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Didn’t Jesus preach to the spirits in prison?

Didn’t Jesus preach to the spirits in prison?
Text in question: 1 Peter 3:19

“...by whom also He went and preached to the spirits in prison.”

Proof texts: 1 Peter 3:18–20

Many churches today routinely recite the Apostle’s Creed as part of their worship services. This is a standard recitation of fundamental beliefs supposedly carried down from the apostolic days. The most controversial line of the Creed, which is considered optional or flatly omitted by some of the churches that recite it, is a line that reads, “He descended into hell,” referring to Jesus in between the time of the cross and the resurrection. It is this idea—that Christ preached the gospel to the souls of the dead who are in hell—that is most commonly associated with the text in question, 1 Peter 3:19. Using this view, the spirits are immortal, disembodied souls of deceased people and the prison is eternal hellfire.

Strangely, this is not the only interpretation given to this text. Some churches teach that human beings had a pre-existence as spiritual creatures and return to that spiritual life once their bodies die. This spiritual realm after death is an additional learning ground where God continues to teach the dead about Himself. The text from Peter is used to support this idea. Stranger still, this learning ground, where apparently the spirits are in the presence of God, is called a prison.

It would seem that a text with such varying interpretations and controversy must be ambiguous in nature, or else the world’s churches would reach a consensus about its meaning. Yet, when the context of the passage is considered, it becomes unmistakably clear. When we read the verses both prior to and following the verse in question, the passage states:

“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 Divine longsuffering waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight souls, were saved through water” (1 Peter 3:18–20).

Truly, the passage is referring to Jesus Christ, and it does plainly say that he preached to spirits in prison. However, it also removes the guessing that leads to the conflicting interpretations. It says that Christ died but was made alive again through the Spirit of God, “by whom” He preached to spirits in prison. So we know that the one who did the preaching was actually the Holy Spirit, not Christ directly. The Spirit speaks the words given to Him by Christ (see John 16:13), and therefore is Christ’s representative (but nonetheless a distinct entity of God). We therefore know that the passage cannot mean that Jesus descended into hell to preach, because it was the Holy Spirit that did the preaching, not Jesus.

But when, and where, is this prison, and who are the spirits to whom the Holy Spirit preached the words of Christ? Verse 20 provides the answer.

The spirits “were formally disobedient.” Disobedience to God is sin. The Bible clearly states that sinners in open rebellion toward God are “slaves to sin,” or prisoners of unrighteousness (see Romans 6:16). For additional texts where prisoner imagery is used to describe the condition of sin, see Psalm 142:7, Isaiah 42:6, 7, and Luke 4:18. So the “spirits in prison” are those in rebellion against God, or sinners.

When did the Holy Spirit preach to sinners? Can we know whether these sinners were alive or dead when this occurred? The passage continues to talk explicitly about the “days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared.” The passage, in its proper context, is describing Christ’s ministry, through the person of the Holy Spirit, to reach sinners in the time of Noah, before the flood. Nowhere does the passage give us license to send Jesus to hell in between the cross and the resurrection, nor does it allow us to make the “prison” a heavenly learning ground after death. The passage is clear: the Holy Spirit preached to sinners in the days of Noah before the flood.

To further clarify this point, Peter continues his argument in verse 21 by stating:

“There is also an antitype which now saves us—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” (1 Peter 3:21).

An antitype is a prophetic fulfillment. Peter says that, just as the eight souls were saved “through water” on the ark, in the same way we are now saved by baptism through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The water washed away the filth from the earth in Noah’s day, and the water symbolically washes away our guilt through Christ’s sacrifice. The Holy Spirit is involved in both processes: He preached to sinners to try to save them before the flood, and He preaches to us to bring us to repentance and baptism (see John 16:8, 9).

In light of this comparison to baptism, there cannot be any other meaning to the text in question except that the Spirit preached to sinners in Noah’s day. The flood is significant to the point Peter is making. Without it, any comparison to an “antitype” in baptism is meaningless. Certainly, baptism cannot be compared to the fires of hell! When we understand this meaning, it becomes clear that this text cannot be used to support any theology about death or the afterlife at all.

*All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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