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Did the early Church Fathers have a complete agreement on how to interpret 1 Peter 3:18-20 or did they also have some differences in the way they interpreted these words by Peter? I specifically mean the words highlighted in the verses below:

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. (1 Peter 3:18-20 ESV)

  1. Who are the spirits?
  2. What is the prison?
  3. What exactly did Jesus proclaim to them?
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What aspect of the passage are you looking at? –  warren Sep 27 '12 at 14:27
@warren - What do you mean? –  brilliant Sep 27 '12 at 14:36
there are several parts to those three verses - are you looking at specific clauses, the context, the overall applicability, etc –  warren Sep 27 '12 at 14:40
clarified the question yet further with your three subquestions mentioned in your previous comment –  warren Sep 27 '12 at 21:55
@warren - Thanks. –  brilliant Sep 27 '12 at 22:05

2 Answers 2

The conclusion of the Fathers is that these words mean the Descent into Hades. The Orthodox Icon depicts Christ raising the dead from beneath the earth (as our hymns say) which occurs eternally, that is, outside of time and at no particular time in relation to our understanding of time.

Thus, to answer your question:

  1. The spirits are the dead from all time outside of Christ - who formerly didn't obey refers to the fall of Adam.
  2. The prison is Hades, also known as Sheol, the place of the dead or the grave. The Psalmist calls it 'the Land of Forgetfulness'
  3. The gospel, by which he raised them from the dead, or by which they were finally condemned, according to the disposition of their hearts as they were shaped by the deeds of their lives and their faith or lack thereof.

See: http://ancientfaith.com/podcasts/hopko/the_descent_of_jesus_into_hades

The only disagreement the Fathers seem to have is on who were the Spirits he preached to. However, Orthodox Tradition has come to understand that the 'formerly disobedient' refers even to those who have not yet died and will be outside of Christ. This is not universalism, but on the other hand does not condemn those outside of the Church outright.

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From the ACC doctrine: And this is attested by Ratzinger and the Church Fathers. Also modern Anglican theologians - the spirits were those who were drowned by God in the Great Flood of Noah. They were, so to speak, baptized by God, and then lifted up spiritually by the Spirit of the Son who "preached to them." Though the time interval between baptism and resurrection seems long to us, in eternal time it was the blink of an eye. The commentaries suggest that all were lifted up, and that prison is now empty. Though God condemned their behavior they were not "lost" for they had no knowledge of The Son of God, nor of the Abrahamic laws etc. so it wasn't their fault alone, God was partially responsible (he had no more patience) and so he baptized them and sent His Son to educate them, and offer salvation.

Not all the Fathers interpretations from the first few cents. have survived, so we don't know if they all had the same understanding. But since that understanding has appeared in various writings of Bishops since the 3rd. cent. until the current day, we can be pretty sure it was a wide held opinion of the Bishops.

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