Did Jesus preach to the spirits in prison between his death and resurrection?

Sat, 23/04/2011 - 22:36
1 Peter 3:18-22

18 For also Christ suffered once for sins, righteous for unrighteous, in order that he might bring us to God, having been put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the Spirit; 19 in which also having gone he proclaimed to the spirits in prison, 20 those formerly disobeying when the patience of God waited in the days of Noah, with the ark being constructed, in which a few, that is eight souls, were saved through water. 21 The antitype now saves you, baptism, not a removal of dirt of the flesh but an appeal of a good conscience to God, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, 22 who is at the right hand of God, having gone into heaven, with angels and authorities and powers having been subordinated to him.

Here’s another approach to Easter at an exegetical tangent. This question came up as part of a discussion about the supposed “intermediate state” between death and resurrection. My view is that Jesus died, was dead, and was raised from dead, setting a pattern for all subsequent deaths and resurrections. This seems to me the point of Acts 2:31: Jesus was not abandoned to Hades, he was not left in the grave, he was not left dead, his flesh did not see corruption (the women only went to embalm his body two days after he died); he was raised to new life. Peter Wilkinson, however, seems to think that Jesus could not simply have been dead, body and soul, but that his spirit or soul had to be somewhere. He points to this passage in support of his view. It’s certainly a difficult text to understand, but I don’t think it is saying that between his death and resurrection Jesus went somewhere (hell?) to preach to an obscure and limited set of “spirits” from the time of Noah.

First, it seems very unlikely that Peter is saying that Jesus was “made alive” before the making alive of the resurrection. It is much more likely that “having been made alive by the Spirit” refers to the resurrection (cf. Romans 1:3-4). The verb zōopoieō is used most often in the New Testament to speak of the actual resurrection of believers (John 5:21; Rom. 4:17; 8:11; 1 Cor. 15:22, 36).

The verb poreuomai, which is used for “having gone” in verse 19, is used in verse 22 (and in Acts 1:10-11) for the ascension. That would suggest the following sequence: death, resurrection, ascension, proclamation to the spirits in prison. It would still be puzzling (there is nothing to correlate it with), but it would not require an un-Jewish “intermediate state” between death and resurrection.

However, Peter (the apostle) says that in the same Spirit by which he was raised from the dead Jesus also went to “proclaim to the spirits in prison”. If we take poreutheis as a reference not to the ascension but simply to Jesus’ ministry to Israel “in the Spirit”, we would then only have to understand the allusion to Noah figuratively. Peter draws an analogy between the world before the destruction of the flood, when God’s patience (makrothumia) with sin had been exhausted, from which a few escaped by the ark, and “unrighteous” Israel before the judgment and destruction of AD 70, from which a few were saved by the antitype of baptism.

So Jesus did not go in the spirit and proclaim to the generation of humanity before the flood. He went in the power of the Spirit that would later raise him to life to proclaim to a generation of Jews which was like the generation of humanity before the flood.

“In prison” (en phulakēi) would be a metaphor for Israel’s captivity to sin or satan (cf. Matt. 12:29; Mk. 3:27; Lk. 11:21). Isaiah says that the servant of the Lord will “bring out from bonds those who are bound and from the prison (phulakas) house those who sit in darkness” (Is. 42:7 LXX).

It is basically the same argument that Jesus makes in Matthew 24:37-38 (= Lk. 17:26-27): just as the world was taken by surprise by the judgment of the flood, from which only Noah and his family were saved, so Israel will be taken by surprise by the judgment of the coming war, from which only a few will be saved. Paul upbraids the Jews for presuming on God’s patience (makrothumia), which was meant to lead them to repentance (Rom. 2:4); and he asserts in Romans 9:22 that God’s patience (makrothumia) has run out with Israel.

This seems to me to make good Jewish-narrative-historical sense of this troublesome passage. It is coherent with what we find elsewhere in the New Testament. We don’t have to explain why Jesus went to proclaim to one rather arbitrary set of antediluvian spirits. And we can allow Jesus to stay dead between his death and his resurrection from the dead.

Hallelujah! He is risen indeed!

Comments

Andrew-

I do appreciate your thoughts here and some good insights. But I would have 2 questions, one more biblical and one more theological.

1) What about Jesus' words to the thief that, 'Today you will be with me in paradise.' (I have a feeling you will have addressed this before).

2) We recognise that Jesus is divine and human. I don't want to spend time hashing out how all that practically works, but for you to say Jesus, all of Jesus (body and soul), would have been dead in the grave, what about the reality of the divine-eternal Son being dead? What does that say about his divinity (I don't want to rip the 2 natures apart) being dead for some 48 hours?

Scot, it’s late here, so just a quick response.

1. Yes, I discussed the thief in paradise passage recently.

2. We will never be able to reconcile an ontologically or psychologically or epistemologically constructed trinitarianism with the New Testament. The two thought-worlds are simply too far apart. A New Testament christology or trinitarianism has to be constructed on a New Testament basis, which I think means on a Jewish-narrative-apocalyptic-historical basis, or something along those lines. I certainly don’t think that the New Testament conceives of Jesus dualistically as a divine soul in a human body.

One of the stories—not the only story—that the New Testament tells about Jesus is that he was a man who died, was dead, was raised from the dead, and was exalted to the right hand of God. But that is a human story. It is not even unique to Jesus. Others died as martyrs, were dead, were raised at the vindication, and reign at the right hand of the Father. The being dead was as much part of his humanity as anything else. If Jesus was fully man, he must have been fully dead.

Andrew -

I completely agree with all that you have said in your comment. I, too, desire to not be dualistic. I simply ponder what it means for the divine Son to be 'dead'. Paul said that all things are held together in him. Of course, this could simply be a post-resurrection theological statement, thus not affecting a '48-hour time period' before the resurrection. And I suppose the Father (and Spirit) could function 'Sonless' for those 48-hours. It is just simply interesting to ponder these things.

I know what historical orthodoxy would argue - the divine Son could not have been 'dead'. But as you note - 'The being dead was as much part of his humanity as anything else. If Jesus was fully man, he must have been fully dead.' Hence, he is the prototype of what will happen with the consummation of new creation.

Thanks Andrew,

I'm going to give this some thought - I like your methodology. 

This text and question has been important to means i've been working on a theology of holy Saturday as a spiritual resources for responding to the experience of liminality.  In regard to this text, I keep coming back to it with nothing more than an intuitive questioning about jesus's death. It feels like it should be work that is, Jesus death is so powerful (transformed the whole of human existence) surely there was some work he had to do when he was there - in death!

This easter weekend I spent with James Alison's Knowing Jesus, and Rowan Williams' Resurrection. Both pick up this question of what work is being done in Jesus's death (and many other, prebably more important themes besides).  What has struck me is my own unwillingness to see the UTTER powerlessness of death, even for Jesus. Jesus cannot raise himself- we are dependent on Trinitarian conceptions of God to get around that one.  When Jesus submitted himself to powerlessness of innocent victim he gave himself over to the nothingness of death. Only the resurrection restores meaning and purpose- not as an    over turning of the state of death, but as an embracing, a wrapping up into, transformed  newness. We worship the living-dead Lord of Life.

This seems like a bit of a rant, but I was interested to take the theological implications of your exegesis further.  It seems to me an interpretation of....

That seems to me a very pertinent observation—and a good theological reason for resisting the inherently docetic assumption that Jesus being God could not simply have been dead.

(sorry... Typing on iPhone!)
I'm interested in your theological reflections.
That's all now! Happy Easter!

I think you have been lured onto thin ice here, Andrew. The internet is awash with definitive interpretations of these verses. Yours is one of the more ingenious that I have come across. However, to take this paragraph as a starting point for a response:

That would suggest the following sequence: death, resurrection, ascension, proclamation to the spirits in prison. It would still be puzzling (there is nothing to correlate it with), but it would not require an un-Jewish “intermediate state” between death and resurrection.

There is nothing in these verses to suggest the sequence you describe, simply because, to quote from your own translation, Jesus

proclaimed to the spirits in prison, 20 those formerly disobeying when the patience of God waited in the days of Noah

There is no analogy. Verse 20 follows directly from verse 19 - it was the spirits in prison of those in the days of Noah to whom Jesus preached.

The word study you give us beforehand is interesting, but Peter was known for plain speaking rather than academic etymology. The obvious meaning is preferable to the abstruse.

Discussion about the intermediate state is something of a sideshow for me personally, except that it is an unavoidable conclusion for anyone who keeps their eyes open in the scriptures. It is not an "un-Jewish" idea, as Isaiah 14 illustrates.

The emphatic message of the NT is of unbroken union with Jesus of those believing in him, before and after death, in a two-stage resurrection beginning before death through reception of the Spirit, and completed at the final resurrection - John 5:24-29; Colossians 3:1-4.

Those denying an intermediate state are proposing an absurdity of this resurrection being reversed, with the Spirit being withdrawn for a while (millennia?) until the final resurrection of the dead, when the Spirit is reunited with the souls and bodies of believers who have risen.

Acts 2:27 is quoting Psalm 16, and speaks of the body being subject to decay after death. Jewish thinking always focuses on the continuing purpose of the body in God's plans, hence the horror of death, as an 'unnatural' intrusion into what God had planned.

Anyway, I'm glad to have provoked the discussion, and I concur entirely with Scott's point about the divinity of Jesus. I have been continuously puzzled why Andrew seeks to deny this as a component of the NT narrative, when the evidence is so convincing within the very Jewish thought-forms which Andrew claims to deny it!

There is nothing in these verses to suggest the sequence you describe…

Well there is, if poreutheis is a reference to the ascension, as in 3:22: Jesus died, was made alive in the resurrection, went into heaven, and from there (somehow) proclaimed to the spirits in prison. I'm not sure that's any more improbable than the idea that between his death and resurrection Jesus went somewhere to preach to humanity in prison before the fall. Ramsey Michaels says that “in which also” at the beginning of verse 19 makes “Christ's proclamation to the spirits a direct outcome of his resurrection from the dead” (1 Peter, WBC, 205-206).

But if you had read the post more carefully, you would have noted that I don't actually agree with this interpretation. I think that poreutheis refers to Jesus public ministry to Israel, to whom he proclaimed the coming kingdom of God.

There is no analogy.

There clearly is some sort of analogy involved because Peter speaks of the salvation of Noah and his family through water as an “antitype” of baptism.

The word study you give us beforehand is interesting, but Peter was known for plain speaking rather than academic etymology. The obvious meaning is preferable to the abstruse.

I can't believe you said that! It's an argument for disregarding all literary, linguistic, philological evidence for the meaning of a text. It has nothing to do with how smart Peter was. We don't swim in the linguistic sea that he swam in. We have to recreate the environment as best we can using the appropriate tools. Incidentally, plain-speaking Peter appears to have been well-versed in 1 Enoch.

You seem to discount the evidence regarding the meaning of zōopoieō in the New Testament simply because it does not fit your assumption of an intermediate state. Here it's again worth quoting Ramsey Michaels (1 Peter, WBC, 204):

Any attempt to distinguish between ζωοποιεθεὶς πνεύματι and Jesus' bodily resurrection must do so by showing that only Jesus' “soul” or “spirit” was quickened while his body remained in the tomb, and this (as we shall see) is not borne out by Peter's σαρκί-πνεύματι distinction.

I should point out, though, that Ramsey Michaels seems to think that Jesus really did make a proclamation to spirits before the flood, echoing themes from 1 Enoch.

Isaiah 14:9-11 is a marvellous piece of poetry. If you want to take it literally as evidence for a shadowy existence in the grave, that's up to you. I imagine that you also believe that the cedars of Lebanon literally spoke to the king of Babylon (14:8).

Neither John 5:24-29 nor Colossians 3:1-4 speaks of an intermediate state. It's just not there. The life that believers have now through the Spirit, for which “resurrection” is used as a metaphor, is an anticipation or preemption or guarantee of the life that they will have at the resurrection or parousia. Jesus is quite clear, it is the dead who will hear the voice of the Son of Man at the judgment and be raised. Nothing is reversed. There is no absurdity involved. The point of having the Spirit is that the persecuted church did not have to fear death: they had been given proof, a foretaste, of the life that would come.

I have been continuously puzzled why Andrew seeks to deny this as a component of the NT narrative…

I have said many times that the issue, to my mind, is not whether the New Testament presents Jesus as divine but how that belief emerges out of the narrative—and in particular out of the apocalyptic narrative. I even made this point in my response to Scott:

A New Testament christology or trinitarianism has to be constructed on a New Testament basis, which I think means on a Jewish-narrative-apocalyptic-historical basis, or something along those lines.

I don't mind being pushed over the exegetical details, but it's frustrating when you disregard what I say.

(I know it's Easter Sunday in the real world, but it's a normal working day here in the UAE.)

I composed the post in a hurry, so the paragraph in question confused two thoughts - but I had noticed your particular interpretation of poreutheis, which I was contesting, as there is no sense in the flow of verse 19 into 20 of an analogy when Peter is describing the preaching of Jesus to the spirits.

I thought Enoch would come into this somewhere! Good for Ramsay Michaels, though again, I think the idea of Jesus preaching to Noah's contemporaries through Noah is improbable. That's unless Enoch says otherwise.

Isaiah 14 - well, here we go again. If it suits your interpretation, readings are taken literally, if it doesn't, they are poetry. There is no possible reconciliation with this kind of interpretation. I was also going to mention Saul and the witch of Endor calling up Samuel from the dead. Whether they saw an apparition, a dissimulating demon, or Saul himself is not the point. They obviously saw no inconsistency with Jewish thought in the dead being there to be communicated with (albeit a forbidden practice). I've no doubt you will come up with some argument to rebut this example, I can think of some myself. I'm not saying that the existence of an intermediate state was clearly and universally accepted within Jewish thinking; I'm simply saying that the examples disprove the opposite - that it wasn't.

Once again, you resort to the poetry argument in your interpretation of John 5:24-29 and Colossians 3:1-3. There would have been extremely good reasons for John and Paul not to use resurrection language if they had not meant that, in some way, the resurrection had already begun in those who believe in Jesus - not least because a 1st century heresy mentioned by Paul in 1 Corinthians is that the resurrection had already taken place for believers. John and Paul are not being careless, nor using metaphor. The resurrection really has already begun for those who believe in Jesus, by the impartation of the Spirit, who will not be withdrawn on death and restored later. The same is argued in Ephesians 1:19-20, 2:6, as well as Romans 6:4, 8:11. It is a consistent theme of Paul's, and not metaphor. 

A New Testament christology or trinitarianism has to be constructed on a New Testament basis, which I think means on a Jewish-narrative-apocalyptic-historical basis, or something along those lines

If anyone is being disingenuous here (something you have accused me of several times), it is you Andrew! You have never for one moment attempted such an exercise, and have dismissed and ignored in a cavalier fashion the many ways in which Jesus is identified with YHWH in the gospels as well as letters according to Jewish, not Greek, thought forms. So this is more a case of you disregarding what I say, rather than the other way round.

Isn't it a good thing that we get on so well in real life, where it really is Easter Sunday (here, if not in the UAE).

OK, I see what you’re saying about the resurrection that believers experience before death. What about the death that they also experience before death? Is that also literal?

You have never for one moment attempted such an exercise, and have dismissed and ignored in a cavalier fashion the many ways in which Jesus is identified with YHWH in the gospels as well as letters according to Jewish, not Greek, thought forms.

I may not have attempted the exercise, but I have often said that I think that trinitarian belief needs to be constructed narratively. I’ve just never got round to doing it properly. Fair enough. On the other hand, I entirely agree that Jesus is “identified with YHWH” in the New Testament. I would see that as a central part of the Jewish-apocalyptic-narrative-historical, whatever, frame by which the New Testament makes sense of the relationship between Jesus and God. But how you actually explicate that is another matter.

Actually, this is relevant:

Christology, therefore, is not necessarily best understood as the search for a universal and final expression of the relationship of Jesus to God. It may rather be the ongoing, always contextualized, always perspectival endeavour to capture the significance of the narrative of the renewal of Israel and the victory of YHWH over the gods of Greece and Rome, pre-empted in Jesus, for our understanding of, and relationship to, the creator. In that case, however, we may need to explore new ways of framing the significance of Jesus for the post-eschatological people of God, after imperialism, after Christendom, after modernity. My initial guess is that this will bring to the fore (new) creational rather than eschatological categories – Jesus as the firstborn of all creation rather than Jesus as firstborn from the dead (cf. Col. 1:15-20).

OK, I see what you're saying about the resurrection that believers experience before death. What about the death that they also experience before death? Is that also literal?

I've rather lost track of this conversation, but in answer to your question, yes, though it's clearly not a physical death of the body John or Paul are speaking about at this stage (John 5:24, Romans 6:1, 3-11; Colossians 3:3). 'Literal' becomes rather an unhelpful word to describe things here. Sensus literalis would be better. Paul and John are speaking about an actual death to sin, which is experienced by those who believe in Jesus, and receive his life-giving Spirit, but it's not the same as physical death.

This is such an integral part of the evangelical message, one which took centuries to rediscover after its loss during the Dark Ages, I wonder if you have understood it, prior to your abandonment of 'modern evangelicalism'. I would always rather have this as an ontological reality, than a story about an ontological reality.

I may not have attempted the exercise, but I have often said that I think that trinitarian belief needs to be constructed narratively. I've just never got round to doing it properly. 

I think trinitarian belief sits very comfortably within the "Jewish-apocalyptic-narrative-historical". It's just that the story becomes far more apocalyptic and narratival - if apoclayptic is taken to mean reaching a climax, and attached to narratival means the story coming to a dramatic fulfilment.

The fulfilment of the narrative is that God comes in person (Isaiah 65:17) to bring the narrative to its climax, fulfilling in himself what only he could do to renew creation. Here, the many points of identification of Jesus with YHWH mean just that - that Jesus is no less than YHWH. The storm-stilling story and comparison with Psalm 107, which you discuss in your cross reference, is one example among many. Others are the enacted renewal of creation, embodied in the new exodus metaphor, in which it might also be said that the one exodus story was finally reaching its fulfilment, with the imminent fulfilment of the promises to Abraham which Israel was carrying. 

The story is fulfilled by the intervention of God in person, not by another fallible human intermediary like Abraham, Moses or David.

I also don’t believe Jesus preached to spirits in hell. Nor did he preach to anybody in a natural prison. It was the soul of mankind that was in prison and in darkness. He Jesus says this in Luke 4:18. Also in Eph.4 He lead captivity captive.

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