The spirits in prison mentioned in 1Peter 3:19, who are they? By Jack Kettler
Are these spirits in prison, those who get a second chance at salvation? Are these the spirits of men, or angels or demons? These two are the main questions we will seek an answer to. As in previous studies, we will look at definitions, scriptures, commentary evidence, and confessional support for the purpose to glorify God in how we live.
“By which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison; which sometime were disobedient, when once the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls were saved by water.” (1Peter 3:19-20)
ΠΕΤΡΟΥ Α΄ 3:19 Greek NT: Stephanus Textus Receptus 1550
ἐν ᾧ καὶ τοῖς ἐν φυλακῇ πνεύμασιν πορευθεὶς ἐκήρυξεν
This passage of Scripture has been the subject of much speculation. We will look at an older historical interpretation and then a contemporary commentary entry – first, the older commentary entry.
First, from Ellicott’s Commentary for English Readers on 1Peter 3:19:
“(19) By which.—If “by the Spirit” had been right in the former verse, this translation might have stood here, though the word is literally in; for “in” is often used to mean “in the power of,” “on the strength of:” e.g., Romans 8:15. But as that former rendering is untenable, we must here keep strictly to in which—i.e., in spirit. This might mean either of two things: (1) “spiritually speaking,” “so far as thought and sympathy goes,” as, for instance, 1Corinthians 5:3, Colossians 2:5; or else (2) “in spirit,” as opposed to “in the body”—i.e., “out of the body” (2Corinthians 12:2; comp. Revelation 1:10), as a disembodied spirit. We adopt the latter rendering without hesitation, for reasons, which will be clearer in the next Note.
He went and preached unto the spirits in prison.—There are two main ways of interpreting this mysterious passage. (1) The spirits are understood as being now in prison, in consequence of having rejected His preaching to them while they were still on earth. According to this interpretation—which has the support of such names as Pearson, Hammond, Barrow, and Leighton (though he afterwards modified his opinion). among ourselves, besides divers great theologians of other countries, including St. Thomas Aquinas on the one hand and Beza on the other—it was “in spirit,” i.e., mystically speaking, our Lord Himself who, in and through the person of Noah, preached repentance to the old world. Thus the passage is altogether dissociated from the doctrine of the descent into hell; and the sense (though not the Greek) would be better expressed by writing, He had gone and preached unto the spirits (now) in prison. In this case, however, it is difficult to see the purpose of the digression, or what could have brought the subject into St. Peter’s mind. (2) The second interpretation—which is that of (practically) all the Fathers, and of Calvin, Luther (finally), Bellarmine, Bengel, and of most modern scholars—refers the passage to what our Lord did while His body was dead. This is the most natural construction to put upon the words “in which also” (i.e., in spirit). It thus gives point to the saying that He was “quickened in spirit,” which would otherwise be left very meaningless. The “spirits” here will thus correspond with “in spirit” there. It is the only way to assign any intelligible meaning to the words “He went and” to suppose that He “went” straight from His quickening in spirit—i.e., from His death. It is far the most natural thing to suppose that the spirits were in prison at the time when Christ went and preached to them. We take it, then, to mean that, directly Christ’s human spirit was disengaged from the body, He gave proof of the new powers of purely spiritual action thus acquired by going off to the place, or state, in which other disembodied spirits were (who would have been incapable of receiving direct impressions from Him had He not Himself been in the purely spiritual condition), and conveyed to them certain tidings: He “preached” unto them. What was the substance of this preaching we are not here told, the word itself (which is not the same as, e.g., in 1Peter 1:25) only means to publish or proclaim like a crier or herald; and as the spirits are said to have been disobedient and in prison, some have thought that Christ went to proclaim to them the certainty of their damnation! The notion has but to be mentioned to be rejected with horror; but it may be pointed out also that in 1Peter 4:6, which refers back to this passage, it is distinctly called a “gospel;” and it would be too grim to call that a gospel which (in Calvin’s words) “made it more clear and patent to them that they were shut out from all salvation!” He brought good tidings, therefore, of some kind to the “prison” and the spirits in it. And this “prison” must not be understood (with Bp. Browne, Articles, p. 95) as merely “a place of safe keeping,” where good spirits might be as well as bad, though etymologically this is imaginable. The word occurs thirty-eight times in the New Testament in the undoubted sense of a “prison,” and not once in that of a place of protection, though twice (Revelation 18:2) it is used in the derived sense of ‘a cage.’” (1)
Next, from Simon J. Kistemaker’s, New Testament Commentary provides a contemporary interpretation of Spirits from 1Peter 3:19–20a:
“Verse 19 is difficult to interpret, for in this relatively short sentence the meaning of each word varies. D. Edmond Hiebert observes, “Each of the nine words in the original has been differently understood.” Accordingly, we cannot expect unanimity in the interpretation of this passage; concurrence eludes us.
Here is the reading of the New International Version:
- Through whom also he went and preached to the spirits in prison 20a. Who disobeyed long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built.
What does this text say? Let us look at the component parts, explain them sequentially, and view the text in its context.
- “Through whom.” The antecedent of the word whom is the term spirit (either with or without a capital letter). If we take the relative pronoun whom to relate to the nearest antecedent, then we understand that it refers to the Holy Spirit (see the preceding verse). Through the instrumentality of the Spirit of God, Jesus Christ after his resurrection “went and preached to the spirits in prison.” Note that in his epistle Peter mentions the Spirit a few times: “the sanctifying work of the Spirit” (1:2), “the Spirit of Christ” (1:11), and the preaching of the gospel “by the Holy Spirit” (1:12).
We can also relate the phrase through whom to the word spirit without the capital letter. If we interpret the phrase in this sense, its meaning actually is “in which” or “in the resurrected state.” The relative pronoun, then, relates to the spiritual state of Christ after his resurrection.
Some interpreters suggest the translation in the course of which. The antecedent of “which” then seems to be the general context. However, the connection between the relative phrase through whom and the nearest term spirit is unmistakable and thus preferred.
- “Also he went and preached.” What is meant by the word also? Apparently Peter wants us to understand it in the sequence of the verbs put to death and made alive. The words he went and preached follow this sequence in the preceding verse. We understand, then, that after his resurrection Jesus went to preach to the spirits in prison.
In the Greek, the same word (“went”) is used in verse 19 as in verse 22 (“who has gone into heaven”). We assume that if Peter speaks about the ascension of Jesus in the one verse, by implication he does so in the other (also see Acts 1:10–11). We have no certainty, however, because the word went as such is indefinite and means, “to go elsewhere.” But if we interpret Paul’s remark about the “spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Eph. 6:12) spatially, then the verb went can mean “to go up” and can refer to Christ’s ascension. Also, the sequence of verses 18 and 19 indicates that Christ went to preach in his resurrected state.
Does the statement he went and preached mean that Jesus descended into hell? No, it does not, because evidence for this assumption is lacking. Scripture nowhere teaches that Christ after his resurrection and prior to his ascension descended into hell. Moreover, we have difficulty in accepting the explanation that Christ in his spirit went to preach to Noah’s contemporaries. But before we continue this point, we must ask this question:
What is meant by the word preached? The verb stands by itself, so that we are unable to determine the content of preaching. In brief, only the fact of preaching, not the message, is important. That is, we understand the verb preached to mean that Christ proclaimed victory over his adversaries. In his brevity, Peter refrains from telling us the context of Christ’s proclamation. We would be adding to the text if we should interpret the word preached to signify the preaching of the gospel. “Hence we may suppose with reason that it is the victory of Christ over His adversaries which is emphasized in 3:19, not the conversion or evangelization of the disobedient spirits.”
- “To the spirits in prison.” Do the spirits belong to human beings or to fallen angels or to both? In this passage Peter gives the word spirit two qualifications. First, the spirits are kept in prison. In Revelation, 20:7 John writes that Satan “will be released from his prison” (see also vv. 1–3). And in his second epistle, Peter writes that God sent angels that sinned “into gloomy dungeons to be held for judgment” (2 Peter 2:4; compare Jude 6). Incidentally, Scripture nowhere states that the souls of men are kept in prison.
Next, Peter says that the spirits are those “who disobeyed long ago” (v. 20a). He writes, “the spirits … who disobeyed.” He does not say, “the spirits of those who disobeyed.” If this were the case, Peter could mean the souls of departed men who had been disobedient during their lifetime. However, the word spirits as Peter qualifies it refers to supernatural beings. Peter’s use of this word agrees with the connotation in the Gospels, where it refers to “evil spirits” (see, e.g., Mark 3:11). This usage also agrees with intertestamental literature, in which the term spirits designates angels or demons.
According to the writer of Hebrews, Christ does not help angels (2:16). Rather, he redeems the spiritual descendants of Abraham. Furthermore, if we would interpret the word spirits to be those of men, we should realize that Peter’s qualification regarding disobedient spirits points to willful rejection of God’s authority. Scripture teaches that there is no forgiveness for the sin of deliberate disobedience (Heb. 6:4–6; 10:26). Last, no scriptural doctrine teaches that man has a second chance for repentance after death. When the curtain is drawn between time and eternity, man’s destiny is sealed, and the period of grace and repentance has ended (read the parable of the rich man and Lazarus [Luke 16:19–31]). Consequently, I interpret the phrase the spirits in prison to refer to supernatural beings and not to the souls of men.
- “God waited patiently.” A literal translation of this part of the verse is, “when the patience of God kept waiting.” That is, God’s forbearance lasted 120 years before he destroyed humanity, eight persons excepted, with the flood. The construction, translated “God waited patiently,” stresses the leniency of God before he executed his sentence on the human race (compare Gen. 6:3). From the time of Adam to the day when Noah entered the ark, God exercised patience. Noah’s contemporaries were notoriously wicked and served as agents of demonic spirits in their rebellion against God. There is no other time in history in which the contrast between faith and unbelief, obedience and disobedience, was as pronounced as in the days of Noah. The rebellious spirits seemed to control the human race with the exception of Noah and his family.
Greek Words, Phrases, and Constructions in 3:19–20a
ἐν ᾧ καί—in 1902 British New Testament scholar J. Rendel Harris popularized a conjecture that had been suggested by J. Bowyer in 1763. Harris conjectured that the reading of the first part of verse 19 should be ἐν ᾧ καὶ Ἐνώχ (in which Enoch [went and preached]). Although the suggestion proved to be attractive, scholars applied the rule that for a conjecture to be acceptable, it must fulfill two conditions: the text must be incomprehensible without the conjecture and the conjecture must improve our understanding of that text. Examining the evidence, however, they concluded that the conjecture was unable to satisfy these two conditions and therefore had to be dismissed.
ἐν θυλακῇ—although the noun prison is not explained in the text, its position is emphatic. The prepositional phrase in prison is placed between the definite article the and the noun spirits.
ἀπειθήσασιν—this aorist active participle in the neuter dative plural clarifies the noun πνεύμασιν (spirits). The participle derives from the verb ἀπειθειω (I disobey). In the aorist tense, it points to sins committed in the past. The position of the participle is predicate. We translate noun and participle as “spirits who disobeyed.”
ἀπεξεδέχετο—this compound verb is in the imperfect tense and in the middle (deponent) voice. It expresses continued action in the past tense. Because of the compound, this verb is intensive or perfective. It means “to wait patiently for” or “to wait it out.”
κατασκευαζομέης—the present passive participle in the genitive case with κιβωτοῦ (ark) in the same case constitutes the genitive absolute construction. Note that the use of the present tense denotes duration; from use of the passive voice we infer that a work force was needed to build the ark.
Additional comments on 3:19–20a:
Interpretations of this particular text are many. Here are some of them listed in chronological sequence.
- Clement of Alexandria, about a.d. 200, taught that Christ went to hell in his spirit to proclaim the message of salvation to the souls of sinners who were imprisoned there since the flood (Stromateis 6.6).
- Augustine, about a.d. 400, said that the preexistent Christ proclaimed salvation through Noah to the people who lived before the flood (Epistolae 164).
- In the last half of the sixteenth century, Cardinal Robert Bellarmine introduced a view that has been held by many Roman Catholics: in his spirit Christ went to release the souls of the righteous who repented before the flood and had been kept in Limbo, that is, the place between heaven and hell where, Bellarmine said, the souls of the Old Testament saints were kept (De Controversiis 2.4, 13).
- An interpretation promulgated by Friedrich Spitta in the last decade of the nineteenth century is this: After his death and before his resurrection, Christ preached to fallen angels, also known as “sons of God,” who during Noah’s time had married “daughters of men” (Gen. 6:2; 2 Peter 2:4; Jude 6).
- Contemporary commentators teach that the resurrected Christ, when he ascended into heaven, proclaimed to imprisoned spirits his victory over deaths.
Although space prevents me from commenting on all the strengths and weaknesses of these views, I select a few of the major objections. And although it is virtually impossible to achieve unanimity in understanding the text, I call attention to the view that many theologians favor.
The first view is the one of Clement of Alexandria. He taught that Christ went to hell in his spirit to proclaim the message of salvation to the souls of sinners who were imprisoned there since the flood. Two basic objections can be voiced against Clement’s interpretation: one, Scripture is silent on imprisonment of souls condemned by God, and two, Augustine’s doctrine that there is no conversion after death repudiates Clement’s view.
Next, Augustine said that the preexistent Christ proclaimed salvation through Noah to the people who lived before the flood. No one disputes the fact that the Spirit of Christ was active in the time between Adam’s fall into sin and the birth of Jesus (see Peter’s comment in 1:11). The objection to Augustine’s view is that he departs from the wording of 1Peter 3:19. Augustine speaks of the pre-incarnate Christ and not of the Christ who “was put to death in the body but made alive by the Spirit.” Augustine’s interpretation dominated the theological scene for centuries until the doctrinal view of Bellarmine displaced it in the Roman Catholic Church.
Third, Bellarmine taught that even though Christ’s body died on the cross, his soul remained alive. Thus in his spirit Christ went to release the souls of the righteous who repented before the flood and were in Limbo. Bellarmine’s interpretation has been rejected by Protestants, because they point out that Scripture teaches that the Old Testament saints are in heaven (see, e.g., Heb. 11:5, 16, 40; 12:23).
Then there is the interpretation of Spitta. He said that Christ after his death and before his resurrection preached to fallen angels who during Noah’s time had married “daughters of men.” But this view faces a serious objection. Answering the Sadducees who asked him about the resurrection, Jesus asserted that angels neither marry nor are given in marriage (Matt. 22:30). We have difficulty understanding how fallen angels, who are spirits, can have sexual relations with women.
Last, recent commentators teach that the resurrected Christ, during his ascension to heaven, proclaimed to imprisoned spirits his victory over death. The exalted Christ passed through the realm where the fallen angels are kept and proclaimed his triumph over them (Eph. 6:12; Col. 2:15). This interpretation has met favorable response in Protestant and Roman Catholic circles and is in harmony with the teaching of the Petrine passage and the rest of Scripture.” (2)
Next, helpful entries from two encyclopedia dictionaries:
First, from the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia:
PRISON, SPIRITS IN
“The phrase occurs in the much-disputed passage, 1 Peter 3:18-20, where the apostle, exhorting Christians to endurance under suffering for well-doing, says:
“Because Christ also suffered for sins once, 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 also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison, that aforetime were disobedient, when the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls, were saved through water.” It is plain that in this context “the spirits in prison” (tois en phulake pneumasin) denote the generation who were disobedient in the days of Noah, while the words “spirits” and “in prison” refer to their present disembodied condition in a place of judgment in the unseen world (compare 2 Peter 2:4-9). The crucial point in the passage lies in what is said of Christ’s preaching to these spirits in prison. The interpretation which strikes one most naturally is that Christ, put to death in the flesh, and made alive again in the spirit, went in this spiritual (disembodied) state, and preached to these spirits, who once had been disobedient, but are viewed as now possibly receptive of His message This is the idea of the passage taken by the majority of modern exegetes, and it finds support in what is said in 1 Peter 4:6, “For unto this end was the gospel preached even to the dead, that they might be judged indeed according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit.” On this basis is now often reared a mass of doctrine or conjecture respecting “second probation,” “restoration,” etc.–in part going back to patristic times–for which the passage, even so taken, affords a very narrow foundation (see on this view, Plumptre, The Spirits in Prison; Dorner, System of Christian Doctrine, IV, 130-32; E. White, Life in Christ, chapter xxii). It must be admitted, however, that, on closer examination, the above plausible explanation is compassed with many difficulties. A preaching of Christ in Hades is referred to in no other passage of Scripture, while Peter appears to be speaking to his readers of something with which they are familiar; it seems strange that these antediluvians should be singled out as the sole objects of this preaching in the spiritual world; the word “made alive” does not exegetically refer to a disembodied state, but to the resurrection of Christ in the body, etc. Another line of interpretation is therefore preferred by many, who take the words “in which also he went,” to refer, not to a disembodied manifestation, but to the historical preaching to the antediluvian generation through Noah while they yet lived. In favor of this view is the fact that the apostle in 1Peter 1:11 regards the earlier prophetic preaching as a testifying of “the Spirit of Christ,” that God’s long-suffering with Noah’s generation is described in Genesis 6:5, which Peter has doubtless in his mind, as a striving of God’s Spirit, and that in 2 Peter 2:5 there is another allusion to these events, and Noah is described as “a preacher of righteousness.” The passage, 1Peter 4:6, may have the more general meaning that Christians who have died are at no disadvantage in the judgment as compared with those who shall be alive at the Parousia (compare 1Thessalonians 4:15-18). (For an exposition of this view, with a full account of the interpretations and literature on the subject, compare Salmond’s Christian Doctrine of Immortality, 4th edition, 364-87.)” James Orr (3)
Second, from Baker’s Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology:
Spirits in Prison
“The spirits in prison are referred to in 1Peter 3:19-20, where Peter declares that they disobeyed in the time of Noah and that Christ went and preached to them in prison. This passage has often been identified as one of the most obscure in the entire New Testament. Other passages are often used to interpret this one, but it must be understood in its own literary context and ideological environment.
Verses 19-21 appear in the middle of a christological confession of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ (v. 18) and his exaltation to the right hand of the Father (v. 22 cf. 1Tim 3:16 ). Verses 19-21 declare his triumphant declaration to the evil spirits, and contrasts them with Noah, who was saved through water — a type of Christian baptism.
Peter used this confession and triumphant journey of Christ to encourage his readers, who were suffering ridicule and persecution as a result of their conversion (1:6; 4:4. In particular, it follows 3:13-17, which explains how they should respond to unreasonable abuse, especially when they have been zealous in living an honorable life before their accusers (2:11-3:12). And their participation in the triumph of Christ is assured by their pledge of a good conscience in baptism (v. 21).
This journey of Christ took place after the resurrection rather than between his death and resurrection, since the description follows the resurrection in verse 18, and the relative clause “in which” (en ho) refers either to his resurrected spiritual state, or “at that time,” that is, after his death and resurrection. Since the very same form of the participle (poreutheis, “going,” or “traveling”) is used in both verse 19 and verse 22, it is most likely that this is a single journey of Christ through the heavens to the right hand of the Father (v. 22).
The distinctive characteristic of these spirits is that they were in prison when Christ traveled to them, since the prepositional phrase is in the attributive position (tois en phulake pneumasin, “the in prison spirits”).
That these spirits are the evil angels of Genesis 6:1-4 (or their offspring) is indicated by their being in prison, their disobedience in the time of Noah, their mention in 2 Peter 2:4 and Jude 6, and the New Testament use of the plural noun (“spirits,” pneumasin) as a reference to evil spirits unless otherwise qualified. This is further supported by contemporary Jewish literature (1Enoch 6:1-8; 12:1-16:4; 19:1; 2Baruch 56:12), which describes these evil angels in the same way as the passage in 1Peter.” Norman R. Ericson (4)
As seen by the older Bible commentator Charles John Ellicott, and the older International Standard Bible Encyclopedia entries the difficulty in understanding the text in 1Peter 3:19.
Simon J. Kistemaker in his New Testament Commentary and Baker’s Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology have the advantage of the most recent tools of scholarship. While the older views on the passage should not be dismissed out of hand, the newer interpretation seems more plausible.
It is safe to say:
The spirits in prison are not men, but fallen angels. Support for this is in 2Peter 2:4–5 and Jude 1:6.
“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.” (2Peter 2:4-5 ESV)
“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)
Both of these texts speak of the fallen angels being in chains until the judgment.
Simon J. Kistemaker’s commentary entry on 1Peter 3:19 is convincing when he argues that the spirits are fallen angelic spiritual beings and not fallen men. In addition, Kistemaker reasons that Peter cannot be talking about men. Fallen men do not get a second chance at salvation.
Then Kistemaker cites Hebrews 11:5 that speaks of Enoch to show that godly men in the Old Testament went to heaven, not to prison. Godly men before the resurrection of Christ did not go to spirit prison. This account of Enoch parallels the thief on the cross (Matthew 27:38). Both went to be with Christ.
As a necessary aside. The spirit prison is not Abraham’s Bosom:
“Unique phrase found in a parable of Jesus describing the place where Lazarus went after death (Luke 16:19-31). It is a figurative phrase that appears to have been drawn from a popular belief that the righteous would rest by Abraham’s side in the world to come, an opinion described in Jewish literature at the time of Christ. The word kolpos [kovlpo] literally refers to the side or lap of a person. Figuratively, as in this case, it refers to a place of honor reserved for a special guest, similar to its usage in John 13:23. In the case of Lazarus, the reserved place is special because it is beside Abraham, the father of all the righteous. The phrase may be synonymous to the paradise promised to the thief on the cross (Luke 23:43). Together these passages support the conviction that a believer enjoys immediate bliss at the moment of physical death.” Sam Hamstra, Jr. (5)
In the beginning, two questions were asked:
To answer the starting question about the possibility of 1Peter 3:19 talking about spirits of men awaiting a second chance for salvation. It can be said with Scriptural certainty; this is impossible in light of “And as it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment. (Hebrews 9:27) In addition, “For he saith, I have heard thee in a time accepted, and in the day of salvation have I succoured thee: behold, now is the accepted time; behold, now is the day of salvation.” (2Corinthians 6:2)
In answer to the second question at the beginning of this study, it is safe to conclude:
God punished the disobedient angels with imprisonment. When Jesus died, He went spiritually and proclaimed as Ellicott said like “a crier or herald” to these spirits in prison. Jesus proclaimed His victory to the fallen angels imprisoned there. “And having spoiled principalities and powers, he made a shew of them openly, triumphing over them in it.” (Colossians 2:15) Amen!
- Charles John Ellicott, Bible Commentary for English Readers, 1Peter, Vol.8, (London, England, Cassell and Company), p. 420-421.
- Simon J. Kistemaker, New Testament Commentary, Peter, (Grand Rapids, Michigan, Baker Book House, 1986), pp. 141-146.
- Orr, James, M.A., D.D. General Editor, “Entry for ‘PRISON, SPIRITS IN,’” International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, (Grand Rapids, Michigan, Eerdmans, reprinted 1986), p. 2456.
- Walter A. Elwell, Editor, Baker’s Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology, (Grand Rapids, Michigan, Baker Book House), p. 745-746.
- Walter A. Elwell, Editor, Baker’s Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology, (Grand Rapids, Michigan, Baker Book House), p. 7-8.
“To God, only wise, be glory through Jesus Christ forever. Amen.” (Romans 16:27) and “heirs according to the promise.” (Galatians 3:28, 29)
Mr. Kettler has previously published articles in the Chalcedon Report and Contra Mundum. He and his wife Marea attend the Westminster, CO, RPCNA Church. Mr. Kettler is the author of the book defending the Reformed Faith against attacks, titled: The Religion That Started in a Hat. Available at: THERELIGIONTHATSTARTEDINAHAT.COM