This past week, I was studying with a friend of mine who is a relatively new Christian, when he asked an interesting question. “Where did Jesus go, and what did He do, during the three days between His death and His resurrection?” While listening to a religiously-themed radio program, my friend had heard some preacher propose that Jesus had, while separated from His physical body, gone and preached to the departed spirits of those people who had been disobedient to God during the days of Noah. While I have not personally heard the man in question explain his proposition, the idea that there is a such a spiritual realm where the souls of men await judgment is not new. In fact, common sense dictates that there must be some place where the spirits of men who have already died are now in existence and awaiting the final day. It is often proposed that the story of the rich man and Lazarus (Lk.16.19f) sheds light on this realm – a world divided by a great gulf into a place of reward (“Abraham’s bosom”) and a place of punishment (“torment”). It is certainly possible that Jesus is accurately describing the waiting place of souls, but it may also be the case that Jesus is accommodating the prevailing belief of His day. There is simply no way to be sure. It should be noted, however, that Jesus did inform the penitent thief on the cross that, “today, you will be with Me in Paradise” (Lk.23.42). This promise makes some kind of waiting place fairly certain.
Nor is the suggestion novel that those in such a realm might have their eternal destiny altered. I hope that I do not misrepresent the teaching in any way, but Catholicism proposes the existence of such a place designated “purgatory” – “a condition or place in which, according to Roman Catholics and others, the souls of those dying penitent are purified from venial sins, or undergo the remaining temporal punishment for mortal sins forgiven on earth; any condition or place of temporary punishment, suffering, or expiation” (The Random House College Dictionary). Clearly, the radio preacher in question embraces some such idea, and given the little information that I had, I suspect that his theory borrows heavily from 1 Pet.3.18-22. It is sometimes argued from this passage that Jesus, after His death and before His resurrection, “went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly were disobedient…” (v.19). The theory is then proposed that those in such a place must have some opportunity to respond to the teaching, else there would be no reason for preaching to them.
I mention this entire incident, and the propositions involved, because they illustrate an important principle or two concerning the study and use of God’s Word. First of all, people who want to follow Jesus need desperately to learn to appreciate the context in which any teaching is offered. While 1 Pet.3.19 does claim that Jesus went and preached “to the spirits in prison, who formerly were disobedient…in the days of Noah”, a careful reading of the entire section will clearly reveal that Peter does not claim that Jesus preached to them in some post-temporal state. Instead, he says simply that the Spirit Who was responsible for resurrecting the body of Jesus was the same Spirit by which Jesus preached to people in Noah’s day (v.18-20). Moreover, this idea is in keeping with the general admonition of the section – Peter is encouraging Christians who were in danger of suffering for their faith to maintain their good works without fear and to defend their convictions (v.8-17). He then offers Christ as an example of One who remained faithful in the midst of suffering (v.18) and Who had consistently cared for and delivered His people – such as Noah – who had declared God’s ways in the midst of difficult circumstances (v.19-22). To understand the passage otherwise is to completely defy the overall context. And we need to learn to study the context. For instance, Mt.7.1 ( “Judge not, that you be not judged”) does not prohibit God’s people from exercising judgment. Instead, the context clearly teaches that it is hypocrisy which is forbidden, not judgment (v.1-5). People make terrible mistakes – mistakes with eternal consequences – when we extract a verse from its context and use it to bolster some doctrine or theory that we have concocted. Such violations of the text belie both inaccuracy and dishonesty.
Secondly, I would offer that we need to be cautious about how we derive our teachings and convictions. It is easy to construct an entire doctrinal proposition on aspects of a passage that are completely incidental to the main point. I offer, again, the story of the rich man and Lazarus (Lk.16.19f). There may well be a spiritual place like that described in this story, or this may describe more than one waiting place (“Abraham’s bosom “ could possibly be contrasted to “Hades”, not offered as a part of Hades). Or this may be a story which borrows from the common thinking of the day. But regardless of whether this imagery is literal or accommodative, the point of Lk.16.19f has absolutely nothing to do with the place of departed souls. Instead, it has everything to do with God’s teaching about stewardship, and the seriousness of such. The “after-life” references are incidental. If we’re right about Hades and fail in stewardship, then what have we gained? We need to focus in our study on the point at hand, not on our fascination with those things which God has not clearly revealed. The doctrines and tenets of premillennialism are almost entirely constructed on such incidental myopia. We invite real danger when we build elaborate teachings on bits and pieces of information that are offered incidentally.
And, finally, we need to be reminded that the Bible nowhere offers second chances once this life is over. Rom.2.5-10; 2 Cor.5.10; Jn.5.28-29 and other passages clearly note that we will, at the day of judgment, hear the verdict concerning how we lived while on this earth. We had best use God’s Word as it was designed – to reveal God, bring man to repentance, and to lead us to salvation through Christ Jesus. While we can still take advantage of it.