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Enjoying God Blog


Today we recognize and celebrate the atoning sacrifice of Jesus on what is known as Good Friday. Two days hence we will rejoice on Easter Sunday that Jesus rose again to life. So what was Jesus doing on Saturday? Continue reading . . . 

Today we recognize and celebrate the atoning sacrifice of Jesus on what is known as Good Friday. Two days hence we will rejoice on Easter Sunday that Jesus rose again to life. So what was Jesus doing on Saturday? Many believe that he descended into hell. They base this belief on 1 Peter 3:18-22.

“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, in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, 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. 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, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him” (1 Peter 3:18-22).

Is Peter telling us that indeed Jesus descended into hell at some point between the time of his death on the cross and his bodily resurrection on Easter Sunday? No. Let’s look closely at the text.

According to v. 18b, Jesus was “put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit.” The words “flesh” and “spirit” do not refer to the two natures of Christ, the human and the divine. In all likelihood, this is simply a reference to the death and resurrection of Christ: he was crucified and was raised. He died physically but was made alive by the work of the Holy Spirit (see 1 Timothy 3:16). Some argue that the word “spirit” here is not so much a reference to the Holy Spirit as it is a reference to the supernatural, spiritual sphere of existence into which Jesus entered upon being raised from the dead. Thus, he died in the earthly, temporal realm, a realm characterized by flesh, and he was made alive or raised to the heavenly, eternal realm, a realm characterized by spirit. In either case, Peter has in view Christ’s resurrection from the dead.

It was in that spiritual realm or by the power of the Holy Spirit that he went and proclaimed his victory over sin and death and darkness to the spirits in prison. This is an extremely difficult statement to understand.

Some believe that Peter is saying that the pre-incarnate Christ, that is to say, the Son of God, the second person of the Trinity before he became human flesh in the person of Jesus, through the Holy Spirit, preached to the disobedient people living in the days of Noah, just before the flood. Christ wasn’t personally present at that time but by means of the Spirit spoke through Noah.

Others argue that it was during the three days between his death and his resurrection that Christ descended into hell and preached to those who were disobedient during the days preceding the flood of Noah. From this some have concluded that he was giving them a second chance to be saved after their deaths.

But I am persuaded that what Peter is talking about is something that happened after Christ’s resurrection from the dead. He’s not talking about what the pre-incarnate Christ did during the time of Noah nor what Christ supposedly did during the interval between his death and resurrection.

Being “made alive in the spirit” or “by the Spirit” in v. 18b is clearly a reference to his bodily resurrection. It was “in” or “by means of” that Spirit, after his resurrection, that he preached to the spirits in prison. Look at v. 22 where Peter says that Jesus “has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God.” Clearly this is describing what we call the “ascension” of Jesus Christ, i.e., following his resurrection he was exalted by God and went into heaven where he sat down at the right hand of the Father. The word used to describe this ascension of Christ, translated “gone” in v. 22, is the same word used here in v. 19 to describe Christ going to preach to the spirits in prison. There’s nothing in this word that would lead us to think it means to “descend.” It simply means to “go”.

One of the primary reasons I’m convinced of this view is because of the word “spirits” (v. 19). Almost without exception in the NT, the word “spirit” in the plural refers to angels, not human beings. The only exception is Hebrews 12:23 where we read about “the spirits of the righteous made perfect.” The addition of the word “righteous” clearly indicates that humans are in view. Nowhere in the Bible are humans ever referred to as “spirits” without some qualifying word or phrase. But every time it is used without a qualifying word or phrase it clearly refers to angels or demons. Furthermore, the word “prison” is nowhere used in the Bible to refer to the place of punishment for human beings after death. It is used, however, in Revelation 20:7 to refer to the place where Satan is “imprisoned” for 1,000 years.

All this has led me to conclude that Peter is describing an event after the resurrection of Christ from the dead, probably simultaneous with his ascension into heaven, in which he proclaimed his victory over the fallen angels, i.e., the demons who were imprisoned by God because of their sin. He announced to them their judgment and doom.

But we still have to figure out when and in what way these “spirits” or “demons” disobeyed and why it was important that Jesus proclaimed his victory over them.

Let’s take the first part of that question. When did these “spirits” disobey God and what did they do? The good news is that we have two other passages in the NT that also refer to this event. The first is found in 2 Peter 2:4-5. There we read:

“For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell and committed them to chains of gloomy darkness to be kept until the judgment; if he did not spare the ancient world, but preserved Noah, a herald of righteousness, with seven others, when he brought a flood upon the world of the ungodly; . . .”

And then also in Jude 6-7 we read:

“And the angels who did not say within their own position of authority, but left their proper dwelling, he has kept in eternal chains under gloomy darkness until the judgment of the great day – just as Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities, which likewise indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural desire, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire.”

What in the world do these three texts have in mind? The answer is found in an obscure and extremely controversial passage in the Old Testament. In Genesis 6:1-5, we read this:

“When man began to multiply on the face of the land and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw that the daughters of man were attractive. And they took as their wives any they chose. Then the LORD said, ‘My Spirit shall not abide in man forever, for he is flesh: his days shall be 120 years.’ The Nephilim were on the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of God came in to the daughters of man and they bore children to them. These were the mighty men who were of old, the men of renown.”

This was the "sin" of those demons referred to in 1 Peter 3:18-20 and 2 Peter 2:4 and Jude 6, for which they are now confined in hell. This "sin" was not their original rebellion, for why, then, would only some be confined and not all? It can't be that only the more wicked were permanently confined, for Satan, the most wicked of all, is still free. The context in 1 Peter 3, 2 Peter 4, and Jude 6 links this "sin" with the flood of Noah. Most believe they are referring to this event in Genesis 6. Several possible interpretations of this text have been suggested.

Some argue that the "sons of God" were humans, the godly male descendants of Seth, whereas the "daughters of men" were ungodly female descendants of Cain. There are a number of reasons why this view is unlikely. First, the phrase is "daughters of men" not "daughters of Cain," which on the surface seems more likely to describe daughters of men in general. Second, surely not all the daughters (female descendants) of Cain are to be thought of as significantly more evil than other females in the earth. Third, whereas the phrase "sons of God" is used to describe the nation as a whole, it is never used in the OT to refer to a particular group within humanity noted for their piety. Fourth, on the other hand, it is used specifically of celestial beings.

Another view is that the "sons of God" were men of nobility (kings, rulers, princes) who because of lust married outside and well below their rank and status (their sin was polygamy). But as Oropeza observes, “it is not clear . . . why God would abhor polygamy enough to destroy the entire earth by the flood. Long after the flood, the Israelites engaged in polygamy without incurring God’s displeasure” (B. J. Oropeza, 99 Answers to Questions about Angels, Demons, & Spiritual Warfare [Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1997], 61.)

The most likely view is that this text describes a massive intrusion of the demonic into the domain of humanity. This was the interpretation dominant in the patristic period until Augustine (354-430) argued for the first view above. Why do I think this view is the more likely one? First, the phrase "sons of God" is used in Job 1:6; 2:1; 38:7; Pss. 29:1; 89:6; and probably Deut. 32:8 to refer to angelic beings. [Although we should not give it too much weight, it is worth noting that the phrase "sons of God" was understood to refer to angels in the earliest known exposition of Genesis 6, that is, in 1 Enoch 6-11.] Second, the contrast between "sons of God" and "daughters of men" suggests that the former are to be distinguished from human beings. The contrast is most naturally taken to be between beings who are not human and beings who are. Third, Jude 6-7 implies that the sin of these angels was sexual in nature.

The most frequently cited objection to this view is that angels/demons do not marry or procreate (Mt. 22:30), thus it is inconceivable that demons could engage humans in any kind of sexual relationship. But in Matthew 22 Jesus is describing the heavenly behavior of holy angels, not the earthly misbehavior of evil angels. Also, the point of Matthew 22 is that angels do not intermarry with each other, i.e., they are not a race that propagates itself. But they still might seek some sort of sexual interaction with humans. We should also remember that in Genesis 18-19 angels appeared in human form, ate solid food, and were pursued by the homosexual community of Sodom and Gomorrah. Clearly, "an angel's involvement in sexual activity was not foreign to the Pentateuch's world of thought” (Sydney Page, Powers of Evil, 49). When we add to this that the NT portrays demons as longing to inhabit human bodies, it suggests that Genesis 6 is describing not so much demons per se but demonized humans, i.e., humans in whom demons are dwelling. Page summarizes as follows:

"The sin had a sexual nature, yet it was not simply a sexual sin. More fundamentally, it was a sin of rejecting the order created by God and violating distinctions he had instituted between the various kinds of creatures he had made. Not content to live within the parameters established by Yahweh, the angels formed unnatural unions with human women. The ancient Israelites may well have preserved this story because they saw in it a warning to shun the fertility religions with their sacred marriages between gods and humans” (53; emphasis mine).

Oropeza suggests that these were not in fact demonized humans but “incarnated demons” (for lack of a better term). He then asks the question: “If angels really did manifest themselves in human form, how is it that they were able to duplicate the human DNA structure necessary to produce offspring (if indeed our current understandings of human structuring are correct)? Even if angels are supernatural and were intelligent enough to do so, creating human life seems to be a work that is reserved only for God” (64). He goes on to suggest that perhaps “the sons of God saw the wickedness of humans and asked God to clothe them with bodies so that they could come to earth to teach men laws and morals. . . . It was at this time that angels descended from heaven to earth. After they were clothed with human flesh, however, they fell to the same passions as do all humans, and so they gave themselves over to the lusts of the flesh, desiring earthly women” (64-65).

In summary, I believe that Genesis 6 describes the "sin" mentioned in 1 Peter 3, 2 Peter 2:4, and Jude 6. Subsequent to their fall from heaven, and as an expression of their moral depravity, an unspecified number of those demons inhabited (took up residence in) human bodies and contracted marriage relationships with the "daughters of men." Thus we are reading about a case of demonized men entering into marriage with women and contributing greatly to the increase of depravity and corruption in the earth (Gen. 6:5-7). These demons were, at some later time, consigned to permanent imprisonment until the day of final judgment.

The point of our passage in 1 Peter, therefore, is that after his resurrection and through the power of the Spirit Jesus went to the prison where these “spirits” or demons are being held and he proclaimed to them the victory he had achieved through his death on the cross and his being raised from the dead.

Look again at the conclusion of v. 21 and all of v. 22. Here Peter says that the risen Christ has gone into heaven, having subjected to himself all angels, authorities, and powers. These terms are typically used in the NT for the fallen angels or demons. Therefore, the “spirits” in v. 19 who disobeyed during the time of Noah and were cast into prison are the same “angels, authorities, and powers” in v. 22 who have been put in subjection to the Lordship of Christ.

Peter’s audience was suffering greatly at the hands of their enemies. This entire letter is a call for them to persevere, an encouragement to them not to quit or abandon their faith. His aim, then, is to reassure them that their unbelieving enemies and especially the spiritual powers of evil that stood behind those enemies cannot win! They cannot prevail! They are not outside of Christ’s sovereign power or control. In fact, they were thoroughly defeated at the cross and resurrection of Christ (see especially Colossians 2:14-15). Christ has triumphed over them. In fact, he has even gone to the place of their imprisonment and added an exclamation point, as it were, to their defeat, proclaiming to them that he is Lord!

1 Comment

Excellent, never before had I heard 1 Peter 3 linked with Genesis 6. I think it makes perfect sense the way you explained it. Thank you!

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