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Prison, Spirits In

PRISON, SPIRITS IN

The phrase occurs in the much-disputed passage, 1 Peter 3:18-20, where the apostle, exhorting Christians to endurance under suffering for well-doing, says:

"Because Christ also suffered for sins once, 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 also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison, that aforetime were disobedient, when the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls, were saved through water." It is plain that in this context "the spirits in prison" (tois en phulake pneumasin) denote the generation who were disobedient in the days of Noah, while the words "spirits" and "in prison" refer to their present disembodied condition in a place of judgment in the unseen world (compare 2 Peter 2:4-9). The crucial point in the passage lies in what is said of Christ's preaching to these spirits in prison. The interpretation which strikes one most naturally is that Christ, put to death in the flesh, and made alive again in the spirit, went in this spiritual (disembodied) state, and preached to these spirits, who once had been disobedient, but are viewed as now possibly receptive of His message This is the idea of the passage taken by the majority of modern exegetes, and it finds support in what is said in 1 Peter 4:6, "For unto this end was the gospel preached even to the dead, that they might be judged indeed according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit." On this basis is now often reared a mass of doctrine or conjecture respecting "second probation," "restoration," etc.--in part going back to patristic times--for which the passage, even so taken, affords a very narrow foundation (see on this view, Plumptre, The Spirits in Prison; Dorner, System of Christian Doctrine, IV, 130-32; E. White, Life in Christ, chapter xxii). It must be admitted, however, that, on closer examination, the above plausible explanation is compassed with many difficulties. A preaching of Christ in Hades is referred to in no other passage of Scripture, while Peter appears to be speaking to his readers of something with which they are familiar; it seems strange that these antediluvians should be singled out as the sole objects of this preaching in the spiritual world; the word "made alive" does not exegetically refer to a disembodied state, but to the resurrection of Christ in the body, etc. Another line of interpretation is therefore preferred by many, who take the words "in which also he went," to refer, not to a disembodied manifestation, but to the historical preaching to the antediluvian generation through Noah while they yet lived. In favor of this view is the fact that the apostle in 1 Peter 1:11 regards the earlier prophetic preaching as a testifying of "the Spirit of Christ," that God's long-suffering with Noah's generation is described in Genesis 6:5, which Peter has doubtless in his mind, as a striving of God's Spirit, and that in 2 Peter 2:5 there is another allusion to these events, and Noah is described as "a preacher of righteousness." The passage, 1 Peter 4:6, may have the more general meaning that Christians who have died are at no disadvantage in the judgment as compared with those who shall be alive at the Parousia (compare 1 Thessalonians 4:15-18). (For an exposition of this view, with a full account of the interpretations and literature on the subject, compare Salmond's Christian Doctrine of Immortality, 4th edition, 364-87.)

See also ESCHATOLOGY OF THE NEW TESTAMENT.

James Orr


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Bibliography Information
Orr, James, M.A., D.D. General Editor. "Entry for 'PRISON, SPIRITS IN'". "International Standard Bible Encyclopedia". 1915.