The spirits in prison are referred to in 1 Peter 3:19-20, where Peter declares that they disobeyed in the time of Noah and that Christ went and preached to them in prison. This passage has often been identified as one of the most obscure in the entire New Testament. Other passages are often used to interpret this one, but it must be understood in its own literary context and ideological environment.
Verses 19-21 appear in the middle of a christological confession of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ (v. 18) and his exaltation to the right hand of the Father (v. 22 cf. 1 Tim 3:16 ). Verses 19-21 declare his triumphant declaration to the evil spirits, and contrasts them with Noah, who was saved through watera type of Christian baptism.
Peter used this confession and triumphant journey of Christ to encourage his readers, who were suffering ridicule and persecution as a result of their conversion ( 1:6 ; 4:4 ). In particular it follows 3:13-17, which explains how they should respond to unreasonable abuse, especially when they have been zealous in living an honorable life before their accusers (2:11-3:12). And their participation in the triumph of Christ is assured by their pledge of a good conscience in baptism (v. 21).
This journey of Christ took place after the resurrection rather than between his death and resurrection, since the description follows the resurrection in verse 18, and the relative clause "in which" (en ho) refers either to his resurrected spiritual state, or "at that time, " that is, after his death and resurrection. Since the very same form of the participle (poreutheis, "going, " or "traveling") is used in both verse 19 and verse 22, it is most likely that this is a single journey of Christ through the heavens to the right hand of the Father (v. 22).
The distinctive characteristic of these spirits is that they were in prison when Christ traveled to them, since the prepositional phrase is in the attributive position (tois en phulake pneumasin, "the in prison spirits").
That these spirits are the evil angels of Genesis 6:1-4 (or their offspring) is indicated by their being in prison, their disobedience in the time of Noah, their mention in 2 Peter 2:4 and Jude 6, and the New Testament use of the plural noun ("spirits, " pneumasin) as a reference to evil spirits unless otherwise qualified. This is further supported by contemporary Jewish literature (1 Enoch 6:1-8; 12:1-16:4; 19:1; 2 Baruch 56:12), which describes these evil angels in the same way as the passage in 1 Peter.
Norman R. Ericson
See also Descent into Hell (Hades)
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
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Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Spirits in Prison'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".