The Spirits in Prison (1 Peter 3:19) : Who are they?

"Christ in Limbo" by Duccio di Buoninsegna
“Christ in Limbo” by Duccio di Buoninsegna

In preparing for an upcoming sermon, I was confronted with one of the most perplexing passages in the New Testament. I’m not alone in this classification. In fact, in his commentary on the book of Jude, the famed Reformer, Martin Luther, refers to this passage and says of it, “A wonderful text is this, and a more obscure passage perhaps than any other in the New Testament, so that I do not know for a certainty just what Peter means.”

A small part of me wanted to leave this passage for my pastor (for whom I will be filling in) to tackle while I took the opportunity to preach a rousing topical sermon of my choice. I was stricken by the absurdity of such a thought; that I would actually avoid a puzzling text simply to preach something easy and accessible. I repented of my pride and embraced the text at hand fully ready to read, investigate, and study until I came to some sort of answer… even if I could never know “for a certainty just what Peter means.”

First of all, allow me provide the text here with a bit of context so that (if you are unfamiliar with it) you might see the complexity of the passage.

“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.” (1 Peter 3:18-20 ESV)

At the end of chapter three, Peter is drawing his thoughts on submission and suffering to a close. After a brief word about unity and love within the church (3:8) and love for enemies outside the church (v. 9), Peter reminds his hearers that even though they may maintain a loving spirit and a blameless life, they still may suffer for the gospel (v. 13-17).

As an exclamation point on this thought, Peter points to our ultimate example, the Savior Jesus Christ. As if to give us an illustration beyond refutation, Peter says, “for Christ also suffered…” What a remarkable picture that is; the Lord of creation suffering for nothing but, “doing good.”

It is within this context that Peter provides an almost parenthetical note concerning the ministry of Jesus beyond the crucifixion and resurrection. A parenthesis extraordinaire!

We note that Peter quickly recounts the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus saying, “being put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit…” This is the summation of the gospel, “that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:4).

After this, Peter immediately thrusts his readers into an unknown time and place where we learn that Christ, “went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison.”

Several question obviously arise out of this whole debacle:

  1. Who are these “spirits in prison”?
  2. What was Jesus’ message in his “proclamation”?
  3. When did these things occur?
  4. Where is this “prison”?
  5. How did Jesus accomplish this visit? (I know I broke the chain there)

 

Unfortunately, while the first-century audience of this letter might have known perfectly well what was being referred to; it is quite unclear for us. Theologian and author, Millard Erickson suggests that there may very well be 180 different possible interpretations of this single passage given the complexity of the Greek wordage and the unfamiliar language. That’s quite a list of possibilities.

Fortunately, this myriad of possibilities can be simplified (if not overly so) to three primary positions taken by Christians over the centuries.

"The Deluge" by John Sadler
“The Deluge” by John Sadler

Position One

This position asserts that this passage refers Jesus who went by the Spirit, and preached through Noah to those that did not obey God and would be destroyed int he flood. Saint Augustine and Thomas Aquinas are a few formidable theologians who espoused this view. To make this view work, however, a bit of finagling with the Greek wordage is necessary.  “In which” in verse 19 must be translated “in whom” as the Greek pronoun “ᾧ” (hō) used there can mean who, what, which, etc. The “whom” in this interpretation must obviously refer to “Holy Spirit” and not just the “spirit” of Christ mentioned in verse 18. They also suggest that the “because” at the start of verse 20 should be “when” because of similar Greek situation there. The reading is different then. Now we have “Jesus being made alive in the Holy Spirit (Hard stop) This is the Spirit in whom Jesus went and preached to the spirits in prison… when they formerly did not obey in the days of Noah.” The sum of this view being that it was Jesus, by the Holy Spirit, who was preaching through Noah to the unbelievers of his own day.

"He Descended into Hell"
“He Descended into Hell”

Position Two

This position suggests that the language remains the same as you probably have it and that Jesus literally descended into Hades between his crucifixion and resurrection. They assert that Old Testament saints were not yet in heaven as the New Covenant had not been fulfilled in the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. In this view then; Jesus visits the Old Testament saints in Hades or Sheol, preaches the gospel to them and raises them to heaven upon his resurrection and ascension. This was adopted by a large portion of early Christians as is evidenced by the addition of the “harrowing of Hell” clause in the Apostle’s Creed in the middle of the third-century. This clause notes that Jesus “descended into Hell” after his crucifixion.

Many in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions still assert some part of this position though there are differences as to the actual identity of “Hell,” whether it be Hades, Sheol, or even Purgatory in the Roman Catholic understanding.

This view is also popular in many Dispensational circles of evangelicalism because of the ultra-hard line they see between the Old Covenant (Law) and the New (Grace). According to this view, Old Testament saints were not “saved” in the same way that Christians are (by faith in Christ) because he had not yet come and redeemed them through his blood on the cross. They therefore understand “Sheol,” “Hades,” “Paradise,” and “the bosom of Abraham,” to be distinct from “Heaven” as a restful, peaceful resting place for the righteous before Christ’s work on the cross allowed them to enter into heaven.

Position Three

This view asserts that the “spirits” being mentioned here are neither the humans of Noah’s day nor the humans awaiting the gospel in Hades; but that they refer to fallen angels or demons, who are now in chains awaiting the coming judgment.

After years of wondering about this passage from the sidelines; I was finally forced to land on something, albeit tentatively.

I believe that I have unexpectedly landed on the third position; these “spirits” are fallen angels or demons over whom Christ proclaimed victory either between his crucifixion and resurrection or even after his ascension.

I went into this search assuming the first position but was led away from that as I followed the old Protestant principle, “interpret Scripture with Scripture.”

"Lucifer" by William Blake from John Milton's "Paradise Lost"
“Lucifer” by William Blake from John Milton’s “Paradise Lost”

Other Instances

It is remarkable how many other passages speak of this very reality when one begins to piece together the evidence. What seems like a “obscure,” mysterious note that appears only here in Peter is actually part of tradition found in several books of the New Testament.

First of all, let us look to the end of the very passage in which this mysterious reference appears. At the end of this whole note about spirits in prison and Noah, and baptism, Peter concludes what he was speaking of earlier when he spoke of Jesus crucifixion and resurrection. He does so by referencing the ascension saying that Jesus, “has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him” (v.22).

The tense of the word “having” is a participle whose purpose is to explain something that was said earlier. In my view, Peter is referencing what he has just said about these “spirits in prison.” These are the “angels, authorities, and powers” that have “been subjected to him.”

What is more is that Peter, in his second epistle, seems to almost repeat this whole section in a remarkably parallel passage:

“For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell and committed them to chains of gloomy darkness to be kept until the judgment; if he did not spare the ancient world, but preserved Noah, a herald of righteousness, with seven others, when he brought a flood upon the world of the ungodly.” (2 Peter 2:4-5 ESV)

If this does not ring as a parallel passage to you, you’re not reading closely enough. Here we have not one but two themes repeated. We have spirit beings (angels) in “chains of gloomy darkness” as examples of those who will suffer judgment; immediately after this, Peter revisits the references to Noah and the flood. It’s as if Peter is repeating 1 Peter 3:19-21, though this time identifying the “spirits” from the former passage.

In a startling echo, Jude uses the exact same example to depict the judgment of sinners when he says:

 “And the angels who did not stay within their own position of authority, but left their proper dwelling, he has kept in eternal chains under gloomy darkness until the judgment of the great day.” (Jude 1:6 ESV)

Here we have repeated mention of angels who rebelled against God (presumably in Lucifer’s rebellion) and were apparently cast into Hades or “Hell” where they are currently bound imprisoned in “gloomy darkness” and “chains” until the judgement day. Whether these “chains” are literal or not is for another post; suffice it to say the idea of fallen angels being somewhere awaiting judgment is not foreign to the New Testament.

Noah’s Day

It might be easy to hear of these “spirits” “who formerly did not obey… in the days of Noah,” and immediately think of the general wickedness of men on earth during that time. But a closer look at Genesis 6, just before the Noah account reveals a much more complex situation.

“When man began to multiply on the face of the land and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw that the daughters of man were attractive… the sons of God came in to the daughters of man and they bore children to them… The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” (Genesis 6:1-5 ESV)

Here we have mention of “sons of God,” and peculiar giants called, “Nephilim.” Who or what the Nephilim were is also for another post. Christian scholars down through the centuries have debated the identity of these “sons of God.” While some have suggested that these “sons of God” were either the human offspring of Seth (as opposed to Cain) or mighty rulers of the time; others have asserted that these are indeed fallen angels.

"Nephilim"
“Nephilim”

Those who do not accept that these are fallen angels point to Jesus’ words when he says that, “in the resurrection [men] neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven” (Matthew 22:30). They say this precludes them from marrying and certainly procreating with human beings. While this appears true on the surface, it seems that Jesus is speaking of the normal, intended role of the angels in heaven while we understand that these fallen angels had since vacated their place in heaven in rebellions against God. Further, we know that angels can appear in physical form as men (Genesis 19:1-5, Mark 16:5).

What is more is that if these beings are indeed simply human beings; the distinction between the “sons of God” and the “daughter of men” seems unnecessary and confusing.

Combine these strange verses from Genesis with Peter’s train of thought (which leads him to Noah and the flood) and that of Jude, who quotes Peter’s words nearly word-for-word. In all of that, there is a very strong case for identifying the “sons of God” from Genesis 6 and the “spirits in prison” from 2 Peter 2 and Jude 6 as fallen angels, demonic rulers who are awaiting God’s judgment on the last day.

What was the Proclamation?

I remember attending my high school football games and jeering the visiting team with the familiar jibes. One of which occurred as the clock was winding down and the visiting team was behind and would clearly lose the game. At this time, the whole student section would point to the scoreboard and sometimes even chant, “score-board, score-board, score-board!”

I do not mean to trivialize the proclamation of Jesus over these defeated demonic spirits; but I also see great similarities between that victorious high school taunt and Jesus’ triumphant message to death, Hell, and the grave.

lamb
“Our Triumphant Christ” Moravian Seal

One can almost hear the triumphant Christ proclaiming to these fallen spirits the words of the prophet Hosea, “O Death, where are your plagues? O Sheol, where is your sting” (Hosea 13:14)? Words echoed by the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:55 when he declares, “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?”

And as Christ rises gloriously from the grave, the words of Isaiah resound, “He will swallow up death forever” (Isaiah 25:8).

What was Christ’s purpose in this? To announce the salvation of the Lord, the defeat of death, and to pronounce judgment on Satan and his angels.

Through his death and resurrection, Paul tells us that Jesus specifically targeted these spiritual forces as, “He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him (or in the cross). (Colossians 2:15 ESV)

This brings us back full circle as we again visit the words of Peter from the closing section of the third chapter of his first epistle;

“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 3:21-22 ESV)

So what appears to be an “obscure” passage wrought with too many questions to be understood now stands as a note a triumph, a song of victory.

Peter’s point? Even though Christians can and will suffer for the gospel of Jesus Christ, they are not to fear for God has not only overcome the wickedness of men but has overcome the very spiritual forces of darkness and evil through the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. These forces are even now subjected to Christ and will one day bow to him and confess that he is Lord just before they are judged and thrown alive into the lake of fire that burns forever (1 Peter 3:22, Philippians 2:10-11, Revelation 19:20).

This means eternal, sealed, and complete victory for all of those who have been made one with Christ by faith in his name, that miracle being signified through baptism (1 Peter 3:19).

Stand firm, then, believer. Your Lord has overcome sin and death for you and has already raised you to newness of life and seated you with him in the heavenly places (Ephesians 2:6). We have overcome.

“Let goods and kidred go

This mortal life also.

The body they may kill,

God’s truth abideth still.

His Kingdom is forever!”

(Martin Luther, A Mighty Fortress)

 

 

 

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2 thoughts on “The Spirits in Prison (1 Peter 3:19) : Who are they?

  1. Oddly enough I’m also preaching on this in a few weeks. I was temporarily convinced of the argument that it was Jesus preaching to imprisoned nephalim type angels. What convinced me that it’s referring to Jesus preaching through the Spirit through Noah was actually just re reading the letter with question in mind 1 Peter 1:10-11 is “Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired carefully, inquiring what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories.” That verse seems to clearly communicate the idea of the Spirit of Christ preaching through the prophets, and given it being part of the same letter, it convinced me.

    1. James, thanks for that. I really did struggle with this interpretation for a long while because of that very idea there in chapter 1. Well that and that it seemed the most practical understanding of it. What turned my attention the to the fallen angels was the fact that Peter follows this same train of thought in 2 Peter 2 and that that passage is parallel to Jude 1:6. Further, I wasn’t convinced by the language used in the the “Christ preaching through Noah” view simply because it forces the text to read differently in a way that just seems too contrived and abnormal for the uses of “dia” and “ho.” Again, my flat out answer is “I don’t know;” but the evidence seems to point in this direction to me.

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