Christ in Hades
December 9th, 1973 @ 8:15 AM
1 Peter 3:18-22
CHRIST IN HADES
Dr. W. A. Criswell
1 Peter 3:18-22
12-9-73 8:15 a.m.
We welcome you who are sharing this service with us on the radio. This is the pastor bringing the message entitled Christ in Hades, Christ in Hell. It is an exposition of one of the strange and mysterious passages in the Bible. We shall not give ourselves to a recounting of all of the unusual interpretations of the passage; they are many and varied and contradictory. In our preaching through the epistle of Peter, we are in the third chapter, 1 Peter chapter 3, and we begin reading at verse 17:
For it is better, if the will of God be so, that ye suffer for well doing,
For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit:
By which also He went and preached unto the spirits in prison;
Those spirits which sometime were disobedient, when once the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls were saved by water.
The like figure whereunto even baptism doth also now save us (not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God,) by the resurrection of Jesus Christ:
Who is gone into heaven, and is on the right hand of God; angels and authorities and powers being made subject unto Him.
[1 Peter 3:17-22]
And this passage, "Being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit, by which also He went and preached unto the spirits in prison; who sometime were disobedient, when once the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah" [1 Peter 3:18-20], what could that mean? And that is the subject, "Christ in Hades, Christ in hell."
All these days past, I have simply said that the passage referred to the Spirit of Christ in Noah, who preached to the antediluvians who were disobedient to the appeal of God and died in the Flood and are now in prison in Hades. That’s what I have always said in days past. But as I review it, I think the reason I said that was because of the difficulty of the passage; that was just an easy way out. So, studying it, and poring over the words, even though some of the tremendous scholars and commentators on the Word of God believe just what I said a moment ago, that the passage refers to the Spirit of Christ that was in Noah, and Noah preached to the antediluvians before the Flood came, even though some of our great scholars are persuaded that this is what the passage means, as I look at it there is a wording here that makes it almost impossible to believe that this refers to something that Christ did in Noah back yonder before the Flood. So we’ll look at it closely.
This is the King James Version: "Christ being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit" [1 Peter 3:18]. If you have a King James Version there, as I have, the "Spirit" is capitalized; capital "S," "Spirit," Holy Spirit, referring to the Holy Spirit. "Christ being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Holy Spirit." That’s the King James Version, and that’s the persuasion of those translators in 1611 when the translation was made. Now you look at the next word: "by which also He went and preached unto the spirits in prison"; quickened by the Spirit, "in which, in which Spirit He went and preached unto the spirits in prison" [1 Peter 3:19]. But the King James Version – and these days past, when I was persuaded of another interpretation – the King James Version would lead us to believe that Christ was put to death in the flesh, and quickened by the Holy Spirit, which is all right. Romans 1:4 says that, that Christ was raised from the dead by the Holy Spirit; He was put to death in the flesh, He was quickened, made alive by the Spirit, but that next, "in which Spirit He went and preached unto the spirits in prison" [1 Peter 3:19]. He did not go to the spirits in prison raised from the dead: it was not in His risen body that He went to preach to the spirits in prison. The Scriptures say, "Being put to death in the flesh, but quickened to pneumati, in the Spirit, en ho, in which Spirit"; that is, Christ did not go to the spirits in prison and preach unto them in His resurrected body after His resurrection, but the Scripture plainly says, if I can understand it at all, that quickened in the Spirit, to pneumati, en ho, in which Spirit He went and preached to the spirits in prison [1 Peter 3:18-19]. And that is an altogether different thing. That’s in a different world. And isn’t that an amazing, mysterious world?
Our Lord, when He was in the flesh, in the body, was separated from an ability and access to the spirits in the spirit world. But when He became disassociated from His body, when in His death His Spirit was separated from the flesh, in the Spirit then He had access to the spirit world. I would suppose it was like this: when the Lord died He went up to Paradise, taking with Him the thief on the cross, having said to him, "Today shalt thou be with Me in Paradise" [Luke 23:43]. So he took with Him, even though the Lord died first, even though He died first [John 19:32-33], yet He took with Him the thief on the cross to Paradise. But not staying there Christ immediately left, and went down to preach to the spirits who were in prison.
The pre-incarnate Christ was spiritual essence, the essence of spirit. He became a man; He put on flesh in order to make a sacrifice for our sins [Hebrews 10:4-10]. But when He was crucified, His spirit was separated from the flesh [Luke 23:46], and as such He returned to the spiritual essence that He was before in His pre-incarnate state. And in that spiritual essence, pure Spirit, He went down to speak to the spirits in prison. "Put to death in the flesh, quickened in the Spirit, in which Spirit He went and preached unto the spirits in prison, the spirits who were disobedient in the days of Noah, and who died in the Flood" [1 Peter 3:18-19].
I would suppose that this is a correct interpretation, not only from an exegesis of these words, en pneumati en ho, they correspond: "Quickened in the Spirit, in which Spirit He went and preached to the spirits in prison"; I would suppose not only in an exegetical study of the words is that true, but also when you look at the passage to see what the apostle had in mind, it corroborates it. What Simon Peter is saying to these suffering Jewish Christians in Asia Minor is this: suffering is in the divine family of God from the beginning. Abel was a child of the Lord, he suffered, his blood cried out to God from the ground [Genesis 4:8-10]. Job, Jeremiah, and even the Lord suffered. What Simon Peter is saying to those suffering Jewish Christians is this: suffering is in the family of God; but take heart, don’t be discouraged, for the suffering of Christ that led to His death did not diminish the ableness of our Lord in His ministry, but His death enlarged it. Our Savior had an even greater ministry in death than He had in life; for in death He had a ministry to the spirits in prison, even those who were disobedient in the days of Noah [1 Peter 3:19-20].
So he would say, with us, suffering, even martyrdom increases our influence and our witness. We don’t lose in suffering, not even if we lose our life; but we gain in the great measure of our witness for our Lord. But this passage of our Savior descending into hell and preaching to the spirits in prison, it is an astonishing thing! F. B. Meyer, tremendously gifted and dedicated Baptist preacher of London. F. B. Meyer has a passage that is eloquent in the extreme. F. B. Meyer takes the fourteenth chapter of Isaiah, and there he is describing the king of Babylon who finally has fallen before the great monarch of the skies, the Lord God. He describes the king of Babylon, as he interprets the fourteenth chapter of Isaiah, he describes the king of Babylon, as the king comes down to the spirit world, and the shades, the ghosts, the spirits of the kings that the king of Babylon has destroyed, and the chiefs of the people that he has slaughtered, the king of Babylon as he comes down into the spirit world is met by the ghosts and the shades of those whom he has destroyed. And they looked upon him narrowly, and they cry with a thin voice in a note of withering sarcasm, "Art thou come down to us? Art thou weak now, like us? Are not you the man that made the earth to tremble and the kingdoms to shake? Art thou now come down just a ghost to us?" [Isaiah 14:9-16].
You can’t help but feel the drama of a scene like that. If that is true, can you imagine how much greater the stirring of the spirit world when the Lord Jesus Christ went down into Hades? [1 Peter 3:19]. If they were stirred, according to Isaiah chapter 14, by the descent of the king of Babylon into their midst, can you imagine the stirring in the spirit world when the Son of God came down to proclaim and to herald the message of His accomplished redemption?
Look at that. In the fourth chapter of the Book of Ephesians, the apostle Paul writes, "When the Lord was crucified and died, then He ascended up on high, and led captivity captive, and gave gifts unto men. (Now that He ascended, what is it but that He also descended first into the lower parts of the earth?)" [Ephesians 4:8-9]. Now when you study that passage, the main meaning of it is, that the Lord who was in heaven descended down to earth, and then ascended back up into heaven. But if you’ll study that closely, you will find that many of the great scholars of the Scriptures say the passage, "He also descended first into the lower parts of the earth before He ascended back up into heaven, taking captivity captive," that that refers – in any manner of understanding – that refers to Christ’s descent into the netherworld, and that the language of the Jewish people in which Paul was indoctrinated from childhood, always refers, when one descends into the lower parts of the earth, it always refers to a visit into the netherworld, the Hadean world, the sheol world of departed spirits.
The church has always believed that. I want you to listen to the Apostles’ Creed:
I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth. And in Jesus Christ His only begotten Son our Lord; who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried. He descended into hell. The third day He rose again from the dead. He ascended into heaven, and sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence He shall come to judge the quick and the dead. I believe in the Holy Spirit; the holy universal Church; the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen.
That is the oldest creed in Christendom, and the most universally accepted, the Apostles’ Creed. Some scholars say it goes clear back to the days of the apostles. We don’t know where it started; it’s the oldest creed in Christendom.
Well, did you catch that word? "I believe in God the Father. I believe in Jesus Christ the only begotten Son, conceived of the Holy Spirit; born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate; was crucified, dead, and buried; He descended into hell." This has been the belief of the Christian church from the beginning. In the Spirit, before His resurrection – did you follow the order of it? "Suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried. He descended into hell, then the third day He rose again from the dead." That is an exact reproduction of the exegetical meaning of this text in 1 Peter. "He was quickened in the Spirit, in which Spirit He descended into hell to preach to the spirits who were in prison, these who had died before the Flood" [1 Peter 3:18-20].
Why just to those spirits before the Flood? How about all of the other spirits who were no less disobedient in other periods of the history of the world? Well, we must not take the text to exclude those. Peter points out this particular group because they were unusual sinners and because he is going to make a comparison just a little later on. But apparently, it is not an exclusion of all of the other spirits in the spirit world. You could assume that He spoke just to those spirits, but that’s an assumption. Apparently when the Lord descended into hell, He spoke to all of the spirits of the spirit world, that age and every other age.
And that, for two reasons I have mentioned just now, He spoke, Simon Peter points out that He spoke to those spirits, the men who had died before the Flood, because they were so manifestly criminal, blasphemous in their rejection of the witness of God. The old patriarch Noah began to preach in the four hundred eightieth year of his life [Genesis 6:3]; and the Flood came in the six hundredth year of his life. Noah was six hundred years old when the Flood came [Genesis 7:6]. From four hundred eighty to six hundred years, that’s one hundred twenty years that Noah preached; not only by word of mouth, but by every ring of the hammer and every sound of the saw. They were especially criminal. And the other is the apostle mentions those before the days of the Flood because he’s going to make a comparison how some were saved and the others were so irretrievably, irrevocably lost [1 Peter 3:19-21].
Now, the big, big, big, big question: does this passage give us a hope of a second chance? If a man dies and falls into hell, down there in torment does he have another chance? Can he be saved from hell? The medieval artists loved to depict our Lord coming out of Hades, out of the netherworld, swarmed around with the spirits of those that He had saved from the flames of torment, and with rejoicing entering into the Paradise of God. Is that true? Could that be so? If a man dies without Christ and falls into torment and hell, is it possible that down there he has another chance and can be elevated up to glory?
First of all, in two things to answer, first of all: there is not a hint of that elsewhere in the Bible, not a hint of it. There is nothing in the entire Word of God, nothing, absolutely nothing, that gives any remotest hint or suggestion that a man can be saved after he dies, after he enters the netherworld. Contrariwise the Bible will say, such as the passage in Ecclesiastes: "As the tree falls, so shall it lie" [Ecclesiastes 11:3]. That’s it. But look at this: "By which also He went and preached unto the spirits in prison" [1 Peter 3:19]. Simon Peter uses a different kind of a word translated here "preach": "By which also Christ went and kerussō, kerussō." The word for "preach the gospel" is euangelizō: to evangelize, to tell the good news, to call men to repentance and salvation, euangelizō. Take the word euangelizō, put it in English, spell it out exactly and Anglicize it, it comes out "evangelize"; euangelizō, "evangelize," it’s the same word, just spelled out in English, Anglicized. That’s the word for the preaching of the gospel in hope. "Come, come, come, trust the Lord, be saved"; that’s the word euangelizō. He doesn’t use it here; "In which Spirit also He went and kerussō." Kerussō is the word to describe a town crier, a herald, a man who stands up and just publishes news; kerussō, to herald, to proclaim, as a town crier in the days before they had newspapers. In England, there’d be a man walk through the streets ringing a big bell – such as these youngsters play on these bells here and they’re going to tonight – there’ll be a man going through the streets of the town or the city, ringing that bell, and he lifts up his voice, "Hear ye! Hear ye! Hear ye!" then he would announce the news, a town crier, proclaim the news. That is exactly the word that Simon Peter uses here. Kerussō: "Christ went down," not euangelizō, "kerussō, proclaiming His sacrificial redemption."
What does that mean? I don’t know. And I can’t find out. And nobody knows, and there’s nobody that can find out. I was asked, "Why didn’t you preach on that text when you were preaching through the Bible?" Well, that is the reason: I don’t know. I can’t find out, nor does anybody know; it is not revealed to us. As I quoted last Wednesday night in teaching here, Deuteronomy, God says by inspiration, "The secret things belong to God: but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever" [Deuteronomy 29:29]. What does this mean, that Christ in the Spirit before His resurrection the third day, Christ in the Spirit, quickened in the Spirit went down and kerussō, proclaimed what He had done to the spirits that are in prison, and especially to these that are disobedient in the days of Noah before the Flood? [1 Peter 3:18-20]. I do not know. I cannot know. So we’ll just ask the Lord when we get to heaven, "What is this? What did You do? And why did You do it? And what is its meaning?"
If I could digress here for a minute and add a Calvinistic explanation, there are some of those men who will write, saying that the Lord went down there to prison to confirm their damnation! Oh! that is such a horrible thought: already in torment, the Lord down there just to affirm the judgment of God upon their rejection of the mercy offered and the grace in the preaching of Noah. I don’t know. And the man who offered that suggestion, he doesn’t know. It’s something hid in the counsels of God.
We must hasten. Why did Simon Peter use this passage? Why did he pick out those sinners, these that were lost in the days of Noah? Because he’s going to make a beautiful and a wonderful and a God-given, God-inspired comparison.
These who were disobedient in the days of Noah, when the ark was a preparing, wherein eight were saved.
The like figure whereunto even baptism also doth now save us (not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the regenerated conscience and soul toward God,) in the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
[1 Peter 3:20-21]
This is what the apostle is saying: he is saying in the days of the antediluvians, the world was full of sin, and of blood, and of violence, of crime and iniquity, sodomy – the world as you see it now. When you describe in the Bible, look in the Bible, the description of the days of the Flood, you’d think he’s talking about now. In those days of violence, and sin, and blasphemy, and God-rejection, there came the Flood of water and the old world was buried, it was dead and destroyed. And out of the judgment of the Flood, out of the death of the antediluvian civilization, there came a bright new world. And when Noah walked out of the ark [Genesis 8:15-19], he looked upon a brand new world: verdant, rich with the deposit of the alluvial soil, carpeted with green, foliated with leaves. And it was a world cleansed and purged of all unrighteousness. It was a new world and a new life; and the apostle Peter uses that to describe the experience in baptism. In baptism we are buried, dead to the old world, and we are raised to the new world in Christ [Romans 6:3-6]. Gone are the old tastes, and the old delights, and the old life; and here forever is the new world, and the new life, and the new creation. "If any man be in Christ Jesus, he is something new: old things are passed away, all things are become new" [2 Corinthians 5:17]. And he says in baptism that is what happens to us.
As the water bore up the ark – that is, eight souls were saved by water [1 Peter 3:20], dia hudatos, through water, the ark was borne up by the water. And he sees in that a figure how the water expresses for us our death to the old life, and the old world, and to sin; our burial to it, and our resurrection to a new life and a new world in Christ. Then, lest someone say that baptism itself does that for us, he calls it a figure: "Not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God" [1 Peter 3:21]. What the apostle means by that is this: writing to these Jewish Christians they were familiar with baptizings; they baptized everything. You’d say they ceremonially washed; the Greek word is "baptize." They baptized their pots, they baptized their pans, they baptized their hands, they baptized their feet; once in a while they would baptize themselves all over. They were familiar with ceremonial washings. And Simon Peter says all that a ceremonial washing does is just rid the flesh of a little bit of dirt. What is efficacious is not the baptizing, but the great spiritual reality for which it stands.
And that is the doctrine of the New Testament itself: not in baptism are we saved, all of the baptizings, the washings in the world couldn’t wash the stain of sin out of our souls; all that baptism can ever do is just wash some of the dirt off of our flesh. As he says, "Not the putting away of the filth of the flesh" [1 Peter 3:21], not that, but the baptism is a figure, as he calls it here, it is a figure as he uses the days of the Flood there, the water is a figure of the death of the old life and the rebirth into a new world and a new life.
And this is the call of the blessed Lord Jesus to us: to die to the old world and the old life, and to live in resurrected glory and power to the new life in Christ.
We must sing our hymn of appeal. And while we sing it, a family you, a couple you, or just one somebody you, to give himself to Jesus, to put your life in the circumference and communion of this blessed church, as God’s Holy Spirit shall press the appeal to your heart, come now. Make the decision now. On the first note of that first stanza, in the balcony round, you, on this lower floor, you, on the first note of that stanza, when you stand up, stand up walking down one of these stairways or coming down one of these aisles. God bless you and angels attend you in the way as you come, while we stand and while we sing.