Archive for November, 2019

“What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.”
— A.W. Tozer, Knowledge of the Holy

“. . . there began to come moments when I could feel moving into my mind, like a physical presence, the conviction that all was quite absurd. It made no sense at all that anything should exist. Something like nausea, but deeper and frightening, would grow in my stomach and chest but also at the core of my spirit, progressing like vertigo until in desperation I must jump up or talk suddenly of trivial things to break the spell and regain balance. And since that time I am always aware that that feeling, that extreme awareness of the better claim of nothingness, lies just beyond the barriers of my busy mind and will intrude when I let it.”
–Eugene England, “Enduring” in Dialogues with Myself

by Paul Nurnberg
In my last post, I invited readers to continue with me “the tragic quest” and promised in this post to tackle a simple subject: God. That was, of course, tongue in cheek. For if God were simple, then we could not describe the quest to know Him as tragic, which is Eugene England’s terminology that I have adopted. He defined what he meant by tragedy:

. . . it would seem that the central issue in tragedy is justice, specifically ultimate justice; the extreme anguish which tragedy confronts and forces us to confront derives, not from mere pain and loss, but pain and loss that touches our deepest concerns, those about the nature of the universe itself. And those concerns are by definition religious.1

A Natural Pain and Loss
On September 11, 2003, my wife Angela packed a lunch for us and surprised me at work with a positive pregnancy test she had taken that morning. It was wonderful news, especially considering the horrific events that had taken place on that date two years earlier. We were very excited to be adding to our young family, which already included two daughters and a son. I had just returned to my schooling carrying a full-time course load and working toward a bachelor’s degree in Business Administration.

Twelve weeks into that pregnancy, on a Sunday night in October, Angela noticed signs that something might be wrong with the pregnancy. She asked me to give her a priesthood blessing. As an LDS husband, it was excruciating to see the fear in her eyes and the look of deep pain and loss already stealing across her face. I laid my hands on her head and blessed her. I wanted to tell her everything would be fine  —  the baby would be fine  —  but I didn’t. I couldn’t. I sensed that this was out of my control.

The next morning, we went to the OB/GYN for an ultrasound. After waiting for what seemed forever in muted hope that all was right, an Ultrasound Tech led us to a treatment room and silently performed the imaging procedure. She said the doctor would need to speak with us.

Angela immediately sensed what the doctor would tell us. She began crying uncontrollably. I gave what comfort I could, but I was numb. The ultrasound tech returned and took us to the doctor’s office. While waiting there for several minutes, I looked at his diplomas hanging on the wall — evidence of his expertise and training in these matters. He came in and explained that miscarriages are just statistical anomalies that unfortunately happen in a percentage of pregnancies. He explained that based on the ultrasound measurements the baby had only progressed to about six weeks and that they had been unable to detect a heartbeat. I remember feeling at once comforted by his explanation and horrified by it. “These things just happen sometimes.”

Over the next several months, I did my best to be there for Angela in her grief. We talked a lot, most times late into the night after I got home from long days of work followed by night school. I listened as she shared her grief and growth through that process. I ate my own feelings of sadness and loss, trying to put on a strong face for her. My father has struggled throughout his life with bipolar disorder and bouts of deep depression, so I knew intellectually that shoving my feelings down inside wasn’t healthy, but I had responsibilities to provide by working hard and continuing my studies. I couldn’t allow emotions to shut me down.

“So went Satan forth from the presence of the Lord, and smote Job with sore boils from the sole of his foot unto his crown.” (Job 2:7 KJV)

I turned to writing, a favorite outlet. I wrote a piece of short fiction that I called “God Lets the Wheat Grow Up with the Tares.” The protagonist and narrator is a Mormon pre-teen girl whose father abandoned the family when she was young and who now lives with her mother, older brother, and grandfather. At age 11 — not 8 — she finally forgives her father and allows her brother to baptize her “in the clean waters of the baptismal font in the new church building.” Her grandpa is a Jack-Mormon farmer who regrets selling a large portion of his land to developers and who harbors a hatred of God stemming from the death of his wife. Near the end of the story, he takes his granddaughter, on the evening after her baptism, to swim in the irrigation ditch. He asks her about her baptism, and in that muddy water, he performs his own bittersweet re-creation of the ordinance that he was barred from performing earlier that day.

The story contains an episode in which the grandpa rails against God. His daughter, Lucy, suggests that it was the Utah sun that got to her mother trying to present a “nicer” image of death for her own daughter. The grandfather explodes:

“It wasn’t the damned sun that got to her!” Grandpa said. “God took her from me, Lucy. Don’t fill your child’s head with things that just ain’t right. You and me both know that God don’t like me a bit. He did, he wouldn’t of brought those damned city folk out here to this part of the valley. I built me up a good farm here. But I was too proud, I suppose. Thought I did it all by myself, and I did! It was my arms that worked, my legs that walked, my muscles that pushed and toiled to bring that crop to harvest every year.”

“Dad!” Mom protested.

“What?” Grandpa asked. “‘He makes the rain to fall on the just and the unjust.’ Well, he ain’t never made it to fall on my crop long enough to make it plentiful no matter how just I tried to be. I had to dig them irrigation troughs in my fields. It was my arms that hung weary after weeks of digging. Hurt so bad I couldn’t sleep at night. And even then there were some years that there wasn’t enough snow in the mountains to make irrigating any good. But I built it up. This farm — I built it with my two hands.”

His anger continues to flow despite his daughter’s tears until Lucy, exhausted and troubled by his outburst, begs him to stop:

Mom was sobbing when he finished. “Please, Dad, don’t . . .”

“Don’t what?” he asked. “Tell the child like it is? Your mother didn’t deserve the cancer God gave her, Lucy. But he gave it to her anyway. He burned her for my sake, to get back at me. Well, he won’t break me, Lucy. He won’t!”
(Paul Nurnberg, “God Lets the Wheat Grow Up with the Tares”, unpublished fiction)

A Clearing of the Mind
I was deeply involved during this time in a private discussion group made up of Mormons and former Mormons. The group consisted of a Mormon philosopher and future Mormon Transhumanist Association founder, a Mormon Canadian public servant, an ex-Mormon atheist politico, an ex-Mormon evangelical Christian, a Mormon Wiccan, a couple young return Mormon missionaries with young families [raises hand], a Mormon Buddhist, a female Mormon who knew the founder of FAIR just as that organization was getting off the ground and who deeply studied Kabballah, and a serving Mormon bishop. Views were varied and conversations were always challenging. We had all moved from discussing Mormonism on the boards at BeliefNet to a private forum developed by one of the group’s members. In early 2004, we decided to gather in Salt Lake City for an in-person meetup. I was just kicking off my career and working my way through school so I couldn’t afford the plane ticket, but this kind group of people acted together to cover my costs.

During the gathering, it was proposed that we allow two members of the group to undergo a Clearness Committee, a process used by Quakers to help a person gain clarity around a decision. Angela had been pleading with me to not just listen to her grief but to share mine with her, and I was stubbornly turning inward. I knew it would be healthy, healing, and ultimately strengthening to our relationship to open up to her, but I harbored a lot of fear because the anger I had toward God was severe, and I didn’t want to affect her faith. She was a convert to Mormonism, and I felt a heavy burden not to damage her faith.

“And when they lifted up their eyes afar off, and knew him not, they lifted up their voice, and wept; and they rent every one his mantle, and sprinkled dust upon their heads toward heaven.” (Job 2:12 KJV)

I completed a write up describing the problem, and at the meetup, I underwent a Clearness Committee. It was an intense experience. Although the members of the group were sensitive and careful in their questions and I already knew of their kindness and desire to be of help, their probing and my responses laid bare just how much I was struggling with questions of justice in the face of natural evil and how opposed I was to the idea of a sovereign God.2 What follows are some of their questions and my responses. They were recorded verbatim and I share them to give readers a sense of my mindset at the time. After a question asking me to identify what God felt like to me at the time — I indicated that God was like a Mormon bishop in my mind — the following questions were posed to me:

Q: What would you tell him [a church leader] about your baby?
I would tell him that for me, there’s a lot of uncertainty about what it means to have lost my baby: what it means in a religious sense. I feel like I’ve missed out on something infinitely precious. I feel like the relationship I might have had has been stolen from me  —  well, not necessarily stolen, but not available to me now. It hurts not to be able to have that relationship come to fruition.

Q: How would he [a church leader] react?
I think he would probably tell me that I could be with that child in the next life. But I think that would be callous; it skirts the issue of the pain I feel now. It’s only theoretical.

Q: What kind of reaction would not skirt the issue of the pain you feel now?
An answer that didn’t imply that everything is just going to be all right. An answer that addressed the pain and the sense of loss I feel. An answer that explored those things with me; one where I was able to feel that the person really cared, and realized that the pain and loss is real.

Q: You mentioned a statistical anomaly. Is that how you feel about this? Do you blame anyone or think there’s any reason for it?
No; that’s something Angela and I discussed. We don’t believe in a God who would punish us or take something as precious as having children away as a result of something we did. We decided that seeking for a reason behind this would be futile. That feels right, but at the same time, the question of “Why?” is still there. Maybe it is just part of being mortal. For some reason, our bodies biologically get sick, reject pregnancies  —  it’s just part of being alive, perhaps. But that doesn’t feel like enough. There’s still the desire, the need to seek for a reason  —  if there’s not a reason for the pain…

“The Just Upright Man is laughed to scorn.” (Job 12:4 KJV)

Q: Did God kill your child?
No; I don’t believe that. I guess that’s one of the areas where this has been especially difficult for me. I don’t believe that. The God I want to believe in doesn’t do those sorts of things. He doesn’t give us bad experiences for the sake of bad experiences  —  or even give us bad experiences at all. Bad experiences are a result of being human in the world we live in. The doctor tried to comfort us the day we found out: “It’s just a statistical anomaly.” That lines up with my view of the world: there are statistical anomalies and it depends on how we deal with them. But then I wonder, “What’s the point of believing there’s a God? If everything is just a statistical anomaly, what’s the point?” But I realize that reaction may be part of the anger stage of grief. Angela said she went through something similar.

Q: Did God have the power to make this decision?
I want to say no. But that’s more because I don’t believe he makes those sorts of decisions. Whether he had the power to, I don’t know. But I don’t’ believe he makes those sorts of decisions for our lives.

Q: Did he have the power to stop it?
Maybe. Did he have the power to stop the suffering that Christ went through in Gethsemane? Christ seemed to think so; he asked for it.

Q: Would it be all right, if God were here, to be angry, even if he was not responsible, but because he couldn’t or wouldn’t stop it?
For me, I don’t think so. If I believe that he’s not responsible, I wouldn’t feel that it would be conducive to a relationship with him, which I desire, for me to be angry with him.

Q: Does someone or something need to be responsible for you to be angry?
No, I don’t think so, but my experience is that if you’re angry, you usually direct that at someone.

Q: Do you feel helpless that you feel anger but don’t know where to send it?
Yes, in a sense. I think I recognize that in life when we’re angry, many times we direct our anger at people who don’t deserve it, people who aren’t responsible. But I feel like that’s immoral, to direct your anger at someone who doesn’t deserve it. So it would be immoral for me to direct anger towards God or anyone. Is anyone responsible for it? It’s just something that happens.

Q: Do you think you could be angry that there is no one responsible, that the universe is just that way, and still feel that life has meaning?
I think I struggle with that. If the universe is random – if it’s a “statistical anomaly” – what meaning does it have? I think I’m coming to believe more and more than the meaning it has is our relationships with others, and what we’re able to build there. But I feel angry that that can be taken from us without justification or reason.

Q: If God were here and it was acknowledged that it was just a statistical anomaly and there was nothing he could do, what would he say to you as you expressed your anger and/or grief?
I would hope he could explain to me what the implications of that are for existence. If all there is — is what we have with others, the relationships we build with others, and those can be taken from us — what point is there to being? What’s the big picture?

“Let the day perish wherein I was born, and the night in which it was said, There is a man child conceived.” (Job 3:3 KJV)

My paternal grandmother also experienced the loss of a child. Even when she was in her seventies and eighties, the pain of that loss was still with her. I remember her speaking of her still-born daughter. She never talked about her without sharing the idiomatic sentiment taken from Job 1:21, “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away.” My grandma’s purpose in making that statement was an expression of her faith and trust in God. That despite the pain that she carried throughout her life over the loss of her only daughter, she still loved and worshipped God.

Job’s sentiment written poetically is similar:

“Naked I came from my mother’s womb,
And naked I shall return there.
The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away.
Blessed be the name of the LORD.”

Through all this Job did not sin nor did he blame God.
(Job 1:20-22 NASB)

It would be many long years following the loss of our child before I would be able to say, “Blessed be the name of the LORD.”

The Better Claim of Nothingness . . .
At the end of my last post, I shared a poem that encapsulates my journey of knowing God. Nothingness is a recurring theme in that piece. When I first read Eugene England’s essay “Enduring” years ago, I recognized a kindred spirit. One willing to acknowledge the doubt, fear, and darkness he experienced in his life.

There were moments when I was younger when doubt was nearly crippling. I remember one in particular. I was lying on my bed. It was afternoon. Probably a Sunday. Yes, very likely a Sunday. In my early teenage years, I wandered away from weekly church activity. My mom would try to get me out of bed, and I would feign sleep until she stopped nagging me and left for church. The questions I was asking myself that day made me sick to my stomach. What if there is nothing? No God? No purpose? Nothing.

Wanting and Desire
In the face of this better claim of nothingness, many succumb to it. Many who like me have left the LDS Church or other institutional religions subscribe to the tenets of atheism. As the now-famous Atheist Bus Campaign in London proclaimed, “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.”

I’m reminded of a story a friend told me. He and his wife were preparing to leave the house for a social event and he had gone into their bedroom to put on his shoes. While there, my friend became lost in thought about God. His wife called to him several times from the front room, trying patiently to get his attention. Finally and exasperatedly she walked to the door of their bedroom and found him sitting on the foot of their bed without a single shoe on either foot. “You’re thinking about God, aren’t you?” she asked him. Jolted from his thoughts, he sheepishly told her that he was. She then asked him if he could stop that for long enough to get to the event on time.

Just get on with the business of life! Frankly, that answer does little more for me than the religious leader who I imagined would tell me in the face of our loss and pain that all would be right in the next life, but wouldn’t make the effort or take on the danger of getting into my messiness and just sit in the darkness with me. Of course, in the face of loss and suffering, we all must “get on with it” at times, else we succumb to the darkness. But looking beyond the here and now, what meaning is there to loss, to suffering, to life itself, if there is nothing, no ultimate resolution, justice, or Love?

Soothsaying? Wishful thinking? Infantile desires? These are the contrary claims. But we all feel the longing to understand, to see, to know. The question is why is this the case?

“So the Lord blessed the latter end of Job more than his beginning…” (Job 42:12 KJV)

Eugene England, “Joseph Smith and the Tragic Quest,”Dialogues with Myself: Personal Essays on Mormon Experience (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1984), p.1 (emphasis mine)

2 See Romans 8:28

(Banner Art & Illustrations from “William Blake’s Illustrations of the Book of Job” with thanks to Wikipedia Commons) 

Joakim Skovgaard (1856-1933) “Christ in the Realm of the Dead”

compiled by Fred W. Anson
1 Peter 3:18-19 is the foundational, biblical proof text for Mormon “spirit prison” and “proxy baptism for the dead” dogma. Here is how that passage reads:

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 (NKJV)

Here’s how the passage is typically interpreted and applied by Mormon Leaders:

Christian theologians have long wrestled with the question, What is the destiny of the billions who have lived and died with no knowledge of Jesus? With the Restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ has come the understanding of how the unbaptized dead are redeemed and how God can be “a perfect, just God, and a merciful God also” (Alma 42:15).

While yet in life, Jesus prophesied that He would also preach to the dead. Peter tells us this happened in the interval between the Savior’s Crucifixion and Resurrection (see 1 Peter 3:18–19). President Joseph F. Smith (1838–1918) witnessed in vision that the Savior visited the spirit world and “from among the righteous [spirits], he organized his forces and appointed messengers, clothed with power and authority, and commissioned them to go forth and carry the light of the gospel to them that were in darkness. …

‘These were taught faith in God, repentance from sin, vicarious baptism for the remission of sins, [and] the gift of the Holy Ghost by the laying on of hands’ (D&C 138:30, 33).

The doctrine that the living can provide baptism and other essential ordinances to the dead vicariously was revealed anew to the Prophet Joseph Smith (see D&C 124; 128; 132). He learned that the spirits awaiting resurrection are offered not only individual salvation but they can be bound in heaven as husband and wife and be sealed to their fathers and mothers of all generations past and have sealed to them their children of all generations future. The Lord instructed the Prophet that these sacred rites are appropriately performed only in a house built to His name, a temple (see D&C 124:29–36).
(D. Todd Christofferson (Mormon Apostle), “Why Do We Baptize for the Dead?”, New Era magazine, March 2009)

Again, that’s how you will see Mormons interpret and apply this passage in your discussions with them on the Internet and in person. However, and frankly, no one seems to know with absolute certainty what this passage means. While we have may all have opinions, I don’t think that many mainstream Christians would build an entire theological system on it – as the LdS Church has – or die for their interpretation of it. I know I wouldn’t.

Frankly, a tight, precise interpretation of this vague, enigmatic, and unusual passage is just not that important since no essential doctrine of the faith is impacted by it or derived from it. As the saying goes: The main things are the plain things – and this thing just ain’t plain!

That said, here is a compilation of a number of perspectives that Evangelicals may want to consider in responding to Mormons on the Internet and elsewhere when they bring up 1 Peter 3:18-20.

"The Harrowing of Hell" National Gallery, Washington D.C.

Benvenuto di Giovanni, “Harrowing of Hell” (1490) oil on canvas (National Gallery, Washington D.C.)

“I understand, then, the “proclamation” [to the spirits in prison] to be in the resurrection/ascension itself. It is precisely this which announced to the demons that their world had been ravaged and that Christ is Lord and that they are subject to Him. I think this gives due consideration to all the details of the text and allows the simplest understanding of the words. The “harrowing of hell” idea and the idea of “Christ preaching through Noah” are ideas that must be imported into this text; they do not come out of it.

One Final Contextual Note
So how does all this fit in context? Peter has been dealing with the sufferings of Christians at the hands of the world. He no doubt sees behind it all the activities of Satanic forces. But not to worry — Christ also suffered at their hands and as our example. Moreover, He has invaded their very own realm and has emerged triumphant over them. Even they are subject to Him. Peter wants to assure “you”10 that your enemy will not survive forever; he is a defeated foe.”
(Fred Zaspel, “Christ’s Message to the Spirits in Prison: An Analysis of 1 Peter 3:18-19”)

3:19 preached. Between Christ’s death and resurrection, His living spirit went to the demon spirits bound in the abyss and proclaimed that, in spite of His death, He had triumphed over them (see notes on Col. 2:14, 15). spirits in prison. This refers to fallen angels (demons), who were permanently bound because of heinous wickedness. The demons who are not so bound resist such a sentence (cf. Luke 8: 31). In the end, they will all be sent to the eternal lake of fire (Matt. 25: 41; Rev. 20: 10).”
(John MacArthur, “NKJV, The MacArthur Study Bible, eBook: Revised and Updated Edition” (Kindle Location 203794). Thomas Nelson. Kindle Edition)

3:19 Proclamation to the imprisoned spirits. Who or what were these “spirits,” and where were they “imprisoned”? There is an important connection with Peter’s words and the noncanonical book of Enoch, which elaborates on the story of Ge 6:1–4, claiming that fallen angels were imprisoned in a terrible place of darkness (1 Enoch 10:4–6; 21:10; see note on Ge 6:4). 4 It’s possible Peter had in mind nonhuman spirits or angels, much like the book of Enoch (compare 2Pe 2:4; Jude 6). It is not clear, however, where the spirits were imprisoned. The author may have had in mind what we would consider “hell,” or he may have been indicating a place to await judgment, much like the book of Revelation suggests (see Rev 20:1– 2). Many of the church fathers, however, understood that Christ descended into hell, which eventually became the dominant view as stated in the Nicene Creed.
(“NIV First-Century Study Bible: Explore Scripture in Its Jewish and Early Christian Context” (Kindle Locations 107406-107416). Zondervan. Kindle Edition)

Andrea Da Firenze, “Descent into Hell” (1366-67), Fresco (Cappellone degli Spagnoli, Santa Maria Novella, Florence)

3:19 he went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits. The three most common views on this passage are: (1) Between Jesus’ death and resurrection, he preached to the dead in Hades, the realm of the dead (the view of many church fathers, citing 4:6). Greeks had myths about heroes such as Heracles or Orpheus descending temporarily to Hades. (2) Christ preached through Noah to people in Noah’s day (the view of many Reformers). (3) Before or (more likely) after his resurrection, Jesus proclaimed triumph over the fallen angels (the view of most scholars today, citing v.22) Early Christians nearly always used “spirits” for angelic or demonic spirits rather than human ones, except when explicitly stating the latter. The Spirit raised Jesus; by the Spirit (and thus, in this context, presumably after his resurrection) Jesus “made proclamation”; in v.22, his exaltation declared his triumph over fallen angels. Most ancient Jewish readers believed that Ge 6:1– 3 refers to angels who fell in Noah’s day (v. 20); after the flood, they were said to be imprisoned (so also 2Pe 2:4; Jude 6), either below the earth or in the atmosphere (cf. v.22; note on Eph 2:2). Then, according to a well-known Jewish tradition, Enoch was sent to proclaim God’s judgment to them; here Christ is the one who proclaims their demise.
(“HarperCollins Christian Publishing. NIV, Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible”, Hardcover, Red Letter Edition: Bringing to Life the Ancient World of Scripture (Kindle Locations 282228-282241). Zondervan. Kindle Edition)

3:19 The familiar Apostles’ Creed affirmation that Jesus descended into hell is based chiefly on two references from 1 Peter, one of which (3:19) is more direct than the other (4:6), supported by implications to be taken from two other New Testament verses (Ac 2:27; Ro 10:7). The term is in harmony also with the language of Paul, where he spoke of Christ’s descending “to the lower, earthly regions” (Eph 4:9), and with John’s mention of “the First and the Last,” who holds “the keys of death and Hades” (Rev 1:17–18). The lowest regions were recognized as the habitation of the disembodied spirits of the dead, but 1 Peter 4:6 may instead refer to fallen angels (cf. Jude 6).)
(Kaiser Jr., Walter C.; Garrett, Duane, “NIV, Archaeological Study Bible, eBook: An Illustrated Walk Through Biblical History and Culture”, (Kindle Locations 156585-156593). Zondervan. Kindle Edition)

3:19–20a Three main interpretations of this passage have been suggested: (1) Some hold that in his preincarnate state Christ went and preached through Noah to the wicked generation of that time. (2) Others argue that between his death and resurrection Christ went to the prison where fallen angels are incarcerated and there preached to the angels who are said to have left their proper state and married human women during Noah’s time (cf. Ge 6:1–4; 2Pe 2:4; Jude 6). The “sons of God” in Ge 6:2,4 are said to have been angels, as they are in Job 1:6; 2:1 (see NIV text notes there). The message he preached to these evil angels was probably a declaration of victory. (3) Still others say that between death and resurrection Christ went to the place of the dead and preached to the spirits of Noah’s wicked contemporaries. What he proclaimed may have been the gospel, or it may have been a declaration of victory for Christ and doom for his hearers. The weakness of the first view is that it does not relate the event to Christ’s death and resurrection, as the context seems to do. The main problem with the second view is that it assumes sexual relations between angels and women, and such physical relations may not be possible for angels since they are spirits (see note on Ge 6:2). A major difficulty with the third view is that the term “spirits” is only used of human beings when qualifying terms are added. Otherwise the term seems restricted to supernatural beings.
Perhaps a more satisfactory view would be to translate v. 19: “And in that [resurrection] state, by means of (his) ascension [see v.22, where the same Greek verb form is used of Christ’s ascension] he made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits.” The latter phrase most likely refers to the disobedient spirits (“ angels, authorities and powers,” v.22). Thus Christ’s ascension “into heaven” (v.22) was itself a victory proclamation to them (cf. Eph 3:10 and note).
(“Zondervan. NIV Study Bible”, eBook (Kindle Location 303325-303345). Zondervan. Kindle Edition)

Fresco of Christ’s descent into hell in an Eastern Orthodox Church. (painter and location unknown)

3:19,20 There are various interpretations of the meaning of these verses, primarily because of the ambiguity of the phrase spirits in prison. The Greek term translated spirits can refer to human spirits, angels, or demons. There are three main interpretations: (1) Some interpret these verses as describing Jesus as going to the place where fallen angels are incarcerated and declaring His final victory over evil in His work on the Cross. These commentators suggest that Peter is referring to the days of Noah because these fallen angels were typified by the gross immorality of those “spirits” who married human women at that time (see Gen. 6:1– 4; 2 Pet. 2:4; Jude 1:6). Depending on the commentator, this proclamation is assigned to the time between Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection, or to a time after Christ’s ascension to heaven. (2) Others hold that spirits refers to human spirits. Thus Christ preached to human beings who had died in Noah’s day and were in the realm of the dead (hell or Hades). Although some have insisted that Christ’s preaching included an offer of salvation to these people, this is at best unlikely and at worst misleading, for Scripture never concedes a “second chance” for sinners after death. The content of Christ’s preaching was most likely a proclamation of His victory over sin. (3) Finally, another major interpretation understands this passage as describing Christ preaching through Noah to the unbelievers of his day. Since they rejected Noah’s message of salvation, they were presently in prison— that is, hell.
(Nelson, Thomas, “NKJV Study Bible, eBook: Full-Color Edition” (Kindle Locations 279460-279464). Thomas Nelson. Kindle Edition)

3:19–20 spirits in prison. The Greek term translated spirits can refer to human spirits, angels, or demons. There are three main interpretations: (1) Some interpret these verses as describing Jesus as going to the place where fallen angels are incarcerated and declaring His final victory over evil in His work on the cross; (2) others hold that spirits refers to human spirits; thus Christ preached to human beings who had died in Noah’s day and were in the realm of the dead (hell or hades); and (3) another major interpretation understands this passage as describing Christ preaching through Noah to the unbelievers of his day.
(Nelson, Thomas, “KJV, Foundation Study Bible”, eBook (p. 1338). Thomas Nelson. Kindle Edition)

And preached to the spirits in prison. The meaning of this preaching and the spirits to whom he preached are much debated. It is commonly understood to be: (1) Christ’s announcement of his victory over evil to the fallen angels who await judgment for their role in leading the Noahic generation into sin; this proclamation occurred sometime between Christ’s death and ascension; or (2) Christ’s preaching of repentance through Noah to the unrighteous humans, now dead and confined in hell, who lived in the days of Noah. The latter is preferred because of the temporal indications in v. 20a and the wider argument of the book. These verses encourage Christians to stand for righteousness and try to influence their contemporaries for the gospel in spite of the suffering that may come to them. All who identify with them and their Savior will be saved from the coming judgment, just as in Noah’s day.

tn after they were disobedient long ago. This reflects a Greek participle, literally “having been disobedient formerly,” that refers to the “spirits” in v. 19. Many translations take this as adjectival describing the spirits (“ who had once been disobedient”; cf. NASB, NIV, NKJV, NLT, NRSV, TEV), but the grammatical construction strongly favors an adverbial interpretation describing the time of the preaching, as reflected above.”
(Biblical Studies Press, “NET Bible First Edition (with notes)”, (Kindle Locations 202282-202291). Biblical Studies Press. Kindle Edition)

3:18–20 As Noah preached righteousness, suffered unjustly, and rescued those who were with him, so also does Christ. Christ descended to those in darkness and death that light might shine on them and He might deliver them from death. As Christ fearlessly faced His tormentors, death, and hell, so we through Him can confidently face mockers and tormentors— and, yes, bring His light to them.
(Nelson, Thomas, “NKJV, The Orthodox Study Bible, eBook: Ancient Christianity Speaks to Today’s World”, (Kindle Locations 103704-103707). Thomas Nelson. Kindle Edition)

Maestro dell’ Osservanza, “The Harrowing” (c. 1445) Painting (Fogg Museum, Cambridge, Massachusetts)

3:19 Verses 19, 20 constitute one of the most puzzling and intriguing texts in the NT. It has been made the pretext for such unbiblical doctrines as purgatory on the one hand and universal salvation on the other. However, among evangelical Christians, there are two commonly accepted interpretations.

According to the first, Christ went to Hades in spirit between His death and resurrection, and proclaimed the triumph of His mighty work on the cross. There is disagreement among proponents of this view as to whether the spirits in prison were believers, unbelievers, or both. But there is fairly general agreement that the Lord Jesus did not preach the gospel to them. That would involve the doctrine of a second chance which is nowhere taught in the Bible. Those who hold this view often link this passage with Ephesians 4:9 where the Lord is described as descending “into the lower parts of the earth.” They cite this as added proof that He went to Hades in the disembodied state and heralded His victory at Calvary. They also cite the words of the Apostles’ Creed—“ descended into hell.”

The second interpretation is that Peter is describing what happened in the days of Noah. It was the spirit of Christ who preached through Noah to the unbelieving generation before the flood. They were not disembodied spirits at that time, but living men and women who rejected the warnings of Noah and were destroyed by the flood. So now they are spirits in the prison of Hades.

This second view best fits the context and has the least difficulties connected with it. Let us examine the passage phrase by phrase.

By whom also He went and preached to the spirits in prison. The relative pronoun whom obviously refers back to Spirit at the end of verse 18. We understand this to mean the Holy Spirit. In 1:11 of this Letter the “Spirit of Christ,” that is, the Holy Spirit, is described as speaking through the prophets of the OT. And in Genesis 6:3, God speaks of His Spirit, that is, the Holy Spirit, as nearing the limit of endurance with the antediluvians.

He went and preached. As already mentioned, it was Christ who preached, but he preached through Noah. In 2 Peter 2:5, Noah is described as a “preacher of righteousness.” It is the same root word used here of Christ’s preaching.

To the spirits now in prison. These were the people to whom Noah preached— living men and women who heard the warning of an impending flood and the promise of salvation in the ark. They rejected the message and were drowned in the deluge. They are now disembodied spirits in prison, awaiting the final judgment.

So the verse may be amplified as follows: by whom (the Holy Spirit) He (Christ) went and preached (through Noah) to the spirits now in prison (Hades).” But what right do we have to assume that the spirits in prison were the living men in Noah’s day? The answer is found in the following verse.

3:20 Here the spirits in prison are unmistakably identified. Who were they? Those who formerly were disobedient. When were they disobedient? When once the Divine longsuffering waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared.  What was the final outcome? Only a few, that is, eight souls, were saved through water. It is well to pause here and remind ourselves of the general flow of thought in this Letter which was written against a general background of persecution. The Christians to whom Peter wrote were suffering because of their life and testimony. Perhaps they wondered why, if the Christian faith was right, they should be suffering rather than reigning. If Christianity was the true faith, why were there so few Christians? To answer the first question, Peter points to the Lord Jesus. Christ suffered for righteousness’ sake, even to the extent of being put to death. But God raised Him from the dead and glorified Him in heaven (see v. 22). The pathway to glory led through the valley of suffering.

Next Peter refers to Noah. For 120 years this faithful preacher warned that God was going to destroy the world with water. His thanks was scorn and rejection. But God vindicated him by saving him and his family through the flood. Then there is the problem, “If we are right, why are there so few of us?” Peter answers: “There was a time when only eight people in the world were right and all the rest were wrong!” Characteristically in the world’s history the majority has not been right. True believers are usually a small remnant, so one’s faith should not falter because of the small number of the saved. There were only eight believers in Noah’s day; there are millions today.

At the end of verse 20, we read that a few, that is, eight souls, were saved through water. It is not that they were saved by water; they were saved through the water. Water was not the savior, but the judgment through which God brought them safely.

To properly understand this statement and the verse that follows, we must see the typical meaning of the ark and of the flood. The ark is a picture of the Lord Jesus Christ. The flood of water depicts the judgment of God. The ark was the only way of salvation. When the flood came, only those who were inside were saved; all those on the outside perished. So Christ is the only way of salvation; those who are in Christ are as saved as God Himself can make them. Those on the outside could not be more lost.

The water was not the means of salvation, for all who were in the water drowned. The ark was the place of refuge. The ark went through the water of judgment; it took the full brunt of the storm. Not a drop of water reached those inside the ark. So Christ bore the fury of God’s judgment against our sins. For those who are in Him there is no judgment (John 5:24). The ark had water beneath it, and water coming down on top of it, and water all around it. But it bore its believing occupants through the water to safety in a renewed creation. So those who trust the Savior are brought safely through a scene of death and desolation to resurrection ground and a new life.
(MacDonald, William. “Believer’s Bible Commentary” (p. 2258-2259). Thomas Nelson. Kindle Edition)

Christians are to live their lives according to the shape of Jesus’ own passion, resurrection, and ascension. It is not only that Christ’s sacrificial acts are worthy of imitation but also that these acts are atoning. “For Christ also suffered … in order to bring you to God” (3:18).

There follows a description of the passion and resurrection of Christ that has puzzled Christian commentators through the ages. The first part is clear enough. Jesus was “put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit” (3:19). The claim is not strikingly different from that in Rom. 1:3–4. Peter is not arguing that only Jesus’ spirit was made alive, but that he was made alive in the power of the Spirit.

Now comes the particularly puzzling description of what the living Jesus did after his resurrection: “he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison” (v. 19). The connection of these spirits with the flood (Genesis 6–9) suggests one of two possibilities. Perhaps these spirits are those of the disobedient people who perished in the flood. Or perhaps these spirits are the offspring of the “sons of God” and mortal women described in the puzzling passage Gen. 6:1–4. William Joseph Dalton argues persuasively that this passage fits with other first-century texts that speculate on the fate of these human/divine offspring. He further suggests that when the risen Christ preaches to these spirits, they are imprisoned in a kind of holding place located between earth and the upper heaven, where God the Father dwells. Jesus preaches to the spirits as part of his ascent.

The author now uses the reference to the ark and the flood to remind the readers of their own baptism. The flood prefigures baptism, but of course only in a kind of striking reversal. Noah and his family were actually saved from water; Christians are saved through water.
(Gale A. Yee (Author), Matthew J. M. Coomber (Editor), Margaret Aymer (Editor), Jr. Page, Hugh R. (Editor), et. al, “Fortress Commentary on the Bible: Two Volume Set”, Kindle positions 56143 -56152, Fortress Press. Kindle Edition)

Jacopo Tintoretto (Robusti), “The Descent into Hell”, (1568) oil on canvas