by Al Maxey

Issue #83 ------- November 9, 2003
He never charged nothing for his
preaching, and it was worth it, too.

--- Mark Twain (1835-1910)
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn


Preaching to the Prisoners
A Critical Analysis of 1 Peter 3:18-20

"For Christ ... 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 3:18-20

Just exactly who are these "spirits in prison," and how and when did Jesus Christ "preach" unto them, and what did He preach unto them? Some scholars have declared this the most difficult passage in the Bible to interpret. The great reformer Martin Luther (1483-1546) has perhaps given the best response of all time, however, when he said, "I don't know what Peter means here!" This passage has certainly been the cause of tremendous debate throughout the centuries, and countless theories have arisen in an attempt to explain its meaning. Following are the major interpretations proposed as to the significance of this text.

FIRST --- Christ went to Hell or Hades (both views have been advanced) between the time of His death and resurrection and preached to the lost souls in torment there. For example, the Symbolum Apostolorum (the Apostles' Creed), which was developed between the second and ninth centuries, states, in part, "I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth. And in Jesus Christ His only Son our Lord; who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried; He descended into hell; the third day He rose again from the dead; He ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty." That Jesus literally went to Hell to preach to the lost was the view of Clement of Alexandria (c. 200 AD), among others. Generally it is felt by those who embrace this particular view that the only lost souls preached to on that occasion, however, were the ones from the time of the flood. All other lost souls were simply ignored.

There are obviously some major problems associated with this interpretation, not the least of which is the "doctrine of the second chance." Was Jesus really extending the opportunity of salvation to "lost souls" already in torment? And if so, why only to these select few lost souls, and not to all lost souls? The Pulpit Commentary states, "If this passage does mean that Christ preached to the dead, it only speaks of the dead in the days of Noah; it seems incredible that these comparative few should be singled out from the great mass of mankind for so great a blessing. I might remind you, too, that if these words mean that the impenitent dead have a second chance, they stand alone in Scripture, at least as far as I am aware" (vol. 22, p. 158).

SECOND --- A Roman Catholic view (which was put forward primarily by Cardinal Bellarmine -- c. 1600 AD) is that Christ went to the place known as Limbo between His death and resurrection. His purpose for going there at that time was to release the souls of the righteous who had repented prior to the flood, but who could not enter heaven until after the coming of the Messiah. Thus, Limbo was the abode between heaven and hell where the disembodied spirits of the OT saints were kept in waiting, according to this view. I don't think we have to go into too terribly much investigation into Scripture to discover that such a view has no basis in biblical Truth.

THIRD --- A third view is that during the time between His death and resurrection Jesus preached to the "fallen angels" who were being kept in bonds until Judgment (in a special location known as Tartarus -- 2 Peter 2:4). These were also the ones (according to this view) who were known as the "sons of God," and who took wives for themselves from among the daughters of men (Gen. 6:1-4). This interpretation was promoted quite vigorously at the turn of the previous century by Friedrich Spitta.

FOURTH --- The fourth major view, one held by some of the modern scholars, is that after the resurrection, when Jesus ascended into heaven, He passed through the Hadean realm, and also through the areas where fallen angels were being held, and proclaimed His victory to them as He returned to the Father. This was not a proclamation for the purpose of saving them, but rather a declaration of their ultimate eternal defeat.

FIFTH --- Personally, I do not believe any of the above theories have a great deal of merit. The major interpretation which I am convicted best fits the context, and which best harmonizes with the remainder of Scripture, is that it was the Spirit of Christ who preached the message of salvation through His servant Noah unto the people of Noah's day, and that this proclamation occurred during those years prior to the flood. This was also the view of St. Augustine (c. 400 AD), was the view which dominated the theological scene for centuries, and is the interpretation embraced by most scholars today.

We know that Noah was "a preacher of righteousness" (2 Peter 2:5), so we know that these lost beings (bound and imprisoned in sin) were having the message of salvation proclaimed to them through his efforts. We also know that the OT proclaimers were preaching their message to the lost people about them by means of "the Spirit of Christ within them" (1 Peter 1:10-11). Therefore, Peter, in the context of the very book wherein we find our difficult passage, confirms for us that the "Spirit of Christ" was proclaiming the "good news" through the OT spokesmen of God. And among those OT proclaimers, according to Peter, was Noah. Thus, Christ was preaching to those people before their physical deaths, prior to the coming of the flood, through Noah.

John Wesley (1703-1791) wrote in his commentary on Peter's epistles, "By which Spirit He preached = Through the ministry of Noah. To the spirits in prison = The unholy men before the flood." Jamieson, Fausset & Brown, in their classic "Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible" (1871), wrote, "Christ, who in our times came in the flesh, in the days of Noah preached in Spirit by Noah to the spirits then in prison." They then point to Isaiah 61:1 to show that those who are in bondage to sin and its wages (death) are characterized as being "in prison." They continue, "So the same Spirit of Christ (who preached through the OT spokesmen -- 1 Pet. 1:11) enabled Noah, amidst reproach and trials, to preach to the disobedient spirits fast bound in wrath." Disobedient, NOT disembodied. Adam Clarke stated that it was "by the ministry of Noah" that the Spirit of Christ preached to "the inhabitants of the antediluvian world" (Clarke's Commentary, vol. 6, p. 861).

Noted brethren even within Churches of Christ have embraced this view as the biblical one. Both Clem & Dillard Thurman (editors of the Gospel Minutes), for example, have long defended this interpretation vigorously in their publication. Brother Clem, in an article dated April 27, 1990, wrote that this view "is clearly shown" in the context of the passage. Brother Dillard, in an article dated Nov. 23, 1979, wrote, "There is nothing in the passage that suggests that Jesus preached while dead. The 'spirits in prison' are very definitely placed in the days of Noah, and it is also shown that Christ (as the eternal WORD) was preaching through Noah by the Holy Spirit."

Dillard, in that same article, further writes, "Notice carefully what is said. Jesus was put to death in the flesh, and died like any mortal man. But He was quickened, or made alive by the Spirit. By what Spirit? By the same Spirit by which He once preached to spirits imprisoned by sin and Satan in the days of Noah! When did this happen? The passage plainly states it: 'When once the long-suffering of God waited in the days of Noah.' The word 'when' is an adverb of time that tells when the action took place: in the days of Noah! The idea of the Son of God being off on a preaching junket for the three days and nights that His body was in the tomb is utterly foreign to any Bible teaching! If false doctrines had not first brought forth this fanciful idea, this passage would not have been twisted to support the error." Albert Barnes declared, "...this whole passage refers to His preaching to the antediluvians in the time of Noah .... no argument can be based on it in proof that He went to preach to them after their death, and while His body was lying in the grave" (Barnes Notes on the New Testament).

In the final analysis, I believe the view that best harmonizes with Scripture is the one which declares the Spirit of Christ, speaking through Noah, preached to those who were in bondage to sin during the time prior to the flood. I don't find anything in this view inconsistent with the remainder of God's Word, whereas I do find problems with the other interpretations (and in some cases major problems). In short, I find nothing whatsoever in this passage which suggests the concept of some Hadean holding area for disembodied, eternal spirit-beings, or that Jesus went and preached to them during the time between His crucifixion and resurrection. Such teaching, in my view, is imposed upon this passage (eisegesis) rather than honestly and legitimately drawn from it (exegesis).

Reflections from Readers

From an Elder in Virginia:

Al, I continue to read all of your Reflections with great interest. The jury (in my mind) is still out on a few things (and even with those I find myself seeing the logic of your conclusions), but I love the way you take all the pertinent scriptures and present them, including then giving us your "take" on them. I would like to suggest that you do a series of Reflections on the topic: "Women's Role in the Church." This issue keeps cropping up in our congregations and the world today, and I would truly like to see your analysis of the pertinent verses. This issue continues to rear its head here in my congregation and we elders are going to have to study, discuss and come to a consensus at some point. I believe, from the few comments I have read by you on this, that you are a "conservative" on this topic, and I would like to see a good sound "conservative" analysis of this. I know this might destroy your reputation as a "cutting edge liberal" if it got out!! :-) While I may or may not end up agreeing with your conclusions, I believe you will fairly address the points and honestly and clearly present the passages, their meaning in the Greek, and your conclusions. Even if you are not conservative, I would like to see the results of your study.

Keep up the good work. Some of your ideas have made me very uncomfortable, but then as I ponder them more and more they start to make sense, and at the very least have made me more tolerant of diverse opinions and less likely to hasten to label someone. We will all disagree, but it is how we handle the disagreement that is important.


Hi Al, I just wanted to let you know that we have put your Reflections article, "Labeling the Lord's Lambs" on our website --- --- as the Featured Article for the month of November.
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From Another Special Web Site:

Al, Check this link: .... Recently I decided to start a web site, and since your name is mentioned on this particular site I felt it appropriate to at least make you aware of your notoriety. Don't worry, it's good for a change! Often on Internet forums one wonders if any good is being accomplished, this will assure you of the good that can be accomplished. I subscribe to your Reflections and enjoy them, as I did the Berean Spirit when you owned it. Thanks!
--- Larry Mouser

From a Minister in the Ukraine:

Dear brother Al, How wonderful!!! Just got your last Reflections on Dogmatism and read it non-stop. I had been wondering if I was the only one who experienced this kind of behavior from BIG BROTHERS around me. NO ... they are everywhere. Thank you, brother, for all you do for the Lord's glory. I can imagine how many offensive attacks you must get. Keep praising the Lord through your ministry. May God be your shield and refuge.

From a Reader in Texas:

Dear Bro. Al, Great writing! As informative as it is enjoyable. What a comfort to know that counter-balancing the cruel, criticizing critters' gaze is the wonderful all-seeing eye of our Father not just watching us -- but watching out for us. "For the eyes of the Lord are upon the righteous, and His ears attend to their prayer, but the face of the Lord is against those who do evil" (1 Peter 3:12). To Him be the glory!

From a Reader in Ohio:

Your Reflections article "Willie the Watchdog" was a triple blue ribbon winner!!

From a Reader in (Unknown):

Brother Al, This is a great article. It's a good example of "but rather expose them." Way to go, and keep going!

From a Reader in Oklahoma:

That's an interesting way of putting it. I have often wondered: if we expect God to forgive our shortcomings, why don't we think He will also forgive the sins of the "denominations." Of course, many believe we are perfect where doctrine is concerned. I tried unsuccessfully to get one brother to admit that we just might have some error in our doctrinal beliefs. I do believe some go too far, however. A Unitarian once said he thought the virgin birth of Christ was a superstition, and I don't believe God will accept the Episcopalians who are promoting homosexual behavior. But, I have much more joy, peace and contentment in my life since I realized that much of our negative teaching does not represent God's will. Keep up the good work!

From a Minister in Missouri:

Your Reflections on "Willie the Watchdog" hits the nail right on the head. Your description doesn't lie, but bears witness to the fact that there are weenie dogs lurking about. Let us pray for Willie. Let's pray that Willie comes to truly understand the grace of God. Willie hides within the Church of Christ. His goal isn't to promote the Gospel to a lost world, but to keep his religion pure. "Worship service" participation according to the "pattern" is the extent of his religion. Thank you, Al, for exposing Willie.

From a Reader in Arkansas:

You write well and say good things. Expressing opinion as fact is something hard not to do at times. We are taught at our mother's knee and in Sunday School throughout our lives to believe a set of beliefs. If it was good enough for Mom and Dad, it is good enough for us! We have many shaky reasons to believe as we do. Some twist the Scriptures to their own destruction. Brother Carl Ketcherside wrote a book called The Twisted Scriptures, pointing out many of our pet views are a twist of what the Scriptures actually say. I think unity comes on a relationship level when we determine to love God and our neighbor as we love ourselves. Thanks for your insightful Reflections. Please keep on reflecting the peace of Christ.

From a Reader in New York:

Dear Al, Thanks for all your wonderful Reflections. My husband and I always enjoy them, and it's one way we can keep in touch with the Church of Christ, the church of our heritage. I know what you mean about the dogs always watching. While I have never been written up and condemned for my preaching or writing, I can still feel their presence and know that they are judging me. In fact, the "dogs" have finally succeeded, not in forcing us to conform, but in driving us away. We attend a community church now because we couldn't handle the watchers and judgers anymore. What you teach, say, think, write, where you go, what you pray -- they're always there to make sure you're not crossing the invisible party line. It's sad that these hypocrites and judgers usually end up doing the opposite of what they want -- they alienate and drive people away. They make people leave the church and never return. They give others, especially outsiders, a negative view of a bickering and rules-oriented faith. Leaving has been very liberating for us. We may return someday, but not yet. We have to heal from the wounds caused by the watchdogs. We have to struggle every day to forgive them. Thanks again for your writings; you give us hope and remind us that not all Christians are watchdogs!

From a Reader in (Unknown):

Excellent article about the "watch dogs." Lord have mercy on the sectarian Pharisees among us!

From a Reader in Indiana:

May God bless you in your work. We look forward to getting your Reflections every week. Just wish it was more often, but understand how precious your time is.

From a Reader in Texas:

Al, I subscribe to your Reflections and to Edward Fudge's gracEmail. Each week I get so much encouragement and insight from these writings. Because I come from a Church of Christ background, you speak to me and I appreciate your writings. I have a file folder at home with all of your Reflections articles which I am continually referring to when I study the Scriptures. Thanks for your work, Al, and please continue!

From a Reader in Louisiana:

Al, Excellent writing about watch dogs. I have been dealing with issues from my own upbringing where I was watched and corrected for years by "self-appointed watch dogs." It was hurtful and a very difficult process to heal and break away from that kind of "feeling of being watched" when in the church service. I have come to the conclusion that what these watch dogs lack is love for others and the feeling of having been overwhelmed with God's grace. In a sense they have missed the full message of the gospel. I am blessed because you have sparked a process of thinking, one I will follow up with study. Thanks for that. It is a blessing when God uses us to help others. Thanks for allowing Him to do that with you!

From a Reader in Missouri:

Brother Al, Please remove me from your mailing list. Quite frankly, I believe you to be a willful false teacher. I do not believe that you are teaching as you do out of a sincere, yet misguided, heart. If you were, you would come right out and say what you obviously believe for all to see. Instead, it appears to me, that you try to cover your tracks by mixing in just enough truth to placate those who would not accept your doctrines as they truly are if they heard them bluntly. Simply put, you are in error and a false teacher. I must, by biblical appointment, determine who are the sheep and who are the wolves. I take you for a wolf.

I do not expect you to be concerned about my opinions relating to your teachings, because I am certain you will simply write me off as a sectarian, traditionalist watchdog. However, I appeal to you as a brother in Christ for you to stop trying to remake the church of our Lord in the image of the denominationalist bodies of the religious world. I sincerely fear for your soul and for the souls of those who follow your error, brother. I cannot read in the Scriptures anything about watchdogs, but I certainly recall the apostle Paul warning us all about wolves in the flock working as elders and leading disciples astray with them (Acts 20:28-31). I would very much like to hear of your repentance someday.

If you feel the need to print portions of this email in your online publication to belittle me and my words, I simply ask that you do so using the full text of this email, including citing my name. That way there will be no mistakes as to what I meant, or who said this to you, brother. I thank you in advance for your kind consideration of this request.
--- Darin K. Chappel
--- Rogersville, Missouri

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