For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight people, were saved through water (1 Peter 3:18-20).
The identity of the "spirits in prison" Peter refers to in this passage is one of the most disputed subjects in New Testament interpretation, which usually (though not exclusively) divides along Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox lines. The New Testament is clear that between his death and resurrection (and Ascension) Jesus did something, but what precisely was it? The passage from 1 Peter gives us an indication, but what exactly is Peter affirming?
In his commentary on 1 Peter, Scot McKnight lays out the three possible options and the minor divergence within the views themselves.
The first view interprets prison as hell. Thus, as the historic creeds confess, Jesus after his death and prior to his resurrection, descended into hell and preached to the spirits there. There is a difference of opinion as to who exactly the spirits are. Some suggest that the spirits are fallen angels (Genesis 6:1-4) or those persons who died prior to Noah's flood. Origen suggests that Christ's descent into hell was for the purpose of proclaiming his redeeming message to the patriarchs and prophets. Jesus' proclamation to the spirits was not simply a telling of what his work had now accomplished, but it included an offer of salvation since they were never afforded an opportunity to hear the gospel. Cyril of Alexandria wrote, "Going in his soul, Christ preached to those in hell that he might save all who would believe in him."
The second position suggests that Peter is referring to the preexistent Christ in the person of Noah. The spirits were Noah's contemporaries who had been deprived from hearing the word of God. Prison is a metaphorical reference to sin and ignorance. Some who hold this position, however, believe that prison refers to the spirits' actual location in the present. Jesus did not literally descend anywhere but refers to Jesus' proclamation to Noah's generation.
In the third option Peter is referring to Jesus' triumphal proclamation after his resurrection and prior to his exaltation. Jesus had a spiritual existence after his resurrection. The spirits, as in the first view, refer to the fallen angels of Genesis 6:1-4. Jesus' proclamation of victory was made as he ascended to the right hand of God. So unlike the first view, "he went" does not refer to descent but to ascent.
McKnight points out quite nicely that regardless of which view one takes, each position highlights Jesus vindication after his suffering for sinners. The significance of Peter's overall argument must not be eclipsed by getting lost in the minutiae of one difficult verse.
Nevertheless, it is also not unimportant to ask which view is to be preferred. I am not at all impressed with the second option. It assumes too much based on too little. I like the third interpretation because it makes sense in a Jewish context (Scot notes the connection to 1 Enoch). However, I simply do not want to reject the first possibility out of hand. The earliest theologians and commentators (through the fourth century AD) from the East and the West were unanimous in their affirmation that Jesus descended into hell. And while I do not believe that early Christian biblical interpretation was infallible, I also think that being much closer to the life and ministry of Jesus and to the subsequent Apostolic proclamation and teaching, these early Christians should be taken seriously in a preferential way. Jesus' descent into hell is also affirmed in the Apostles' and Nicene Creeds and have been said by millions of the faithful for centuries. If Creeds require ecumenical consent one wonders how many Protestants, who reject the notion of Christ's descent into hell, simply assume they have the authority to edit and revise an ecumenical Creed given by the church universal.
Is it possible to incorporate the first and third views into 1 Peter 3:18-20, or are they too incompatible for such a blending?
Does anyone have any thoughts on this?
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I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)