It is written:
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, 19 by whom also He went and preached to the spirits in prison, 20 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. (1 Peter 3:18-20)
Is Peter here teaching that Jesus went to Hades and preached for three days and nights between His death and resurrection?
Or is Peter saying that the Spirit of Christ preached through Noah when Noah was alive?
Some believe the latter, and teach that Christ did not descend into Hades when He died.
First, it is important to remember that whether or not Peter is talking about the Descent of Christ into Hades in this passage, he had previously affirmed that this indeed happened (Acts 2:23-32). In fact, not only does Peter affirm this to be the case, but so has:
David (Psalm 16:10);
Jesus (Matthew 12:40; Jonah 2:2);
Matthew (Matthew 12:40);
Luke (Acts 2:27);
Peter (Acts 2:27);
Paul (1 Corinthians 15:20; Ephesians 4:8-10);
John (Revelation 1:18)
So regardless of whether or not 1 Peter 3:18-20 and 1 Peter 4:6 discuss the Descent of Christ into Hades, Peter (and others) affirm this teaching elsewhere.
Second, there is no doubt that the Spirit of Christ preached through Noah when Noah was alive. Earlier in his Epistle, Peter had written:
1 Peter 1:10-12-Of this salvation the prophets have inquired and searched carefully, who prophesied of the grace that would come to you, 11 searching what, or what manner of time, the Spirit of Christ who was in them was indicating when He testified beforehand the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow. 12 To them it was revealed that, not to themselves, but to us they were ministering the things which now have been reported to you through those who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven—things which angels desire to look into.
The Spirit of Christ preached through all the Prophets in time past, pointing to the work and mission of Jesus.
Of course the Spirit preached through Noah also, since he was a Prophet of God.
Third, the statement of Peter in 1 Peter 3:18-20 is patterned after what Peter said in Acts 2:23-35, and this shows that the Descent of Christ into Hades is being taught in 1 Peter 3.
Notice the similarities:
Point Of Similarity
1 Peter 3:18-22
Acts 2:23-Him, being delivered by the determined purpose and foreknowledge of God, you have taken by lawless hands, have crucified, and put to death;
1 Peter 3:18-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,
Acts 2:25-30-For David says concerning Him: ‘I FORESAW THE LORD ALWAYS BEFORE MY FACE, FOR HE IS AT MY RIGHT HAND, THAT I MAY NOT BE SHAKEN. 26 THEREFORE MY HEART REJOICED, AND MY TONGUE WAS GLAD; MOREOVER MY FLESH ALSO WILL REST IN HOPE. 27 FOR YOU WILL NOT LEAVE MY SOUL IN HADES, NOR WILL YOU ALLOW YOUR HOLY ONE TO SEE CORRUPTION. 28 YOU HAVE MADE KNOWN TO ME THE WAYS OF LIFE; YOU WILL MAKE ME FULL OF JOY IN YOUR PRESENCE.’ 29 “Men and brethren, let me speak freely to you of the patriarch David, that he is both dead and buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. 30 Therefore, being a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him that of the fruit of his body, according to the flesh, He would raise up the Christ to sit on his throne,
1 Peter 3:19-by whom also He went and preached to the spirits in prison,
Acts 2:31-32-he, foreseeing this, spoke concerning the resurrection of the Christ, that His soul was not left in Hades, nor did His flesh see corruption. 32 This Jesus God has raised up, of which we are all witnesses.
1 Peter 3:20-21-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. 21 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,
Acts 2:34-35-“For David did not ascend into the heavens, but he says himself: ‘THE LORD SAID TO MY LORD, “SIT AT MY RIGHT HAND, 35 TILL I MAKE YOUR ENEMIES YOUR FOOTSTOOL.” ‘
1 Peter 3:22-who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, angels and authorities and powers having been made subject to Him.
The similarities between Peter’s statements in Acts 2:23-35 and 1 Peter 3:18-22 make it clear that Peter is affirming the descent of Christ in both of these passages. One researcher has noted:
“The second objection to the preaching in 1 Peter 3: 19 being done by Noah, not Christ, comes from the structure of the passage itself. It follows the well-known doctrinal formula of crucifixion, death, descent, resurrection, and ascension. Crucifixion (1 Pet 3: 18): “For Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, so that He might bring us to God” Death (1 Pet 3: 18): “having been put to death in the flesh” Descent (1 Pet 3: 18-21): “but made alive in the spirit; in which also He went and made proclamation to the spirits now in prison” Resurrection (1 Pet 3: 21): “through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” Ascension (1 Pet 3: 22): “who is at the right hand of God, having gone into heaven” 33 (all NASB) Understanding 1 Peter 3: 18-22 as expressing a doctrinal formula makes it very difficult to see the descent as anything other than the descent of Christ into Hades. MacCulloch goes so far to say, “No other interpretation than that of the work of the discarnate Spirit of Christ in Hades seems natural and self-evident here. Indeed all other interpretations merely evade this evident meaning.”” (James Beilby, Postmortem Opportunity: A Biblical and Theological Assessment of Salvation After Death, 146 (Kindle Edition); Downers Grove, Illinois; IVP Academic)
Fourth, this interpretation is further strengthened when we look at the phrase translated “by the Spirit” (NKJV) in 1 Peter 3:18. Several translations render this as “in the spirit” instead of “by the Spirit.” Wuest has noted:
“The word translated “Spirit,” pneumati, is in the same case and classification as the word for “flesh,” sarki. But the Holy Spirit is not a logical contrast to the human body of our Lord. It is the human spirit of our Lord that is set over against His human body. It is true that our Lord was raised from the dead by the power of the Holy Spirit, and that is taught by Paul in Rom 8:11. But Peter is not teaching that truth here. He maintains the perfect contrast between our Lord’s human body and His human spirit. The translators of the A.V. have capitalized the word “spirit,” making it refer to the Holy Spirit. But the following considerations will show that they had no textual basis for doing so. In the first place, the three oldest and best manuscripts we have, the Vaticanus and the Sinaiticus, fourth century, and the Alexandrinus of the fifth, are in capital letters entirely. The Chester Beatty manuscript, third century, does not contain the portion of Scripture we are studying. Eberhard Nestle in his text which is the resultant of a collation of three of the principal recensions of the Greek Testament appearing in the latter half of the nineteenth century, Tischendorf, 1869-1872, Westcott and Hort, 1881-1895, and Bernhard Weiss, 1894-1900, capitalizes the word “spirit” when the word is used to designate the third Person of the Triune God. But he has no manuscript evidence for doing this. With him it is a pure matter of interpretation. Every word of his Greek text which appeared in the originals is the inspired Word of God, but the capitalization is not inspired. The word “spirit” in 1Pe 3:18 is not capitalized in Nestle’s text, which indicates that he thought that the word referred, not to the Holy Spirit but to the human spirit of the Lord Jesus.” (Kenneth Wuest, Word Studies In The Greek New Testament)
What makes it adamantly clear that Peter is talking about how Jesus went “in the spirit” to Hades is the contrast in the passage between His body and spirit.
“There is not general agreement as to where they were and when the preaching occurred. Some interpreters tell us they were the people of Noah’s time while they were alive and while was being prepared; that the preaching was done at that Imel by Noah, but it was Christ, who, by means of the Holy Spirit, preached through Noah. The mistaken translation of the Authorized Version is, perhaps, partly responsible for this interpretation-that He went ‘by the Spirit,’ signifying the Holy Spirit. What Peter actually says is quite different. He did not go ‘by’ in the sense of agency, but ‘in’ signifying mode or manner. Again, the words in the spirit are antithetical to the preceding statement in the flesh, that Christ who was put to death in the flesh, the same in the spirit, His own spirit, went and preached, etc. These words signify His spiritual incorporeal life as distinct from the flesh, in which He was put to death. This clearly shows that the Holy Spirit is not intended by these words, and that the proper rendering of the Greek precludes such a misunderstanding. There is absolutely nothing to suggest the theory that Christ by means of the Holy Spirit through Noah preached to those people prior to the flood. It was during the time Christ was in the grave that He, in HIs own spirit, went and preached, and that is the manner in which the earliest Christian writers understand the passage. This interpretation is strengthened by the expression who once were disobedient (R.V. Aforetime), thus referring to a time in the past. The rendering of the Syriac Version is ‘the spirits shut up in Sheol,’ which fixes the time.” (Dickson New Analytical Study Bible, 1414)
Fifth, the text makes it clear that the preaching of Jesus occurred during the time between His death and resurrection.
“I agree with Bass that ἐν ᾧ “should be translated as a conjunction (‘ during which time’) because this is how Peter uses this grammatical construction four other times in this letter (1 Pet. 1: 6; 2: 12; 3: 16 [temporal]; 4: 4)….Further, this sentence is narratively structured, beginning with his suffering and death (1 Pet 3: 18a) and ending with his resurrection (1 Pet 3: 21) and ascension (1 Pet 3: 22). To speak of 1 Pet 3: 18b-19 as a reference to his pre-incarnate state would interrupt this storied organization138 and leads us further down the trail of this reading’s implausibility. In other words, the phrase’s usage within 1 Peter, the fact that datives do not serve as antecedents, and the passage’s narratival structure each point to the phrase being used as a temporal conjunction (“ during which time”).” (Matthew Y. Emerson, “He Descended to the Dead”: An Evangelical Theology of Holy Saturday, 60-61 (Kindle Edition); Downers Grove, Illinois; IVP Academic)
Sixth, there is no doubt that the earliest Christians understood this passage as referring to Christ going to Hades between His death and resurrection.
“Here Peter answers the question which some objectors have raised, namely, if the incarnation was so beneficial, why was Christ not incarnated for such a long time, given that he went to the spirits which were in prison and preached to them also? In order to deliver all those who would believe, Christ taught those who were alive on earth at the time of his incarnation, and these others acknowledged him when he appeared to them in the lower regions, and thus they too benefited from his coming. Going in his soul, he preached to those who were in hell, appearing to them as one soul to other souls. When the gatekeepers of hell saw him, they fled; the bronze gates were broken open, and the iron chains were undone. And the only-begotten Son shouted with authority to the suffering souls, according to the word of the new covenant, saying to those in chains: “Come out!” and to those in darkness: “Be enlightened.” In other words, he preached to those who were in hell also, so that he might save all those who would believe in him. For both those who were alive on earth during the time of his incarnation and those who were in hell had a chance to acknowledge him. The greater part of the new covenant is beyond nature and tradition, so that while Christ was able to preach to all those who were alive at the time of his appearing and those who believed in him were blessed, so too he was able to liberate those in hell who believed and acknowledged him, by his descent there.” (Cyril of Alexandria, Catena. [CEC 66.])
“Forgiveness was not granted to everyone in hell, but only to those who believed and acknowledged Christ. Those who cleansed themselves from evil by doing good works while they were alive recognized him, for until he appeared in the lower regions everyone, including those who had been educated in righteousness, was bound by the chains of death and was awaiting his arrival there, for the way to paradise was closed to them because of Adam’s sin. Nevertheless, not everyone who was in the lower regions responded to Christ when he went there, but only those who believed in him. (Severus of Antioch, Catena. [CEC 67-68.]
With all these considerations in mind, it appears undeniable that 1 Peter 3:18-22 references Christ’s Descent into Hades between His death and resurrection.
In our next study, we will carefully examine the persons to whom Christ was sent during this time.
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all. Amen.