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What was Jesus Doing Between His Physical Death, and Resurrection?

A Consideration of the 'Spirits in Prison' of 1 Peter 3:18-20.

Here is the relevant Scripture on this topic, a Scripture which has caused no end of speculation:

'For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive by the Spirit, through whom also he went and preached to the spirits in prison who disobeyed long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built....' (1 Peter 3:18-20a, NIV throughout).

There are three overall approaches to explaining this Scripture:

1. In His pre-incarnate state Christ preached through the 'mouthpiece' of Noah to the world which perished at the time of the Great Deluge.
2. Between His physical death and resurrection Christ went to the fallen angels who are believed by some to have left their proper state and married human women during Noah's time (Genesis 6:1-4; 2 Peter 2: 4; Jude 6).
3. Between His death and resurrection, Christ went to the abode of the dead and preached to the spirits of the rebellious dead of Noah's age.

A fourth view suggests that this does not refer to the intermediate state of Jesus at all but to His post-resurrection state (I am grateful to Tom Warner for reminding me of this point). In that case the meaning would be something like "Christ was put to death in the weakness of human flesh, but made alive in the power of the [Holy] Spirit; and in the power of the Spirit, the risen Christ went to proclaim the Gospel to those who had disobeyed and died in Noah's day." That is an interesting point. If this were the correct interpretation the meaning would probably be that to preach to the dead of Noah's day was one of the first things that the risen Christ sought to do.

There is even a fifth view among certain extremist charismatics, namely, that Christ had to receive 'punishment' in hell during this period, but since this has no real biblical foundation or evidence we will not give it serious consideration here.

The First View: During His pre-incarnate state Christ preached through the 'mouthpiece' of Noah to the world which perished at the time of the Great Deluge.

The first view seems to be totally at odds with the context in this chapter. It would require an insertion somewhat against the logical flow of the words. It is true that the necessity of high standards of Christian conduct and behaviour is largely under consideration here, but to make a sudden reference to the fact that Noah had actually preached through the power of Christ would seem rather odd at this point - especially where the implication is so marked that this was something that Jesus was particularly mindful to accomplish when empowered to do so. Of course, the text might only be making the point that Jesus' preaching through Noah had been accomplished "by the Spirit" - just as Jesus was necessarily immediately revived from death by the Spirit, even before the resurrection. Even so, this would seem a rather strange interruption and insertion and an interpretation which one must surely hold to be a little unnatural and, ultimately, probably highly dubious.

The Second View: Between His physical death and resurrection Christ went to the fallen angels who are believed by some to have left their proper state and married human women during Noah's time.

The second view requires a particular interpretation to be placed upon Genesis 6:1-4, an interpretation which most Bible scholars have rejected. The idea is that certain mighty angels had started having sexual relations with human women. It is a strange view especially when the relevant Scriptures can be explained differently. The 'Sons of God,' or 'Nephilim' (Genesis 6:1-4) are far more likely to be a reference to a widespread tribe of gigantic Goliath-type men who lived at that time and who were harsh, rebellious and rejected all sexual restraints - perhaps a gigantic race who made the later marauding Vikings seem like 'vicars at a tea party.' Presumably, the message which Jesus would have preached to these curious 'sons of God' fallen angels was simply one of judgment and a declaration of His victory at the cross. But the question could be asked: why were these "fallen angels" even picked out at that point? Why did Jesus feel it necessary to immediately preach judgment to them (since they were already in symbolic chains)?, and why insert the point right here in the text?

The Third View: Between His death and resurrection (or possibly even post-resurrection), Christ went to the abode of the dead and preached to the spirits of the rebellious dead of Noah's age.

It has been claimed that in the first to third centuries, every branch of Christianity believed that Christ preached to the departed. Good sources regarding the opinions of the fathers on Christ's descent into Hades and preaching the gospel to the dead, include Huidekoper's "The Belief of the First Three Centuries Concerning Christ's Mission to the Underworld," Huidekoper's "Indirect Testimony to the Gospels," also Dean Plumptre's "Spirits in Prison," which was published in London in 1884. This does not mean that Huidekoper, for example, was always right (he was a unitarian), but he did highlight the fact that there is little doubt that the most obvious and natural reading of our considered text was widely supported in the early years of the church. Certainly this view was supported by such as Eusebius, Athanasius, Origen, Cyril of Alexandria, Gregory of Nazianzus and Clement of Alexandria, who wrote, "the sole cause of the Lord's descent to the underworld was to preach the gospel." (Strom. VI).

It might seem somewhat strange to many why an interpretation which seems the most logical, and - overall - probably the most fitting for the text, is so quickly rejected by many evangelicals. This is largely for three reasons:

  • It is known that the Mormons cite this passage to prove their doctrine of the conscious existence of the dead as "disembodied spirits." Yet while Mormon doctrine is, frankly, a confused mess, that does not mean that it is not possible to preach to those who are currently in 'hades' - at least, not when it is Jesus Christ Himself who is doing it!
  • Secondly, evangelicals will usually quickly cite Hebrews 9:27 to "prove" that any preaching to the spirits, or souls of the dead would be useless since after death comes judgment - there is no 'second chance.' But surely this involves a straining and stretching of the teaching of Hebrews 9:27 here, a device which renders the Final Judgment already decided. Of course, one takes the point of the seriousness of this verse but, once again, we need to remind ourselves that if Jesus Christ Himself decided otherwise, who are we to quibble?
  • Another reason that many evangelicals reject this view is because (they claim) that the Bible never speaks of the dead as 'spirits' - 'spirits' must be demons.

To take the third objection first, this is actually erroneous because Hebrews 12:23 does indeed seem to use the word 'spirits' in just such a manner. No evangelical believes that demons are being discussed in Hebrews 12:23, despite the use of 'spirits.'

Regarding the second objection, Wayne Jackson (typical of those who hold this view), states this,

"Some people believe this passage teaches that during the three days his body was in the tomb, Jesus went into the spirit-world of the imprisoned lost. At that time, according to this theory, the Lord preached the gospel to those who died lost during the time of Noah's flood.
The passage simply cannot mean this - and for the following reasons:
The Bible clearly teaches that following death, there comes judgment (Hebrews 9:27). After one leaves this earth, there is no plan of salvation for him. The spiritual condition in which a person dies (prepared or unprepared) is that which he will possess at the time of the general resurrection (cf. Matthew 25:1-12). There is absolutely no evidence that there is a second chance for redemption following death."
(Wayne Jackson, from 'The Christian Courier').

Jackson's view of Hebrews 9:27 is certainly not entirely wrong - but would that make it impossible for Jesus Himself to decide that He should preach to the multiple thousands who perished in the Great Flood? Such people are not necessarily eternally lost, of course, and Wayne Jackson is typical of all too many evangelicals who assume - without any biblical authority - that the multiple thousands who perished in the Flood are necessarily also lost for eternity, but is it not far more likely that such people will receive bounteous mercy when they stand in the Great Judgment? We must understand that when we state that "the world of Noah's day did not repent" that is correct, but only in general terms - it is inconceivable that this would refer to every single individual! Jackson's 'blanket' view of a God without mercy who will discompassionately reject multiple thousands of the men, women and children who perished in the Great Deluge is regularly offered up by hard-line Calvinists but, frankly, it does them no credit.

Certainly, "the spirits in prison who disobeyed long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built..." really does sound like rather a good description of a world in which most refused to repent at the time of Noah and who soon died in the Great Flood. They are currently in hades, the place of the grave but this would surely prove no barrier if Jesus Himself decided that he should preach the gospel to a civilisation which was wiped out by the hand of God in an exceptionally dramatic and abrupt manner. Certainly the statement of Hebrews 9:27: 'Just as man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment,' hardly provides any barrier to this.

Moreover this view is further strengthened by Peter's comment just a few verses later in 1 Peter 4:5-6:

'But they will have to give account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead. For this is the reason the gospel was preached even to those who are now dead, so that they might be judged according to men in regard to the body, but live according to God in regard to the spirit.' (1 Peter 4:5-6).

Of course some maintain that this text refers to preaching to the (currently) dead while they were still alive but this would be rather an odd construction within the New Testament. Putting this together with the comments which Peter had already made a few verses earlier it is surely better to conclude that he again refers to Jesus (either in His intermediate state or post-resurrection) preaching to at least a portion of those currently in hades. However, such an exception - carried out by Jesus Himself - does not necessarily lend support to the entire principle of post-mortem evangelism which some have suggested.

The view which we suggest receives even further support in Psalm 16:

'Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices; my body also will rest secure, because you will not abandon me to the realm of the dead, nor will you let your faithful one see decay.' (Psalm 16:9-10).

This is a prophecy of Jesus Who would indeed enter hades (the place of the grave), but would not remain there, and God would not allow the decay of His body.

Paul also makes some interesting comments upon this:

'But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it. This is why it says: "When he ascended on high, he took many captives and gave gifts to his people." (What does "he ascended" mean except that he also descended to the lower, earthly regions? He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe.)' (Ephesians 4:7-10).

Quite obviously for Paul the mercy and grace of Christ must include His willingness to have entered hades!

Is it not strange that many evangelicals either ignore such verses or offer very poor "explanations" for them in which extraneous factors are imposed upon them.

I hold, then, that the third explanation of this difficult Scripture - while not entirely unproblematic - is the strongest view and the usual objections raised by evangelicals are not really the defeating arguments which some have claimed them to be. If the understanding which we suggest is indeed accurate, this would present us with a glorious picture of many thousands who perished in the deluge standing in the Great Judgment, having experienced the Word of Jesus at first hand, surely then ready - at the last - to walk with the Lord Jesus and the rest of the saved into eternity. Surely, neither could one restrict this simply to those who physically perished in the great deluge...
Robin A. Brace, March, 2008. Slight further edit in 2012.

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