Christ’s Message to the Spirits in Prison: An Analysis of 1 Peter 3:18-19
By Fred Zaspel–
Volumes have been written on the interpretation of 1 Peter 3:18-19. J. Ramsay Michaels’ commentary on the passage1 is the best I have seen on the subject, and if you can’t make sense of what I say here I suggest you read him. (Any similarities you find are confessedly not coincidental!).
1 Peter 3:18-19 read as follows:
KJV: “For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit: By which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison;”
NKJV: “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive by the Spirit, by whom also He went and preached to the spirits in prison.”
NASB: “For Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, in order that He might bring us to God, having been put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit; in which also He went and made proclamation to the spirits now in prison.”
NIV: “For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive by the Spirit, through whom also he went and preached to the spirits in prison.”
ESV: “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.”
Several interpretations of these verses have been offered. There is the old view of “the harrowing of hell,” that between Christ’s death and resurrection he went to hell and led to paradise the souls of the OT saints. There have been modifications of this view, such as that Christ went and proclaimed the gospel to those in hell, offering a second chance.2 And there is the increasingly more common view today that the preaching in view was done by Christ through Noah (cf. v.20). And there are more. But let’s see what the text of these verses allows.
“Flesh” and “Spirit”
We have to begin with the contrast between “in the flesh” and “in the spirit” in verse 18. Much discussion here focuses on the question of whether this refers to Jesus’ body and spirit or if “Spirit” should be capitalized, referring to the Holy Spirit. I think there is another connotation to the words altogether — a connotation evident both in NT and secular Greek.
In Philippians 1:24 Paul is considering the question of whether it is better to remain “in the flesh” or to die and go on to heaven. It is clear that “in the flesh” indicates “in this life” — human life, human existence. Again in Romans 1:3-4 Paul contrasts the two states of existence of the incarnate Son: “weakness” and “power,” or human life with its limitations and resurrection life.3 So also in 1Corinthians 15:42ff the “spiritual body” for Paul is the body of the resurrection. And in 1Timothy 3:16 Jesus was “manifest in the flesh and justified in the spirit” — again a reference to His two states of existence. The same is true in Peter also. In 1Peter 1:24 “flesh” simply means humanity in its fragile state. In 1Peter 4:6 Peter contrasts the difficulties of believers in this life (“in the flesh”) with the blessedness of that life of the resurrection (“in the spirit”).
And in our text this idea seems to fit best also. The translation “by the Spirit”4 does not allow for the parallel with “in the flesh.” Christ clearly was not put to death “by the flesh,” but He was put to death “with reference to”5 His human/earthly existence. Similarly, He was brought to life “with respect to” His resurrection/heavenly existence (cf. 1Cor.15:45).
The thought here is not that Jesus’ body died and His spirit revived. The thought is not (primarily) that He died but the Holy Spirit raised Him up, although this may well be implied. The thought, rather, is that Christ, in the sphere of His human limitations, died; but He rose to the sphere of that life of power and vindication.6 Simply put, Peter is saying that although7 Jesus died, He has also been raised to that life of glory and power.
“In Which” What?
Next to consider is the significance of the “in which”8 of verse 19. A quick glance at the English versions above shows a general lack of agreement as the translation: “by which,” “by whom,” “in which,” and “through whom.” The question is, what is the intended antecedent of this relative pronoun (“which”)? Those who take “Spirit” in the previous verse to refer to the Holy Spirit naturally understand this as the antecedent of “which”; hence, the instrumental force “by whom” or “by which” or “through whom.” It was suggested above that the Holy Spirit is not primarily in view in the phrase. And “in which (spirit)” is a construction unknown anywhere else in the NT. However, in 1 Peter 1:6 and 4:4 en ho does have a broader sense, “in which state” or “in the course of which.”
But however the phrase is understood the meaning remains much the same: Peter is speaking of Christ’s resurrection state. For this reason, I prefer the simplest translation: “in which (state) He went and preached.” Or perhaps, “in the course of which,” or “in the process of which.” That is, “in this life of resurrection power, Christ went….” Or perhaps, “in which coming to life Christ went….”
When Did He “Go”?
It seems clear enough that “in which also” closely associates “made alive” with “went and preached.” The preaching to the spirits, then, was done as a consequence of Christ’s resurrection. This, I think, is the plain indication of the words and grammar: “He rose to the life of power, and in this state He went and preached.”
This, of course, rules out the idea that it was Christ preaching through Noah. This spiritualized understanding doesn’t seem to fit well with the verb “went.” And as I said, the text closely associates the resurrection with the proclamation. On the other hand, there is no textual indicator associating the proclamation with the time of Noah.9 We would expect, if this interpretation were correct, to read something like, “He went and preached to the spirits who are now in prison.” But the “now” is not there. The time frame of the proclamation is stated to be that of the death and resurrection of Christ. Moreover, in verses 20-21 Peter seems to be contrasting the present with the distant past. He is not thinking of an ancient proclamation but one which Christ has made only recently — in His resurrection.
Who Are “The Spirits”?
I take the “and” here (kai, v.19) to have an ascensive force: “even.” “In which even to the spirits in prison he went and preached.” It does not seem that Peter is saying that Jesus preached to the spirits “as well as” to others (“also”). Rather, he seems to be saying that He went and preached “even” to these spirits; that is, His proclamation is universal and extends even to the remotest and most unlikely audience. This is what he makes explicit in v.22; His lordship is universal, holding true even over the demonic realms. This is a point of emphasis common in Paul also (e.g., Phil.2:10-11; Eph.1:21-22).
This leads me to disagree with the otherwise attractive view that these “spirits” are the souls of departed human beings (namely, those who perished in the flood). The souls of the departed are never referred to as “spirits” except only in Hebrews 12:23 where it is qualified significantly: “the spirits of just men made perfect.” Men have spirits, but they are not said to be spirits.
Very commonly, however, “spirits” is used to refer to angels and demons, as a glance at any concordance will show. This is particularly so in the Gospels in reference to demons. So common is this expression in reference to demons that this is how we instinctively understand the term normally. Unless there is some qualifier, we understand “spirits” to be demons.
But who are these demons? Peter associates them with the evil of Noah’s day (v.20). It is all but universally agreed that Peter’s thinking here reflects some kind of influence from Jewish traditions particularly as recorded in 1 Enoch. There are detailed correlations that are evident between Peter’s language and that of 1 Enoch, where attempt is made to explain the origin of demons in terms of the sins of the “sons of God” in Genesis 6. Their offspring (that is, the offspring of the formerly holy angels with the women of Noah’s day) are called “giants,” and this explains the existence of demons in the world today. However, it may not be this complicated: some understand the “spirits in prison” to be those “sons of God” themselves. I really don’t know. I do think, however, that Peter’s original audience would have clearly understood his reference in terms of demons.
Where Is The “Prison”?
In any case, we still must try to identify the “prison” (phulake). Actually, phulake can be understood either negatively or positively; that is, either as a “prison” or as a “refuge.” The word simply indicates a guarded place or a place of protection. It is often associated by interpreters with either the realm of the dead or with hell itself, a place of punishment. But again, the word itself does not tell us that. It may indicate either a place of confinement or a place of protection. It is a “refuge.” The only other place in the NT where phulake is used in reference to demons or “spirits” is Revelation 18:2, and there it has the sense of “refuge, place of protection” for these demons.
But is there any sense in which we could think of evil spirits “in a place of refuge”? There is. This world order is commonly spoken of as the domain of Satan. It is his territory, as it were. This was the great significance of Christ’s first coming and His miracles of casting out demons and so on. It was an invasion of Satan’s realm. This world was his domain, his refuge. And in fact the demons made reference to this on one occasion. When Jesus commanded them to depart from the Gadarene they cried in fear that He had come to torment them “before the time” (Matt.8:29).
It seems easy enough, then, to understand Peter as describing Jesus making proclamation, in His resurrection state, to the demonic hosts who rule over this age.
What Did He “Proclaim”?
The message Jesus preached, then, was clearly not good news! It was bad news. His resurrection into the realm of power and glory was a firm declaration even to the spirit world that their place of “refuge” could no longer be considered a safe one. Their space had been invaded, and they (v.22) must bow to Christ’s lordship over them. His message was a proclamation of triumph. To them, a message of bad news.
When Did He Make This Proclamation?
Notice that verses 19-21 seem to be parenthetical; they digress from the “story line” which is picked up again in v.22. Notice also that both verses 19 and 22 speak of Jesus “going” (poreutheis). In v.22 the “going” is obviously Jesus’ ascension. The progress is chronological. Christ died, rose and “went,” thus making “proclamation” of His universal dominion over all, even the demonic hosts.
I understand, then, the “proclamation” to be in the resurrection/ascension itself. It is precisely this which announced to the demons that their world had been ravaged and that Christ is Lord and that they are subject to Him. I think this gives due consideration to all the details of the text and allows the simplest understanding of the words. The “harrowing of hell” idea and the idea of “Christ preaching through Noah” are ideas that must be imported into this text; they do not come out of it.
One Final Contextual Note
So how does all this fit in context? Peter has been dealing with the sufferings of Christians at the hands of the world. He no doubt sees behind it all the activities of Satanic forces. But not to worry — Christ also suffered at their hands and as our example. Moreover, He has invaded their very own realm and has emerged triumphant over them. Even they are subject to Him. Peter wants to assure “you”10 that your enemy will not survive forever; he is a defeated foe.
Fred Zaspel holds a Ph.D. in historical theology from the Free University of Amsterdam. He is currently a pastor at the Reformed Baptist Church of Franconia, PA. He is also the interim Senior Pastor at New Hyde Park Baptist Church on New York’s Long Island, and Adjunct Professor of Systematic Theology at Calvary Baptist Seminary in Lansdale, PA. He is also the author of The Continuing Relevance of Divine Law (1991); The Theology of Fulfillment (1994); Jews, Gentiles, & the Goal of Redemptive History (1996); New Covenant Theology with Tom Wells (New Covenant Media); The Theology of B.B. Warfield: A Systematic Summary (Crossway, 2010); Warfield on the Christian Life: Living in Light of the Gospel (Crossway, 2012). Fred is married to Kimberly and they have two grown children, Gina and Jim.
1. J. Ramsay Michaels, 1 Peter, Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 49 (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1988), pp.194-222.
2. The phrase in The Apostles’ Creed, “He descended into hell,” leaves itself to any of a number of interpretations, although it seems that this phrase was not a part of the earliest versions of the Creed.
3. Cf. Geerhardus Vos, The Pauline Eschatology (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing Co., 1930, 1991), p. 155 n. Also John Murray, The Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1968, 1980), pp.7-12).
4. instrumental dative
5. dative of reference or respect
6. Michaels, p.204-205.
7. men . . . de
8. en ho
9. As in 1:11, “the Spirit of Christ which was in them.” Or as in 4:6, “the gospel was preached to those who are dead.” This latter verse is often imported into 3:19 and used to interpret the former, but there is no textual warrant for the move.
10. v.18; humas (“you”) may on balance be the preferred reading rather than hemas (“us”), although the meaning with either is not substantially changed.