Preaching to the Spirits in Prison

By A. Eugene Thomson, Simpsonville, Kentucky.


“Because Christ also suffered for sins once, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God; being put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit; in which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison, that aforetime were disobedient, when the long-suffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing” (1 Pet. 3:18–20).

A solution of the difficulties involved in this confessedly perplexing passage calls for a journey which may at first seem to be far afield. Not a few have thought to find here reason for a hope that to the impenitent dead may be given another opportunity to hear and accept the invitations of divine grace. This passage was a favorite proof-text on the side of what was called the “larger hope” in the “second probation” controversy of twenty years ago, echoes of which can still occasionally he heard. A satisfactory study of the passage should settle the question of the propriety of such inferences. Moreover, there can be no statement given in the word of God which was not intended for the good of man, to impart some valuable and needed truth. The more difficult the passage, the weightier, probably, the truth contained therein, and the better worth our study. An understanding of the passage under discussion can be had only by determining what the “prison “was in which Jesus proclaimed his glad tidings, and who the inhabitants were to whom he spoke, and what their condition.

The Truth About Hades

This lies at the bottom of a correct understanding of the passage in question. In such a study it is vitally necessary to recognize our utter lack of knowledge except as we may gain it from the Bible. No amount of theory or speculation can for a single moment unlock the doors of the under-world and let us see its status.

1. In the Old Testament little is said about heaven ,or hell. They may be inferred, but explicit statements are wanting. The word for “heaven,” שמים (Shamayim), does not mean the abode of the holy dead, but the skies above the earth. God’s seat of governmental authority was regarded as located there. “The heaven, even the heaven of heavens, is the Lord’s”; “It is as high as heaven, what canst thou know? “It was said of Elijah that he “went up by a whirlwind into heaven.” That was all Elisha knew or could tell. Elijah went up into the sky. What became of him Elisha did not know, though beyond a doubt he believed that his master was with God. Probably few careful students of the Old Testament will question the statement that “heaven “throughout that book, and very often indeed in the New Testament, refers (only to the regions above us. Jacob knew nothing of a place above us where the godly dead dwell, but saw angels coming down from the upper regions and ascending again. As a matter of fact we ourselves would have difficulty in locating heaven. All we can say is that it is outside this earth.

In like manner hell, as the final place of .punishment for the ungodly dead, waits for the New Testament to be clearly set forth. It was death which awaited godly and ungodly alike in the thought of the Old Testament people, though there was a confident expectation that the lot of the righteous would be better than that of the wicked. So Balaam said, “Let me die the death of the righteous,” etc. (see, also, 1 Kings 1:21; 2:10). The godly were “gathered to their fathers,” or “slept with their fathers.” It is worth noting that in the New Testament references to the death of Old Testament saints they are not said to have gone to heaven but to have been gathered to their fathers (see Acts 13:36, where Paul speaks thus of David. With all the knowledge of heaven possessed by New Testament writers, knowledge based on the plain teaching of Jesus, they did not write of the Old Testament worthies in New .Testament terms, as having been taken, at death, to heaven. They recognized the difference between being “gathered to their fathers “and departing “to be with Christ,” between going to Hades and going to Heaven.

The grave was the expectation, and it took strong faith to escape being overwhelmed ,by it. “The dead praise not Jehovah, neither any that go down into silence.” “In Sheol who shall give thee thanks?” “There is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in Sheol, whither thou goest.” Thus the godly believed that they were not to be annihilated, that in some way there would be a good future prepared for them by God (see the words of Job in Job 19:15–27), but that future was not anything sufficiently definite for them to rejoice in.

2. This was fitting and right. As none can enter heaven but by the atoning work of Jesus, and that work had not yet been wrought out on the cross, it was not proper that the godly dead should enter heaven till it had been accomplished. John the Baptist said, “He that believeth on the Son hath eternal life.” John the Apostle wrote, “To as many as received him, to them gave he the power to become the sons of God.” Jesus said, “He that eateth my flesh and drinketh my blood hath eternal life.” There cannot be two roads to heaven, two ways of gaining eternal life. The biblical teaching makes it plain that only through Christ’s atoning work, and only by a conscious acceptance of that work for himself, can any soul gain eternal life and a place in heaven. If any should bring up the case of those dying in infancy, we must lay it down as a rule of biblical interpretation that no difficulty suggested by us, in our imperfect view of the subject, can stand against the plain teaching of the Word of God. God knew of those difficulties, if they really are such, when he gave the inspired word; and we can safely leave the solution to him. We may, however, assume that the innocent babes, in whose salvation we have sufficient warrant for believing, will have Christ’s redemptive work presented to them, and that, whatever may be its relation to those who have not the guilt of personal sin on their souls, they will gladly accept it.

3. Paradise. There is abundant reason, from the Scriptures, for believing that in Sheol, or Hades, the godly dead were happy, and Jesus taught this clearly in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. Without making the parable “go on all fours,” we cannot help seeing that, before the atoning work was completed, the godly, not yet in heaven, were in blessedness, and the ungodly, not yet in hell, were already in torment. This is reasonable. If the godly were in such an attitude that on the presentation of Christ’s work they would instantly and gladly accept it, to keep them in misery would be unjust, if there was ever to be an atonement made for them. If the ungodly had so hardened their hearts against God that to present Jesus to them would be of no avail, self-judged, as Paul says in Romans ii., their treatment would be unjust if they were given happiness. As a matter of fact, unless, pending the atonement for the one and the final judgment for the other, they were to be held in an unconscious state, the stings of conscience would make torment for the one, and an approving conscience happiness for the other.

Paradise, therefore, before Christ rose from the dead, was that division of Hades, the under-world, the place of the dead, where the godly dead were waiting. Jesus said to the thief on the cross, “Verily, I say unto thee, To-day shalt thou be with me in Paradise.” That was not heaven, for after his resurrection he said to Mary, “I am not yet ascended to the Father.”

After his ascension, Paradise was no longer in Hades. See 2 Cor. 12:2–4, where Paul says in verse 2 that he was caught up to the third heaven, and in verse 4 that he was caught up into Paradise. See also Rev. 2:7, where the tree of life is located in Paradise, and Rev. 22:2, where it is located in the New Jerusalem, thus identifying the New Jerusalem and Paradise.

Just where Hades was and is located, just where all the dead once were and the ungodly dead are now, is interesting, but has no special importance in this discussion. We are concerned not with the exact location of Hades, but with the relation to it which the godly and ungodly have sustained.

The Preaching To The Spirits In Prison

Now what has all this to do with the explanation of the passages which we set out to study? Let us review.

First, we have seen that godly and ungodly were in the under-world, conscious, the one happy and the other tormented secondly, we have seen that the godly could not ascend to heaven till Christ’s atoning work had been completed thirdly, Paradise was then in Hades, the apartment, we may say, of the godly dead. Thither Jesus and the penitent thief went from their different crosses.

These godly dead were sinners, all of them, unfit for heaven, till cleansed by the blood of the atonement. Many had had distant glimpses of the coming of the Saviour, and had believed, but had not full knowledge (see 1 Pet. 1:10–11). They were in prison; for, the atonement not having been completed, they could not properly be declared justified by being taken to God’s immediate presence, though practically they were under God’s smile in Paradise. To these Jesus went, declared the completion of his redemptive work, and gave each the opportunity to personally accept it, which each one would eagerly, gladly do, for only those of that attitude of heart would be in that part of Hades. At the resurrection of Jesus he took these with him to heaven. Just when he did that, whether at the end of the forty days, when he ascended in the presence of the disciples, or whether he led them to his Father’s presence earlier, we cannot say. For him to go into heaven was not such a transition as it is for us. Note his words to Nicodemus, “the Son of man who is in heaven” (John 3:13). A glimpse of that coming forth from Hades is given in Matt, 27:52–53:”And the tombs were opened; and many bodies of the saints that had fallen asleep were raised; and coming forth out of the tombs after his resurrection they entered into the holy city and appeared unto many.” It is as though such a (great event could not take place without its being proper that men should see something of it. Therefore, some of the dead were permitted to receive their bodies for a time, that men might see them. Of course they did not receive their resurrection bodies. Those will be given at the return of Christ (see 1 Thess. 4:13–17).

But, what about that particular statement, “That aforetime were disobedient, when the long-suffering of God waited in the days of Noah,” etc.? This should be taken, with the statement made in chapter 4:6, “For unto this end was the gospel preached even to the dead, that they might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the Spirit.” Let us examine the latter of these first. This statement exactly expresses the situation which we have discovered in our previous study. (The godly dead had sinned, and had incurred the penalty, bodily death (Rom. 5:12), though they were to escape the penalty of eternal death. Besides, as we have seen, they were still kept out of heaven till the atoning sacrifice for their sins should have been offered by the Son of God. Therefore, as men, they had been judged, found guilty, and condemned to suffer the penalty of physical death, which had been pronounced on the race as such. The judgment of eternal death, however, was not pronounced on them, but by the grace of God they became inheritors of eternal, spiritual life, though it could not be formally conferred on them till Jesus died and rose again. It was necessary, however, that they should consciously accept the atoning work of Christ. “To as many as received him” (John 1:12). For that purpose it was necessary that the atonement should be presented to them. This Jesus did. It would be quite correct to read the passage in question as follows, “For unto this end was the gospel preached, even to the dead, that though they had been judged indeed according to men in the flesh, they might live according to God in the Spirit.” Note a similar change by the Revisers in Rom. 6:17: Our Lord must have had great joy, after his rejection by the living, to thus present his work to this multitude of past ages, and see their rapture and ecstacy as they grasped that hope which they had believed on and waited for in their days of trial on earth.”

There is no occasion for discussing the possibility of his having presented the gospel to the ungodly dead. Since, as we have seen, both godly and ungodly were in Sheol, or Hades, but separated from each other, Jesus certainly did not go to the ungodly. They were not in Paradise. Jesus did not tell the penitent thief that he should be with him among the ungodly dead. They did not and will not “live according to God in the spirit,” though, in common with the godly and ungodly of all ages, they were and had been “judged according to men in the flesh.”

Now to continue the examination of chapter 3:20. The reason for introducing Noah seems to be only to open the way for calling attention to the old-time long-suffering of God, and to the ark as a figure of our salvation., The days before Jesus came we’re indeed days of the long-suffering of God. He withheld punishment, long due, till the Redeemer should come, and the redemption be prepared. In similar manner he withheld punishment on the ungodly antediluvian world till the ark should be ready. The saving of Noah is used as an illustration of God’s patience through the millenniums before Christ; and the people who were disobedient in the days of Noah, but yet did repent, stand for all such before Christ.

The Greek pote may be translated “formerly” as well as “sometime” (R. V.) or “then” (A. V.), and we might very properly insert “as,” and read, “who were formerly disobedient, when the long-suffering of God waited (as) in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing.” This instance of the saving of Noah may have been chosen because, at that time, there was such a sharp distinction and contrast between the godly and ungodly. When Elijah thought himself alone God said to him: “Yet will I leave me seven thousand in Israel, all the knees which have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth which hath not kissed him” (1 Kings 19:18). But to Noah he said, “For thee have I seen righteous before me hi this generation” (Gen. 7:1), the evident implication being “Thee only have I seen.”

This explanation falls in and harmonizes with what we have previously learned about the condition of the godly dead before Calvary and our Lord’s resurrection. The godly were disobedient in Noah’s time. Noah himself was disobedient. His drunkenness after the flood was doubtless not his first offense. Yet he and they were godly in that time when the long-suffering of God waited. They were godly, but there had been no provision made for the pardon of their sins. They were so godly as to be saved while the rest of the world was destroyed. Yet before they could be taken to the immediate presence of God they must be justified by a voluntary acceptance of the atoning work of Christ, the Lamb of God, slain 33 a. d., but “from the foundation of the world “in the plan of God.

The spirits to whom Jesus preached were those of the godly dead, who had died before he had accomplished his atoning work. This number would include the long list of Hebrew worthies who had been obedient to God during the preceding centuries, those in other nations who, following the inner light of conscience, or catching some faint gleams of the light that shone on Israel, sought for true character and the true God. It would include Abel and our first parents, and all godly antediluvian dead. There was doubtless a great host. They were “in prison,” yet not in suffering, not permitted to remain on earth nor yet admitted to heaven, but conscious of an approving conscience and the smile of God, and expectant of a happy future, while ignorant, doubtless, as to just what that future might contain. They were in the position of repentant lawbreakers for whom an arrangement is going to be made by which they may be pardoned and released, but who are kept in prison till such arrangements can be completed. They would be treated with a consideration not accorded to other prisoners, while not yet permitted to go free.

The basis of the explanation of this passage must be: —

1. The words must have a meaning. The character of the entire letter, evidently inspired, precludes such an idea as that this can be a rambling, meaningless statement.

2. We have no reason to believe that the long-suffering of God was more greatly tried in the time of Noah than later, when he had made a fuller manifestation of himself, and man had less excuse for sin.

3. The case of Noah must therefore have been chosen (1) as peculiarly illustrative of God’s patience with man through all the ages, giving a period the classes of which were espectally fitted to illustrate the preaching to the spirits in prison, which is really but a digression from the apostle’s main line of argument, and (2) as leading up to baptism and the lesson to be drawn from it in verse 21: It has been said that the classes in this period, the days of Noah, were especially fitted to illustrate the preaching to the spirits in prison. Probably never since that period, and never before, after the human race became at all numerous, has there been a time when the good and the bad among mankind were so evidently and sharply separated before the eyes of men. “And the earth was corrupt before God, and the earth was filled with violence” (Gen. 6:11). This was the one instance in the entire course of the world’s history when divine wisdom found it necessary to depopulate the earth and to start the race practically anew. Those who had so corrupted themselves as to be unfit to live on the earth were certainly not proper candidates for a preaching of the gospel to them in Hades. The souls who faced truth and duty in that time and accepted or rejected could with peculiar safety be used by the apostles to illustrate the mission of Christ to the spirits in prison. The writer guarded as carefully as possible his teaching from being perverted into support of any “second probation “idea.


It is a legitimate inference from this study, that, if the godly dead, before the resurrection of the Lord, were in prison, in Sheol, and were released only by his loving work of grace, the ungodly dead, who were ,also in Sheol, and had certainly no such deliverance at the hand of Christ, are there still. This puts the stamp of falsity on spiritism, in so far as it claims to give communication with the spirits of the dead. The godly dead would certainly not respond to human attempts at communication, for God, their God, has forbidden such attempts. The ungodly dead cannot respond, for they are still in prison. The truth in spiritism, so far as there is any, and the writer of this believes there is much, is simply that evil spirits are permitted to be abroad, among us, and they, for their own evil purposes, seek to impersonate the dead. For this belief there is the best of biblical warrant. Spiritism is absolutely false, so far as it claims to give communication with the dead. Spiritism probably has a certain awful reality, but it is the reality of demonology and demon worship, than which there is nothing more debasing and utterly ruinous.