Two of the most difficult verses to interpret in all of the Bible are 1 Peter 3:19-20 (which makes his statement about Paul’s letters containing some things that are hard to understand, a bit of humorous irony, cf 2 Peter 3:16). It is Peter’s “spirits in prison” that have caused much grappling and wrestling.
“in which he [Christ] went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, because they formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water.”
When reading this text, one immediately asks, “Who are these spirits in prison?” “What does this mean?” “Where did Jesus go?” The problem with these questions of inquiry taking center stage is that they do not possess center stage in Peter’s thought. These two intriguing verses are actually supportive of Peter’s main theme. They are an illustration, an example; they are not his main point. Therefore, if we get caught up in simply trying to arrive at the best interpretation of these verses without then seeking to understand how they fit into the larger context, we miss the theological point! From Peter’s perspective, he’s not overly concerned that we properly identify the “spirits in prison.” His concern is that when believers suffer for doing good, they continue to believe, do good, and hope!
As I shared this past Sunday with our congregation, I’ll briefly describe 5 interpretational options below. I will give a short reply on why I am not convinced by the first four and several reasons why I am convinced by the fifth option. More importantly, I will then seek to demonstrate how the illustration of vv19-20 fits into the larger context of encouraging believers.
Four Views* and My Disagreement.
Between his death and resurrection, Jesus descended into sheol to preach the gospel to either fallen angels or to the antediluvians, offering a second opportunity for salvation. (Heb 9:27, along with other passages, clearly refute second chance salvation. “It is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment.” cf. Luke 16)
Between his death and resurrection, Jesus descended into sheol to announce judgment upon the antediluvians. (see disagreement with #3)
Between his death and resurrection, Jesus descended into tartarus (2 Peter 2:4) to announce judgment upon fallen angels. (It seems the judgment upon either fallen angels or the antediluvians would be self-evident, since the text itself describes their holding place as a prison. What about Genesis 6 or similar passages in 1 Enoch? I believe there is a clearer way to interpret difficult passages rather than relying on equally difficult passages of Scripture or even non-canonical, that is, uninspired texts.)
Between his death and resurrection, Jesus descended not into a place in sheol called paradise, where the OT saints awaited the death of Christ. Jesus, then, led them to heaven. (The text in 1 Pet refers to Noah’s day, not all of the OT, and paradise seems better understood as heaven itself.)
The View I Currently Hold and 6 Reasons Why.
The verse is not describing a descent into sheol or tartarus at all, but rather referring to Christ’s preaching by means of the Spirit through Noah to the people of Noah’s day.
I take “spirit” in v18 to be “Spirit” signifying the Trinitarian roles in the resurrection of Christ and then leading into v19, describing the role of the Spirit in the preaching of God’s revelation.
The first word in v20 is better translated as “at which time” or “when.” It is not the same word found at the beginning of v18, which is the Greek word translated as “for” or “because.” If taken to mean “at which time,” then Peter is clearly making a time differentiation between the spirits in prison and when Jesus went and proclaimed to them. Jesus’ proclamation then took place when they were disobeying, not while they were being judged for their disobedience in prison.
The contrast seems to be between those people who disobeyed and those who obeyed, not between disobedient spirits and obedient people.
In 2 Pet 2:5 Noah is called a herald of righteousness, a preacher.
1 Peter 1:12 points to the Spirit’s role in Gospel proclamation.
2 Cor 5:20 attributes the act of preaching to God, making the human speaker the mere vessel or mouthpiece. “Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making His appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.”
No doubt, there are weaknesses with this interpretation as with the previous four. Therefore, we’re not dogmatic about the “spirits in prison.” In fact, we’re more concerned with how this relates to the suffering of believers. In vv18-22, Peter is explaining why it is BETTER for believers to suffer for doing good rather than for doing evil (v17). By “better” I believe he means more than being able to lay your head on your pillow at night knowing you did the right thing and not the wrong thing. That’s great, but it’s not much comfort in the middle of harsh suffering. Why is it “better” to suffer for doing good? In part, Peter says, “Just look at what Christ did in, through, and for Noah.”
Wickedness was rampant in Noah’s day and it lasted a good while. The same could be said for Peter’s recipients and for believers of today throughout the world.
Believers were few in Noah’s day. The same was true in Peter’s day and in every age. Worldwide, believers are a minority.
Even though wickedness was rampant and extended and believers were few, it was better, immeasurably better, to be a believer and endure the suffering of living in a world of wickedness because the believers were saved! Hallelujah, the same was true for Peter’s first audience and for every believer. It’s not easy to suffer for doing good, but it is BETTER!
Dear suffering believer, keep believing, keep hoping, and keep doing good, even to your enemies, even when they harm you! You are in Christ, through Him and because of Him, it is better to suffer like Him knowing one day you will be with Him!
*(In a recent article posted on credomag.com, Fred Zaspel argues that Jesus' resurrection was Jesus' proclamation to the spirits in prison, that is, the fallen angels. It seems to me the use of kerusso points to a literal proclamation rather than to an event like the resurrection.)