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Where was Jesus between His death and resurrection? The answer seems plain. Between His death and resurrection, the body of Jesus was in the tomb, whereas His soul or spirit was in heaven. Jesus, after all, did tell the thief on the cross that he would be with the Lord in heaven that very day (Luke 23:39–43). Yet not all Christians have held this position, believing instead that Jesus spent time in hell, or at least in a place where righteous old covenant saints were dwelling, between His death and resurrection. Adherents of this view have appealed to 1 Peter 3:18–19 for support. Jesus, Peter says, was “put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison.” Many have taken this as a reference to Jesus’ local descent to hell to “preach” to those who died before His incarnation.

This preaching, it is thought, had one of two purposes: to give a second chance to those in hell or to declare Jesus’ victory over sin and death. Both options are problematic. The idea that those in hell were afforded a second chance doesn’t accord with Scripture’s teaching that death terminates the opportunity to receive the free offer of the gospel (Heb. 9:27). The idea that Jesus went to hell merely to proclaim His victory doesn’t comport with Jesus’ words on the cross, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” (Luke 23:46), which suggest that when Jesus died, His body rested in the tomb while His soul was in heaven. The related Roman Catholic idea that Jesus went to the limbus patrum (limbo of the fathers) to bring Old Testament believers to heaven contradicts the Bible’s teaching that saints go immediately to heaven, not to a waiting room.

These views raise an important interpretive point, which is helpfully articulated in the Westminster Confession of Faith:

The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself: and therefore, when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture (which is not manifold, but one), it must be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly. (1.9)

In short, Scripture interprets Scripture. The Bible speaks with one voice and never contradicts itself, so our interpretation of a particular passage must consider the full scope of Scripture’s teaching on that subject. If our interpretation conflicts with what the Bible teaches elsewhere, then our interpretation must be incorrect or incomplete. This principle is especially important “when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture,” since “all things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all” (WCF 1.9; 1.7).

The Bible speaks with one voice and never contradicts itself, so our interpretation of a particular passage must consider the full scope of Scripture’s teaching on that subject.

Peter’s words have certainly raised questions and speculation. We know, however, that Peter can’t be teaching that Jesus went to hell to preach to its residents. What, then, does he mean? As usual with obscure passages, context matters. Peter is seeking to encourage the Christians in Asia Minor to suffer patiently with hope, for such patient and hopeful suffering is a sort of “preaching” to those who persecute them. In 1 Peter 2, he says, “Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation” (v. 12) and “For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people” (v. 15). His admonishment is strengthened by an appeal to the example of Christ, who suffered according to the flesh but was raised to newness of life by the power of the Spirit. So too Christians, by virtue of their union with the resurrected Savior, will be raised to immortality after suffering in the flesh.

With that context in mind, it is hard to see how the suffering Christians in Asia Minor would be comforted by an account of Jesus’ visiting hell and preaching to spirits there. The context seems to rule out the common interpretations of this passage. Martyn Lloyd-Jones states the problem well:

How did these verses strengthen Christian people to endure suffering? What was the use of being told that those who had died impenitent at the time of the deluge were going to have another opportunity of salvation? How did it help those suffering Christians to be told that after death there would be a second chance for the unbeliever? It is utterly irrelevant!

More relevant to Peter’s audience is the example of Noah, who lived among a hostile people, through whom Christ “proclaimed” His word, and who foresignifies what the Lord continues to do in and through the suffering of His people. In this view, the “spirits in prison” were the disobedient and hard-hearted in Noah’s day who are, as Peter writes, confined to hell.

To encourage suffering Christians, Peter holds forth the example of Christ’s patient, witness-bearing suffering. His death, according to His human nature, was followed by a resurrection by the Holy Spirit.

Some understand Peter’s words “being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit” (1 Peter 3:18) as referring to the distinction between Jesus’ body and Jesus’ soul, meaning that Jesus’ body was dead but His spirit was preserved alive. Although we know that the Son’s soul did not die (for that would be impossible), this is likely not what Peter means here. Jesus is a divine person with two natures. His death was according to His humanity, in which the whole human person, as a body-soul composite, passed through death. Peter is distinguishing between Jesus’ human nature and His divine nature (see Rom. 1:3–4). It wasn’t that Jesus’ spirit or soul was preserved from the experience of death but that the Holy Spirit brought Him back to life. This accords with other places in Scripture that indicate that the Holy Spirit raised Christ from the dead (e.g., Rom. 1:4; 8:11).

If we are united to Christ, we will also rise again from the dead by the power of the Holy Spirit.

The same Holy Spirit who raised Christ from the dead was the preaching agent of Christ to “the spirits in prison.” This raises the questions, When was this preaching, and who are the spirits in prison? There are three legitimate options. One is that Jesus preached to wicked men during His earthly ministry. The second is that Jesus proclaimed His victory to the fallen angels in His resurrection. The third option is that Christ, through the same Holy Spirit who raised Him from the dead, preached to wicked men in Noah’s day through the instrumentality of Noah (audible words) and the ark (visible words). The third view seems to best account for the mention of Noah. Louis Berkhof argues, “In the Spirit Christ preached through Noah to the disobedient that lived before the flood, who were spirits in prison when Peter wrote, and could therefore be designated as such.” Through Noah, the preincarnate Christ preached judgment to the wicked and urged repentance. Their disobedience brought about their just punishment, as demonstrated in their confinement in hell forever. John Owen concurs: “He who was in the days of the prophets of old, and in the days of Noah, so long before his being born according to the flesh . . . preached by his Spirit in the days of Noah to the Spirits that are in prison.”

The true sense of the passage, then, is remarkably comforting for God’s pilgrim people. God in His Son exhorted men to repentance through Noah, and the ministry of the ascended Lord Jesus Christ through His Spirit continues to this day. As His body, the church, bears up under the pressures of unjust persecution and suffering, preaching repentance and faith, the Spirit is warning the world of God’s impending judgment. The only prescribed means for salvation is to take refuge on God’s ark, which finds its corresponding image in baptism—the sign and seal of union with Christ, “who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him” (1 Peter 3:22). Lloyd-Jones beautifully paraphrases Peter’s meaning:

“Go back,” says Peter, “and look at that old time—what do you find? You find that Christ was then preaching to people, even as He did in the days of His flesh and as He is doing now. He used Noah to build an ark to warn the people against the deluge, and went on warning men and women for 120 years (Gen. 6:3). Christ was preaching righteousness, warning people about their fate, about the destruction that was to come and showing them that they could be faced if they but believed the word and entered into the ark. But they would not; they rejected it. Ah yes, but those who did believe—Noah and his family, just eight people—went into the ark, and because they went into the ark, believing Him, their souls were saved and in spite of the deluge they lived.”

We ought not to let the obscurity of Peter’s words eclipse the remarkable hope and comfort they bring. Uncertainties aside, we can know that since we are united to Christ, we will also rise again from the dead by the power of the Holy Spirit. Our resurrection will mark the end of all our suffering and tribulation. When we are face-to-face with hardships and trials, Peter would have us remember Christ’s example and how our fate is gloriously linked to His. Even when the flood is raging, we can take heart, for the Lord Jesus Christ—and we in Him—has overcome the world.

Working unto the Lord with Integrity

Prepared for His Coming

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From the June 2023 Issue
Jun 2023 Issue