Who are ‘the Spirits in Prison’ in 1 Peter 3:19?

delugeThe Spirits in prison, to whom Jesus made proclamation, have been a matter of dispute and confusion for centuries. Who are these ‘spirits’ and when was it when Jesus preached to them? The passage, located, in 1 Peter 3:18-20, has traditionally been understood in three primary ways:

Option 1: Jesus preached, in some preincarnate state prior to his birth, to the spirits, who are the disobedient persons who failed to get on the boat when Noah preached;

Option 2: Jesus preached, during the conscious intermediate state between his death and his resurrection, to the spirits (either the disobedient persons or the sinful angels);

Option 3: Jesus preached, after his resurrection from the dead, to the spirits in prison (i.e., the angels who sinned).

All three of these options have been argued by expositors over the last two thousand years. How can we deduce which option is the most likely meaning of 1 Peter? Lets begin with some important points. 1 Peter 3:18 should be read as saying that Jesus was put to death but was made alive (via resurrection) in/by the spirit. The contrast of ‘being put to death’ and ‘being made alive’ elsewhere clearly denotes death and bodily resurrection (cf. 1 Cor. 15:22; Rom. 4:17; 8:11; John 5:21; 2 Kings 5:7 LXX). The beginning of 3:19 (“in which also he went”) indicates that it was in Jesus’ resurrected state that he made said proclamation. This rules out options 1 and 2.

The reference to the ‘spirits’ could mean a number of things. It would be odd to refer to human beings as spirits (although cf. 1 John 4:1). However, angels are described with this term within the Second Temple period in a few important passages:

But to which of the angels has He ever said, “sit at My right hand, until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet?” Are they not all ministering spirits, sent out to render service for the sake of those who will inherit salvation? (Heb. 1:13-14)

Who makes his angels spirits, and his ministers a flaming fire (Psa. 104:4 LXX; quoted in Heb. 1:7)

Micaiah said, “Therefore, hear the word of the LORD. I saw the LORD sitting on His throne, and all the host of heaven standing on His right and on His left. The LORD said, ‘Who will entice Ahab king of Israel to go up and fall at Ramoth-gilead?’ And one said this while another said that. Then a spirit came forward and stood before the LORD and said, ‘I will entice him.‘ (2 Chron. 18:18-20)

The spirits (angels) in prison seem to be those who were disobedient during the flood of Noah (1 Pet. 3:20). This episode appears in Gen. 6:2-4, where the “sons of God” refer to disobedient angels. This reading is confirmed by the other occurrences of the “sons of God” (b’ne haelohim) in the OT (cf. Job 1:6; 2:1; 38:7; Psa. 89:6; Dan. 3:25). Further NT testimony for this can be found in Jude 6 and 2 Peter 2:4.


7 thoughts on “Who are ‘the Spirits in Prison’ in 1 Peter 3:19?

  1. Well done, Dustin. This is a good summary of the options, and I’m pretty sure you’ve chosen the right one, with a good explanation for it.

    The only problem is that it doesn’t seem to have that much point, other than for the resurrected Lord to proclaim his triumph to spirits who are presumably doomed any way. Normally one associates preaching with some objective towards salvation.

    1. Thanks for dropping by.

      ! Peter does use this to shift into a discussion about Noah, those on the boat who were rescued, and how Christian baptism (i.e., water baptism) now rescues believers. Furthermore, the passage goes on to speak of the exalted status of Jesus (3:22), the one who suffered and was slandered, in a way which would bring comfort and encouragement to the audience of 1 Peter. This aim tries to provoke the recipients to imitate Jesus, the one who suffered in obedience but was exalted by God at the resurrection.

    1. I likewise prefer Rob Berns explanation. The pronoun “he” is most definitely NOT referring to Jesus. People immediately jump to conclusions that somehow the dead Jesus went to Hell and preached to the dead. That is just overwhelmingly unscriptural. “There is no device in the grave.” The pronoun “he” is referring to a live person, preaching in the days of Noah. while the Ark was being built. We have two most notable preachers in that day, 1. Noah, himself. 2. Methuselah, who died the year of the flood. No magical spirit being is said to be preaching to some magical spirit beings. Just a real preacher preaching to real people in the bondage of sin.

  2. Thanks Dustin. I have read a few entries on this that suggest the “ministering” was more of a taunt, like “Look, I win.” I’m not sure what evidence there would be for that, but it’s a fun idea.

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