Christ’s Message to the Spirits in Prison: Non-Mormon Perspectives on 1 Peter 3:18-20

Posted: November 10, 2019 in Fred Anson, Mormon Studies

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

compiled by Fred W. Anson
INTRODUCTION
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)

MORMON PERSPECTIVE
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.)

CHRISTIAN PERSPECTIVES
“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)

sn
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

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