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 forgiven him."12

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 New Testament.

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 1:234-235.

21 The Odes of Solomon 42:15-26 in Platt, ed., The Forgotten Books of Eden, p. 140.