The Proclamation of the Ages
Do you ever get totally confused by a passage of Scripture?
Well, we all do. Some passages are extremely complex. They form puzzles that we attempt to unwind and often time, we never get it done. I want us to examine the passage that is perhaps the most difficult passage in the Bible. The passage has led to several false doctrines and volumes have been written in an attempt to bring understanding to this passage.
Last week we looked at 1 Peter 3:18. This passage declared the unfairness of Christs suffering. We made several points regarding Christ’s suffering.
- His suffering was purifying
- His suffering eternally effectual
- His suffering is substitutionary
- His suffering brought reconciliation
- His suffering resulted in His physical death
- His suffering led to His resurrection
We saw that the entire gospel message was presented in this one verse. When we trust in Christ we become a new creation.
Now we move on this very difficult passage in 1 Peter 3:19-20. The passage reads: “…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.”
False Doctrines from this passage
The difficulty of this passage has led to at least two heretical beliefs.
- Some use this passage to teach the doctrine of purgatory. Purgatory, according to Roman Catholicism, is “a place or state in which are detained the souls of those who die in grace, in friendship with God, but with the blemish of venial sin or with temporal debt for sin unpaid. Here the soul is purged, cleansed, readied for eternal union with God in Heaven.” Those in purgatory (and it includes most people) suffer physical pain and separation from God. The length of stay in purgatory depends on the “sinfulness” of the person, but can be shortened by the prayers and good works of living adherents. Eventually, though those in purgatory are allowed to enter the eternal state with God. This passage is linked to 1 Peter 3:19 because, they say, Jesus went and preached to the spirits in prison. As we shall see, this application of Scripture arises from an incorrect understanding of what Jesus preached, to whom He preached, where He preached. This will become evident in the following discussion.
- Some use this passage to teach the doctrine of universalism. Simply state, universalism states that sooner or later all will be saved. Proponents of this doctrine declare that all men are now saved, though all do not realize it. They get here the same way as those who defend the concept of purgatory. Again, a misunderstanding of this passage leads to the false doctrine.
Questions, Questions, Questions
Reread this passage. If you are like me, it leaves you asking a number of questions.
Who are the “spirits in prison?”
Where is the prison?
When did Christ preach to them?
And most importantly, what was His message to them?
Peter has been writing to Jewish Christians suffering under intense persecution. His intent in this passage must be to give encouragement to those believers. I have been struggling to determine how this passage is encouraging.
Peter identifies how Christ’s suffering is encouraging to us. First, in 1 Peter 3:18 we learn that Christ suffered so that we could be brought back into relationship with God. Then we hit a further activity of Christ that happened after His resurrection in the spirit world.
So, let’s try to answer the questions we posited above.
Who are the “spirits in prison?”
The recipients of this second activity are the spirits in prison. Peter tells us that Jesus went and preached to them. So, who were these imprisoned spirits and why did Jesus speak to them?
There are several interpretations, but only two seem reasonable.
- These spirits are the disembodied souls of the people who perished in the Flood. As such, the preincarnate Christ preached to them through Noah–warning them of the coming disaster and calling for repentance. This view does agree with Peter’s subsequent reference to Noah as “a preacher of righteousness” (2 Peter 2:5). The major weakness of this view is that it overlooks Peter’s word order that the preaching was to imprisoned spirits. Noah would have preached to living people.
- A second view, the one I hold to, is that the spirits in prison are the fallen angels (equating the sons of God with angels) in Genesis 6. This view was widely known and generally taken for granted in the apostolic age. It is strongly presented in the Book of Enoch, a composite pre-Christian, Jewish apocryphal writing widely known in the early Christian church. This view is consistent with 2 Peter 2:4-5 (“For if God did not spare the angels who sinned, but cast them down to hell and delivered them into chains of darkness, to be reserved for judgment; and did not spare the ancient world, but saved Noah, one of eight people, a preacher of righteousness, bringing in the flood on the world of the ungodly…”) and Jude 6 (“And the angels who did not keep their proper domain, but left their own abode, He has reserved in everlasting chains under darkness for the judgment of the great day…”)
When analyzing any passage, we need to examine how it would be understood by the readers to whom it was intended. Peter was writing to Christians who were familiar with the Jewish apocryphal writing. The intertestamental writings favored the opinion that “the sons of God” were fallen angels who committed the sin in Genesis 6. The angelic sin took place just prior to Noah’s Flood. References to “spirits” as supernatural beings occur in early writings (Tobit 6:6; 2 Maccabees 3:24; Book of Jubilees 15:31; The Testament of Dan 1:7; 5:5; etc.). Because the people of the time would have understood 1 Peter 3:19 as referring to fallen angels in Genesis 6 and because the view seems to be supported by 2 Peter 2:4 and Jude 6, it seems most reasonable to understand the “spirits in prison” as fallen angels who sinned by taking human woman as wives.
Where is the prison?
The passage says that He went. This indicates a change in location. If the preincarnate Jesus was preaching through Noah, then no movement would be necessary. But if the reference is to Christ, then there is movement just as there would be in verse 22 (who has gone into heaven). So, where did He go.
In verse 22 we see that Jesus’ movement was upward into heaven. But we don’t see such specification in verse 19. However, since He was going to the place where the spirits are in prison, Jesus had to go to where they were. Consider 2 Peter 2:4–
For if God did not spare the angels who sinned, but cast them down to hell and delivered them into chains of darkness, to be reserved for judgment…
The word for hell in this case is Tartarus. In Greek and Jewish literature, this was a place of punishment lower than hades. It was a prison where the worst of Satan’s demons were banished so they could never again interact with humans. From this passage we therefore see that Jesus down into hell.
When did Christ preach to them?
The timing of this decent is not for certain. It needed to be after His resurrection since in verse 18 we see that He was made alive by the Spirit. Perhaps it was immediately after His resurrection. Perhaps it was even before His appearances to the Disciples.
What was His message to them?
We have been using the word from the text “preach” regarding Jesus action in verse 19. But this is not accurate. The concept is not synonymous with preaching the gospel. Christ did not preach the gospel, so the doctrines of purgatory and universalism fall apart. Instead, Peter uses a word that means to announce or herald. To understand the recipients of this proclamation to be human spirits leads one to the incorrect appeal for a second chance.
Rather, Jesus is a proclamation to the fallen angels. Jesus is bringing bad new to these “spirits in prison” but it is good news to us. Jesus is not preaching the good news of the gospel to the imprisoned spirits; He is announcing His triumph over evil. This would bring comfort and encouragement to the readers of this letter.
Since the fall of man, Satan had attempted to destroy the plan of God. Verse 20 ties what is said in verse 19 with Genesis 6. What happened in Genesis 6 was that Satan directed some of his fallen angels to intermarry with human women. The product was a race of “fallen ones” (Nephilim). These could also be described as rebels or apostates. They were a grotesque race resulting from human women procreating with fallen angels. They were mental and physical superhumans. Satan’s was responding to the judgment against him in Genesis 3:15. Satan knew the Messiah would come from the seed of woman, so his plan was to corrupt the seed so that the prophecy of Genesis 3:15 couldn’t happen. Then Jesus could never come and die for the sins of humanity.
But Satan’s plot failed. The Flood destroyed the product of the fallen angels. God imprisoned forever those angels who were involved so it could never happen again. The place for the imprisonment was Tartarus.
Jesus’ proclamation was that the satanic attempt to corrupt the seed of woman had failed. Jesus had the victory. All had happened according to God’s plan. God is sovereign and Satan and his minions (the demons) will be judged.
What a savior!
Peter’s words are encouraging because we have a Savior who died for us to bring us to God, but also one who defeated the plan of Satan. Though Satan’s plan was defeated by the Flood, Jesus went to Tartarus to proclaim judgment on a special class of fallen angels. In so doing, we are encouraged because we salvation in Christ.
Take time to thank Christ for the work He did on the cross. Then thank God that He stopped Satan’s evil plan to corrupt humanity. Now we can be saved.
 George Brantl, ed., Catholicism (New York: Braziller, 1962), p. 232.
 Hiebert, D. Edmond. “Selected Studies from 1 Peter Part 2: The Suffering and Triumphant Christ: An Exposition of 1 Peter 3:18–22.” Bibliotheca Sacra 139.554 (1982): 152. Print.