Here is a picture of the various theories as I laid them out on the extremely large white board in my office last week.
I think the theory that best represents an accurate reading of this text is what I call “Flashback Look Forward.”
The “Hell’s 2nd Chance” theory was first debunked by Saint Augustine, who put forward a different interpretation of this difficult text. Augustine’s thoughts have stood the test of time and are ascribed to by modern scholars such as Wayne Grudem, Edmund Clowney, and G.K. Beale (among others).
Here, one final time, is the text in question:
…in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, 20 because they formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared…
The theory is this:
The Spirit of Jesus preached through Noah to those who disobeyed; Peter includes this “flashback” in his letter in order to encourage ‘exiled’ Christians to endure to the end.
- This is a super straight-forward reading of the text. Jesus himself preached through Noah to the people of Noah’s time (concerning the gospel).
- Those in Noah’s time rejected the message, and are now referred to by Peter as “spirits in prison.”
- 1 Peter 1:11 says that the Spirit of Jesus preached through the OT prophets (Noah included).
- 2 Peter 2:5 calls Noah a “preacher of righteousness.”
- Hebrews 11:7 says “By faith Noah, being warned by God concerning events as yet unseen, in reverent fear constructed an ark for the saving of his household. By this he condemned the world and became an heir of the righteousness that comes by faith.”
- The immediate context of 1 Peter is encouraging Christians to “Give a defense of our faith even while persecuted” (like Noah); AND to be assured of our deliverance and salvation through the resurrection/victory of Jesus.
- 1 Peter context: “suffer for doing good,” just like Noah.
- Christ rose “by the Spirit” (3:18) AND preached through Noah “by the Spirit” (3:19-20)
At first I saw a few places in which this theory failed. Here are two:
- Chronology of verse 19 seems odd. It seems like Jesus “went and proclaimed” to the spirits in prison after his death and before his resurrection, or after his resurrection.
- The Greek word for “proclaimed” is most often translated ‘Heralded.’ If it was preaching of the gospel, Peter could have used a Greek word that more explicitly refers to evangelism.
The more I studied this text, the more I realized that both of these objections are thin. The chronology factor is pointless, in reference to “when” Jesus preached to the spirits in prison. The text doesn’t explicitly say. The bigger chronology piece in this text is in verse 20, where it is clear that these “spirits” disobeyed God in Noah’s time. The Greek stuff is also pretty thin. The word used here can refer at times to the preaching of the gospel.
So I think this text is a flashback to the time of Noah, encouraging believers that the mission they now carry on is one that Jesus has been perpetuating since Noah’s time. It is also a call to endure, knowing that preaching the gospel brought Noah persecution, but that God graciously saved him and his family, just as he saves us through the death and resurrection of Jesus.