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Who were the spirits in prison?

Submitted: 3/3/2009
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Question: What does it mean that Jesus preached for those spirits in prison, which are disobedient at the time of Noah in 1 Peter 3:18-20.

Answer: In 1 Peter 3:18-22 and 4:6, we read that Jesus was put to death in the flesh but made alive by the Spirit, by whom also He went and preached to the spirits in prison. Some consider the spirits in prison to be those who have died and are being imprisoned in a subterranean chamber while they await the resurrection. But notice exactly what this passage says. First, it was the Holy Spirit that made Jesus alive and raised Him from the dead (Romans 8:11). So it is saying that Jesus went by means of the Holy Spirit (not His human spirit or soul) to preach to these spirits. So no part of His humanity did the preaching; it was the Spirit of God.

Second, the passage specifically identifies the spirits as those “who formerly were disobedient, when once the Divine longsuffering waited in the days of Noah.” So these spirits in prison are not all of the disobedient people from the Old Testament period. They are only those who lived between the time when God told Noah to build an ark and the arrival of the flood.

Who were these “spirits in prison”? They were the people who did not get on the ark. The Bible describes these people this way, “The wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Genesis 6:5).

Galatians 3:22 says, “But the Scripture has confined all under sin.” The word “confined” means enclosed or shut up together. In other words, people are imprisoned by their sins. This is the idea here. I think a better way of understanding this passage in 1 Peter is that the same Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead was the one that preached to the imprisoned spirits of those disobedient people during the days of Noah, whose thoughts were only evil continually.

In his second letter Peter explains how the Holy Spirit actually did this preaching. “[God] did not spare the ancient world, but saved Noah, one of eight people, a preacher of righteousness, bringing in the flood on the world of the ungodly” (2 Peter 2:5). So during the days before the flood, the Holy Spirit preached through Noah to the disobedient people whose spirits were imprisoned in sin.

The whole point of this passage is to show us that the same Spirit that is now working through Jesus to bring us to God has always been at work, preaching to people of their need to come to God, even way back in the days of Noah. Peter then likens our salvation through water baptism to the salvation of Noah in the ark. In 1 Peter 4:6 he writes: For this reason the gospel was preached also to those who are dead, that they might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit. The NIV says, “to those who are now dead.” This is not saying that Jesus preached to dead people, but that the gospel was preached to people who are now dead. But it was preached to them while they were alive.

My point here is that nothing in this passage suggests that Jesus descended into the earth and preached to the souls of the dead. This makes no since at all, especially since the Bible says “the dead know nothing” (Ecclesiastes 9:5). Also, there is no indication in the Bible that anyone gets a second chance to obey the gospel after they have died. The Bible says, “In the place where the tree falls, there it shall lie” (Ecclesiastes 11:3); and “It is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgment” (Hebrews 9:27).