Christianity 201

November 25, 2013

Difficult Texts: Christ Proclaimed to the Spirits in Prison

NIV I Peter 3:18 For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit. 19 After being made alive, he went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits— 20 to those who were disobedient long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built. In it only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water

This article by Mike Leake appeared recently at the blog, Borrowed Light under the title, Does I Peter 3:18-20 Teach A Second Chance?  You’re encouraged to click through to read.

Martin Luther was a very confident and opinionated man. So when you read something like this it gives you pause:

“A wonderful text is this, and a more obscure passage perhaps than any other in the New Testament, so that I do not know for a certainty just what Peter means.”

The “wonderful text” that Luther referred to was 1 Peter 3:18-20. The most difficult part being verse 19, “in which [Christ] went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison”.

I had Mormons at my house the other day explaining that this verse taught that we have a second chance to receive the gospel after we are dead. They read this verse as saying that Jesus preached to spirits of men after they had died.

Is that true? If it’s not, what in the world is this verse talking about?


The first question that we need to consider is why these verses are in our Bible in the first place. Peter didn’t just throw them in there for the fun of it. They are connected to what goes before and after. The word “for” in verse 18 is instructive. It means that what Peter says in this section is a ground—a reason for doing what is in the preceding verses.

In the preceding verses Peter is encouraging suffering believers to endure. Therefore, whatever interpretation of 3:18-20 that we adopt, it must provide help to suffering saints.


There are four basic options to what this text is saying:

  1. Jesus was preaching by the Spirit through Noah to those trapped in sin during Noah’s day.
  2. Jesus went to the grave and liberated OT saints that were held in prison before his resurrection.
  3. Jesus descended into hell and preached to people, offering them the opportunity tot repent and be saved.
  4. Christ preached a message of victory and judgment upon evil angels.

The second and third options aren’t plausible because of the context. I find it difficult to see how the second view would be helpful to Christians suffering. Peter would be saying, “Persevere and continue in the faith because Jesus rescued OT saints in his resurrection.” The third is even more ridiculous. If accepted, Peter would be saying, “Persevere in suffering because you know that these unbelievers will be given a second chance to repent and believe”.

The first and fourth view would make sense of the context. The first one would be Peter saying, “Just as Noah was a minority and suffered under the hands of wicked men, but was also saved, so also you will be saved. Suffering is the way of Christ. It was true in Noah’s day and it’s true in ours. Therefore, endure.”

The fourth view would also make sense. Peter is showing how Christ has victory over evil angels. Therefore, in his victory over evil believers have hope. Knowing that the victory is won gives them hope to press on.

My Take

The context makes me lean towards the first interpretation. It’s also older, having been one proposed by Augustine. But there are some difficulties that make me wonder if the fourth option isn’t the best. One problem with the first view is that “spirits” is seldom a reference to people. Secondly, the first view doesn’t do justice to the word “went” or “has gone” (v.22) . As Schreiner notes, “God doesn’t really go anywhere if he preaches ‘through’ Noah”.

Either one of these are plausible in my opinion. At the end of the day our goal is to affirm that Jesus Christ is victorious. We also know that his victory comes through the path of suffering. Therefore, believers are to follow Christ in suffering on the road to glory. Because of the victory of Jesus we can endure, and we must!

Keep pressing on!