Did Jesus Descend into Hades to give Lost Souls a Second Chance to be Saved?July 11, 2022 1 Comment
Anyone who has studied 1 Peter knows that chapter three, verses eighteen through twenty-two are the most challenging to interpret. Many have concluded from this passage, wrongly in my opinion, that during the time between his death and resurrection Jesus descended into hades and preached the gospel to lost souls in order to give them a second chance to be saved. But is that really what Peter is saying? In my opinion, no. Here is the text.
(18) For Christ also suffered once for sins, 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, (19) in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, (20) because they formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water. (21) Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, (22) who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him.
This paragraph is notoriously difficult and controversial. Its primary thrust is to cite the suffering and ultimate victory of Jesus as a rationale for why his followers should embrace undeserved suffering (“also”, kai, v. 18a). Unlike the sacrifices repeatedly offered during the time of the old covenant, Jesus made atonement for sin “once” (hapax), thereby testifying to the complete sufficiency of his death. He offered himself, the “righteous” one, as a substitutionary (“for”) sacrifice for the “unrighteous” (us). His goal in this was that we might get God!
Space does not permit an extensive response to alternative theories, so I will simply articulate what I believe Peter is saying. The contrast in view between “the flesh” in which Christ was “put to death” and the “spirit” in which he was made alive is “between Christ’s death in the natural sphere, and his risen life in the eternal, spiritual sphere. Thus the second phrase [“made alive in the spirit”] does not refer to Christ disembodied, but to Christ risen to life on a new plane” (R. T. France, 267). Therefore, to be “made alive in the spirit” does not refer to an experience of Jesus prior to his resurrection, as if between his death and resurrection he entered into some intermediate, disembodied state in Hades. The second half of v. 18, simply put, describes his death and resurrection.
Thus, the relative clause, “in which” that opens v. 19 has as its antecedent the “spirit” of v. 18b. It follows that v. 19 portrays the experience of Christ subsequent to his resurrection, not before it. Contrary to widespread belief, the verb translated “went” (v. 19a) does not refer to a “descent” into hell or Hades but is the standard Greek verb for “to go” (poreuomai). In fact, it appears yet again in v. 22 (“has gone”) to describe the “ascent” of Christ into heaven.
The “spirits in prison” to which Christ made proclamation are not the spirits of human beings who have died physically, supposedly those people who rebelled in the days of Noah by ridiculing his building of the ark. These “spirits” are the rebellious angels or demons who lusted after female humans (Gen 6:1-5; cf. 2Pet 2:4; Jude 6) and were consigned by God to “prison” in advance of the final judgment. It was to these that Christ proclaimed his victory and their defeat, most likely at the time of his ascension and exaltation to the right hand of the Father (3:22). The proclamation to these rebellious “spirits” was not the presentation of the gospel, as if Christ was giving an opportunity or second chance for salvation, but the making known of their judgment and definitive subjugation (cf. v. 22; Eph 1:20-22; Col 2:15; Heb 2:14). The main point, says France, “is that there is no mention of going down, or of Sheol or Hades (which is never called phylake [prison] in biblical literature). Christ went to the prison of the fallen angels, not to the abode of the dead, and the two are never equated” (271).
If one asks what possible relevance this might have for those enduring persecution in the first century, or in any century, for that matter, France explains:
“They might be called to endure the worst that anti-Christian prejudice could inflict. But even then they could be assured that their pagan opponents, and, more important, the spiritual powers of evil that stood behind them and directed them, were not outside Christ’s control: they were already defeated, awaiting final punishment. Christ had openly triumphed over them. Here is real comfort and strength for the persecuted church which took very seriously the reality and power of spiritual forces” (272).
Peter’s reference to the “spirits” that disobeyed at the time of the great flood provides the link to his discussion of Noah in vv. 20-21. Just as the readers of this letter were likely few in number, only eight survived the flood that engulfed the earth. And in much the same way as Noah and his family were saved “through” or by means of water, so also Peter’s audience was saved by means of the water of baptism. Thus the experience of Noah, his family, and the waters of the great flood constituted a type of which Peter’s recipients and their baptism are the antitype.
Peter is quick to explain in what sense baptism “saves” and in what sense it does not. The physical action of the water on the body accomplishes nothing of a spiritual nature. Baptism saves only in the sense in which it provides the occasion for an “appeal to God for a good conscience” (v. 21b). The word rendered “appeal” by the ESV could also be translated, “pledge.” When baptized, the believer appeals to God on the basis of or “through” the resurrection of Jesus, or perhaps baptism is itself the pledge by which the believer makes known his/her commitment to Christ as Lord. In either case, the assurance Peter provides is that they are united to Christ by faith (to which baptism bears witness), he to whom all evil powers of opposition have been subjected (v. 22). The believer’s baptism is thus a vivid reminder of the victory that is ours through the One who is now “at the right hand of God” (v. 22).