Peter once of wrote of Paul’s letters: “There are some things in them that are hard to understand” (2 Pet. 3:16). We might say the same of Peter’s letters! Here’s one statement that has long perplexed readers:
For Christ also suffered once for sins, 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 he 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. (1 Pet. 3:18–20)
In verse 18, Peter is speaking of the death and resurrection of Christ. Jesus was “put to death in the flesh”—that is, he died in his humanity. And he was raised, “made alive in the spirit.” But what is “the spirit” here? Some interpreters take it to mean Jesus’s human soul. Others say it’s the location where the risen Jesus is now alive. But the pairing of Jesus’s resurrection with “the spirit” indicates that Peter is referring to the Holy Spirit (see Rom. 8:4–11). Jesus, Peter says, was raised in the power of the Spirit.
Proclaimed to the Spirits in Prison
If Peter is saying in verse 18 that Jesus was raised from the dead by the power of the Holy Spirit, then he’s saying at the beginning of verse 19 that “in [the Spirit], [Jesus] went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison.” Many interpreters have taken Peter to be saying that, either between Jesus’s death and resurrection or after it, Jesus undertook a preaching campaign.
Who are said to be the objects of Jesus’s preaching? “The spirits in prison” who “formerly did not obey.” But who are these “spirits”? According to some, they’re the souls of Old Testament believers, whom Jesus liberated from captivity and brought with him to heaven. The message that Jesus proclaims—his death and resurrection—is therefore good news to them.
Others have taken these “spirits” to be condemned souls who rejected Noah millennia earlier. For such individuals, Jesus is confirming their condemnation by proclaiming his victory over them and all his enemies in his death and resurrection. (Some interpreters have seen Jesus offering a postmortem opportunity for faith and repentance to these “spirits in prison.”)
What Did Jesus Do?
These interpretations have at least one thing in common. They see Jesus doing something—locally, if not bodily—after his death and burial but before his ascension and session in heaven. One problem with such interpretations, though, is they affirm an activity of Jesus that appears nowhere else in Scripture. We should be cautious about advancing such a claim without clearer biblical testimony.
A further problem with such interpretations stems from Peter’s description of these “spirits” as those who “formerly did not obey . . . in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared” (v. 20). Why would Jesus liberate only some Old Testament saints from captivity? (And why would Peter describe Old Testament saints in this fashion?) Or, why would Jesus proclaim condemnation to only a single generation of souls in hell, and not others? Each of these interpretations also carries its own liabilities. There is no clear testimony in Scripture that Old Testament believers, at their deaths, were confined to limbus patrum (“the limbo of the fathers”) until such time as Christ released them at his resurrection.
Jesus’s teaching in the Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man points in a contrary direction. At their deaths, the souls of Old Testament believers went immediately into the presence of God (Luke 16:22). There isn’t any clear reason why Christ would travel to hell to proclaim his victory to any condemned human soul. And there certainly is no biblical warrant for an offer of salvation to those who’ve already died. The final judgment, after all, will take into account only what one has done in this life, not anything done in the hereafter (1 Pet. 1:17; 2 Cor. 5:10; Heb. 9:27).
Still others have taken these “spirits” to be wicked angels over whom Christ triumphed at his resurrection. Jesus is said to announce his resurrection conquest over the spiritual powers and authorities, who are bound in infernal captivity. This view may involve a proclamation of victory in hell, but it need not. While it’s true that Jesus’s resurrection declared victory over his spiritual, demonic enemies (see verse 22), it’s doubtful Peter had that victory in mind in verse 19. Peter appears to understand the “spirits” of verse 19 to be human beings when he says they were disobedient “in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared” (v. 20).
There’s another way to interpret Peter’s words that avoids these difficulties and accounts for the context of these verses within Peter’s argument. The one who does the proclaiming of verse 19 is not the risen Jesus. It’s Jesus who preaches, to be sure, but he preaches in the Holy Spirit. The timing of this proclamation is not the window between the death and ascension of Jesus Christ. It’s during the lifetime of Noah.
What, then, is Peter saying? He’s saying that Noah, in the course of building the ark, bore testimony to the coming judgment of God. He was the “herald of righteousness,” as Peter says in his second letter (2 Pet. 2:5). Noah preached in the power of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit whom Peter has earlier called “the Spirit of Christ” (1 Pet. 1:10). But the men and women of Noah’s generation, notwithstanding “God’s patience” in delaying judgment, spurned that proclamation. Because of their “former” disobedience, they are presently “in prison.” That is, their souls, upon their deaths, were justly committed to hell to be punished for their sins.
Be Ready to Give an Account
These words would have brought tremendous pastoral encouragement to Peter’s first readers. Many of them were Gentiles, who’d been redeemed from worthless and wicked lives (1 Pet. 1:18, compare 4:3–4; cf. Eph. 2:12). These believers were being persecuted for their faith, a reality explicitly addressed in 1 Peter 3:8–17. Notwithstanding this persecution, they were always to be “prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Pet. 3:15–16).
How can believers do this hard work? In 1 Peter 3:18–20, Peter again points us to Christ’s death and resurrection for sinners. Believers today, like Noah of old, are called to testify to the hope of the gospel before a world that mocks and scorns us in unbelief. We do so in the power of the Holy Spirit—the Spirit of Christ at work in Noah’s proclamation ministry, and the Spirit by whom Christ was raised from the dead. Our task is not futile. The risen Jesus has won the victory (1 Pet. 3:21–22). We must neither fear nor despair (1 Pet. 3:14). Rather, we should “in [our] hearts regard Christ the Lord as holy” by telling others about him (1 Pet. 3:15).
How good to know our Savior has won the victory! Peter reminds us not to live in view of what our senses tell us, but by what we know to be true by faith. Jesus is on his throne and at work among us by his Spirit. Let us be faithful and serve him in our generation.