In 1 Peter 3:19, what does it mean that Jesus preached to the spirits in prison? Who are these spirits in prison?
This passage has been the subject of much controversy. The problem seems to be that a mistaken interpretation has taken root and has become difficult to overcome. The passage is really not so strange as it seems at first.
First, once a wrong view is accepted it is difficult to turn it around. We must be willing to lay our interpretations on the table and view and review them in the light of Scripture. This passage provides a good example of this. My family likes to put together puzzles during Christmas break. This year we had a difficult one. On occasion, we had to take apart sections that fit together but which did not really fit with the larger picture. This is an illustration of what we sometimes need to do with our interpretations of Scripture.
Second, it is important to read Scripture carefully and to be very aware of the local and global context. And related to this, we need to be careful not to draw unwarranted inferences from other Scriptures that seem connected to the passage being examined, but which are not really justified.
Third, it is necessary to think about what different interpretations actually imply. We may think the passage gives us new insight and grasp that interpretation without thinking through the implications on more general doctrinal issues.1
17 For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil. 18 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, 19 in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, 20 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 3:17-20
The overall subject is that we need to persevere in the preaching of the gospel in view of the terrible consequences for those who refuse. Christ personally is put before us as the one who suffered for sins to bring us to God. Verses 19 and 20 describe the consequences for those who “did not obey.”
A deeper look
The first thing to remember is that capitalization and punctuation in modern translations are not found in the original text.2 Capitalization always depends on the judgment of the editor. So in verse 18, we need to see that “spirit” could be “Spirit” which would be the Holy Spirit. So, we could make a mistake by assuming that “spirit” in the phrase “being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit” is the Lord’s human spirit. This would imply that Christ in his human spirit went to the prison to “proclaim” the gospel to the spirits there. There are at least two problems with this.
The phrase in verse 18 about Christ being put to death “in the flesh but made alive” simply refers to His resurrection. The phrase “in the Spirit” reminds us that the resurrection was by the power of the Spirit as we are told in Romans 1:4 and 8:11. The verse simply cannot be referring to His human spirit because that was certainly not “put to death” and so could not possibly be “made alive.”
Consequently, it is the Holy Spirit that is referred to by the phrase “made alive in the Spirit.” He is the subject of the next phrase “in which.” Nevertheless, it is Christ who is referred to by the following “he.” So, the thought being conveyed is that Christ preached but it was through the Spirit that this preaching was done. The expression here is similar to that of Ephesians 2:17. See also Mark 16:20.
Some might appeal to Ephesians 4:9 and 10 to support the idea that Christ “descended” to the prison referred to here in Peter. But, that view asserts that “descended” refers to something other than the simple idea of being buried. This interpretation is an example of reading into Scripture more than what is intended. There is no corroboration anywhere in Scripture that the Lord Jesus went anywhere but to the Father when he died (see Luke 23:43, 46). Note that the passage in Ephesians 4 focuses on the triumph of Christ’s resurrection and resulting blessings to believers through gifts of ministry.
Some might further assert that the expression “He went” shows an actual journey to Hades. But, again, in Ephesians 2:17 we have similar expressions where no actual journey is possible.
Who were the spirits in prison?
So, if it was Christ through the Spirit that preached to the human spirits, the final question is who were these spirits, and when were they imprisoned? Verse 20 tells us that there were those who “did not obey” the message presented by God through Noah when he was preparing the Ark. Building the Ark took 120 years and it was not done in secret. Hebrews 11:7 and 2 Peter 3:9 seem to be proof that God warned the antediluvian world of the judgment to come by Noah’s activity.
Those in prison were those who perished in the flood through their own disobedience by rejecting the preaching that had been done during the days of Noah. The passage is a forceful warning to anyone who would ignore the gospel. So, I submit a slightly amplified paraphrase of verses 18–20a:
For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God. For this purpose, He was put to death in the flesh but made alive by the power of the Holy Spirit. He [Christ] went and by the Spirit through Noah proclaimed the gospel to men while God in patience waited in the days of Noah while he prepared the Ark. Because those who heard formerly did not obey they are now spirits in prison.
Be sure to comment if you have a better paraphrase or you think of something I have missed. Please remember the Comment Guidelines.
1. Scripture itself provides some interesting examples of this process of “thinking through.” See 1 Corinthians 15:12-20, Galatians 2:14-17; 5:1-5, and Matthew 22:23-32 for examples of how the apostle Paul and the Lord Jesus reason through arguments.
2. Many of the earliest Greek manuscripts are uncials (majuscules) and thus all “upper case” letters without spaces or punctuation.