Spirits in Prison
Spirits In Prison (1Pe 3:18-20). This topic is introduced by the apostle in connection with the sufferings of Christians through persecution, as both the context preceding and that following indicate. Under these sufferings they are encouraged by the example of Christ; for although his passion was vicarious, as theirs is not, still the two are parallel in one point — namely, that death in either case is their extreme limit (ver. 18, "once suffered;" 4:1, "he that hath suffered in the flesh hath ceased from sin"). Connected with this analogy the apostle presents another which is a favorite one with Paul also (Ro 8:10-13) — namely, that the death of carnality is the revival of spirituality, and Christians are consoled in their physical sufferings by this thought, which was the ground idea of the Redeemer's passion ("suffered for sins, to bring us to God"). This central antithesis is pithily expressed in the last clause of 1Pe 3:18, "being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit." Some commentators insist that this should be rendered "put to death in the flesh, but quickened in the spirit" (θανατωθεὶς μὲν σαρκί, ζωοποιηθεὶς δὲ [τῷ] πνεύματι), alleging that the strict correspondence of the clauses requires exact parallelism of construction. This, however, appears to us to be far from necessary. The meaning of the first clause is, of course, unequivocal. Christ died physically. But we are at a loss to conceive what intelligible idea is conveyed by the expression, if parallel, Christ revived spiritually. All the labored interpretations collected by Van Oosterzee, in Lange's Commentary, seem to us either sheer nonsense or pure transcendentalism. Nobody imagines that any human being, much less Jesus, could cease to exist in spirit at physical death, or could therefore return to life spiritually. This latter clause is evidently tantamount to the statement elsewhere explicitly made, that the body of Jesus was reanimated by the power of the Holy Spirit (Ro 8:11). As the preposition necessary in English to indicate this relation (" in" or "by") is not expressed in the Greek (the simple dative being used), we are at liberty to employ either indifferently; nor to one thinking after the Greek idiom is it necessary to distinguish consciously between the two. Christ's death, like ours, is stated as the result of a physical affinity; his resurrection was, as ours is also to be, the effect of spiritual relationships. The former ensued from his connection with mortal flesh, the latter was accomplished by virtue of his unity with the Holy Spirit. We therefore obtain a consistent sense by translating, "being put to death by reason of [his] flesh, but quickened by reason of [his] Spirit." His physical constitution rendered him capable of death, but his divinity was sure to reanimate him. Both clauses can only have reference to the palpable facts on which the Gospel is founded — the bodily death and resurrection of Christ.
In the next clause this relation between Christ's humanity and divinity is more explicitly expressed in the Greek by the same case with a preposition (ἐν τῷ), and we therefore render in like manner, "by virtue of which [Spirit] he went," etc. Here all interpreters recognize the idea of a spiritual presence of Christ, but many explain it as that of his disembodied spirit. This, again, is to us simply unintelligible, and the added statement of "going" (πορευθείς), upon which some lay special stress as confirming the belief in an actual visit to the place of departed spirits, appears to us to flatly contradict it. What sort of a journey a disembodied spirit could make we cannot imagine. The only real meaning is, and must be, that Christ was, in some imaginary, figurative, or representative sense, present at the place in question. Grant that this was true by reason of his divine ubiquity, and by virtue of his special authority on the given occasion, and all becomes clear, consistent, and intelligible. But to suppose or insist that the presence in question was merely that of a ghost is to relegate the whole transaction to the sphere of the unknown, if not unknowable.
But the main question is, who were "the spirits in prison" to whom he "preached?" That they were the antediluvians doomed to destruction by the flood seems exegetically certain from the context, and is generally conceded. The disputed point is, at what time are they spoken of here; while yet living, or after their death? If the transaction were a real one, and not a mere phantasm, it seems to us, and it has seemed also to the good sense of the Church at large, that the former only can possibly be meant. Here is a well known historical fact, and the context evidently refers to it as such — namely, that Noah preached to the antediluvians "while the ark was a-preparing." We see no mystery or difficulty here whatever. But to understand "prison" to be Hades, Sheol, or the place of departed spirits, is wholly unwarranted by the context, and is repugnant to all that we know of that abode of the lost. It is in vain to appeal to the particles "sometime" (πότε) and "also" (καί) in support of this purgatorial notion; they require no such allusion. but simply indicate that the event in question was anterior to the present time, and in some respects a parallel case. The analogy is substantially that above indicated as underlying this whole paragraph, and it is immediately brought out as consisting in the fact of a deliverance by means and in, the midst of a seeming overthrow. The flood was the death of the Old World, and the ark was its renaissance. The same thought is in the next verse expressly termed a "figure," and is applied to baptism as an emblem of Christian redemption; and this is there explicitly referred to Christ's resurrection from the dead as its potential means. As if to prevent all possible misunderstanding, the Savior is there represented as having passed (πορευθείς, again, a bodily transferal in space) into the heavens. There is not a word about his descent ad inferos.
To sum up, then, it appears to us clear — and we are not to be befogged by transcendental speculations about the assumed capabilities of the invisible world — that the preaching of Christ through Noah to his contemporaries during the respite before the flood, by virtue of the Holy Spirit, is eminently appropriate to the course of the apostle's argument. In illustrating the paradox of deliverance through destruction, he says that the same principle of mercy through Christ has prevailed in all dispensations, just as the Old World had the proffer of rescue by means of the ark, and as some actually embraced it; so the Gospel both now and finally saves us by a reconstruction through the seeming overthrow of its author. To introduce an allusion to some presumed scene in the other world enacted in the short interim of Christ's burial, and from which nothing seems to have resulted, is wholly gratuitous and irrelevant, not to say nugatory and puerile. Nobody uninfected with Romish superstition, we apprehend, would have originated so bald and yet so bold an interpretation. SEE HELL, DESCENT INTO. See (besides the various commentaries, and the monographs cited by Danz, Wörterb. p. 753), Journ. of Sac. Lit. Jan. 1853; Oct. 1860; Ch. Review, July, 1857; Biblioth. Sac. Jan. 1862; New- Englander, Oct. 1872; Princeton Rev. April, 1875; Brit. and For. Ev. Rev. Jan. 1876.