He went and Preached to the Spirits in Prison

We discussed a difficult and intriguing passage of scripture last night at the Bible Study:

being put to death in the flesh but made alive by the Spirit, 19 by whom also He went and preached to the spirits in prison, 20 who formerly were disobedient, when once the Divine longsuffering waited in the days of Noah... 1 Peter 3:18-20.

We discussed 3-4 explanations.

1)            Some, including John Calvin, interpreted it as Christ preaching to Old Testament saints, after He died on the cross, the prison being the place where they dwelt- sheol or hades: He preaches to them that redemption has been accomplished, and then escorts them to paradise.

2)            The souls of the wicked folk of Noah’s day; he is proclaiming his victory and vindicating Noah’s stance- He preached to them through Noah and now visits them in spiritual prison to confirm it. He is not offering them a second chance- the word for preach means proclaim. He is confirming their judgement.

3)            They are fallen angels (see Genesis 6:1-4): Christ preaches their judgement and doom.

4)            It refers not to Christ preaching in-between His death and resurrection at all, but is rather a description of the spiritual state all unbelievers find themselves in; Noah was a preacher of righteousness through whom Christ spoke.

We had some good discussion about which of the above is the more convincing. I support option 3. This is because:

‘Spirits’ always refers to non-humans in the New Testament unless otherwise qualified. I therefore believe it is talking of spiritual beings who are not human, as further qualification is not offered.

Apocryphal literature, though neither canonical nor inspired, has within it a tradition of powerful demons held in prison. Peter would have known of this tradition: 1 Enoch 21: And I went around to a place where not one thing took place. And I saw there something terrible, no high heavens, no founded earth, but a void place, awful and terrible. And there I saw seven stars of heaven, tied together to it, like great mountains, and flaming as if by fire. At that time I said: "On account of what sin are these bound, and why have they been cast hither?" And then answered Uriel, one of the holy angels, who was with me, conducting me, and said to me: "Enoch, concerning what dost thou ask, and concerning what dost thou inquire, and ask and art anxious? These are of the stars who have transgressed the command of God, the Highest, and are bound here till ten thousand worlds.

In his next epistle, Peter explicitly refers to imprisoned angels. This refers to more than merely expelling them from heaven. It says hell- translation tartarus, the place in Greek Mythology where the Titans were bound. He also links these spirits to the time of Noah.

2 Peter 2:4 For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but sent them to hell

Elsewhere in the New Testament, there is reference to angelic prisoners:

Jude 6: And the angels who did not keep their positions of authority but abandoned their proper dwelling—these he has kept in darkness, bound with everlasting chains for judgment on the great Day.

So why preach to these creatures? They are beyond redemption, but not punishment. Evil was defeated by the crucified Christ. I believe that between his death and resurrection, Christ went to their prison to proclaim his victory and announce their judgement. This was ‘having spoiled principalities and powers, he made a shew of them openly, triumphing over them in it’. Colossians 2:15.

Of course this interpretation begs its own question. Why are some demons imprisoned and others not? Such questions are best left to the Judge.