Mormonism and Early Christianity:
The Preaching to the Spirits in Prison
by Barry Bickmore
©1997. All Rights Reserved
Reference Info - glossary of
ancient Christian writers and documents, guide to abbreviations, bibliography.
Peter, in his first general epistle, made some very strange remarks
about Christ's descent to the spirit world which have haunted the Christian
world for centuries:
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;
Which sometime were disobedient, when once the longsuffering of God waited
in the days of Noah....1
For for this cause was the gospel preached also to them that are
dead, that they might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live
according to God in the spirit.2
Most commentators admit the plain meaning of these passages is that
after Christ died, but before He was resurrected, He visited the spirits
of the disobedient of Noah's day in hell and preached the Gospel to them.
He did this so that they could be judged like other men who had heard the
Gospel, too, and be given the chance to live a godly life in the spirit.
However, since their denominations have no other knowledge of anything
like this, these Christian commentators often try to come up with various
alternative explanations which harmonize with their established beliefs.
For example, the NIV Study Bible lists two other interpretations:
Some hold that in his preincarnate state Christ went and preached
through Noah to the wicked generation of that time.... Others argue that
between his death and resurrection Christ went to the prison where fallen
angels are incarcerated and there preached to the angels who are said to
have left their proper state and married human women during Noah's time
(cf. Ge. 6:1-4)....3
James Moffatt, in his translation of the New Testament, renders verse
19, "It was in the Spirit that Enoch also went and preached to the
imprisoned spirits...."4 He justifies
this blatant change in the wording by postulating that the text probably
originally said "Enoch" , but was changed to read "in (or
by) which also" (Greek en ho kai) by "a scribe's blunder
in dropping some repeated letters."5 In
other words, a translation is true if you drop the "anslation"
and add the "ue". (Moffatt also ignores the fact that Enoch wasn't
even on the earth during Noah's lifetime6,
so his emendation not only is completely arbitrary and out of context,
but it is demonstrably untrue.)
As for 1 Peter 4:6, the translators of the New International Version
are are also guilty of inserting extra words in the text to suit their
preconceptions. They translate the verse, "For this is the reason
the gospel was preached even to those who are now dead, so that
they might be judged according to men in regard to the body, but live according
to God in regard to the spirit." Why do they add the word "now"?
A text note explains:
The word "now" does not occur in the Greek, but it is necessary
to make it clear that the preaching was done not after these people had
died, but while they were still alive. (There will be no opportunity for
people to be saved after death; see Heb. 9:27.)7
But the verse they cite as proof only says, "And as it is appointed
unto men once to die, but after this the judgement."8
Clearly this says nothing about the time between death and the judgement,
since the judgement will not take place until after the Millennial reign
of Christ and the resurrection of the dead.9
And wasn't it precisely Peter's point that the Gospel had to be
preached to the dead so that everyone could be judged on equal terms? If
"God is no respecter of persons"10,
how could he condemn people for not accepting the Gospel, when the vast
majority of the people who have lived on the earth have never even heard
of Jesus Christ!
We will find that the early Christian writers held no such narrow view,
insisting that the Gospel had to be preached to the spirits in prison.
And they did not stop at the pitifully small amount of information Peter
gave. They preached a doctrine remarkably similar to the Latter-day Saint
belief that the gospel was not only preached by Christ in the spirit world,
but by His disciples, as well, after they died.
Justin Martyr and Clement of Alexandria insisted that it wouldn't be
right for God to condemn those who hadn't heard the gospel:
Since those who did that which is universally, naturally, and eternally
good are pleasing to God, they shall be saved through this Christ in the
resurrection equally with those righteous men who were before them, namely
Noah, and Enoch, and Jacob, and whoever else there be, along with those
who have known this Christ, Son of God....11
For it is not right that these should be condemned without trial,
and that those alone who lived after the advent should have the advantage
of the divine righteousness. But to all rational souls it was said from
above, "Whatever one of you has done in ignorance, without clearly
knowing God, if, on becoming conscious, he repent, all his sins will be
And Peter, in the Clementine Recognitions, derided the God of
Simon Magus because he could only save those who knew of Him!
Then said Peter [to Simon Magus]: "He saves adulterers and men-slayers,
if they know him; but good, and sober, an merciful persons, if they do
not know him, in consequence of their having no information concerning
him, he does not save! Great and good truly is he whom you proclaim, who
is not so much the saviour of the evil, as he is one who shows no mercy
to the good."13
But if the definition of eternal life is to "know... the only true
God, and Jesus Christ,"14 how can those
who have not even heard of them be saved? Paul had the answer when he said
that "faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God."15
The bottom line is that the Gospel has to be preached to those who have
not been given the chance to accept Christ to give them a fair shake, and
Peter mentioned in passing that this happened for one group, at least,
in the world of spirits. Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and Hermas
all testified of the fact that Jesus did, indeed, preach to the spirits
in prison, some even claiming that the departed disciples of Jesus now
continue the preaching work:
It was for this reason, too, that the Lord descended into the regions
beneath the earth, preaching His advent there also, and [declaring] the
remission of sins received by those who believe in Him. Now all those believed
in Him who had hope towards Him, that is, those who proclaimed His advent,
and submitted to His dispensations, the righteous men, the prophets, and
the patriarchs, to whom He remitted sins in the same way as He did to us,
which sins we should not lay to their charge, if we would not despise the
grace of God. For as these men did not impute unto us (the Gentiles) our
transgressions, which we wrought before Christ was manifested among us,
so also it is not right that we should lay blame upon those who sinned
before Christ's coming.16
And it has been shown also, in the second book of the Stromata, that
the apostles, following the Lord, preached the Gospel to those in Hades....
For it was suitable to the divine administration, that those possessed
of greater worth in righteousness, and whose life had been pre-eminent,
on repenting of their transgressions, though found in another place, yet
being confessedly of the number of the people of God Almighty, should be
saved, each one according to his individual knowledge.... If, then, the
Lord descended to Hades for no other end but to preach the Gospel, as He
did descend; it was either to preach the Gospel to all or to the Hebrews
only. If, accordingly, to all, then all who believe shall be saved, although
they may be of the Gentiles, on making their profession there....17
... when He became a soul, without the covering of the body, He dwelt
among those souls which were without bodily covering, converting such of
them as were willing to Himself, or those whom He saw, for reasons known
to Him alone, to be better adapted to such a course.18
... These apostles and teachers who preached the name of the Son
of God, after falling asleep in the power and faith of the Son of God,
preached it not only to those who were asleep, but themselves also gave
them the seal of the preaching. Accordingly they descended with them into
the water, and again ascended.19
This belief in Christ's preaching mission to the dead was not some incidental
folk belief, but a central part of the Christian message. It was so central,
in fact, that Justin Martyr accused the Jews of having removed a passage
from Jeremiah about the descent and preaching to weaken the scriptural
support for Christianity.
Here Trypho remarked, "We ask you first of all to tell us some
of the Scriptures which you allege have been completely cancelled."
[Justin quotes some passages which the Jews evidently removed from Esdras
and Jeremiah.] And again, from the sayings of the same Jeremiah these have
been cut out: 'The Lord God remembered His dead people of Israel who lay
in the graves; and He descended to preach to them His own salvation.'20
The Odes of Solomon preserve a beautiful account of the preaching
work of Christ to the dead. In one of the Odes the Saviour says:
Sheol saw me and was made miserable: Death cast me up and many along
with me. I had gall and bitterness, and I went down with him to the utmost
of his depth.... And I made a congregation of living men amongst his dead
men, and I spake with them by living lips: Because my word shall not be
void: And those who had died ran towards me: and they cried and said, Son
of God, have pity on us, and do with us according to thy kindness, and
bring us out from the bonds of darkness: and open to us the door by which
we shall come out to thee. For we see that our death has not touched thee.
Let us also be redeemed with thee: for thou art our Redeemer. And I heard
their voice; and my name I sealed upon their heads: For they are free men
and they are mine.21
God is merciful and He is just! He doesn't save some and give others
no opportunity to be saved. His hand goes out to all nations and all people
at all times, and Jesus' atonement breaks the bands of death and hell,
so that all mankind can choose Him, and live! This is the message of Christ's
preaching mission to the dead, which mainstream Christianity has lost,
and God has restored through Joseph Smith.
1 1 Peter 3:18-20.
2 1 Peter 4:6.
3 The NIV Study Bible, p. 1893.
4 1 Peter 3:19, in Moffatt, The Moffatt New Testament.
5 Text note to 1 Peter 3:19, in Moffatt, The Moffatt
6 See Genesis 5:22-29.
7 The NIV Study Bible, p. 1894.
8 Hebrews 9:27.
9 see Revelation 20.
10 Acts 10:34.
11 Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho 45, in ANF 1:217.
12 Clement of Alexandria, Stromata 6:6, in ANF 2:491.
13 Clementine Recognitions 1:58 in ANF 8:113.
14 John 17:3.
15 Romans 10:17.
16 Irenaeus, Against Heresies 4:27:2, in ANF 1:499.
17 Clement of Alexandria, Stromata 6:6, in ANF 2:490.
18 Origen, Against Celsus 2:43, in ANF 4:448.
19 The Pastor of Hermas, Sim. 9:16, in ANF 2:49.
20 Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho 71-72, in ANF
21 The Odes of Solomon 42:15-26 in Platt, ed., The
Forgotten Books of Eden, p. 140.