By Reuben Archer Torrey
What does 1 Peter 3:18-20 mean when it says that Jesus went and preached to the spirits in prison?
A very simple answer to this question is that it means exactly what it says. But let us notice carefully what it does say: "Because Christ also suffered for sins once, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God; being put to death in the flesh, but quickened in the spirit; in which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison, which aforetime were disobedient, when the long-suffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls, were saved through water" (RV).
The point of difficulty with this passage is the thought that seems to be conveyed that Jesus actually went into the abode of the dead and there preached to spirits in prison; and this would seem to imply to many that there is an opportunity for repentance after death.
Many, in order to avoid this conclusion, have attempted to explain the verses by saying that the spirit in which Jesus was quickened is the Holy Spirit, and that in the Holy Spirit Jesus Christ preached, through Noah while the ark was preparing, to the spirits which were then disobedient and who consequently are now in prison.
One writer has argued for this interpretation with a great deal of ability and skill and with a large display of knowledge of Greek grammar. But nonetheless I think he fails to prove his case. After all has been said, it seems to me this interpretation is an evasion.
"The spirit" in verse 18 cannot mean the Holy Spirit.
A contrast is being drawn between the two parts of Christ's nature, the flesh in which He was put to death and the spirit in which He was quickened (that is, made alive) at the time He was put to death in the flesh. In His spirit in which He was made alive, while the body lay motionless in death, He went and preached to the spirits in prison. It seems to me that this is the only fair interpretation.
But does not this involve a second probation for those who have died in disobedience to God and who consequently have gone to the place of penalty and suffering? Even if it did, we ought not to dodge it on that account. We ought to be fair with the Scriptures whether they conform to our theories or not. But in point of fact, this does not in any way involve a second probation for those who have died in disobedience and who consequently have gone to the place of penalty and suffering.
This is apparent if we notice three things: to whom Jesus preached, what He preached, and the results of His preaching.
First of all, to whom did Jesus preach? To "the spirits in prison." But who were these spirits in prison? Were they the spirits of departed wicked men? There is nothing whatever to indicate that they were. The word "spirits" is never used in this unqualified way of the spirits of departed men, but it is used constantly of angelic or supernatural beings (Hebrews 1:7, 14; Matthew 10:1; Mark 3:11; Luke 6:18; 7:21; Acts 19:12; 1 John 4:1; etc.). The only place in Scripture where "spirits" is used of men in any way analogous to this is Hebrews 12:23. The constant use is of angels or other supernatural beings. If we so interpret it here, the preaching was not at all to men who had been wicked in the days of Noah but to supernatural beings who had been disobedient in the days of Noah and who were now in prison in consequence of this disobedience. Are there any Scripture passages that hint that there were supernatural beings who were disobedient in the days of Noah and who were consequently in prison? There are. In Genesis 6:1 we are told that "the sons of God saw the daughters of men that they were fair, and they took them wives of all which they chose." Many commentators understand the descendants of Seth, a godly man, to be "the sons of God" in this passage. But if we are to interpret scripture by scripture they seem rather to have been angelic beings. There seems to be a clear reference to this passage in Jude 6, where we are told of "angels which kept not their own principality but left their proper habitation" and in consequence were kept in everlasting chains in darkness until the judgment of the great day (RV). And in the next verse we are told that Sodom and Gomorrah in like manner with these (that is, these angels) gave themselves over to fornication and went after strange flesh (RV). From this it seems clear that the sin of the angels was going after strange flesh, the very sin mentioned in Genesis 6:2. Furthermore, we read in 2 Peter that "God spared not the angels that sinned, but cast them down to hell, and committed them to darkness, to be reserved unto judgment" (2 Peter 2:3-4, RV). The clear implication of all this is that the spirits to whom Jesus preached when He went to the abode of the dead were the angels that sinned in the days of Noah and were then in prison in consequence of that sin.
Let us notice, in the next place, what the word translated "preach" in 1 Peter 3:18-20 means. There are two words in constant use in the New Testament which are translated "preach." One means "to preach the gospel," the other "to herald the king or kingdom." The latter of these two words is used in this passage. There is not a suggestion in the passage that the gospel with its offer of salvation was preached to anyone. The King and the kingdom were heralded. So then even if we take "the spirits in prison" to mean the spirits of men who had died in sin, there is not a hint of another probation. We are simply told that the King and the kingdom were heralded to them. Christ has been heralded as King in heaven, earth and hell.
In the third place, notice the results of this preaching. There is not a word of suggestion that any of the spirits in prison were converted by it. If they were we must learn it from other sources than this passage, but there is not a single passage anywhere in the Scriptures that suggests that there were any conversions or any salvation resultant from this preaching. The purpose of the preaching evidently was not the salvation of those already lost but the proclamation of the kingdom and the King throughout the universe. The time is coming when every knee shall bow, of things in heaven, and things on earth, and things under the earth, and every tongue shall confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2:10-11). But that enforced confession of Christ on the part of disobedient men and angels will bring them no salvation. We must all take our choice of either confessing and accepting Christ of our own free will now and obtaining salvation thereby, or of confessing Him and acknowledging Him against our will in the world to come. We must confess Him sometime. We must bow the knee to Him some day. Happy the man who gladly now in this time of probation bows the knee to Jesus and confesses that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father, and does not wait until that day when he is forced to do it and when the confession will bring him no salvation!