The Place of the Dead

For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, because they formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water. Baptism, which corresponds to this, 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 having been subjected to him.
1 Peter 3:18-22

This passage in 1 Peter is a traditionally difficult text to understand. In the last week or so I have been considering this passage in tandem with 1 Samuel 28. This is the account of Saul’s consultation with the medium who reluctantly calls Samuel up from the dead in order that Saul may obtain direction for battle against the Philistines. Below are some thoughts that I hope encourage some who read this.

In context, Peter’s righteous readers were reviled by the unrighteous that surrounded them. Similarly, Noah suffered as a righteous man amidst a world of unrighteousness and was delivered safely through the waters of the flood because of his faithful obedience. At that time, Noah and his family were vindicated and his enemies were put to shame (1 Pet. 3:16) because what they believed by faith came to pass and God’s judgment came upon the unbelieving world. In the death, burial and resurrection of Christ, we see that that judgment was not only temporal in nature but eternal. Jesus' proclamation to the spirits imprisoned at the time of Noah made it abundantly clear that their condemnation is final and just. As new covenant believers who endure the persecutions of an unbelieving world we can have the same hope. That is, if we remain faithful like Noah, we will be vindicated through the resurrection of Christ and our enemies will be put to shame.

What does this have to do with 1 Samuel 28 and the medium of En-dor? As I wrestle with this text (also a difficult passage), It is hard to reconcile it with Paul’s New Testament teaching that, if he were to die, he would have then gone to “be with Christ” (Phil. 1:23) or with Jesus’ words to the thief on the cross in Luke 23:43 that “today [he would] be with him in paradise. The author of 1 Samuel recorded Samuel as “coming up out of the earth” (1 Sam. 28:13) following his death in chapter 25! This does not sound to me like the paradise Jesus was speaking of.

It seems to me that one could reconcile it in one of two ways. Either Samuel, a faithful believer, was in the presence of God when he was called up from the earth or something changed (as far as where people go when they die) between Samuel’s time in Biblical history and Paul’s. It is difficult to imagine that Jesus would have made his dwelling in Sheol since Job describes it as “the land of darkness and deep shadow, the land of gloom like thick darkness, like deep shadow without any order, where light is as thick darkness” (Job 10:21-22). Also, Samuel’s words to Saul when he was called up from the dead in 1 Samuel 28:19 were, “tomorrow you and your sons shall be with me.” This implies that Saul (unfaithful) and Samuel (faithful) join together in the same place. Therefore, it seems better to take the second of the two options. That is, the resurrection fundamentally changed something in the realm of the dead. So, what changed then?

I think this is where 1 Peter 3:18-22 is key in understanding this change. If the condemnation was deemed eternal for those spirits in prison at the time of Noah then the vindication was deemed eternal for the faithful pre-resurrection saints of the old testament as well. This is the sort of two-fold judgment typical of God throughout scripture (c.f. Ex. 6:6). This would also help make sense of Ephesians 4:8-10 making Samuel one of the captives led by Jesus as he ascended on high (Eph. 4:8). To put it plainly, at the time of the resurrection, Old Testament saints could have gone from the place of the dead to the presence of Christ where they presently await their resurrection bodies and the completion of God’s cosmic plan of redemption through his son.

I would be sorry not to make some sort of application from all this talk of dead people. When we consider the resurrection do we do so as an addendum to the doctrine of the atonement? This shouldn’t be! In considering these passages I think that it is evident that the resurrection has effects that span across millennia of human history and even transcends various realms of existence. This is just the tip of the iceberg! I would love to see the church spend more time meditating on the far reaching effects of Jesus’ defeat of the grave.

“Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades” (Rev. 1:17-18).

1 Comment

Perry - August 15th, 2023 at 1:55pm

Great take on this Ky, as I believe this is and was the case also. What Jesus accomplished, being "the Truth, the Life, and the Resurrection", is beyond our understanding somewhat. But the facts remain and scripture is true and faithful. One day our understanding of the power of He being able to take up His life again (as He said in John 10:18) we will gloriously know! I know He has put within each of us individually, the hunger for truth and great peace of mind as we search to know Him better. I am so interested in many things as He calls me to what I was created to long for...great article brother...