Devoted to the Propagation and Defense of New Testament Christianity
April 19, 1982
NUMBER 49, PAGE 1,12

When And How Did Christ Preach To The "Spirits In Prison"?

Robert H. Farish, Lufkin, Texas

The question how and when did Christ preach unto the "spirits in prison," have been answered by some in such a way as to contradict plain teaching of scripture. It is publicly proclaimed by some that Christ in his own spirit, between his death and resurrection, "went and preached unto the spirits in prison." This idea flatly contradicts what Christ taught about the nature of the Hadean world. This point will be dealt with more fully later, but before entering upon a discussion of the case it will be best to allow one of the ablest advocates of the theory to present the case.

The New Analytical Bible published by John A. Dickson Publishing Company, deviates from its general design to give an exegesis of 1 Peter 3:18-20, which seeks to prove that it was Christ's "spiritual incorporeal life as distinct from the flesh in which he was put to death," and not Christ by the agency of the Holy Spirit that did the preaching. The editor further answers the question, when, by saying that, "It was during the time Christ was in the grave that He, in His own spirit, went and preached "

The editor of the commentary on 1 Peter 3:18-20 relies in the main, for the support of his theory upon what he calls "The mistaken translation of the Authorized Version." Here are his comments: "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 Christ 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 misunderstanding." (Limitations of space prevent giving all the commentary on The Spirits In Prison, but those who wish to read the comments in full will find them on pages 1414-1415, in The New Analytical Bible - John A. Dickson Publishing Co.)

James Macknight translates 1 Peter 3:18-19 as following: "For even Christ hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God; being put to death indeed in the flesh, but made alive by the Spirit. By which also he preached to the spirits in prison."

Macknight comments, "(By which also he preached to the spirits in prison) Christ is said, by the same Spirit who made him alive, to have preached to the antediluvians, because his Spirit inspired Noah to preach to them, as is plain from Gen. 6:3, 'my Spirit shall not always strive with man' ...."

"(He preached) Elsner, on this passage, hath produced examples from the scriptures and from Demosthenes, to show that the phrase 'he went and preached' is a pleonasm for 'he preached'." — Apostical Epistles, page 620.

Macknight's scholarship is in no way inferior to the editor of the New Analytical Bible and we give his translation and comments lest some might think that the New Analytical Bible has given unquestioned and infallible translation. This arraying of one scholar against another is not a satisfactory procedure in determining the meaning of a passage and therefore is not used as the sole or even the main means of arriving at the answers to the two questions.

One requirement that should be observed in explaining any passage of scripture is that no passage should be construed to teach anything which contradicts any truth which is plainly expressed in the Bible. The answers given to the questions when and how in The New Analytical Bible contradict what our Lord said about the arrangement in the Hadean world. Our Lord said that "in Hades he (the rich man) lifted up his eyes being in torments, and seeth Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom." (Luke 18:23) This statement locates the rich man in the torments part of the Hadean world; it also locates Lazarus in the Hadean world, not in torments, but in Abraham's bosom. The rich man is represented by Christ as: making a request for a blessing. He wanted Lazarus to be allowed to "dip the tip of his finger in water, and cool my tongue." (Luke 18:24) Christ represented Abraham as refusing to grant this act of mercy upon the ground that justice forbade that blessings be extended to those who had come to that place of torments. He said, "Son, remember that thou in thy lifetime receivest thy good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things: but now here he is comforted and thou art in anguish." (Luke 18:25) But in addition to this requirement of justice there was the arrangement of "a great gulf fixed, that they that would pass from hence to you may not be able, and that none may cross over from thence to us." (Luke 18:28) According to the teaching of our Lord, none can cross that gulf, it is fixed, that none may cross over.

Where was Christ's "own spirit," his "spiritual incorporeal life," while his body was in the tomb? His "own spirit" or as Dickson refers to it "His spiritual incorporeal life" went to the Hadean world. Peter, speaking as the Holy Spirit gave him utterance, said, "that neither was he left unto Hades, nor did his flesh see corruption." (Acts 2:31) Upon which side of the "great gulf," which Christ taught was fixed in the Hadean world, does the Bible locate Christ's spirit when his spirit left his flesh there on the cross? To find the answer to this last question one needs only follow the account of the inspired narrative as it traces the course taken by the spirit when he on the cross "yielded up his spirit." (Matt. 27:50) The reader will recall that just prior to Christ's yielding up his spirit he had told the penitent thief that "today shall thou be with me in Paradise." (Luke 23:43) Christ's spirit went to the Paradise of the Hadean world when it left his body hanging on the cross. And according to Christ's own statement the "great gulf fixed, that they that would pass from hence" to the other side made it impossible for his spirit to go to the "spirits in prison" to preach to them.

The "great gulf" is fixed by God to prevent any passage either way. Death seals the destiny of every man. None can pass from paradise to the place of torments to carry a blessing to those who are in anguish and none can pass from the place of torments to enjoy the comfort of Paradise. Jesus' teaching limits his "spiritual incorporeal life" to Paradise during the time his body was in the grave. He could not have passed from Paradise to the place of torments and returned to the place of comfort without doing that which he said could not be done!

But when and how did Christ preach to the "spirits in prison"? The preaching was done "when the long-suffering of God waited in the days of Noah" (1 Peter 3:20); it was done by Noah "a preacher of righteousness." 2 Peter 2:5)

God — Christ — The Holy Spirit

The perfect unity that exists in the Godhead makes it entirely proper to refer to actions of the Holy Spirit as things done by God or by Christ. Furthermore, the Holy Spirit is sometimes, in the Bible called the Spirit of God and sometimes called the Spirit of Christ. The angel told Mary "the Holy Spirit shall come upon thee, and the power of the Most High shall overshadow thee: wherefore the holy thing which is begotten shall be called the Son of God." (Luke 1:35) Here it is said that Jesus, who was begotten by the Holy Spirit, is the Son of God. Jesus is the "only begotten of the Father." (John 1:14)

The resurrection of Christ is in the Bible ascribed to Christ: "Destroy this temple, and in three days 1 will raise it up" (John 2:19); to God: "This Jesus did God raise up" (Acts 2:32); to the Holy Spirit: "But if the Spirit of him that raised up Jesus from the dead." (Rom. 8:11) (See also Rom. 1:4) These passages establish that actions and accomplishments of the Holy Spirit are ascribed to God, the Father, and also to Christ, the Son.

The prophets who prophesied of the grace (salvation) which should come unto us did so by the "Spirit of Christ which was in them." (1 Peter 1:11) But, the Bible also says that "no prophecy ever came by the will of man: but men spake from God, being moved by the Holy Spirit." (2 Peter 1:21) Here the "Spirit of Christ" and the "Holy Spirit" are used interchangeably; that which the Spirit of Christ is said in one place to do, the Holy Spirit is in another place credited with doing.

With these considerations before us, the harmony of the view that Christ by the Holy Spirit "moved" Noah to preach righteousness to those of his day, is seen. The Spirit of God did "not strive with man" by operating upon him directly, but the Holy Spirit did "strive with man" through the preaching of Noah, a preacher of righteousness.