Preaching to the “spirits in prison”

Preaching to the “spirits in prison”: A study on 1 Peter 3:18–22

Who is Peter referring to when, in 1 Peter 3, he mentions “spirits in prison”? Read for insight, pray for wisdom.

Edcarlos Menezes, MTh, is a PhD candidate at River Plate Adventist University and pastors the Mato Grosso Conference Adventist Church, Cuiaba, Mato Grosso, Brazil. 

Kim Papaioannou, PhD, pastors in Cyprus.

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, who formerly were disobedient, when once the Divine longsuffering waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight souls, were saved through water. There is also an antitype which now saves us—baptism (not the removal of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God), through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, angels and authorities and powers having been made subject to Him” (1 Pet. 3:18–22).1

First Peter 3:18–22 is among the most difficult passages of the New Testament. The statement in verse 19 that Jesus “went and preached to the spirits in prison” has perplexed many. It would be fair to affirm that the Petrine declaration that in the epistles of Paul “are some things hard to understand” (2 Peter 3:16) can, effectively, apply also to this section of his own letter.

Among the issues it raises are (1) What is the meaning of the phrase “being put to death in the flesh but made alive by the Spirit”? (2) To whom does the expression “by whom” at the beginning of verse 19 refer? (3) What is the meaning of the verb “preached” in the context of the passage? (4) Who are “the spirits in prison”? (5) Where and when did the events described happen?

Three main interpretations have sought to answer such questions.

Current interpretations

Interpretation 1: Jesus preached to disembodied spirits in hell. Some interpret the passage as declaring that Jesus, during the period between His death and resurrection, descended into hell and preached to the disembodied spirits of those who had died during Old Testament times and who had never heard the gospel or who, perhaps, had rejected God. Now, with the work on the cross accomplished, Jesus was offering them a(nother) chance at salvation. The spirits of the dead, according to this interpretation, were now able to hear the message of Jesus, respond, and make decisions.2

Such an interpretation, however, is both theologically and grammatically impossible. Theologically, it is contrary to the biblical teaching that no chance of salvation exists after death (e.g., Heb. 9:27; cf. Pss. 88:10; 115:17). Moreover, the Bible teaches that at death humans sleep until the resurrection (Job 14:10–12; Ps. 146:4; Eccl. 9:5, 10; 1 Cor. 15:16–18; 1 Thess. 4:13–15).

Grammatically, the preaching to the spirits is not done by a disembodied Jesus in the interval between His death and resurrection; it is done by the resurrected Jesus in fully glorified bodily form. We see this evident in the two Greek participles of verse 18:  thanatōtheis (“put to death”) and zōopoiētheis (“made alive”). Both are masculine. As such, they cannot refer to the “spirit” of Jesus, since the Greek for “spirit,” pneuma, is neuter. Nor can they indicate a supposed disembodied “soul” of Jesus, since the Greek for “soul,” psuchē, is feminine. Since they cannot apply to either spirit or soul, the two participles can only refer to Him, masculine, to Jesus as a complete person. The first pertains to His physical death, that of His earthly mortal body, and the second to His resurrection to a glorified existence.3

Interpretation 2: Jesus preached to the antediluvians. Others suggest that Jesus, “through” the Holy Spirit working through Noah, preached to the antediluvians during the time of the construction of the ark. This is the prevailing opinion among Adventist scholars. The Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary identifies the spirits in prison in the following words: “the first part of v. 20 apparently identifies them as people who lived on earth before the flood.”4

This viewpoint, though better, still has its difficulties. One concerns timing. The text presents a chronological progression that begins with the death of Jesus, continues with His resurrection, and culminates with the proclamation to the spirits in prison. So, to do justice to the passage, we should locate the preaching event after His resurrection. Another problem relates to the Holy Spirit. While some translations see the Spirit in the phrase zōopoiētheis de pneumati (“made alive in/by spirit”),the reference to spirit probably refers more to the nature of the resurrection body of Jesus, a spiritual glorified body (cf. 1 Cor. 15:35–54) than to the Holy Spirit Himself.5

Interpretation 3: Jesus preached to the Watcher angels. A third interpretation suggests that Jesus preached to the Watchers, a group of angels who, according to a Jewish myth, lusted after and married human women. The result was the birth of giants who led the world astray, precipitating the Flood. The myth is an interpretation of the story of Genesis 6:1–76 that understands the “sons of God” who married the “daughters of men” as angels. It appears in several Jewish writings, most prominently in 1 Enoch, a nonbiblical pseudepigraphical work from the second century b.c. First Enoch gives the number of the lusting angels as 200 and calls them Watchers. The concept that 1 Peter 3:18–22 speaks about the Watchers is popular in the academic community.

A careful analysis of Genesis 6:1–7, however, reveals that the “sons of God” are not angels that fell but the descendants of Seth who were once obedient to God but ceased to be so when they married inappropriately. Likewise, the “daughters of men,” whom the “sons of God” married, were descendants of Cain who lived in apostasy.7 Moreover, Jesus states specifically that angels do not marry (Matt. 22:30), nullifying the Jewish myth. Furthermore, if Peter had in mind the Watchers, why would Jesus “preach” only to them since, after all, they numbered only 200—and not to the countless other fallen angels (one-third of all the angels of God according to Revelation 12:4) who also needed to hear whatever message Jesus had to give? This interpretation does not do justice to the biblical text.

An alternative interpretation

The death and resurrection of Jesus. After discussing the sufferings that early Christians were facing (1 Peter 3:13–17), the disciple turns to the sufferings that Jesus had Himself endured, focusing on His death and resurrection. Peter uses the expression thanatōtheis men sarki, zōopoiētheis de pneumati,literally, “put to death in/by flesh, made alive in/by spirit.”

The expression sarki (“flesh”) probably indicates the physical nature that Jesus assumed in the incarnation.8 The term is in contrast to pneumati (“spirit”), a contrast seeming to suggest that pneumatirefers to the glorified resurrection body of Jesus. Jesus died in His human, mortal nature and was raised as a glorified being. 

The proclamation of Jesus. Peter continues: “by whom also He went and preached to the spirits in prison” (v. 19). The Greek en ō, translated by the NKJV as “by whom,” can better be rendered “in which” and thus indicate Jesus’ glorified resurrection state. After His resurrection, in His glorified existence, Jesus went to the spirits in prison.

The preposition en (“in”) in the phrase en phylakē (“in prison”) is a preposition with a locative sense9 and refers to a specific place where the spirits were imprisoned. Commentators sometimes interpret the noun phylakē, “prison,” allegorically to refer, for example, to the spiritual imprisonment and slavery to sin. However, the specific noun in the 47 times it appears in the New Testament (NT) always has a literal meaning and refers either to an actual prison or the individual guarding it. We should also note that the NT never applies the term pneuma (“spirit”) to human sinners. Of the 32 times the plural appears in the NT, 24 refer to angels, mostly the fallen ones.10

Considering these facts, we find it more plausible to see the “spirits in prison” as fallen angels imprisoned by God on this earth. Of them Jude declares: “Angels who did not keep their proper domain, but left their own abode, He has reserved in everlasting chains under darkness for the judgment of the great day” (Jude 6). The expressions “reserved . . . under darkness” and “everlasting chains” suggest that such evil spirits are indeed imprisoned.

But how were fallen angels disobedient in the time of Noah, as 1 Peter 3:20 declares? The Greek apeitheō (“to disobey”) may suggest that the fallen angels did not believe in the message of the Flood and did not expect that God would actually manifest His justice by destroying the wicked antediluvians. And, when it did occur, that they questioned divine justice itself.11

If our suggested interpretation is correct, in what sense did Jesus “preach” to fallen angels? The use of the verb kēryssō is important. Though usually translated “to preach” and thought to convey the idea of the proclamation of the gospel, it literally means “to announce something, to proclaim news,”12 whether good or bad. The English Standard Version is, therefore, more accurate in rendering kēryssō as “proclaim” in 1 Peter 3:19. So Jesus did not visit fallen angels to preach the gospel to them but to announce to them both His victory and their defeat and impending doom.

In this respect, it is interesting to note a parallel between verses 19 and 22, highlighted by the double use of the word poreutheis (“He went”). First, in 1 Peter 3:19 Jesus “went” to the spirits in prison, then in verse 22 he “went” to heaven to be enthroned at the right hand of the Father. In both instances references to the Resurrection precede poreutheis. In verse 19 zōopoiētheis (“made alive”) appears before poreutheis, while in verse 22 it is preceded by di’ anastaseōs Iēsou Christou (“the resurrection of Jesus Christ”).

So after the resurrection, Jesus did two things. First He went to the spirits in prison to announce His victory that spelled their doom and then ascended to heaven to sit at the right side of the Father. A relationship exists between the two events. It is Jesus’ defeat of Satan and his fallen angels that exalts Him to His position of authority as Conqueror: “[Jesus] has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, angels and authorities and powers having been made subject to Him” (v. 22,emphasis ours). Cognates of the phrase “angels and authorities and powers” appear elsewhere in the NT to denote fallen angels (e.g. Eph. 1:21; 6:12; Col. 1:16). With the enemy defeated, Jesus can now declare to His disciples just before His ascension: “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth” (Matt. 28:18).

Jesus announcing His victory to the fallen angels also helps explain Revelation 12:12: “Woe to the inhabitants of the earth and the sea! For the devil has come down to you, having great wrath, because he knows that he has a short time.” The devil knows he has only a brief time left because Jesus has already declared his defeat and doom to him.


First Peter 3:18–22 is an encouragement to believers suffering because of their faith in Jesus. Peter assures his readers that though Jesus suffered and died, He rose from the dead, pro-claimed His triumph to Satan and his fallen angels, ascended to heaven, and was enthroned at the right hand of the Father, a Victor. Through His victory, Jesus can also save those who trust in Him and help His followers, you and I, in our own trials. The suffering and death of Jesus for sin and His victory over the powers of evil is a strong invitation not only to die to sin but, even in the midst of great trials, to live life according to God’s will (1 Peter 4:1–3).

1  Unless otherwise noted, Bible references in this article are from the New King James Version.

2  See, e.g., Uwe Holmer, Primeira Carta de Pedro: Comentário Esperança (Curitiba: Editora EvangélicaEsperança, 2008), 212.

3  For more detail see, Ervin Ray Starwalt, “A Discourse Analysis of 1 Peter” (doctoral diss., University of Texas, 2005), 125, 126. Thanatōtheis and zōopoiētheis must refer to Jesus Christ as a wholeperson because Christos is the only related masculine noun in the text.

4  Francis D. Nichol, The Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary, vol. 7 (Hagerstown, MD: Review andHerald Pub. Assn., 2002), 575.

5  Starwalt, “Discourse Analysis,” 127. Although there is the possibility of translating zōopoiētheis de pneumati as “made alive by the Spirit,” the firstoption seems preferable because of the contrast to thanatōtheis men sarki, “put to death in the flesh.” This is the most natural way to understand the text (see also Rom. 1:3, 4; 1 Tim. 3:16; 2 Cor. 13:4).

6  Robert Henry Charles, ed., The Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament, vol. 2 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1913), 191-199. For an excellent summary of this myth and why it is not possible, see the analysis to 1 Peter 3 in the Spanish edition of the Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary, vol. 7 (Buenos Aires:Buenos Aires Pub. House, 1996), 592–594.

7  For a careful analysis of this subject see Reinaldo W. Siqueira, “The Sons of God in Genesis 6:1–4,” Kerygma 1, no. 2 (2005), 37–47.

8  Juan Carlos Pizarro, “Los espíritus encarcelados en 1 Pedro 3:18–20” (master’s thesis, River Plate University, 1992), 58–61.

9  Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996), 372–375.

10  Matt. 8:16; 10:1; 12:45; Mark 1:27; 3:11; 5:12, 13; 6:7; Luke 4:36; 6:18; 7:21; 8:2; 10:20; 11:26; Acts 5:16; 8:7; 19:12, 13; 1 Cor. 12:10; 1 John 4:1; 1 Tim. 4:1; Heb. 1:14; Rev. 16:13, 14). The word also refers three times to the spirits of the prophets (1 Cor. 14:32; 1 John 4:1; Rev. 22:6 [Greek text/ESV]); four times to the spirit of God (Rev. 1:4; 3:1; 4:5; 5:6); and one time to the spirits of the righteous (Heb. 12:23).

11  “Satan himself, who was compelled to remain in the midst of the warring elements, feared for his own existence. He had delighted to control so powerful a race, and desired them to live to practice their abominations and continue their rebellion against the Ruler of heaven. He now uttered imprecations against God, charging Him with injustice and cruelty.” Ellen G. White, Patriarchs and Prophets (Nampa, ID: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 2002), 99, 100.

12 Timothy Friberg, Barbara Friberg, and Neva F. Miller, Analytical Lexicon of the Greek New Testament (GrandRapids, MI: Baker Books, 2000), 230.

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Edcarlos Menezes, MTh, is a PhD candidate at River Plate Adventist University and pastors the Mato Grosso Conference Adventist Church, Cuiaba, Mato Grosso, Brazil. 

Kim Papaioannou, PhD, pastors in Cyprus.

June 2019

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