“To The Spirits in Prison”

Rev. Katherine Todd
Mark 1:9-15
1 Peter 3:18-22


Mark 1:9-15

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”


1 Peter 3:18-22

For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight people, were saved through water. And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you — not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him.




In seminary, I remember a most serendipitous day, when a fellow seeker-of-God and I spoke about all those who came before Christ and all those who had died without having heard the Good News.  And through his Catholic background he offered to me what I found to be the best explanation thus far.

He referred to this passage from 1 Peter – about Christ, as Spirit, proclaiming the good news to all who were in prison.  I was shocked.  I’d never before paid any attention to this verse.  I had proclaimed the Apostles Creed my whole life long, “…He descended into hell,” but I’d not thought about what Jesus did in hell.  Could Christ have been saving souls – same as he did on earth? 

And to this colleague’s point, heaven and hell are timeless.  Rather, they exist outside of time.  They are not bound by time, as we are here on earth. Therefore, Christ’s visit to hell and proclamation of the good news to all in spiritual prison – that was effective for all time.  Anyone and everyone who would ever descend to the abyss, would meet Christ even there – calling them to come home. 

And I was gob smacked.


This interpretation made so much sense to me.

This interpretation resonated with all those passages in which we learn that God’s heart is that ALL shall be saved and come to knowledge of him.

And, it turns out, this interpretation was present to me all along in Presbyterian commentary – had I ever thought to have looked!


This interpretation looked like that love of the Father of the prodigal son – the one who comes running to greet his wayward child.  Could it be that God loves the world so much that he seeks us out, both on earth and in those spiritual places of great suffering – those places that by definition are marked by the absence of God – are indeed met by Christ, who defies even death to seek them there?  Does God pursue us… even past the grave?

THIS felt like the God I had come to know and love in Jesus Christ.

THIS was indeed Good News!!!

In this understanding it was not arbitrary – how some heard of Christ & others did not.  In this understanding it was not arbitrary – how some came before Christ and could never hear the good news he spoke of, like those of Noah’s day who were wiped away in that great flood.  In this understanding, the love of God is made manifest in Christ, who comes “to seek out and save the lost.”  Truly.



And so I point out this blessed passage to you.

Christ’s death and resurrection is efficacious for humankind of every time and every place – for Christ comes for us – whether or earth or in that darkest place beyond this world where Christ’s light had never before shone.  Christ’s death and resurrection has done it!  Once and for all!  Such that no one – who ever was or ever will be – shall pass from life into death without the chance to believe God’s great love for them …and to receive it.

Friends, this is the Word of the Lord, the Good News of the Gospel.

Thanks be to God!!

And this interpretation brings to mind Jesus’ parable about the workers in the field – how those who had labored the whole day end up being paid the same as those who worked only the last hour.


If we are concerned with fairness – being those who perhaps are laboring long in the field for the earlier-agreed-upon amount – then we must concede that were it not for the Vineyard owner’s generosity to hire us, we too would be without means and hope.  And in fairness, the Vineyard owner can do or not do, as he or she wishes.

But – in applying this parable to this interpretation of Christ proclaiming the good news to those in prison in the spiritual realms – are we not abundantly blessed to overflowing to know Christ for longer?  …to work the fields of God’s harvest, alongside Christ?  …to know the never-giving-up love of God for us…all our days?!?!!

Indeed, our reward for any good work done is an act of unmerited graciousness anyhow, for it is God’s “Spirit that enables us to will and to work for God’s good pleasure.”  Even our very desire to do good and follow Christ is aided by the Spirit of God!


And so might we not begrudge our fellow creatures the love of God – if they only come to know it after their days have passed?

Can we rejoice, that God loves us all with this kind of never-giving-up love that pursues us even beyond the grave?

Will we celebrate too – when our lost or perhaps wayward brothers and sisters, finally and at last, come home?!?


What hope.

What love.


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