Author: Thomas Cosmades
So declare several of the ancient creeds regarding the intermediary state of Christ between His giving up the spirit to the Father and His triumphant resurrection. This is a subject that has been discussed often since Christians started reading the account of Christ’s crucifixion. It is an area on which there is not general consensus. The difficulty to make an easy exegesis of it is always before us. Therefore, reaching a clear-cut definition will often elude the reader. There are three passages which cursorily intimate this historic topic of disagreement. We thank God that it is a portion without any danger of causing doctrinal deviation.
I will refer to the three areas of scripture where there is allusion to the event. These are stated in the order of the extent of information given: I Peter 3:18-22; Ephesians 4:8, 9; I Peter 4:6. First the longest section: While the body of Jesus was put to death his spirit (pneuma) was as alive as ever. His death has soteriological importance. It can be understood from the passage that in the intermediary state His spirit was not only alive, but active. He went and preached (kirysso). The meaning of the word is public proclamation. While in all other references the Gospel is preached to living people; here it is proclaimed to spirits of the dead who were kept in confinement (philaki).
In verse 20, Peter is referring to Noah’s contemporaries who perished in the flood. God being vexed with human corruption restricted the span of their time to one hundred and twenty years until He sent the judgment (cf. Genesis 6:3). While Noah was building the ark he was preaching to all those around concerning the impending judgment: “If he did not spare the ancient world, but preserved Noah, a herald of righteousness, with seven other persons, when he brought a flood upon the world of the ungodly,” (II Peter 2:5.) We cannot delve into the activities of the Nephelim (Genesis 6:4). But we are told precisely what the antediluvian man’s offense was: violence (Genesis 6:11, 13). Manslaughter which started with Cain, and continued with Lamech (Genesis 4:23, 24), reached its appalling apex in Noah’s days. Consider the ferocious man-killing in our day. The antediluvian murderers did not repent at Noah’s preaching. They all perished, except for the eight. The spirits were put into the philaki. In all likelihood, Peter’s reference is to Sheol (Hades). In this section the verb poreftheis (went) is used twice (I Peter 3:19, 22). He went to philaki to preach, then he went to heaven, with angels, authorities and powers becoming subject to Him. If the word is to be taken at face value, Christ went to philaki and afterwards into heaven. To the former, in order to proclaim a message, to the latter in order to reign. The word for preaching is kirysso, whereas the word in I Peter 4:6 is evangelizo, i.e., evangelize. It can be deduced then, that the two references have to do with two different incidents. While it was
Christ who went to those in prison (I Peter 3:19), it is uncertain who did the act of evangelism to those mentioned as being dead. (I Peter 4:6).
What could the proclamation in 3:19 have meant? There is no concrete evidence about it while various suggestions have been made. The one is worthy of note. While the flood was intensifying and sinners were hanging on for dear life, many remembered Noah’s kirygma (II Peter 2:5). As we know, nobody heeded the call for repentance. But as Noah’s warning was now coming true many repented before breathing their last. They called upon the mighty Yahweh to save them. In actuality, they were calling upon Christ the Savior who heard their plea and offered them ‘death-bed repentance’. Naturally, their spirits went to Hades, expecting some day to see the Savior who came to save all who believe, no matter how repulsive their lives had been. Christ would not disappoint this special assembly of believers who had had their soul-liberating experience in the baptism of water at the end of their sinful lives.
So the Savior went to the philaki to these people who had delayed to believe until the last moment of their lives. He preached to them the accomplishment of the glorious liberation, a message they had waited for ages to learn. Christ did not evangelize them. Noah had preached to them in a rudimentary manner which was brought to their remembrance by the Holy Spirit while they were wrestling with life and death. Noah and his household were saved through water – water which brought them to safety. The others were also saved through water, but in a disastrous manner. They passed through the water of judgment and found the opportunity to believe.
THE CONNECTION TO BAPTISM
Peter takes a turn at this juncture, drawing his readers’ attention to the antitypon (21)—corresponding type of baptism. This ordinance which follows the person’s conversion to Christ is also administered through water. It typifies the person’s death, burial and resurrection with Christ (cf. Romans 6:3, 4; Colossians 2:12). The antediluvian generation had to experience death through the deluge. Our generation experiences death through the agony endured by the Savior. During those awful hours, some believed in Christ’s salvation, and later had the privilege of hearing from the Savior of the finality of that salvation. The others who were undergoing the fatal ordeal refused to call on the Savior’s ever-ready salvation so were deprived from entering it because of unbelief. Those of us who are now saved and baptized in the name of Christ are likewise ushered into His resurrection life through water. Christ endured the agony of the awful baptism of suffering. “I have a baptism to be baptized with; and how I am constrained until it is accomplished!” (Luke 12:50; cf. Mark 10:38).
Peter is very quick to warn his readers of any magical notion regarding baptism. Baptism is a pledge (eperotyma) to God. It signifies the person’s passing from death to life (cf. John 5:24). The waters of the flood typified judgment upon sinners. The waters of baptism typify resurrection from death. The matter considered in depth constitutes an illustrious parallelism. Those people who underwent the ordeal of the flood and repented passed on to eternity having left God’s judgment behind. Those who persevered in their unbelief passed on to an eternity of judgment. The person who believes and is baptized in Christ leaves judgment behind. In this case, the water points to deliverance. Therefore, don’t let anyone think of baptism as an exercise which affects the removal of the dirt of sin from the body. When the illustrious Byzantine emperor Constantine made Christianity the religion of the nation he continued living the old sinful life, postponing his baptism until just before death. He figured that baptism would remove all contamination of sin, so wanted to be sure that all his sins would be carried off at the zero hour. This was his view of baptism.
The sacramental churches consider baptism one of the seven sacraments (mysteries). In pedobaptism original sin is removed. Peter would say, “Away with all these misinterpretations!” Baptism is an appeal to God for a clear conscience. The ordinance is based on the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Baptism is not the Christ! It is the antitype of judgment or deliverance (cf. Acts 2:31, 32). Through the deluge Noah’s family was carried to safety. Their experience in the deluge was a symbol of baptism. Those who perished in their sin were carried to damnation through the deluge. The place of baptism in Christian experience can never be underestimated.
OTHER REFERRALS TO THE SUBJECT
There are three references in the New Testament to being born of water and the spirit (cf. John 3:5; Ephesians 5:26; Titus 3:5). In these places the agency of water typifies the experience of the new birth. In all three, the place and effect of the Holy Spirit ought to be noticed. In the Ephesian passage, water is equated with the Word. Another noteworthy observation in Peter’s epistles is the oft-repeated word ‘just’ or ‘righteous’ (I Peter 3:12, 18; 4:18; II Peter 1:13; 2:7; 8:8.) “Righteousness’ (cf. I Peter 2:24; 3:14; II Peter 1:1; 2:5, 21; 3:13). These go to prove Peter’s emphasis of the need to be just and righteous before God. Baptism is an outward pronouncement of the divine fulfillment in the heart.
Turning to the two other references on the subject, Ephesians 4:8+9 again refer to Christ’s descent into Hades. This is a quotation from Psalm 68:18 with one variation. While in the Messianic passage of the Psalm He is receiving gifts among men, here in the Ephesian passage He gives gifts to men. How can this difference be explained? It is generally accepted that when the risen Christ descended into Hades he led a host of captives from there to their liberated state in Paradise. He received gifts as Isaiah prophesied: “He shall see his offspring, he shall prolong his days…he shall see the fruit of the travail of his soul and be satisfied” (53:10, 11).
He who received his deserved gifts in the lower parts of the earth this time gave gifts to men on earth. Now he fills all things (10). His gifts (domata) are listed by Paul as gifts bestowed on the church which was to be established (cf. Ephesians 4:11, 12).
Finally, we refer to I Peter 4:6, which obviously is more difficult to interpret than the previously mentioned passages. May I mention again that this passage can have no connection with 3:18-22 of the same epistle. Here Peter enlightens his readers concerning Christ’s sufferings in the flesh. Considering this, they ought to arm themselves with this reality. Their mystical union with Christ in baptism carries them to identification with Christ which implies termination of a life of sin (vv 1, 2).
All men and women are dead because of sin (cf. Ephesians 2:5; Romans 3:23). “For this is why the gospel was preached even to the dead, that though judged in the flesh like men, they might live in the spirit like God.” (I Peter 4:6). Notice in this verse that Christ is not mentioned, neither any descent into Hades. Again the natural question arises, “Who were these dead, and by whom were they evangelized?” There is a very simple explanation to this mysterious statement. The dead were those who were dead in trespasses and sins. Until the message of Christ’s Good News appeared they were dead in the spirit. The evangelists who evangelized sinners everywhere brought these dead people to new life in Christ. Until then they were under the condemnation of sin committed in their flesh, but when the Good News reached them, they were made alive so that they could live in the spirit like God. Probably this simple interpretation of this very hard passage will suffice to teach us all that sinners surrounding us are dead people who need to be brought to Christ through the proclamation of His Good News.
© Copyright Thomas Cosmades