Christ's Preaching to the Spirits in Prison: Part 3

 •  17 min. read  •  grade level: 12
(Continued from page 32.)
It is curious to see how an intrepid and strong-minded writer, such as Bishop Horsley unquestionably was, commits himself to untenable statements,1 once he leaves the lines of the Holy Spirit in scripture. “The apostle's assertion therefore” (says he) “is this that Christ went and preached to souls of men in prison. This invisible mansion of departed spirits, though certainly not a place of penal confinement to the good, is nevertheless in some respects a prison. It is a place of seclusion from the external-a place of unfinished happiness, consisting in rest, security, and hope, more than enjoyment. It is a place which the souls of men never would have entered, had not sin introduced death, and from which there is no exit by any natural means for those who once have entered. The deliverance of the saints from it is to be effected by our Lord's power. It is described in the old Latin language as a place enclosed within an impassable fence; and in the poetical parts of scripture it is represented as secured by gates of brass, which our Lord is to batter down, and barricaded with huge massive iron bars, which He is to cut in sunder. As a place of confinement therefore, though not of punishment, it may well be called a prison. The original word, however, in this text of the apostle imports not of necessity so much as this, but merely a place of safe keeping; for so this passage might be rendered with great exactness. 'He went and preached to the spirits in safe keeping.' And the invisible mansion of departed souls is to the righteous a place of safe keeping where they are preserved under the shadow of God's right hand, as their condition sometimes is described in scripture, till the season shall arrive for their advancement to their future glory; as the souls of the wicked, on the other hand, are reserved, in the other division of the same place, unto the judgment of the great day. Now, if Christ went and preached to souls of men thus in prison or in safe keeping, surely He went to the prison of those souls, or to the place of their custody; and what place that should be but the hell of the Apostle's Creed to which our Lord descended, I have not yet met with the critic that could explain.”
The careful reader will perceive, indeed any one when it is pointed out, the immediate departure from scriptural sense and accuracy. For the apostle does not assert “that Christ went and preached to souls of men in prison.” He speaks not of human souls generally but only of those characterized by disobedience of yore, when Noah the preacher of righteousness prepared an ark to the saving of his house. This makes all the difference possible; for there is no reference whatever to the invisible mansion of departed spirits as a whole, still less to the special place of seclusion for the good. These last are in fact excluded by the language and the thought of the apostle. His argument is against those who, as incredulous Jews were especially apt to do, made light of preaching Christ only present in Spirit, not reigning in power, and of the comparative fewness of those who professed to believe. His refutation of their taunts and proof of their extreme danger are grounded on the Lord's dealing with the men of Noah's day who similarly despised the divine warning, while those only were saved who heeded it. How few the latter, how many the former!
It is true indeed that “it is a place which the souls of men never would have entered, had not sin been introduced;” but what is this to the purpose? It applies on the side of good as of evil, of heaven as of hell; for sin, which lost living on the earth along with innocence furnished occasion for that infinite grace which gives the believer eternal life and heavenly glory in and with the Son of God, the last Adam. And if the actual condition of the departed be as regards the body incomplete, even so it is not correct to speak of our being at home with the Lord as “a place of unfinished happiness,” though the Lord Himself, the saints with Him, and those on earth are looking onward to the day of His and their manifested glory when the world shall know that the Father sent the Son, and loved us even as He loved Him; when He will gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven and are on earth, in Him in whom also we have obtained inheritance, being predestinated according to His purpose; when in virtue of the name of Jesus every knee shall bow of beings heavenly, earthly, and infernal, and every tongue shall confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to God the Father's glory.
Nowhere does scripture speak of “the deliverance of the saints from” this state of things, though surely it is of the Lord's grace and the divine virtue of life in Him, that He will raise their bodies and transform what was erst of humiliation into conformity to His body of glory, according to the working of power whereby He is able even to subdue all things to Himself. This no doubt is the full answer to the cry of the wretched though quickened man (in Rom. 7): “who shall deliver me out of the body of this death?” For it is our resurrection (Rom. 8:1111But if the Spirit of him that raised up Jesus from the dead dwell in you, he that raised up Christ from the dead shall also quicken your mortal bodies by his Spirit that dwelleth in you. (Romans 8:11)) which will manifest the victory over death2 through our Lord Jesus Christ, as it is His resurrection which has even now given us life in the Spirit, freeing us from the law of sin and death. “We have for our souls what we shall know at His coming for our mortal bodies. But deliverance from a place of seclusion for our spirits, to be effected by our Lord's power, is a dream wholly opposed to the scriptural representation of the saints' enjoyment with Christ meanwhile. The apostle declares that to depart and be with Him even now and thus is very much better than remaining here, though doubtless there will be more for the body when He comes: for the soul there cannot be. Therefore, while earnestly desiring to be clothed upon with our house which is from heaven, he says that we are confident and willing rather to be absent from the body and present with the Lord; that is, rather than abide here in the body absent from the Lord. Yet are we now, not shut up as were believers before redemption, but called to stand fast in the liberty wherewith Christ has made us free.
Hence it is in vain to urge what the old Latin language describes, since it is quite opposed to the truth; and it is a mistake to cite the poetical parts of scripture which treat of the deliverance of God's people on earth. For “the gates of brass” and “the bars of iron” (Isa. 14:22And the people shall take them, and bring them to their place: and the house of Israel shall possess them in the land of the Lord for servants and handmaids: and they shall take them captives, whose captives they were; and they shall rule over their oppressors. (Isaiah 14:2)) certainly refer to Babylon not to the presence of the Lord with whom are the spirits of departed saints. So Psa. 121:55The Lord is thy keeper: the Lord is thy shade upon thy right hand. (Psalm 121:5), “Jehovah is thy shade upon thy right hand,” is expressly a prophetic song for Israel in the latter day, and in no way about those deceased; as Isa. 49:22And he hath made my mouth like a sharp sword; in the shadow of his hand hath he hid me, and made me a polished shaft; in his quiver hath he hid me; (Isaiah 49:2) certainly has no such reference, the context plainly giving the transition from Israel to Christ. It is a distressing misrepresentation then to call His presence a place of confinement, though not of punishment, which “may well be called a prison.” Never does God's word so call it. The converted robber asked to be remembered when Christ comes in His kingdom (i.e. in the resurrection state and the day of glory for the earth), and the Lord gives him, as a nearer comfort and intrinsically the deepest joy, the assurance of being with Him that very day in paradise. It is grievous dishonor to Him and ignorance of scripture to slight such grace, even to the length of saying that it “may well be called a prison.” Certainly it will never be so called by one who appreciates either the blessedness of Christ's love or the honor the Father is now putting on the Son. The Father's house can only be called “a prison” by the darkest prejudice. It is where Christ is now, and where we shall be when Christ at His coming takes us to be with Him as the expression of His fullest love. The presence of the Lord on high is the very kernel of joy by grace, whether for the separate spirit after death or when we are all changed at His coming.
Feeling apparently that this is rather strong language (though many of the fathers knew no better through their ignorance of eternal life in Christ and of redemption), Bishop Horsley qualifies his defense, and affirms that the original word in the text of the apostle imports not so much as this, but merely a place of safe keeping. Now what are the facts of the usage of φυλακή? Primarily it means the act of watching; hence (2) the persons that watch or guard (as in Latin and English); (3) the time; the place, not only (4) where those watching are posted, but (5) where others are kept as in ward or prison. Such, with the moral application of taking heed and being on one's guard from keeping in ward, are the chief senses in which the word was employed by the Greeks. The New Testament has it once in the first sense (Luke 2:88And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. (Luke 2:8)), once in the second (Acts 12:1010When they were past the first and the second ward, they came unto the iron gate that leadeth unto the city; which opened to them of his own accord: and they went out, and passed on through one street; and forthwith the angel departed from him. (Acts 12:10)), five times in the third (Matt. 14:25; 24:4325And in the fourth watch of the night Jesus went unto them, walking on the sea. (Matthew 14:25)
43But know this, that if the goodman of the house had known in what watch the thief would come, he would have watched, and would not have suffered his house to be broken up. (Matthew 24:43)
, Mark 6:4848And he saw them toiling in rowing; for the wind was contrary unto them: and about the fourth watch of the night he cometh unto them, walking upon the sea, and would have passed by them. (Mark 6:48), Luke 2:88And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. (Luke 2:8) twice), and forty times in the fifth sense, including not only 1 Peter 3:1919By which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison; (1 Peter 3:19), but Rev. 18:22And he cried mightily with a strong voice, saying, Babylon the great is fallen, is fallen, and is become the habitation of devils, and the hold of every foul spirit, and a cage of every unclean and hateful bird. (Revelation 18:2), where it is in the Authorized Version translated “the hold of every foul spirit and a cage of every unclean and hateful bird,” all evidently equivalent to the meaning of “prison,” which is used even of Satan's place of temporary detention. Never elsewhere does the Holy Spirit use it in the more general signification of a mere “place of safe keeping.” Is there any special reason in our text why it should here be so rendered? The assigned ground of custody being the former disobedience of the spirits thus restrained, there ought to be no hesitation in accepting the English Version as fully justified, and rejecting that suggested as unexampled in New Testament usage and at issue with the context.
It is going beyond scripture then to affirm that “Christ went and preached to souls of men thus in prison or safe keeping,” and not at all sure that He went to the prison of those souls or to the place of their custody. It is quite sure that the apostle speaks only of the spirits in prison, disobedient once when the long-suffering of God waited in Noah's days, not to souls of men as a whole in the separate state. It is sure that Christ, in the power of the Spirit, went and preached to the former, but it is nowhere written that He went to the prison or place of custody of any souls whatever and preached there. The building and the ground-work of Bishop Horsley are alike unsubstantial; his handling of scripture careless, and his reasoning unsound. Such passages as Isa. 13:7; 49:97Therefore shall all hands be faint, and every man's heart shall melt: (Isaiah 13:7)
9That thou mayest say to the prisoners, Go forth; to them that are in darkness, Show yourselves. They shall feed in the ways, and their pastures shall be in all high places. (Isaiah 49:9)
, have only to be examined with ordinary attention in order to satisfy any candid mind that it is a question of the deliverance of captives in this world, be it literal or figurative, and in no way of men after death.
If, as Bishop Browne holds, hades or paradise are two names applying to the same state, it would seem to follow that paradise must apply to the place of departed saints, and hades to their state as separate from the body. For 2 Cor. 12:2, 42I knew a man in Christ above fourteen years ago, (whether in the body, I cannot tell; or whether out of the body, I cannot tell: God knoweth;) such an one caught up to the third heaven. (2 Corinthians 12:2)
4How that he was caught up into paradise, and heard unspeakable words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter. (2 Corinthians 12:4)
, naturally connects paradise, not with heaven merely, but even with the third heaven, where the Lord is (cf. Luke 23:4343And Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, To day shalt thou be with me in paradise. (Luke 23:43)); and Rev. 2:77He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches; To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the tree of life, which is in the midst of the paradise of God. (Revelation 2:7) is decisive, that in this very paradise of God will the faithful have their future reward at Christ's coming, when risen from the dead or changed. It is an error therefore to think that it is another place, for the latter scripture certainly identifies the scene of the separate spirits of the saints with that of their future glorification.3 They are with the Lord now, as they will be when changed, and thus completely and forever with Him; but now as then in heaven. The ancients who denied this were as wrong as the moderns who popularly hold the soul's passing at once on its final reward with very little thought of the resurrection at Christ's second coming or of the kingdom.
But I may here add that the ancient versions are too loose to render any help worth naming. Without discussing now whether the Peschito does (as Bode and others assert) or does not use scheiul for the grave as well as hades, it is plain that “lived” in spirit is faulty for ζωοποιηθεις, and that to leave out “in [or in the power of] which,” substituting a mere connective particle “and” is far from the truth. “To the souls which were kept” may after a fashion represent τοῖς ἐν φ. πν., the addition of “in hades” or “scheiul” being unwarranted. There are other inaccuracies; but let this suffice. Par better here is the Philoxenian Syriac, which is thus rendered by White, “morte affectus quidem carne, vivificatus autem spiritu. In quo et spiritibus, qui in domo custodiae sunt, profectus praedicavit: Qui non obediverant aliquando, quum expectabat longanimitas Dei in diebus Noe” &c. The Arabic (Pol.) and the Vulgate alone give correctly the beginning of the verse, the Erpenian Arabic and the Aethiopic being as loose as the Peschito Syr. The Aeth. adds “holy” to “Spirit;” but it does not follow, as Bishop Middleton seems to think, that the other ancient versions did not understand exactly the same sense, though they very properly did not add the word “holy” so as to define their rendering more than the original text. The Coptic, according to Wilkins, is no better than the rest. This is his version— “mortuus quidem in carne, vivens autem in Spiritu. In hoc Spiritibus [S. sic] qui in carcere abut evangelizavit. Incredulis aliquando,” &c.
In every version and in every edition of the text, accurate or faulty, this at least stands out irrefragably that the spirits in question are nowhere represented as those of men who had already repented when on earth, but on the contrary as disobedient. This we have seen to be very far from the only difficulty in the way of the alleged preaching in hades; but it is at least felt and confessed by the stoutest champions of that interpretation. It is quite erroneous to assume that Peter speaks here of the proclamation of the finishing of the great work of salvation, still more to say that it was addressed to the penitents of antediluvian times, even if there were no question about the penitents of later ages who are equally interested in the tidings. The apostle uses not even εὐαγγελίζομαι (which, though expressive of glad tidings, admits of far greater latitude in scripture than the good news of the finished work of salvation) but κηρύσσω, a word equally applicable to express a public setting forth of righteousness and a warning of the destruction which must fall on the despiser. (Compare 2 Peter 2:55And spared not the old world, but saved Noah the eighth person, a preacher of righteousness, bringing in the flood upon the world of the ungodly; (2 Peter 2:5), “Noah a preacher of righteousness,” δικαιοσύνης κήρυκα.") The main difficulty then really is that the text speaks only of impenitent persons; the expounder only of penitents.
Whatever the rapture with which we may suppose paradise filled when the soul of Jesus came among the souls of His redeemed, it is certain that the passage of the apostle says not one word about it; and it would be no small difficulty to produce any other scripture which does reveal it. Here it is a question of the spirits in custody for their former disobedience in the days of Noah, while a very few in contrast with them were saved, used for the present comfort of saints taunted with their paucity by the masses who despised what was preached by the Spirit now as before the flood. Possibly no doubt some who then perished in the waters may not be doomed to perish everlastingly in the lake of fire; just as one at least preserved in the ark may not have been ordained to eternal life. But all this is only profitless speculation; and those who indulge in it lose sight of the grand and plain lessons of the apostle, whether for the comfort of the faithful or for the warning of unbelievers. Before the kingdom of God is established and displayed in power, the masses have ever been disobedient to the word, and believers a little flock; but be these ever so few, let those not forget the days wherein a world of impious men perished; and this too is not the worst, for their spirits are in ward (which is never said of the righteous), the Lord without doubt reserving them as unjust for judgment day to be punished.
(To be continued.)