Summary: What are these “spirits in prison”? Many people reading the word “spirits” in this passage translate it in their minds to dead people who supposedly live now (as spirits) in a prison.
1 Peter 3:19 : The spirits in prison
Some time ago, I got a question from a friend of mine concerning the passage of I Peter 3:19. Let’s read this passage together with verses 18 and 20:
“For Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, so 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 in prison, who once were disobedient, when the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight souls, were saved through water.”
What are these “spirits in prison”? Many people reading the word “spirits” in this passage translate it in their minds to dead people who supposedly live now (as spirits) in a prison. Such an understanding however is not founded on the Word of God, and here is why: the Word of God does not use the word “spirit” to denote dead, non-resurrected, men. To understand what are the spirits in prison, we need to look at the Word of God and see how it uses this word plus to take into consideration other references of the Bible on the subject described in the above verses of I Peter. For indeed the Word of God speaks not in just one but in four different places about what I Peter 3:19 speaks about. But first of all, let’s see what could these spirits in prison be. As we said, they could NOT be dead men. Despite the fact that our age uses the word spirit for dead men that are supposedly living somewhere without resurrection, the Bible does not use this word with such a meaning. It does however use this word to denote angelic beings. As Hebrews 1:13-14 says:
“But to which of the angels has He ever said, Sit on my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool? Are they not all ministering SPIRITS, sent forth to minister for those who will inherit salvation?”
and some verses earlier:
“And of the angels He says: "Who makes His angels SPIRITS And His ministers a flame of fire.”
Angelic beings were created by God and they are spirit beings. They are “spirits”. Could then be that these “spirits in prison” are fallen angels in prison? As we will see yes this is what it is. But let’s first get some background information. As we saw angels are spirit beings. Though all of them were created by God not all remained with God. Some of them rebelled against Him and were fallen from their position. The chief fallen angel is the devil or Satan. Two passages that describe his rebellion and fall are: Ezekiel 28:11-19 and Isaiah 14:3-23. However, the above passage of I Peter 3:19 does not refer to this fall. I Peter 3:20 sets the time to the “days of Noah”. The devil had rebelled long before those days as we see him active in the garden of Edem. Besides that, he and his angels are not in a prison now. Instead the devil is described as “prince of the air” and he and his fallen angels as “principalities…powers…rulers of the darkness of this age.. spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places”. Spiritual hosts of wickedness are literally hosts of wicked spirits –and this is what fallen angels are - that are now active in the heavenly places. I Peter 3:19 therefore does not refer to the devil’s fall but to another rebellion of angels that occurred “in the days of Noah” and before the Flood. These fallen spirits ended up in a prison and we will read more on this in II Peter and in Jude. But let’s first go to Genesis 6, just before the Flood. We will find there details about the fall of these angels.
“Now it came to pass, when men began to multiply on the face of the earth, and daughters were born to them, that the sons of God saw the daughters of men, that they were beautiful; and they took wives for themselves of all whom they chose. And the LORD said, "My Spirit shall not strive with man forever, for he is indeed flesh; yet his days shall be one hundred and twenty years." There were giants on the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of God came in to the daughters of men and they bore children to them. Those were the mighty men who were of old, men of renown. Then the LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the LORD was sorry that He had made man on the earth, and He was grieved in His heart. So the LORD said, "I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth, both man and beast, creeping thing and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them." But Noah found grace in the eyes of the LORD.”