He Preached to Angels

"...put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit: by which also he went and preached to the spirits in prison; which sometime were disobedient . . . . . in the days of Noah" (1 Pet.3.18‑20).

Theologians and commentators alike have puzzled over the meaning of this text. The general assumption for centuries has been that it tells of Christ descending into Hades at the time of his death and preaching repentance to some of the unconverted dead—those who died at the time of the Flood. Why these alone should have been singled out for this favour is neither understood nor explained. The fact that orthodox Christian theology does not, and did not, permit an opportunity for conversion after death rendered the text particularly difficult, although some of the celebrated theologians of the past got over this by asserting that Christ went to Hades to preach, not repentance and conversion, but unchangeable condemnation for past unbelief. The descent into Hades became a Church doctrine but one which was always fraught with some difficulty.

The problem disappears when it is realised, as it does tend to be realised nowadays, that the "spirits in prison" are not dead human beings at all. A correct understanding of Genesis 6 and the nature of events at the time of the Flood makes it clear that these spirits are the rebellious angels who apostatised from their lawful estate and assumed human form to live on the earth as men, and were condemned, after Divine judgment had been passed on them, to remain in the imprisoned state, neither on earth nor in heaven, which St. Peter describes in 2 Pet.2.4. as "tartarus" (hell in the A.V.) to await final judgment and sentence. "Tartarus", its only occurrence in the Bible, is not hell or Hades. It is the term employed in Greek mythology to describe the prison of the Titans, semi gods who rebelled against the chief gods and were overthrown. It was said to be situated as far below Hades as Hades was below earth. It is a condition of existence rather than a place and is probably synonymous with the "abyss" or "bottomless pit" of Revelation and the "deep" of Luke 8.31. To the Bible student it is obvious that the myth of the Titans is a traditionary reminiscence of the historical event recorded in Genesis 6, especially so in that these Titans were said to have been the offspring of Uranus the heaven-god and Gea the earth goddess, just as the nephilim of Gen.6 were the offspring of the celestial sons of God and the terrestrial daughters of men.

It may be taken then that Peter is saying in this text that after his death Christ preached to the imprisoned fallen angels. Where and in what manner did He do this?

It has often been suggested that this "preaching" was by force of example, that the imprisoned spirits, witnessing our Lord's loyalty to the Father while on earth, observing his devoted life and unresisting death, and his subsequent exaltation to the highest pinnacle of celestial glory at the right hand of God, were thereby recipients of a powerful sermon in action. It is thought that thereby at least some of them might have been influenced to repentance and conversion and therefore reconciliation with God. Col.1.20 is definite that Christ will reconcile some apostates from the celestial world in addition to men upon earth. There is therefore nothing unreasonable in this suggestion, unless it be the fact that Peter presents the preaching as being after our Lord's death whereas the "sermon in action" would have been made largely during his life on earth before his death.

There is one factor in the text which seems to require an alternative explanation. The A.V. says He "went and preached". The Greek is poreutheis which is the aorist form of the verb poreuomai, to go or to pass from one place to another. It implies that Christ definitely went to the imprisoned spirits for the purpose of this preaching. The A.V. rendering of the text is not so accurate as it ought to have been; "quickened by the spirit: by which" should be "in the spirit, in which"; it is so rendered by every reputable translation aside from the A.V. Perhaps the N.E.B. has it best "in the body he was put to death; in the spirit he was brought to life. And in the spirit he went and made his proclamation to the imprisoned spirits". The Greek word en properly means "in" but not "by means of". For the more scrupulous the literal rendering of the Greek text is "....being put to death flesh but being made alive spirit, in which also to the spirits in prison having gone, he preached".

Our Lord was in the grave three days. On the third day He rose from the dead. It was only then that He was "made alive spirit". Only then did He resume his former spiritual glory and re-enter the world He left at the commencement of his humanity. Only after that time, the time of his resurrection, could the statement in this text be true. It is at least possible that after his resurrection, perhaps after He left his disciples and ascended to the Father, our Lord did in fact go to the spirits in prison and proclaim his evangel to them. Perhaps at that point they did for the first time have the door of salvation through repentance opened.

If that be the truth of the matter, then there is an analogy with the position of humankind. After many long centuries of the power of sin, "having no hope and without God in the world", the people who walked in darkness perceived a great light. The Light of the world came to them and proclaimed the way of salvation. Is it not feasible to suppose that at the same time the same Light would be sent to those angelic sons of God who likewise had walked in darkness over much the same period of time? The judgment of both men and angels is to take place simultaneously in the day of the Church's triumph (1 Cor.6.1-3). Maybe this present Age and the future Messianic Age constitute a period in which not only men, but angels, have the grace of God offered to them by his messenger, and can, if they will, turn from sin to serve the living God.