Clement of Alexandria

Jesus and the 'spirits in prison' -- Is this toughest passage in the New Testament?

Jesus and the 'spirits in prison' -- Is this toughest passage in the New Testament?

JOEL’S QUESTION:

[Explanation:] The pastor of a New Jersey Protestant congregation sent in several “questions that have come up here.” One of them is how to understand the passage in the New Testament letter of 1st Peter about Jesus Christ preaching to “the spirits in prison.”

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

The Bible’s major teachings are clear enough. But Joel and his parishioners shouldn’t be embarrassed if they’re confused about this particular New Testament head-scratcher. Even Martin Luther (who so energized Bible study 500 years ago by sparking the Protestant Reformation) said it’s “certainly a more obscure passage than any other in the New Testament. I still do now know for sure what the apostle means.” Robert Mounce, president of Whitworth University, agreed that this section is “widely recognized as perhaps the most difficult to understand in the New Testament.”

Here’s the text at issue: “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 . .  .” (1 Peter 3:18-20a, RSV translation).

The following analysis relies especially on commentaries by Mounce, an American, the German exegete Leonhard Goppelt, and England’s J.N.D. Kelly. Scholars candidly admit that each explanation has problems. Among them:

(1) Between his death by crucifixion and bodily resurrection, Christ visited the realm of the dead and preached to Noah’s wicked contemporaries. That was the view of early church “Fathers,” notably Clement of Alexandria.

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