First Peter 3:18-20 says, “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive by the Spirit, by whom also He went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly were disobedient, when once the Divine longsuffering waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight souls, were saved through water” (NKJV).
Many believe this event occurred between Christ’s death and resurrection and that Christ proclaimed His just completed victory at Calvary to imprisoned fallen angels (Gen. 6:1-8; 2 Pet. 2:4; Jude 6-7), a distinct class of demons discussed in the March/April Issues & Answers. This is the majority view and has much to commend it.
However, this column would agree with those who say that this event happened in Noah’s time. The key phrase is “who formerly were disobedient, when once the Divine longsuffering waited in the days of Noah.” It was in the days of Noah that Christ by the Spirit preached through Noah to those who eventually perished in the flood and were at the time of Peter’s writing still in Hades.
Second Peter 2:5 describes Noah as a preacher of righteousness. As he was building the ark, many would have questioned him and given him opportunity to tell them that judgment was coming but that God was providing a way of salvation to escape the coming flood. The Son of God was the source of the message but it was proclaimed under the unction of the Holy Spirit by Noah. Though the Holy Spirit did not permanently indwell the Old Testament saints as He does the believer today, the omnipresent Spirit was still active in the world restraining evil and convicting of sin.
Considering the phrase “spirits in prison,” though it is true that the word “spirits” normally refers to angels or demons, it is also used to refer to Old Testament saints in Hebrews 12:23. Additionally, though he doesn’t specifically use the word Paul speaks of departed believers as being, “absent from the body and…present with the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:8). They are spirits in the sense that they are presently bodiless. In our passage, Peter is referring to the bodiless, unbelieving dead who perished in the flood. They cannot escape the prison of Hades and await the resurrection of the lost at the end of time when they will be judged and cast into the lake of fire.
The word “disobedience” in verse 20 would better apply to humans and not to fallen angels. Since fallen angels cannot be redeemed, God does not strive with them to repent. These demons have no message to obey. But He does strive with humanity. Speaking of the evil in Noah’s day Genesis 6:3 states, “And the Lord said, “My Spirit shall not strive with man forever, for he is indeed flesh; yet his days shall be one hundred and twenty years.” After 120 years of preaching, only eight souls were saved, all of whom were in Noah’s family. The rest were “disobedient” to God’s message.
The phrase “Divine longsuffering” shows the tremendous patience and striving with humanity by a God who loved them, one who is not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance. He waited 120 years allowing ample opportunity for everyone to heed His warning.
Christ’s message in Noah’s era is the same today—judgment is coming. By the Spirit Christ is striving through our gospel witness with men and women to be saved. He shed His blood at Calvary so we may escape eternal judgment for our sins. Today is the day of salvation for once we perish all hope is gone. Christ is the only hope, and He is the only Savior.