May 2019 Credo

A Difficult Passage

1 Peter 3:18-22, filled with textual, grammatical, lexical and theological difficulties is considered as one of the most difficult passages in the NT.  This is evidenced by the great reformer, Martin Luther’s comments: “This is a strange text and certainly a more obscure passage than any other passage in the New Testament.  I still do not know for sure what the apostle meant.” This passage has often been understood as Jesus’ descent into hell in the interim between his crucifixion and resurrection, preaching the gospel to those who did not hear about it.

We shall attempt to understand this passage using the following questions.  Where did Christ go – did he descend into hell?  When did he go – was it after his death and before he resurrection?  To whom did he speak – who were the “spirits in prison”?  What did he say – did Jesus preach the gospel?

Attempting to Understand it

Before wading into the details, two clear points stand out.  First, the link with 3:13-17 by “because also” (Greek hoti kai) in 3:18 indicates that 3:18-22 provides the basis for the assertion in 3:17 that it is better, if God wills it so, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil.  Second, Christ’s subjugation of all angels, authorities and powers prove paradoxically that his unjust suffering unto death for doing good was not a defeat but a victory (3:22).  Hence 3:18-22 serves to encourage and buttress its Christian readers amidst oppression and persecution.

First, the “when” question.  3:18-19 states that “Because Christ also …., having been put to death in the flesh, but having been made alive in the spirit; in which also having gone, he proclaimed to the spirits in prison, …”  Among various interpretations proposed for the flesh-spirit contrast, the most reasonable one is to understand it as referring to Christ’s two states of existence: his earthly human life before his death and his glorified resurrected state.  This view is further supported by 3:22 which refers to Christ’s ascension, thus accomplishing the redemptive process: crucifixion (“put to death”) → resurrection (“made alive”) → ascension (“gone into heaven”).  Furthermore, the “in which” (Greek en ho) in 3:19 refers back to “the spirit” in 3:18, i.e. Christ went to proclaim to the spirits in prison in his resurrected state, not in the interim between crucifixion and resurrection.

Turning to the “where” question, we find that “having gone” (Greek poreutheis) indicates that Christ “went”, a more general verb, rather than “descended” (Greek katabaino), a more specific verb, to the “spirits in prison” (3:19).  Furthermore, terms at the time of writing of 1 Peter used to refer to the place of the dead, such as Hades, Tartarus or Sheol were not used to indicate where Christ went.  Instead the term “prison” (Greek phylake), which does not refer to the place of the dead anywhere else in the NT, is used.  Thus, Christ did not descend to hell but went to a place where “the spirits” were imprisoned.  To shed further light on the “where” and the “to whom” and “what” questions, we need to turn to the Jewish traditions found in the pseudonymous book of 1 Enoch.

The Book of 1 Enoch as Background

Genesis 5:21-24 indicate that Enoch, the seventh generation from Adam, “walked with God; and he was not, for God took him.”  In the ancient Jewish tradition, Enoch was a well-known person with an important book supposedly composed by him.  1 Enoch 12:1-2 states that when Enoch was taken, “his works were with the Watchers, and with the holy ones were his days.”  The tradition of the Watchers was an elaboration of Genesis 6:1-4 where “the sons of God came in to the daughters of men, and they bore children to them” (6:4).  In Genesis, this story occurs immediately before the Noah story and seems to provide the reason for the flood.

1 Enoch relates a more elaborate story, filling in the gap.  The Watchers were fallen angels who forsook the highest heaven (12:4), lain with human women, and produced children (15:3), referred to as “giants” or “Nephilim” from whose bodies “evil spirits” had gone forth (15:9).  These evil spirits have revealed to people “godless deeds and unrighteousness and sin” (13:2) and will continue to corrupt the earth until the “day of the consummation of the great judgment, when the great age is consummated.”  (16:1)

Enoch agreed to the Watchers’ appeal to intercede with God for themselves and their evil descendants.  But he returned with God’s judgment that the Watchers “will not ascend into heaven for all the ages; and it has been decreed to bind you in bonds in the earth for all the days of eternity.  And that before these things, you will see the destruction of your sons” because they will not obtain their petition concerning themselves or their sons. (14:4-7).  These  “spirits”, from the bodies of the giants, offspring of the Watchers were the cause of human evil that resulted in the flood during the time of Noah, Enoch’s grandson.

Back to the Difficult Passage

With this background, we begin to see that the spirits to whom Christ preached were fallen angels and/or demonic spirits.  Their imprisonment signified God’s restraining power over them.  Christ’s message to them was that the “day of the consummation of the great judgment”, announced during the flood had finally arrived.  Christ’s resurrection signified his victory over all powers of evil; during his ascension he proclaimed his victory and their defeat.  This understanding is further reinforced by the use of “preached/proclaimed” (Greek kerysso) for Christ’s proclamation (3:19); this term has a wider semantic range than the more specific “preached the good news” (Greek euangelizomai).

Different interpretations arose throughout the centuries, such as Christ’s descent into hell, probably due to the disappearance of the book of 1 Enoch after the second century until an Ethiopic copy was found late in the eighteenth century.

In conclusion, Christ, in his resurrected state (when), went to proclaim to the fallen angels or demonic spirits (to whom), who were imprisoned inside the earth (where) that “the day of the consummation of the great judgment,” i.e. their defeat had come upon them (what).  Thus, Christ’s victory over all evil, both spiritual and human would provide great encouragement, not only to Peter’s readers but to many Christians today facing unjust suffering to remain faithful as all evil forces opposing God have been subjected to Christ’s rule and will be vanquished in time to come.


Rev Dr James Lim teaches subjects related to New Testament at Trinity Theological College. He is an ordained minister of the Presbyterian Church of Singapore and serves as an associate minister in Ang Mo Kio Presbyterian Church.