SPIRITS IN PRISON
October 03, 2007
image: Tartarus © Howard Kistler/Tabula Retina (used with permission)
I was recently in a debate on a Christian forum, and it's got me to thinking about those verses in the scriptures that seem to make so much sense, but when you look at the original Hebrew or Greek that was used when it was written, there's suddenly a cause to question.
The example here is 1 Peter 3:19-20a -
"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..." (NIV)
A straight read in the english makes it appear that Jesus died, but was made alive by the Spirit, and that this Spirit also allowed Jesus to go and preach to the "spirits in prison who disobeyed" during the time of Noah.
Well, that straight read has some interesting theological consequences, because it appears that Jesus went and preached to dead people, which gave them a second chance. But that doesn't vibe with the text that says that we're appointed to die once, after which we are judged. (Hebrews 9) But it's this very notion of Jesus preaching to the dead that we derive the Apostles creed, which states "He [Jesus] descended into Hell [inferna]."
If we don't believe that Jesus gives dead people a second chance, we can re-read the 1 Peter text by observing the ambiguity. Look at this key piece of the text again:
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...
There's nothing in the text that states that Jesus went to those spirits in prison in the same time frame as having been made alive by the Spirit. Rather, the text is merely stating that it is by the same Spirit that Christ rose from the dead that He preached to spirits who are *now* in prison.
It can be re-read this way: Jesus was put to the death, but the Spirit made Him alive. That same Spirit is also responsible for Christ having preached to the people before the Flood. They disobeyed and their souls are now in prison.
That's a possible read, but there's actually more ambiguity that allows the text to be read in several other directions.
First -- the phrase "he went and preached to spirits in prison who disobeyed" can be read about four different ways.
1. The word "preached" literally means to "proclaim," but it can also be interpreted to mean "preach," as in, delivering the salvation message. However, if it's merely a proclamation, Jesus is not delivering a salvation message, but merely announcing something -- perhaps His victory. Would Jesus boast of his victory over the souls of dead men? That seems contrary to Christ's nature, although God does boast his triumphs over enemy nations in the Old Testament. I guess it depends on who he's preaching/proclaiming to...
2. The word "spirits" can be translated into spiritual beings (angels, demons). It can also be translated into the spirit of men; ie., their soul/ghost. But the bible doesn't seem to support the notion of preaching a salvation message to supernatural beings, but it does allow for preaching to a salvation message to men. But dead men? We already covered that dead men are dead, and are not given another chance (ala the Hebrews text). So perhaps Jesus, by the Spirit, is not preaching to the souls of men, but rather proclaiming victory over the spiritual beings who disobeyed prior to the Flood. Who are these beings? Well, Genesis does refer to the angels of God who found the daughters of men beautiful, and lusted after them and had children with them...
3. What is this "prison" that Peter speaks of? The bible doesn't speak to this, except that if we think it's hell, it's either the place of the dead (as per the Old Testament understanding of death) or some other place of confinement. If you read through the book of Enoch (not found in the bible, but the book of Jude quotes from it, and this text in 1 Peter seems to allude to it), those very angels that disobeyed are placed into prison, and their judgment awaits them. That would go along well with the notion of Christ proclaiming his victory over them, as opposed to preaching to the souls of men who have no second chance (again, the Hebrews text).
4. But there's another possibility. The word "disobeyed" can be translated "disobeyed" but it is also (strangely...) translated as "obeyed" in the bible. Yes - that's right. Check out Romans 2:8 -
But for those who are self-seeking and who reject (disobey) the truth and follow (obey) evil, there will be wrath and anger.
The same word that's used in the 1 Peter text as "disobey" is translated as "reject" AND "follow" in a single verse in Romans. The NASB uses "do not obey" and "obey" instead of "reject/follow," which makes it easier to see the dual nature of the word.
So that's weird, right? How do we proceed from here? Well, now we open up the possibility that Jesus preached a saving message to those who OBEYED, but were imprisoned. And Jesus does speak a lot about visiting those believers who are imprisoned, does he not? But as we already concluded that dead men don't receive a second chance, the timing must be that Jesus, at the time of the flood, by the power of the Spirit, preached a saving message to these people. That's a possible read on the text, as the verse does not indicate timing.
Lots of possibilities here. Knowing that theologians disagree about what things in the bible mean, it can be dangerous to use a verse as the foundation for a theological position.
The more we know, the more we realize that we don't know anything. But I know that Christ was crucified for my sins, and that without Him, I am nothing.