Preaching to the Spirits in Prison

By Wayne Jackson

Because Christ also suffered for sins once, 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 also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison, that aforetime were disobedient, when the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls, were saved through water (1 Peter 3:18-20).

This difficult passage begins by affirming that Christ died in order to provide the benefits of salvation to unrighteous people. The apostle states that the Lord was put to death in the flesh (his crucifixion), but that he was made alive in the spirit.

What is the meaning of this latter expression? It could mean that his spirit continued to be vitalized with life—even after the death of his body; or else it may indicate that Jesus was made alive again when his spirit re-entered his body at the time of his resurrection from the dead (cf. Romans 1:4; 1 Timothy 3:16).

The apostle then says, “in which” (i.e., in his spirit), Christ went and preached unto the “spirits in prison” that were disobedient in the days of Noah.

Some people believe this passage teaches that during the three days his body was in the tomb, Jesus went into the spirit-world of the imprisoned lost. At that time, according to this theory, the Lord preached the gospel to those who died lost during the time of Noah’s flood.

The passage simply cannot mean this—and for the following reasons:

The Bible clearly teaches that following death, there comes judgment (Hebrews 9:27). After one leaves this earth, there is no plan of salvation for him. The spiritual condition in which a person dies (prepared or unprepared) is that which he will possess at the time of the general resurrection (cf. Matthew 25:1-12). There is absolutely no evidence that there is a second chance for redemption following death.

According to Christ’s instruction in the narrative regarding the rich man and Lazarus, within the spirit-world (called Hades in the American Standard Version) there is a great gulf “fixed” between the place where evil people abide and the state where good people exist (see Luke 16:26).

The verb “fixed,” in the Greek Testament, is a perfect tense form, suggesting that the gulf is forever fixed. There can never be any crossing. A. T. Robertson called it a “permanent chasm” (1931, 223). A. B. Bruce said the “location is fixed and final” (1956, 589). It thus would hardly have accomplished anything for the Lord to have preached to those in a state of punishment, tantalizing them with the hope of salvation, when they had no chance of entering Paradise.

What, then, does 1 Peter 3:18 teach?

The passage affirms that Jesus Christ, “in the [his] spirit” (not in the flesh), during the days of Noah, proclaimed God’s truth to the evil, pre-flood generation. How did the Lord do that? He was operating through Noah, a preacher of righteousness (2 Peter 2:5).

Observe that in this same letter Peter stated that the “Spirit of Christ” was in the Old Testament prophets as they declared Heaven’s message (1:11). This is a key verse in explaining 1 Peter 3:18. When Christ, through Noah, preached to those evil people, they were alive and on the earth. But at the time Peter wrote his letter, they had long been dead, and their spirits were suffering in the prison of hell (known as Tartarus – see 2 Peter 2:4, ASV fn).

In order to help clarify the meaning of this difficult verse, we might suggest the following paraphrase:

Christ was made alive in the spirit; in which, during the days of Noah, he preached to evil people, whose spirits are now in the prison of Tartarus (punishment).

This type of language reflects a common figure of speech found in the Bible. It is known as prolepsis. It involves bringing two time-frames together into one expression. Here is a more current example. If one were to say, “President Abraham Lincoln was born in Kentucky,” he would be combining two time eras into one sentence. When he was born, Lincoln was not president, but he later became such. However, by this common mode of expression, one associates a current fact with an antecedent event.

So it is with reference to 1 Peter 3:18. The preaching was done by Christ through Noah in ancient times; the spirits are currently in a place of confinement.

This is a very reasonable interpretation of this verse, and it conforms to what we know of the state of the dead as elsewhere described in the Bible. No meaning can be imposed upon a difficult text which makes it conflict with other clear passages.

Sources/Footnotes
  • Bruce, A. B. 1956. The Expositor’s Greek Testament. Vol. 1. W. Robertson Nicoll, ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
  • Robertson, A. T. 1931. Word Pictures in the New Testament. Vol. 2. Nashville, TN: Broadman.
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About the Author

Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.