Preaching to the Spirits in Prison

      In last Sunday’s sermon about using our suffering as a witness to unbelievers, we stopped short of the full context, which includes 1 Pet 3.18-4.11. I stopped us short for a reason: 1 Pet 3.18-22 is among the most confounding and controversial texts in the New Testament. I will try in the space of these 900 words to clear up some of the confusion which we allow the text to cause us.

      The text reads: “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. Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him.” I have emphasized the controversial and confusing part of the text.

      The Church Fathers thought that this text describes an event commonly called “The Harrowing of Hell,” which took place between the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. The basic idea is that Christ preached the gospel to those who were in hell before His crucifixion, and He led those who believed on Him out of hell and into Paradise. The harrowing is described in the Apostles’ Creed: “He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended into hell.” Tertullian writes, “Christ descended into hell in order to acquaint the patriarchs and prophets with his redeeming mission.” Likewise Origen: “And Peter, in his general epistle, mentions Jesus’ descent into hell.” Cyril of Alexandria: “Going in his soul, he preached to those who were in hell, appearing to them as one soul to other souls.” Augustine: “In hell Christ rebuked the wicked and consoled the good, so that some believed to their salvation and others disbelieved to their damnation.”

      The idea of Jesus spending three days in the condemnation of hell gives us fits, likewise the idea of people receiving a “second chance” through Christ’s preaching to them in hell. As we consider these things, Augustine and Tertullian’s descriptions of the harrowing should give us pause. What are the good doing in hell? What are the patriarchs and prophets doing there?

      This difficulty stems from a common misunderstanding about the afterlife. In our May “Question and Answer” period, someone asked about what happens to the soul after one dies. We looked at the Old Testament’s teaching that everyone, good or evil, goes to the grave, which the Hebrews called “Sheol.” Jesus taught that Sheol, called “Hades” in Greek, is divided between a place of rest and a place of torment (Luke 16.19-31). Every man goes to Sheol when he dies.

      The Old English equivalent to Sheol and Hades was “hel,” from which we get our modern “hell.” The problem is that we do not mean Sheol or Hades when we use the word “hell.” We now take “hell” to mean what is called “Gehenna” or “the lake of fire” in Scripture. Sheol and Gehenna are two different things, which is why we read of Sheol being thrown into Gehenna: “Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire” (Rev 20.14).

      The translations of the Church Fathers which I used earlier all use the English word “hell,” but it would be more appropriate to have translated those passages with “Hades.” Indeed, many early versions of the Apostles’ Creed read “He descended to the dead [i.e., to Sheol]” in place of “He descended into hell.” Understood this way, the Church Fathers were not saying that Jesus descended to the lake of fire but to the place where the dead await the Resurrection (Sheol), which explains why Augustine and Tertullian describe the patriarchs, prophets, and other good people of old being there—because Jesus Himself says that the patriarch Abraham and the good man Lazarus are there (Luke 16.22-23).

      But was Jesus there between His crucifixion and resurrection? Is that what Peter means in 1 Peter 3? Let us allow Peter to explain Peter. Peter preached at Pentecost, “[David] foresaw and spoke about the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh see corruption. This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses” (Acts. 2.31–32, emphasis mine). In other words, God raised Jesus out of Sheol on the third day, which is what we mean when we talk about the resurrection of Jesus.

      But what was He doing there? What message did He preach? Those questions require a separate article, which I intend to publish next week. For now, it will suffice to say that Jesus was fully human—including where He went when He died.