“For Christ also suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive by the Spirit, by whom also He went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly were disobedient, when once the Divine longsuffering waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight souls, were saved through water. There is also an antitype which now saves us—baptism (not the removal of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God), through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, angels and authorities and powers having been made subject to Him.” (1 Peter 3:18–22, NKJV)
The statement by Peter in 1 Peter 3:19, that Jesus preached to the spirits in prison, has been the source of a great deal of debate and controversy over the years. What exactly does it mean that Christ preached to the spirits in prison?
There are those who believe that Jesus went into Hell itself to preach the gospel to those who died before His redeeming sacrifice was made on the cross, to give them a chance to be saved. There are those who teach that Peter is referring to a place called Purgatory where people can get a second chance to be saved after they have died. And, there are all manner of variations on these ideas that men over the years have come up with.
Before I go into the teaching of this passage I want to show why the two ideas above – and their variations – cannot be correct.
First, we can know for certain that Jesus did not go to Hell when He died. He told the thief on the cross, “today you will be with Me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43). Paradise is not Hell!
When we look at the other statements concerning the time Jesus’ body lay in the grave, they clearly state that His spirit was in Hades, not Hell (Acts 2:27, 31). By harmonizing what Jesus said to the penitent thief and Peter’s sermon in Acts 2, we see that “Paradise” is part of Hades.
Also, in Luke 16:19-31 – the account of the rich man and Lazarus – what Jesus refers to as “Paradise” is called “Abraham’s bosom.” In that account, there are two places in Hades (Abraham’s bosom and Torments) separated by a great gulf with no crossing over.
“Paradise” (aka “Abraham’s bosom”) is on one side of the great gulf dividing Hades and “Torments” (aka Tartarus, 2 Pet. 2:4) is on the other side of the great gulf. Hades is the place of departed souls, both good and bad, awaiting the coming of Christ and Judgment Day (John 5:28, 29; Acts 17:30, 31; 2 Thess. 1:6-10; et. al.).
Part of the confusion over where Jesus’ spirit was while His body was in the grave is that the King James Version incorrectly translates the word Hades (a Greek word) as “Hell.” However, the Greek word for the place of everlasting damnation is Gehenna, not Hades (Matt. 5:22, 29-30; 10:38; etc.).
A close study of the passages where the two words are used will show that they are not the same place. Acts 2:27 and 31, among other places in the KJV, should say Hades, not Hell. So, the idea that Jesus went to hell when He died is actually based on a mistranslation of the text and not what Peter was referring to when he spoke of “the spirits in prison.”
Second, those who “speak as the oracles of God” (1 Pet. 4:11) cannot speak of a place called Purgatory because God never spoke of it in His word. The word “purgatory” is nowhere in Holy Scripture and, therefore, cannot be taught from the Bible.
The Bible never speaks of a place where departed souls are held for probation while their loved ones pray and do good deeds to get them into heaven. That cannot be what Peter was referring to as “preaching to the spirits in prison” because such a thing is never taught in the Bible.
Such an idea would also contradict the clear teaching of Scripture in many of the passages given above for the coming Judgment Day. We must all give account for the things done “in the body” (2 Cor. 5:10). After we leave this earthly body it will be too late to affect any changes in our spiritual condition.
Now that we have clarified what “preaching to the spirits in prison” cannot be, we will study what the statement actually does refer to in next week’s article. As always, I greatly appreciate your questions, comments and feedback. Your questions are always welcome.
Norm Fields is the minister for the Church of Christ Northside meeting at 1101 Hogansville Road in LaGrange. He may be reached at 706-812-9950 or BibleQnA@NormFields.com.