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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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  • good question and I was surprised at the answer when performing direct research on the writings of the Fathers.
    – Mike
    Jul 22, 2015 at 9:44

4 Answers 4

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The most detailed analysis of various different views in the early Church concerning this verse is to be found in a letter by Saint Augustine to a Bishop called Evodius that wrote a letter to him asking for his opinion.(Saint Augustine, Letter 164, A.D. 414)

I will summarize the letter which illustrates both the different opinions at the time as well as Augustine's reasonable conclusion.

First Augustine admits this is a difficult passage, he then mentions the problems he has with various views other's propose. First he can't see the logic of those who claim Christ went to hell to preach to just the souls who died in the flood:

If the Lord when He died preached in hell to spirits in prison, why were those who continued unbelieving while the ark was a preparing the only ones counted worthy of this favour, namely, the Lord’s descending into hell? For in the ages between the time of Noah and the passion of Christ, there died many thousands of so many nations whom He might have found in hell. (Saint Augustine, Letter 164, A.D. 414)

Next he disagrees in the possibility that the Bishop suggested who originally asked the question, that maybe Jesus descended into hell preaching and potentially delivering every unbelieving soul from Adam to Christ. He disagrees because Augustine thinks it is presumptuous to decide who these souls could be and that maybe it's not referring to any soul.

But who these were it is presumptuous for us to define. For if we say that all who were found there were then delivered without exception, who will not rejoice if we can prove this? ...These things being so, if the Saviour delivered all from that place, and, to quote the terms of the question in your letter, “emptied hell, so that now from that time forward the last judgment was to be expected,” the following things occasion not unreasonable perplexity on this subject, and are wont to present themselves to me in the meantime when I think on it. First, by what authoritative statements can this opinion be confirmed? For the words of Scripture, that “the pains of hell were loosed” by the death of Christ, do not establish this, seeing that this statement may be understood as referring to Himself, and meaning that he so far loosed (that is, made ineffectual) the pains of hell that He Himself was not held by them, especially since it is added that it was “impossible for Him to be holden of them.” (Saint Augustine, Letter 164, A.D. 414)

He then makes a surprising and curious admission that "although the authority of the canonical Scriptures cannot be brought forward as speaking expressly in its support" it was the tradition that Augustine also supports that Adam was in hell and was a soul delivered by Christ when he descended into hell. Then he reject other opinions of the day that also included "Seth, Noah and his house, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and the other patriarchs" in this release from hell, because he believes they were not in hell but in Abraham's bosom which was similar to paradise and not part of hell.

Augustine (in contrast to his believe that Christ did descend into hell and saved Adam) now argues against the idea that this verse actually speaks of saving anybody from hell. He hinges his idea that as 1 Peter 4:6 says "For for this cause was the gospel preached also to them that are dead, that they might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the Spirit."actually i plies Christ only preached to those 'in the flesh' but those in hell had no flesh.

For how can they be judged in the flesh, which if they be in hell they no longer have, and which if they have been loosed from the pains of hell they have not yet resumed? (Saint Augustine, Letter 164, A.D. 414)

He also dismissed the idea that maybe those who rose from the graves when Christ was on the cross is being referred to.

Augustine then dismisses those who feel it unfair if Christ did not descend into hell to preach to those before the gospel was manifest because it was not clearly preached before. He argues that if that is the case then it is also unfair today for those who die before hearing the gospel, with no real difference.

Finally Augustine presents his own view, which answers your questions.

The spirits in prison are just symbols of rejectors of God in the past, applied in the present time. God has always preached the gospel in the past through Christ and those who died in the flood had rejected the gospel.

Consider, however, I pray you, whether all that the Apostle Peter says concerning spirits shut up in prison, who were unbelieving in the days of Noah, may not after all have been written without any reference to hell, but rather to those times the typical character of which he has transferred to the present time....But to the men of Noah’s time the gospel was preached in vain, because they believed not when God’s long suffering waited for them during the many years in which the ark was being built (for the building of the ark was itself in a certain sense a preaching of mercy); even as now men similar to them are unbelieving, who, to use the same figure, are shut up in the darkness of ignorance as in a prison, beholding in vain the Church which is being built up throughout the world, while judgment is impending, as the flood was by which at that time all the unbelieving perished....For although he had not yet come in the flesh, as He came when afterwards He “showed Himself upon earth, and conversed with men,” nevertheless he certainly came often to this earth, from the beginning of the human race, whether to rebuke the wicked, as Cain, and before that, Adam and his wife, when they sinned, or to comfort the good, or to admonish both, so that some should to their salvation believe, others should to their condemnation refuse to believe,—coming then not in the flesh but in the spirit, speaking by suitable manifestations of Himself to such persons and in such manner as seemed good to Him. As to this expression, “He came in the spirit,” surely He, as the Son of God, is a Spirit in the essence of His Deity, for that is not corporeal; but what is at any time done by the Son without the Holy Spirit, or without the Father, seeing that all the works of the Trinity are inseparable? (Saint Augustine, Letter 164, A.D. 414)

So Augustine would answer this way.

  • Who are the spirits? (Those who rejected the gospel of Christ when being preached to by Christ in the days of Noah)
  • What is the prison?(There ignorance when in the flesh in the days of Noah, am not sure why he did not think the present tense of those in hell but I guess as he was arguing against preaching to those in hell, Augustine also imagines the prison not to be hell either)
  • What exactly did Jesus proclaim to them?(The gospel was preached by Noah for the Promise of the Messiah in the Old Testament was the gospel in a more obscure form.)

However it must be said that not all the Fathers agreed with Augustine, for example, though only a brief mention, it seems clear that St Athanasius thought Jesus after he died literally preached to the souls in hell.

This Body it was that was laid in a grave, when the Word had left it, yet was not parted from it, to preach, as Peter says, also to the spirits in prison. (Athanasius, Letter to Epictetus 5h

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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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Wicks, Jared. “Christ’s Saving Descent to the Dead: Early Witnesses from Ignatius of Antioch to Origen.” Pro Ecclesia 17, no. 3 (August 2008): 281–309. https://doi.org/10.1177/106385120801700303.

The article by Jared Wicks allows one to read the primary texts. He studies twelve texts before 180 CE and five texts from 180-300. This is very readable and easy to follow. This article can be found online and this will allow you to discovery the complexity of this issue. Here is my brief summary:

  1. All the sources who cite 1 Pet 3:18-20 understand this to mean that Jesus preached his good news in Hades to those who were disobedient during the period when Noah was building the ark. The implied logic appears to be that this group did not have the benefit of a prophet; hence, Jesus offers them a “second chance” to attain salvation.

  2. Nearly all of the Church Fathers have Jesus also preaching to the Jewish patriarchs and prophets. In so doing, Jesus acts in Hades with the same mandate that he had on earth, “Go only to the lost sheep of the House of Israel” (Matt 10:3).

  3. Many emphasize that in the same way that Jesus opened up his apostles to a universal mission to the gentiles, it must be expected that Jesus preached to all the gentiles in Hades as well, going all the way back to Adam and Eve. Clement of Alexandria puts forward the principle that all humans are children of God; hence, just as the Church on earth is reaching out to all the nations, so, too, this same practice would apply to Hades. If Jesus does not do this himself, then it will be the practice of his apostles to do so after they die. This is a big step forward! Now it was not just Jesus but his apostles who were reaching out to the Gentiles while in Hades. Jesus was raised after three days, but the apostles continue their preaching mission for 2000 years.

  4. In the third and following centuries, one can notice a gradual shift toward presenting Jesus as initiating violent action against the god Hades and tearing down the gates of his kingdom. Within this alteration, those who had enthusiastically accepted Jesus' message were enabled to join him in his ascension into heaven. Thus, this enabled the understanding that the saints were no longer "awaiting the resurrection in Hades," but they were passing through Hades and entering heaven shortly after their deaths.

  5. Augustine decided that death had to be the deadline for determining a person’s salvation. Accordingly, Augustine reinterpreted 1 Pet 3:18-20 symbolically as referring to the future salvation that Jesus would bring to the human race. Likewise, Augustine identified "the spirits" as the humans living prior to the flood who were heralded to by the pre-existent Christ through the person of Noah.

An afterthought: Given the importance of Augustine in the West, Augustine effectively challanged all those who regarded Jesus' preaching as providing a "second chance" at salvation. Only in the Easter Orthodox Churches did the descent of Christ continue to shape their faith and their liturgy. During the Protestant Reformation, the descent of Christ into Hades was further challenged because, among Catholics, it was being used to support the practice of offering prayers and good works for the poor souls in Purgatory.

For further exploration: https://www.academia.edu/s/b56e1b238f

A note of caution:

In the last 120 years, the interpretation of the Sacred Scriptures has attained greater sophistication. When it comes to the interpretation of 1 Peter 3:18-20, the majority of scholars dedicated to 1 and 2 Peter have concluded that the Church Fathers appear to entirely misunderstood the text.

#1 The early Church Fathers entirely misunderstood the meaning of “spirits in prison” (1 Peter 3:19). From the second century to Augustine in the fifth century, the prevailing notion was that Jesus was actively preaching in Hades to those who had died during Noah’s flood. The “spirits in prison” consequently were the souls of those who died during the flood. But what would be the consequence if the early Church Fathers were absolutely mistaken in their exegesis of his foundational text? What if the “spirits in prison” actually referred to the fallen angels (referred to as “sons of God” in Gen 6:2, 4) who seduced the daughters of men and gave birth to “warriors of renown” (Gen 6:5)?

#2 This text is one of the most complex within the Scriptures. In 2019, by way of defining how the central meaning of this text, Campbell and van Rensburg were prompted to write this: “Few passages in the New Testament have caused greater scholarly deliberation and given rise to so many interpretations and counter-arguments than 1 Peter 3:18-22.”

#3 God did not spare the angels when they sinned, but cast them into TARTAROS (2 Peter 2:4). In the Greek Homeric tradition, Tartaros is the name of the deepest part of the Underworld where Greek gods were held captive and tormented. This was the perfect place where the God of Israel could confine and torment the angels of Gen 6:2-5.

#4 Who were the “spirits in prison” (ἐν φυλακῇ πνεύμασιν)? First, πνεύμασιν (spirits) in the plural is always in reference to angels in the New Testament. Second, it was common Jewish understanding that evil angels were imprisoned (cf. 1 En. 15:8; 21:1-10; Jub 5:6). Third, the interpretation that the disobedient angels in Gen. 6 were imprisoned “was standard in Peter’s day”.

#5 Here is a recent dissertation that can be found online.

Spirits and the Proclamation of Christ : 1 Peter 3:18-22 in its tradition-historical and literary context

Chad Pierce

Published 2009 Durham University PhD dissertation 278 Pages

1 Peter 3:18-22 records Christ’s proclamation to the “imprisoned spirits.” Interpreting this passage has challenged even the most competent exegetes. Earliest interpretations understood these imprisoned spirits as the souls of humans to whom Christ preached during his “harrowing of Hades” between his death and resurrection.

Scholars from the beginning of the twentieth century through the present have read these verses through the lens of the fall of the watchers (Gen 6:1-5) tradition first recorded in the Book of Watchers, thus reckoning these spirits as imprisoned angels. Yet contemporary scholarship has failed to acknowledge the development, conflation, and even multiplicity of the fallen angel sin and punishment myths that are found throughout much of early Jewish and Christian literature.

Fraternally,

Aaron Milavec

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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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