In my previous article, we looked at why Jesus descended to Abraham’s Bosom but not to Gehenna after His Crucifixion. After exploring this topic, questions remained about a passage in 1 Peter 3 in which St. Peter writes that Jesus preached to “spirits in prison”.
Who were these spirits? Why did Jesus preach to them? And did Jesus give them an opportunity to enter Heaven? Because the Bible tells us little about this event, saints and scholars have debated the meaning of Peter’s words for at least 1700 years.
The Spirits in Prison
1 Peter 3:18-20 (RSVCE) states,
For Christ also died for sins once for all, 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 preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved 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 clear 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 subject to him.
According to Genesis, God saved Noah and his wife, their three sons and their wives (eight people) from the deluge. All other humans drowned in the flood. According to Peter, God sent at least some of these disembodied souls (i.e., spirits) to prison for their disobedience. Then, Jesus, while His body lay in the tomb, visited these spirits in prison and preached to them.
The detail about Jesus being made alive in the spirit merely describes His soul’s movement without confinement to His body. Although, by appearances, He was dead, His soul was alive and could visit other places.
Opinions On the Spirits in Prison
Regarding the spirits in prison, some prominent saints had theories about their destiny and why Jesus preached to them. Unfortunately, every opinion seems to be deficient in some way. Let’s look at several:
- In the third century, St. Clement of Alexandria opined that Jesus visited the deceased sinners of Noah’s day on Holy Saturday to make a final offer of salvation to them. Clement’s opinion suggests that these sinners did not repent before death, which will be an important distinction as you will see. And if they did not repent, they did not have grace at the moment of death.
- In the fifth century, St. Augustine, a Doctor of the Church, explained that the Son of God, before His Incarnation, made an appeal to these sinners through Noah before God sent the flood.
- In the seventeenth century, St. Robert Bellarmine, another Doctor of the Church, proposed that Jesus visited the realm of the dead to preach to those who had privately repented just before they perished in the rising flood waters. Note that the waters did not flood the earth instantly. Rather, they rose for forty days (see Genesis 7:17-18).
- More recently, some scholars have offered another explanation. They argue that Jesus presented Himself as victor over death to a company of demons in the “lower heavens” as he ascended into Heaven.
- Finally, the Truth and Life Study Bible explains that modern scholarship has recovered a Jewish tradition about these spirits. According to this tradition, the spirits were rebel angels whom God thrust into the underworld where they awaited their final sentence. Jesus simply declared their sentence to them on Holy Saturday.
Analysis of the Opinions
In a moment, I will explain why I believe Bellarmine got it right. First, however, let’s look at the last two explanations (numbers 4 and 5).
I do not find them convincing because Peter writes about Jesus dying once and for all. But Jesus did not die for fallen angels (i.e., demons; Hebrews 2:16). Then, Peter writes about bringing “us” to God, not the fallen angels. Finally, Peter says that the spirits in prison were those who did not obey during Noah’s time. But demons never obey God. Yes, they disobeyed during Noah’s time, but they also disobeyed at all other times.
As for St. Augustine’s opinion, he seems to disregard Peter’s assertion that Jesus preached to the spirits in prison after “being put to death in the flesh.” Although God could have appealed to these sinners through Noah (and likely did), context tells us that Jesus accomplished His preaching to these prisoners post-Crucifixion, not pre-Incarnation.
I also find St. Clement’s explanation to be problematic. Some object to his theory because these sinners, due to their disobedience, should have gone to Gehenna because they would not have had the grace necessary for salvation. I think their position is valid, and it prevents me from supporting his theory.
But what about Bellarmine’s opinion? Given the context of 1 Peter 3 and the events leading up to the flood, I think his explanation is the most probable of the five. Although I could not find the document in which Bellarmine wrote his opinion, I believe Scripture gives us plenty of information with which to work.
Bellarmine’s Opinion is the Most Credible
Regarding the time between Adam and Noah, multiple lines of Adam’s descendants lived on the earth (see Genesis 5:4). But Genesis describes two major lines specifically. The first line was that of Cain, “the children of men” (Genesis 4:17-23, 6:1-2). God had previously separated Cain and his descendants from the rest of humanity (see Genesis 4:11-16).
The second line was that of Seth, “the children of God,” from whom Noah descended (see Genesis 4:26 and 5:29). Cain and his descendants were wicked (see Genesis 4:11-12). Seth and his descendants were holy at first, but then the men of God (Seth’s descendants) mixed with the daughters of men (Cain’s descendants), Noah and his family being the exception. Even though this mixing occurred, I think we can safely assume that the children of God would have known about the need to repent for their sins (see Genesis 4:26).
Turning to Peter’s letter, he first writes that the righteous died for the unrighteous. And the disobedient of Noah’s day were certainly unrighteous. But notice that God’s patience waited for them; He gave them time to recognize their impending deaths and repent. Add to this that the children of God (Seth’s descendants) knew they could repent (Genesis 4:26), and Bellarmine’s theory about Jesus preaching to the already-repentant makes all the sense in the world.
The children of God repented before they died, but they did not go to Abraham’s Bosom because they did not obey God like Noah and his family did. Repentance saved them from Gehenna, but it did not save them from punishment in prison.
In the Bible, prison represents a place in which occupants undergo punishment for a fixed period of time. Consider Psalm 107:10-20. It describes prisoners who had “rebelled against the word of God and spurned the counsel of the Most High.” They suffered affliction because of their iniquities and loathed spiritual food. But they cried to the Lord, and He “healed them and delivered them from destruction”.
In my opinion, Jesus descended to the prison of disobedient-but-forgiven descendants of Seth. They died in a state of grace, but they needed purifying before they entered either Abraham’s Bosom and, ultimately, Heaven. And they needed a Redeemer to open Heaven to them. This is why Jesus preached to them. He gave them the Good News.
Why Did Peter Mention Only the Spirits of Noah’s Day?
Regarding the reason why Peter seems to have restricted Jesus’ preaching to those of Noah’s day, I think he merely used their situation as a transition to his main point – Baptism. Peter says only a few words about the people of Noah’s day and how God saved Noah and his family through water. Then he writes, “Baptism, which corresponds to this [the flood], now saves you….”
Peter wants his readers to know that Jesus did not come to save only the holy. He came to save the unrighteous, the disobedient. Jesus is giving us time to repent and be baptized before the deluge of God’s wrath comes upon us. If we do not repent, prison will be the least of our worries. Instead, everlasting torment will be our lot.
So, turn to God and repent. Come into Christ’s Mystical Body and Bride, the Catholic Church. Dine at the wedding feast and receive our Lord in the Eucharist. Cast aside your old self and put on the new (Eph 4:22; Col 3:9-10). Take advantage of God’s patience. For we do not know when He will bring everything to an end.