The Conditionalist Faith of Our Fathers, vol. 1


II. Problem Text (1 Peter 3:19)—Preaching to “Spirits in Prison”


Certain texts are quoted from Peter to sustain the Innate-Immortality postulate. Actually, they are thus placed in outright conflict with the general tenor of the teaching of Scripture. And concepts that are at variance with the prevailing witness of Scripture are supported only by an unwarranted construction of a few texts that are admittedly difficult of interpretation, or are susceptible of two renderings. One of these is 1 Peter 3:19—the “spirits in prison.” This is the full statement in context: CFF1 372.5

“For Christ also hath once suffered [apethanen, “died”] for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit: by which [the Spirit] also he went and preached [ekiruxen, “to herald,” “announce,” “proclaim publicly”] unto the spirits in prison; which sometime were disobedient, when once the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls [persons] were saved by water” (1 Peter 3:18-20). CFF1 373.1

Picture 2: Peter’s Work:
Peter, Powerful Preacher at Pentecost, Was Equally Emphatic on Life Only in Christ, Bestowed at the Resurrection. Peter’s Message of Restoration and Life Was Ever Centered in Christ as the Source of Life Eternal for Sinners Transformed Into Saints.
Page 373

Some Immortal-Soulists hold that the souls of the righteous dead were liberated by our Lord when He descended into Hades at His death, and then ascended with Him to Heaven; and that all who have died since that time, if purified from all sin, go directly to Heaven. They usually hold, however, that these souls will come back for their bodies at the time of the general resurrection. And part of this theory is the contention that Christ’s “spirit” preached the gospel, during the interval between His death and resurrection, to the “spirits” of antediluvian times, confined to this Hadean prison. CFF1 373.2

Peter speaks frankly of “some things” in Paul’s writings that are “hard to be understood” (2 Peter 3:16), which some “wrest ... unto their own destruction.” Paul might have responded in kind concerning Peter’s writings. And this passage is one of them. Let us consider it in some detail. But we must beware lest one text be allowed, by reading Platonic Immortal-Soulism into it, to check the whole central current of consistent Scripture teaching. CFF1 374.1


From the foregoing verses (1 Peter 3:18-20), the contention is made that the soul, or spirit, is immortal, and continues to live on in uninterrupted consciousness after death. And, during the interval between Christ’s death and resurrection, it is held that Christ’s conscious spirit, His real being (while His body lay in the grave), descended into hades, the abode of the allegedly living dead, to preach to the disembodied conscious “spirits” of the antediluvians imprisoned there, with a view to giving them a second chance, and thus to escape from torment. CFF1 374.2

That is the basic contention. The question must pertinently be asked at this point, even on such a premise, Why did Christ go down to “hell” (hades, “the grave”) to preach to the damned spirits there, some twenty-four hundred years after the Flood, since their probation passed at death, according to uniform Bible testimony? CFF1 374.3

The implications of such a position are profound and revolutionary. Some, we are confident, have never thought them through. If the dead are consciously alive—and can be preached to, and can be benefited by such preaching, and can repent and be saved out of torment—then the Roman Catholic doctrine of Purgatory, or its equivalent, is validated, and the modern contention of probation after death is substantiated. Those are the momentous implications. Such a proposition is obviously of sufficient importance as to merit careful examination. First, note some basic facts. CFF1 374.4


As to Christ’s condition in death, Christ’s body was put into the grave, or sepulcher (hades, or gravedom—Psalm 16:10; Acts 2:31), while He commended His “spirit” to God (Luke 23:46; cf. Psalm 31:5). According to the apostle Peter, who had talked with Jesus after the resurrection (John 21:7-22), and who was the preacher at Pentecost (Acts 2:14ff.), Jesus’ soul (Greek psyche equivalent here to Hebrew nephesh, Jesus Himself) was in the grave from death until the resurrection. Quoting David (Psalm 16:10), Peter said of Christ: CFF1 375.1

“Thou wilt not leave my soul in hell [hades, “the grave”], neither wilt thou suffer thine Holy One to see corruption.” “He would raise up Christ to sit on his throne” (Acts 2:27, 30). CFF1 375.2

Note that “my soul” in the first clause is paralleled by “thine Holy One” in the second clause. It was Jesus Himself that slept in the tomb. CFF1 375.3

Christ went nowhere and performed no action between His death and His “quickening,” or resurrection, for He was asleep in death. CFF1 375.4


The word “quicken” (zoopoieo), here emphasized in 1 Peter 3:18, is the same used in Romans 8:11: CFF1 375.5

“But if the Spirit of him that raised up Jesus from the dead dwell in you, he that raised up Christ from the dead shall also quicken [zoopoiesei] your mortal bodies by his Spirit that dwelleth in you.” CFF1 375.6

According to this, God brought again our Lord from the dead by the Holy Spirit—the same Spirit by whom His followers are to be raised at the last day. The “quickening” here means “to impart life, to make alive.” He was put to death in the flesh and made alive by the Spirit. To contend that He continued alive would be to nullify, or invalidate, the declaration that He was made alive, or brought back to life, and for a time had been dead—from the cross until His resurrection “from the dead” (Romans 1:4). CFF1 375.7

He says of Himself, in Revelation 1:18, “I am he that liveth, and was dead; and, behold, I am alive for evermore.” CFF1 376.1

Incontestably Christ was put to death. He was quickened by the Spirit. He went and preached to spirits in prison. But His preaching was not between His death and resurrection. Thus the contention collapses that this occurred between the time when Christ laid down His life for our sins “and was raised again for our justification” (Romans 4:25). Any other affirmation on the part of man is pure assumption, in conflict with Holy Scripture. CFF1 376.2


If, as stated in the text (1 Peter 3:18), Christ was “quickened [raised to life] by the Spirit,” it is equally clear that it was by the Spirit that He did the preaching mentioned here. The text reads “quickened by the Spirit: by which also he went and preached.” Since the text says that the preaching was done “when once the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah,” it must be Noah’s generation that heard the preaching of Christ through the Spirit. CFF1 376.3

In the account of the condition of the earth before the Flood, the Bible records, “The Lord said, My spirit shall not always strive with man, for that he also is flesh: yet his days shall be an hundred and twenty years” (Genesis 6:3). Since according to Peter, Noah was a “preacher of righteousness” (2 Peter 2:5), it follows that the Spirit preached through Noah just as He has preached to every generation to whom God sent His human messengers. And it is Christ through the Spirit who is said to have done this. Here is no conflict, for Christ is the mediator of all communication to earth from Heaven. CFF1 376.4

But how can these antediluvians be called “spirits”? We will let Dr. Adam Clarke, well-known commentator, answer this question. After remarking that the phrase, “he went and preached,” should be understood to mean, “by the ministry of Noah,” he goes on to explain: CFF1 376.5

“The word pneumasi, spirits, is supposed to render this view of the subject improbable, because this must mean disembodied spirits; but this certainly does not follow, for the spirits of just men made perfect, Hebrews 12:23, certainly means righteous men, and men still in the Church militant; and the Father of spirits, Hebrews 12:9, means men still in the body; and the God of the spirits of all flesh, Numbers 16:22, and Numbers 27:16, means men not in a disembodied state.” 3 CFF1 377.1