Thursday, March 15, 2007

What happened to Jesus between Good Friday and Easter Sunday? (I Pet 3:19 - Bible Brain Buster)

We talk a lot about the significance of Jesus' cross and resurrection (as we should). But what went on between them? There are some vague but striking references to this interval in both canon and creed. First Peter provides the most intriguing reference and is thus worthy of addressing as a Bible Brain Buster:

"For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive by the Spirit, through whom also he went and preached to the spirits in prison who disobeyed long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built." (I Pet 3:18-20a)

Huh? Was the dead Christ preaching on Holy Saturday? As usual, I'd like to lay out some interpretive options. But it won't be simple list, but a series of questions with multiple plausible answers. Accordingly, one's view could combine different options under each of these headings. Needless to say, one's prior inclinations regarding the significance of Christ's death will affect one's approach to this matter. As with all Bible Brain Busters, we are never interpreting texts in a vacuum but rather in collision with our other beliefs -- that's why they bust our brains!

I. When? The Question of Timing

First we must ask when this stuff took place. Although the title of this post prejudices the matter a bit, I Pet 3 does not itself explicitly identify this activity as happening on Holy Saturday. At least three options present themselves:

(1) The Pre-Existent Christ was preaching to sinners at the time of Noah. If you believe that Christ lived by the Spirit of God prior to his incarnation, it is not hard to imagine that he was performing a hidden work at the time of Noah. Perhaps this explains the Peter's mention of Christ preaching "through the Spirit." Of course, this doesn't answer the question of Holy Saturday, but it may make sense of this particular passage.

(2) The dead soul of Jesus preached during the literal 30 hours that he was dead. After his death, Jesus "through the Spirit" preached to condemned spirits from the time of Noah. This is pretty straightforward, though it requires powerful imagination. Also, one might wonder whether the category of "time" gets jumbled by death.

(3) The Exalted Jesus Christ preaches to spirits in heaven. Another possibility is that this preaching happens at a later time, at the ascension or perhaps even still and into the future. This has the advantage of locating I Pet 3 in a more familiar context: Christ's exaltation to the right hand of the father and sitting as judge of the world and king of heaven. But it leaves open the question of the relation of Christ's death to sinners who died before his coming.

II. What? The Question of Content.

Unfortunately, First Peter only says that Christ preached. It doesn't say what he preached. Some possibilities:

(1) Preaching Bad News. Perhaps Jesus simply reiterated God's judgment on past sinners. This doesn't seem to accomplish much, but at least it is capable of answering the question of what Jesus was doing on Holy Saturday. This would also fit well with option I.1.

(2) Preaching Good News. Perhaps Jesus was giving these past sinners a "second chance." Perhaps all those who died before Jesus were in some kind of "holding tank" until the definitive time of Jesus. This might serve to explain the strange incident in Matt 27:52-53 where the bodies of righteous were raised and seen walking around Jerusalem. These are sensible possibilities with some weight of tradition behind them. But they do require considerable speculation. Note that this could also go with option I.3.

(3) Not Preaching, but Presence. Another possibility is that the language of "preaching" should not be taken so literally. Do dead people really "do" things? Perhaps Jesus' spiritual presence with the dead was a gesture or sign which "proclaims" news of his atoning death (either as good news or bad news, per the previous options). This could be developed in conjunction with the death of Christ as his passive work. Perhaps this is an extension of Christ's death as a substitution for us - he undergoes both physical and spiritual death in our place. Although this interpretation makes some sense, it risks not taking this passage at face value. It says "preached," and we should be careful of skirting past it.

Who? The Question of Scope.

Lastly, we must ask to whom Christ was "preaching."

(1) Just those sinners at the time of Noah. Perhaps First Peter is simply a revelation that Christ had a special mission to those who died at the time of Noah. Perhaps Peter's community had a particular interest in that generation. But why that generation rather than any other? Though plausible and rather straightforward, this seems to be an odd, even superfluous, interpretation of this passage.

(2) More than just those at the time of Noah. Perhaps those at the time of Noah are a symbol of a larger group of spirits to whom Christ proclaims through the Spirit. One could easily see that sinful generation as a synecdoche of the many generations who died before Christ. This makes the passage more significant. However, one would need some kind of warrant for making this leap (such as symbolic usage of Noah's generation in comparative Jewish literature).

(3) All the dead. This is really an extension of (2). If time gets jumbled by death, then we could claim that Christ enters into the spirit world to encounter all those who have died before and after his death. This could be Peter's narration of what Christ does for all in the generation resurrection. This integrates the text and the whole notion of Holy Saturday into a larger nexus of Jesus' identity and work. But, once again, it requires some leaps that risk obscuring the plain sense of the text.

Well, there's some options. Hopefully this helps splice out the possibilities and, more importantly, the interpretive and theological issues at stake in this passage. Wherever one lands, in seems appropriate during this season to contemplate the Christ's death in all its aspects - not just to Good Friday, but through Holy Saturday too.

Any thoughts?
Have I missed any options?
What options attract you?
How might you combine answers to these different questions?
What is at stake in one's understanding of Holy Saturday?
How do you commemorate Holy Saturday in your personal and corporate worship life?


Steve Lennox said...

Thanks, John, for a clear and careful explanation of the important issues in this brain buster. I have one suggestion and one possibility.

I think what Peter said in chapter 3 needs to be understood in light of 4:1-6. The two passages are connected by "therefore" and both speak of preaching to the dead.

The possibility: Peter refers to Noah's generation because it serves his baptism agenda, not because this generation stands for a broader group in Jewish literature. That generation stands for all those who died prior to Christ.

JohnLDrury said...


Thanks. Those contextual connections are helpful. I can see how Noah's generation might stand for all who died prior to Christ. The baptism bit is also key, though I avoided since I thought that might produce two bible brain busters in one already over stuffed post. Are the 8 people in the ark baptized by the flood waters? Or those drowning in it? What a fascinating passage! Thanks for your insights.


Ken Schenck said...

I've always been tempted to join the two "weird" comments in 3 and 4 together too, but I've never thought of a way that satisfied me. If we had a Google Ancient and could plug in "Noah" + "spirits" + "imprisoned," I think the main thing that would come up is 1 Enoch, where those imprisoned are the "son of God," fallen angels from Noah's day. Wreaking havoc with our theology, we immediately remember that some Jews (Essenes?)located the "fall" with this event rather than with Adam.

So never finding a way I was happy with to join 3 and 4, I have generally fallen off the log nervously with the sense that 3 is proclaiming victory to evils forces while 4 is the one about potential redemption for the OT people of God.

The timing of the resurrection is difficult also. Jesus does this alive in the Spirit, which seems post-resurrection in some way. But that is just weird. Luke is the one I seem to have the hardest time fitting the idea with.

Really good issue!

JohnLDrury said...


Thanks for the Google Ancient result of 1 Enoch. I knew you'd have something to contribute along those lines that always helps the interpretive process.

By the way, locating the fall anywhere in Gen 1-11 (or perhaps Gen 1-11 as a whole) works for me. No havoc necessary.

Ken Schenck said...

very interesting...

Keith Drury said...

Just a day or so before your post Steve Lennox preached an excellent chapel sermon on the phrase "Descended into hell" so he was cocked and ready for this ;-).

You have outlined an area where theological conjecture comes into play along with a humble approach with explaining these things that connect only a few dots then extend them outward. I find myself wanting to extend the dots to where my theology already wants me to go, which is perhaps what theology is useful for?

David Drury said...

Initially I was inclined (though of course not via 1 Enoch like Ken was) to consider the target of the preaching to be fallen angels as well... perhaps identified as being in the time of Noah by Peter because of the times Noah live in being so infamously lawless.

And the Ark and Flood is a great metaphor reveresed for the entire point Peter is making--that the death of Christ is "once for all"... the flood killed all but the Ark... but the crucifixion freed all and all at once. Even retroactively. A timeless atonement that happened at one point in time.


Halden said...

For an excellent answer to the question you're asking you simply must read Between Cross and Resurrection: A Theology of Holy Saturday by Alan Lewis. It's one of my favorite theological books without question.

steven gustar said...

Would you care to explain to an intelligent mind how this give's any clarity to the whole concept of Christ and his divinity. I do not contradict or patronize simply I do not understand your understanding.

steven gustar said...

I'm also looking to learn more of the gnostic gospels and there significant attributes to what we think of as a modern Christian faith. I question my own faith and look for answers . I do believe in the life of Christ and the presence of God but also question our human interpretive ideas. Surely a God should not be understood, merely praised. Any answer's or insights would be appreciated. thankyou. Steven