Wednesday, February 06, 2019

Spirits in Prison

Yesterday I pointed out that the apostles use the word “gospel” in slightly different ways at different times, emphasizing certain aspects of what we might consider an acceptable presentation of the good news and omitting others entirely.

Never is this more evident that in the third of Peter’s four references to the gospel found in his first epistle. His use of the word, and the context around it, open up what may be described as a theological can of worms.

Or perhaps later commentators on 1 Peter opened that can all by themselves.

The Old, Old Story

To set the stage then, in 1 Peter 4:5-6 the apostle tells his readers that because the Gentiles will give an account, God made sure that “the gospel was preached even to those who are dead, that though judged in the flesh the way people are, they might live in the spirit the way God does.”

This use of “gospel” in this context presents a difficulty for Christians with a very constrained idea of what the word “gospel” means, since, properly understood, this good news to which Peter refers cannot have contained much more specific information than something like “judgment is coming, and God has a way out for you.”

This comes in the immediate context of one of the more controversial statements Peter makes about the Lord, and it is near-impossible to imagine he is talking about something different in 4:6 than in 3:18-20, which sets up the revelation that “the gospel was preached even to those who are dead.”

The Days of Noah

That earlier, even more difficult passage is this:
“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.”
Here we are told that in the spirit, Christ made some sort of proclamation to men and women who are now dead, but lived during the years preceding the great Genesis flood.


Not only does Peter’s statement pose a great difficulty for an increasing number of modernist Christians who maintain Noah’s flood is mythologically and spiritually resonant but not factually true, it has also given rise to the questionable notion that Jesus went to hell when he died, an idea that even made its way into the Apostles’ Creed.

But is this a necessary conclusion from 1 Peter? I do not believe so at all.

When and How

To be clear: there is no debate that Peter teaches that the Lord Jesus indeed preached to men and women whose spirits are currently in prison. There is also no question that the Lord was in the grave for parts of three days and nights, a truth that explains references to sheol in the Old Testament, the equivalent of hades in the New.

So the question is not whether the Lord preached the gospel to spirits in prison: the question is when and how he did so.

There are two possibilities: (1) that he preached to them when they were dead and imprisoned in hades, while he himself was in the grave; and (2) that he preached to them while they were still alive.

The latter option is preferable for several reasons, not least that it is very hard to imagine why the Lord would share the good news with dead men and women who could not possibly benefit from it. Was he taunting them? Rubbing their noses in their eternal torment seems awfully out of character for someone who had only just cried out “Father, forgive them” on behalf of the very people who crucified him. “Look, I’ve just made a way of escape for the world, and dealt with the sin question … for everybody but you.” Does this seem like something we can picture the Lord Jesus saying?

The Purpose of Preaching the Gospel to “Those Who Are Dead”

But we don’t have to speculate about the purpose of preaching to “those who are dead”. Peter tells us right in this very passage:
“… but they will give account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead. For this is why the gospel was preached even to those who are dead, that ... they might live in the spirit the way God does.”
So the primary purpose of preaching to “those who are dead”, Peter says, was to give them opportunity to repent: “that they might live in the spirit.”

But the Bible nowhere teaches there is a second opportunity for repentance and belief after death. The story of the rich man and Lazarus, told by the Lord Jesus himself, does not hold out the hope of even the slightest relief from torment in hades, let alone the chance for repentance and forgiveness. There is no good reason to introduce that idea here, when there is another perfectly plausible interpretation that is more consistent with both the immediate context and the overall teaching of scripture about judgment.

That is this: that the Lord Jesus preached to those who are now dead while they were still alive and still had opportunity to repent.

The Evidence at Hand

Is this consistent with other things Peter says here and with the teaching of the word of God generally? Certainly.
  1. Peter tells us Christ proclaimed “in the spirit”. While the conversation Abraham had with the rich man across the “great chasm” of Luke 16 shows the Lord could indeed have proclaimed the gospel to those in hades from paradise during his time in the grave, Peter begins this very letter by informing us that the Old Testament prophets predicted the future by means of “the spirit of Christ in them”. The spirit of Christ was working through his prophets both before and after the Flood. That is not a theological stretch. It is precisely what Peter says: Christ preached the gospel in the Old Testament.
  2. Peter tells us Noah was a “herald of righteousness”. This is the exact same word Paul uses to describe his appointment by God as a “preacher and an apostle”, and may imply that Noah had a verbal testimony to the world about coming judgment as well as providing a visual testimony about how to find a way out of it. In any case, Hebrews says that in constructing the ark, Noah “condemned the world”. His testimony to the wicked people around him was as powerful as any prophet. To conclude the spirit of Christ spoke to the world through Noah while there was still opportunity for some around him to repent seems perfectly reasonable.
  3. Peter says there was a genuine offer of salvation through Noah. “God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared,” not just before. In other words, the ark was constructed not merely for Noah’s salvation, but for that of any who would believe his testimony. God still waited patiently, giving opportunity to the world for repentance and belief.
In Summary

Taken together, it seems to me the most reasonable and consistent interpretation of Peter’s teaching in this passage is that the gospel was preached by the spirit of Jesus Christ through Noah to men and women who are now “spirits in prison” awaiting final judgment while they were still alive, in order to give them opportunity to repent and seek a way out of judgment, and that the spirit of Christ engaged in a similar ministry throughout the entire Old Testament period through God’s prophets and heralds.

Now, how’s that for expanding your definition of the word “gospel”?

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