Preaching to Spirits in Prison

Many in the online world (think social media) thrive on arguing about eschatology—that branch of theology that studies the end of all things. The arguments are endless and, at times, revealing of the arrogance of those arguing. Occasionally, there is an unmistakable I’ve got it all figured out and the rest of you are idiots attitude.

The subject of eschatology is controversial, and some feed on controversy. I do not. That makes this week’s blog post all the more challenging, because it involves a controversial topic, albeit one less widely argued than eschatology.

What happened to Jesus after he died?

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.
– 1 Peter 3:18-20, ESV

I included three full verses above. because that’s the entire sentence, and because it provides context for the phrase in question; “he proclaimed to the spirits in prison.”

What does that mean? Where is Jesus? Who are these spirits?

The short answer is, I don’t really know. The outcome of that short answer is that I’m not going to be dogmatic about it, and recommend that none of us be so.

Souls of the Dead?
There are those who read this as the souls of dead, non-believing humanity. Thus, this is believed to be a sort of purgatory where those who died outside of Christ are being given a second chance to believe. I can’t go there, because “it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment,”1 rather than strike two or strike three before you’re out.

Furthermore, I find it problematic for this view that Peter used the term “spirits” rather than “souls.” Typically, in the New Testament, souls is applied to humans, while spirits references non-human entities. When the verse above speaks of eight “people” saved through water inside the ark, the term used there is literally “souls,” ψυχή.

Jesus Went to Hell?
Another view, perhaps somewhat related, crept into the Apostles’ Creed, originally known as the Old Roman Creed. Little is known about the true origin of this creed, but instances of it’s use can be traced back as far as the second century. At that time it did not include the phrase, speaking of Jesus, “he descended into hell,” which some believe traces its origins to the passage above from Peter, where Jesus is preaching to spirits in prison.

That phrase, now included in the extant versions of the creed, is believed to have been added roughly two hundred years after the creed’s original composition. You will find some form of it in all current versions of the Apostles’ Creed, though some versions have updated it to read, “he descended to the dead,” which may be attributed to the phrase in Acts stating that Jesus was not abandoned to Hades (not Gehenna/Hell), and his flesh did not see corruption.2 Hades means, simply, the unseen realm.3

Fallen Angels?
Dr. Henry Morris from the Institute for Creation Research points out that the term “spirits” (πνεύμασιν) could apply to the angels who rebelled against God and were subsequently cast out of heaven. He further points out that when the term is in plural form, it refers specifically to angels in at least twenty-six of its thirty occurrences.

The suggestion, then, is that Jesus is proclaiming to fallen angels, those who “did not keep their positions of authority, but abandoned their proper dwelling,” and who God “has kept in darkness, bound with everlasting chains for judgement on that Great Day.”4

if this is what’s happening in 1 Peter, we find Jesus proclaiming his victory over sin and death to those who had been disobedient prior to the days of Noah.

When man began to multiply on the face of the land and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw that the daughters of man were attractive. And they took as their wives any they chose. Then the LORD said, “My Spirit shall not abide in man forever, for he is flesh: his days shall be 120 years.” The Nephilim were on the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of God came in to the daughters of man and they bore children to them. These were the mighty men who were of old, the men of renown. The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.
– Genesis 6:1-5, ESV

The implication that these spirits in prison are the angels noted above is debated, and rightly so. The evidence is thin for that. But then we see this in 2 Peter, indicating that whomever they are, their future is dim.

For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but cast them into [Tartarus] and committed them to chains of gloomy darkness to be kept until the judgment…
– 2 Peter 2:4, ESV

J.P. Lange points out that Christ dealt with the living in his body, with the spirits in the spirit.5 If we dig more deeply, we find that there is no definite article in 1 Peter 3:18, indicating that we are not dealing with things, persons, or objects so much as we are dealing with states of existence.

Consider how this reads with the definite articles removed. For Christ suffered once for sins, righteous for unrighteous, that he might bring you to God, having been put to death, truly, in flesh, but having been made alive in spirit.

The difference in wording is slight, but the meaning changes significantly.

Whomever Jesus was preaching to, we know they are non-corporeal, we know they are imprisoned, and we know that whatever their sin was, it took place before the great flood. Jesus “heralds” his victory in “the abyss,” and the term for “proclaim” is the same term that Luke uses when he says what we have whispered in the inner rooms will be “proclaimed” from the rooftops.6

Jesus was triumphant, and in him, we also will be triumphant. Jesus disarmed the forces arrayed against us and we need fear noting from them or from the evil one.

He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.
– Colossians 2:15, ESV

The context of 1 and 2 Peter is almost entirely one of perseverance through times of suffering. It is a message of victory! In Christ, you will be victorious, because he is victorious. Jesus has entered every conceivable realm and reigned victorious! Our enemy is a defeated foe on every front.

Blessings upon you, my friends.

Victoriously in Christ!

– damon
X – @DamonJGray
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1. Hebrews 9:27
2. Acts 2:31
3. Romans 20:11-15
4. Jude 1:6
5. John Peter Lange et al. (2008) A Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: 1 Peter (63). Logos Bible Software: Bellingham, WA.
6. Luke 12:3

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Damon J. Gray

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