| "For Christ also died
for sins once for all, 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 preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly
did not obey, when God's patience waited in the days of Noah, during the
building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved
through water." (1 Peter 3:18-20, RSV)*
This is one of the difficult
passages in the New Testament. What did Peter mean when he wrote that Jesus
"being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit; in which
he went and preached to the spirits in prison"? The phrase, "in the
spirit," may also be translated "by the spirit." The Revised Standard Version
choice of "in the Spirit" is justified by its contrast to "in the flesh.:
We see this obvious contrast also in 1 Peter 4:6. Yet, however we translate
it, this text is not as clear as we might wish. It does plainly say that
Christ was put to death "in the flesh" and raised to life in or by "the
spirit" and that, in this "spirit" condition (or through the Holy Spirit)
He preached to those who disobeyed before the flood.
To understand what
the passage says and doesn't say about the status of the unrepentant dead,
we need to clarify whether Christ's preaching was before the flood (at
the time of the disobedience) or while His body was in the tomb. By itself,
the passage may be read either way. If the preaching was before the flood,
we could see that our Lord simply slept in death while in the tomb. If
He preached while His body was in the tomb, we could conclude that people
who died in the flood were, in some way, still living in "hell" to hear
the message. To answer, we will:
1. Look at the meaning
of being in the flesh and in the spirit.
2. From Genesis, learn
about Christ's ministry before the flood.
3. Consider the situation
of the "spirits" for the time Christ's body was in the tomb.
Jesus in the flesh or in the spirit
Our Lord was put to
death "in the flesh." This was the nature He had taken when He came as
a baby in Bethlehem (Heb. 10:5).
Thus from that time onward He was "in the flesh." Our passage says He preached
in the spirit just as He was raised in the spirit. Does His preaching in
the Spirit mean He did not have a tangible body? Let's consider His body
after the resurrection:
As they [the disciples
and others] were saying this, Jesus himself stood among them. But they
were startled and frightened, and supposed that they saw a spirit. And
he said o them, 'Why are you troubled, and why do questionings rise in
your hearts? See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself; handle me,
and see; for a spirit has not flesh and bones as you see that I have.'
And while they still disbelieved for joy, and wondered, he said to them,
'have you anything here to eat?' They gave him a piece of broiled fish,
and he took it and ate before them" (Luke
24:36-43; compare John
So although continuing
to be "in the spirit" He was not "a spirit" separate from a material body
(compare Mark 6:47-50).
This means that He did not leave His body lying in the tomb to go elsewhere
to preach as a spirit. In fact, just before dying on the cross He had said,
"Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit!" (Luke
So what does
being "in the spirit" mean? Pneuma, the Greek word for "spirit,"
has a variety of meanings. The correct one, in each case, must be determined
from the context. We know that after the time of Christ's ministry on earth,
He sent the Holy Spirit (John
16:7) who worked with Him in a special way. "When the Spirit of truth
comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his
own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare
to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take
what is mine and declare it to you. (John
As I see it, "in the
spirit" here is Christ's way of working with the Holy Spirit who is the
agency of direct influence on humans. Before Jesus returned to heaven,
He promised to send the Holy spirit as "another Counselor" or helper-companion
The adjective, "another," indicates that, while on earth, He Himself had
been the comforter. His time of the flesh began when He was born to Mary.
According to Peter's statement, it continued to the time of His resurrection
"in the spirit."
2. A time of preaching in Noah's
Does the Genesis account
of the Flood show a time of preaching which Peter may have been writing
"Then the LORD said,
'My spirit shall not abide in man for ever, for he is flesh, but his days
shall be a hundred and twenty years.' . . . And the LORD was sorry that
he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart." (Gen.
Was this "spirit of
the Lord," Christ in the spirit? We need to be careful not to go beyond
what God has revealed especially in speculating about the nature of Christ.
We do know that Christ existed before His incarnation. He was the I AM
of the Exodus (Ex. 3:15;
cf. John 8:58). Also He
was with the Father at the time of creation (John
1:1). We know that the Holy Spirit speaks only the words which Christ
gives Him, so the Spirit striving before the flood would likely have involved
both the Son and the Holy Spirit. When Peter said that Christ preached
in the spirit before the flood, he may well have had in mind the text we
just read, about the Lord's spirit striving with man, giving His appeal
through Noah (2 Pet. 2:3).
Another element of
our passage indicates that Christ's preaching could not have been while
He was in the tomb. The text says "For Christ also died for sins once for
all, 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 preached to the spirits in prison." He died one way and was
raised another — two events, two conditions. If He had already been "in
the spirit" during His death, Peter would not have described him as having
been raised that way in contrast to how He died. In other words, seeing
Christ "in the spirit" on the day before His resurrection violates the
natural reading f the text.
Incidentally, the Greek
word for "preach" is kerusso, which is commonly used for Christ's
preaching to people on earth as He appealed to their hearts (for example,
The "spirits" to whom Christ preached.
Let's consider the
"spirits" to whom Christ preached. Does their situation while He was in
the tomb help us understand when the preaching may have occurred?
First of all, let's
find out who the "spirits" are. Then we will see whether their condition
would fit the picture of being preached to. Christians usually think of
them as disembodied individuals or angels Heb.
1:13, 14) but we have a better option. The Greek word is the plural
of pneuma which has many meanings, as does the English word "spirit."
One meaning of "spirit" is the spiritual, caring, or deciding aspect of
a person which we often describe as their "heart." Thus we have such usages
of the word as "Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation;
the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak." (Matt.
26:41; cf. 7:21;
Cor. 16:17, 18).
Look at both definitions
of "spirit" in our passage. Christ, "in the spirit" (before His sojourn
on earth, in the flesh) pleaded, though Noah, with the hearts of the people
(their "spirits"). Tragically all except eight refused to follow conviction
In what sense were
the disobedient spirits "in prison" before the flood? By personal choice,
the people refused the appeal of heaven. Thus their hearts of "spirits"
were set against the invitation which would have freed them from the bondage
of sin (Isa. 42:7; 61:1).
We asked, Does their
situation while Christ was in the tomb help us understand when the preaching
may have occurred? We have seen how real people heard the preaching of
Christ before the flood. Nearly all rejected the call of salvation. Next
we ask, would they — their spirits — have been in a position to accept
the call when Christ was in the tomb? The answer is No for several reasons.
What do people do after
they die? "And just as it is appointed for men to die once, and after that
comes judgment" (Heb. 7:27). The
Bible does not teach a time of purgatory or limbo between death and the
judgment. Reading our passage to say that Christ preached to conscious
spirits implies that they could have made a decision to respond. Other
Christians who read it this way fail to realize this implication.
Giving the spirits
of the flood victims an opportunity to repent between the times of the
crucifixion and the resurrection, would have been unfair. All who died
in sin before the call of Noah and after it would have been excluded from
this opportunity. Peter, the author of our passage, learned, in the case
of the Gentile Roman officer, that God has no favorites (Acts
Also could the dead
ones have made a decision to accept the gospel? Note the following Scriptures:
"Whatever your hand
finds to do, do it with your might; for there is no work or thought or
knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going. (Eccl.
"Turn, O LORD, save
my life; deliver me for the sake of thy steadfast love. For in death there
is no remembrance of thee; in Sheol who can give thee praise?" (Ps.
"For Sheol cannot thank
thee, death cannot praise thee; those who go down to the pit cannot hope
for thy faithfulness. The living, the living, he thanks thee, as I do this
day; the father makes known to the children thy faithfulness. (Isa.
38:18). Also see Eccl.
* Except as otherwise stated, all Scripture
passages in this article are from the Revised Standard Version.
In view of the above,
the only conclusion is: Peter's passage must describe Christ's appeal to
people in the days of Noah and not a trip to hell to preach to spirits
separated from their bodies. The reasons may be summarized:
after the resurrection, when Christ was in the Spirit, He was not a spirit
that we might imagine could be separated from a body for preaching.
know Christ was active before His birth in human flesh. He was an agent
in creation and the I AM in the deliverance from Egypt. We may expect Him
to have also been involved in the divine appeal at the time of the flood.
to only the flood generation would have violated God's principle of impartiality.
unrepentant dead could not have heard or responded to an appeal because
they cannot think, remember God, or hope for truth.
Read the passage again
in its context, with the verses before and after it. Its message is a simple
one: We have hope in spite of suffering because Christ also suffered for
our salvation overcoming flesh with spirit in the resurrection. This spirit
was active in the appeals made during the time of Noah. Like the eight
saved alive through the flood waters, we may respond to the call of Christ.