Preaching to the Spirits in Prison
Peter writes that Jesus “went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, because they formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah” (1 Pet 3.19-20). Last week, we considered where Jesus went to proclaim to the spirits in prison: Sheol, also called “Hades,” “death,” and “the grave.”
But what did Jesus do while He was in Sheol? What did He proclaim? As we saw last week, many of the Church Fathers believed that Jesus preached the gospel to the spirits in Sheol who had lived and died before His crucifixion, leading those who believed Him out of torment and into Paradise. The Church Fathers called this event the “Harrowing of Hell.”
This interpretation runs into difficulty when we consider the nature of Christ’s audience in Sheol: “they [the spirits to whom Christ preached] formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah.” Peter says that Christ proclaimed to rebels who lived during the time of Noah; how then are we to think that He proclaimed to everyone in Sheol?
Let us first consider who these rebels were. Peter refers to “God’s patience wait[ing] in the days of Noah.” If we go back to Gen 6.1-8, the text tells us who God was being patient with: “My Spirit shall not contend with man forever, for he is flesh,” and “the Lord regretted that he had made man on the earth” (Gen 6.3, 6). The text of Genesis clearly portrays Noah’s fellowmen as disobedient and wicked.
But Noah’s fellowmen are not the only wicked rebels that we find in Gen 6.1-8. Consider the context for Gen 6.3. In Gen 6.1-4, we read that the sons of God took wives from the daughters of men, giving birth to the Nephilim, “the mighty men who were of old, the men of renown.” These “sons of God” were angels. Peter writes in 2 Pet 2.4 of angels whom God cast in chains; he implies in 2 Pet 2.10 that their sin was “indulg[ing] in the lust of defiling passion.” Jude likewise writes of angels who abandoned their proper place to indulge in sexual immorality and pursue unnatural desire (Jude 6-7). The sons of God taking the daughters of men for wives was a sexual sin, an unnatural desire, which the angels paid for with chains.
Christ proclaimed to these wicked men and angels during His three days in Sheol. It’s worth noting that Peter specifically tells us that the angels were there in 2 Pet 2.4: “God did not spare angels when they sinned, but cast them into Tartarus.” We have noted that the New Testament uses the Greek name, Hades, when speaking of Sheol. We have also noted that Sheol was divided into a place of comfort and a place of torment (Luke 16.22-23). The Greeks called the place of comfort “Elysium” and the place of torment “Tartarus.” The disobedient angels of Gen 6.1-4 would have heard Christ’s proclamation from their torment in Tartarus.
Let us return to the question: how can one think that Christ proclaimed to everyone in Sheol if Peter specifies the disobedient of Noah’s day? Augustine considered the disobedient people of Noah’s day to be a synecdoche for all disobedient people; the rebels of the Flood represent all rebels. Peter’s argument in 2 Pet 2.4-10 compares unrighteous people to “the ancient world” which God destroyed in the Flood (2 Pet 2.5), so it is possible (though unlikely) that Peter had this same comparison in mind when he wrote 1 Pet 3.18-22.
The final question: what did Christ proclaim or preach while He was in Sheol? This is the most difficult question to answer definitively, because Peter does not tell us what Jesus proclaimed or offer us any clues other than identifying Jesus’ audience. Did He proclaim the Good News, inviting those in Tartarus to obey Him and join Him in Paradise? Did He proclaim His victory to the men and angels whose rebellion was so thorough that the Father destroyed the world?
I don’t have a hard and fast answer to those questions. The moral of the parable about the rich man and Lazarus makes me doubt that Jesus went to Sheol to invite disobedient people to believe in Him (cf. Luke 16.27-31). By and large, they had God’s witnesses among them in various forms, and they rejected God’s message (hence “they formerly did not obey”).
On the other hand, Peter writes about the spirits in prison as he is explaining Christ’s saving work, “that He might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh.” He even uses his mention of the Flood to segue into a message about baptism: “Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you.” Perhaps Peter means us to understand that Christ continued His ministry even in the grave.
As I said, I don’t have a hard and fast answer to this dilemma. This text teaches us to work for what we can know, to be modest about what we don’t know, and to be charitable with those who disagree with us on difficult issues. As the Son of God redeems us from our disobedience, may He also redeem us from our ignorance.