, but could he not have proclaimed in the Spirit before or after his life on earth?
Some who hold this view think Jesus preached the gospel to these sinners and that they could have repented. Here is where I depart company with this view entirely. The KJV uses the word “preached” while the ESV and NASB use the word “proclaim.” The Bible clearly teaches that no person can repent unto salvation after death (II Corinthians 5:10; Hebrews 9:27). In fact, the sale of indulgences that led to the Protestant Reformation were based on the false teaching that sinners could have a second chance at salvation after death. That is clearly unscriptural.
View number two is easier to defend biblically. In I Peter 1:11, the word of God tells us the Old Testament prophets preached when carried along by, “the Spirit of Christ in them.” Noah himself is called, “a herald (preacher-KJV) of righteousness.”-II Peter 2:5. Did Noah preach to people who in Christ or Peter’s time, would have been, “spirits in prison, because they formerly did not obey,”? Yes. Does the Bible tells us Old Testament prophets spoke by, “the Spirit of Christ,”? Also yes.
Is it possible for Jesus to have proclaimed to departed souls in Hades while he was physically in the grave? I would have to say, “Yes.” Would Jesus have preached a gospel of repentance to the sinful of Noah’s time? It would be inconsistent with all Bible teaching on the subject. Could he have proclaimed something to those spirits (victory over death or vindication of Noah)? It’s possible but highly unlikely.
So, which is it? There is no other record of Jesus preaching in the spirit to departed souls in the time between his death and resurrection. The fact of the Spirit speaking through prophets and apostles is well established. Can the Holy Spirit be referred to as the Spirit of Christ? Absolutely. I won’t say view number one is wrong (with the huge caveat about repentance after death). It just relies on too many “possibles” and “could be’s.” While view number two is much simpler to defend, it doesn’t deal with the time period between the cross and the stone being rolled away.
What I can tell you is; Jesus was resurrected by the Spirit (Romans 1:4). And if I want to be saved by the power of his resurrection, I need to beg God for the cleansing that comes at baptism.