“For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh but made alive by the Spirit, in which he also went and made proclamation to the spirits in prison who in the past were disobedient, when God patiently waited in the days of Noah while the ark was being prepared. ”-1 Peter 3:18-20a
Who are the “spirits in prison” and why should I care? The reference in passing by Peter to Jesus making proclamation to imprisoned spirits is one of the more challenging verses in the Bible to understand. As a pastor I’m often asked about it—sometimes in a “let’s stump the pastor” way and sometimes in a “seriously, what’s going on here” way.
Before we get to my take on who these spirits are, let me encourage you to wrestle with the harder parts of the Bible. John Piper argues that these tough texts foster reliance on God for spiritual instruction, encourage us to pray to him for illumination, and establish the good habit of thinking deeply on spiritual matters (Brothers We’re Not Professionals, chapter 17). Rolling up our intellectual sleeves yields the fruit of love for God in our hearts. Don’t skip confusing verses—they are God-breathed for our benefit.
So here’s my take on the spirits in prison. There are many views, but here are the top three:
- Some think these verses refer to Jesus descending into Hell to preach to the dead. This view was favored in the early church (think the Apostles Creed), and is a result of a misunderstanding of Jesus’s descending to earth as described in Ephesians 4:9-10.
- Others think these verses describe a pre-incarnate Christ preaching the gospel through Noah to his unbelieving generation. This view has the strength of referring to Noah as verse 20 does, but admittedly requires reading between the lines a bit.
- In my opinion the better answer is that Peter relies on a well known tradition from Genesis 6:1-2, other OT texts, and Jewish traditions (especially 1 Enoch) that rebellious angels were awaiting final judgment by God. Perhaps the “sons of God” in Genesis 6:1-2 are such spirits. By his suffering, death, and resurrection Christ proved himself victorious over all evil powers, including fallen angels.
Contextually this fits the message of 1 Peter well. The point in chapter three is that Christians need not fear suffering and persecution. In 1 Peter 4:2, he argues we should have the same attitude as Jesus “in order to live the remaining time in the flesh no longer for human desires, but for God’s will.”
So why should we care? Because some days we need to choose to suffer, or risk suffering, for Jesus. Evil will not escape judgment, even if evil seems to be temporarily having a field day. Yes, Jesus died, but he rose victorious and proclaimed his victory to demons awaiting judgment. They lost. That fact should fuel the faith of the church in the fires of persecution.