Preaching to the Spirits in Prison
I Peter 3:18-20
- “For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit: By which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison; Which sometime were disobedient, when once the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls were saved by water” 1 Peter 3:18-20 (King James Version).
A common interpretation of this passage is that those who lived during Noah’s time and died in a lost condition were imprisoned in Hades (specifically Tartarus, the realm of the wicked). It is believed that, during the time between Christ’s death and his resurrection, Christ went to these people and preached the gospel to them.
This cannot be correct for a number of reasons. First, the spiritual condition of a person when he dies is the same as his spiritual condition at the time of the general resurrection. While death is followed by judgment (Hebrews 9:27), there is nothing in the Bible to indicate that those who have died are ever given an opportunity to repent.
Second, in the account of the rich man and Lazarus, it is said that the realm of the dead includes a great gulf between the evil and the righteous. Luke 16:16. This gulf is “fixed” and does not allow for passage from one area to the other.
Third, Why would Jesus preach only to those who lived in Noah’s day? Why not preach to everyone who died prior to Christ death? God is no respecter of persons (Acts 10:3) and wants everyone to repent and be saved (II Peter 3:9).
Fourth, just minutes before Christ death, Christ told one of the thieves he would be with him in Paradise. (Luke 23:4)
What then, does I Peter 3:18-20 teach? Christ was made alive in the spirit, in which, during the days of Noah, he preached to evil people whose spirits are now (at the time of Peter’s writing) imprisoned (or confined) to punishment in Tartarus.
How did this preaching take place? The same way it takes place today – through men. In the context of I Peter 3, the preaching took place through Noah (a preacher of righteousness, II Peter 2:5). In connection with I Peter 3, notice I Peter 1:11, where it is said that the spirit of Christ was in the Old Testament prophets.
When someone does something through the agency of another person, it can be said that he (the first person) did it. For example, Nathan told David he killed Uriah. (II Samuel 12:9). Yet we know David did not personally take a sword and kill Uriah. But, because David arranged for Uriah to be killed, it can be said that David killed Uriah. In the same manner, because Christ preached through Noah, it can be said that Christ preached to the spirits in prison.
What lessons can we learn from the text?
First, people today, just like in Noah’s day, are saved through the medium of God’s word. James wrote that we are to receive with meekness the engrafted word which is able to save our souls. (James 1:21). No one has ever been saved from their sins without first hearing the word of God. (Romans 10:17).
Second, God is patient. The statement from Genesis 6:3, “yet his days shall be a hundred and twenty years,” would seem to refer to the time Noah would spend building the ark. During this time, Noah was preaching to the lost and pleading with them to repent. Today, God is patiently pleading for people to repent. (II Peter 3:9).
Third, today, just as in Noah’s day, few will be saved. Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat: Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.” (Matthew 7:13-14).
- What’s important for us to remember from this passage is that Christ died for us so that we might be made righteous before God, cleansed of our sins, and live life on this earth with hope of an eternity in heaven.