1 Peter 3:19 : The spirits in prison
I got some time ago a question from a reader concerning the passage of I Peter 3:19. Let’s read this passage together with verses 18 and 20:
I Peter 3:18-20
What are these “spirits in prison”? Many people reading the word “spirits” in this passage translate it in their minds to dead people that 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:
and some verses earlier:
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.
There was something that happened when man started multiplying. The “sons of God” saw the daughters of men and took wives from them. See that verse 1 puts in contrast the men and the daughters of men with the sons of God. “The sons of God saw the daughters of men”, we read. Who were these sons of God? Although the believers in the New Testament have been given authority by believing in the Lord Jesus Christ and in His resurrection from the dead to become sons and daughters of God, this was not something that was available in the Old Testament. The term “sons of God” is used 3 more times in the Old Testament, in addition to Genesis 6. In all cases it denotes angelic beings. Let’s see these occurrences, all from the book of Job.
and in a very similar reference: Job 2:1
The sons of God that presented themselves before the Lord were obviously angels.
Also Job 38:7 speaking about the earth:
What Job 38:7 describes, refers to the creation of the earth when no human being was present. But the sons of God, the angels, were present and shouted for joy.
In short the beings of Genesis 6:1 were not human beings. Otherwise they would not be put in contrast with the daughter of men. There was and there is nothing wrong or strange for men to get married and have children. But this is not what happened in Genesis 6. What we have in Genesis 6 is that non human beings, angelic beings, sons of God - not sons of men - saw the daughter of men and desired them and furthermore they had children with them! As the Bible tells us in Genesis 6:4, the result of this union were the giants, a race of beings that God had not created nor He intended to create but were instead product of this ungodly union between angels and men. Noah was present at those days. These were “the days of Noah” and to these days I Peter 3:19 refers to.
To the same events we have further references in the New Testament. Let’s see them, starting from II Peter 2:4-5, 9
II Peter 2:4-5, 9
The phrase “cast them down to hell” is one word in the Greek text the verb “ταρταρόω ” (tartaroo) and it means “to cast down to Tartarus”. As Bullinger says: “Tartarus” is a Greek word not used elsewere or at all in the Septuaginta. Homer describes it as subterranean. The Homeric Tartarus is the prison of the Titans, or giants, who rebelled against Zeus” (The Companion Bible, Appendix 131). And as Vine also explains: “the verb tartaroo, translated “cast down to hell” in 2 Peter 2:4 signifies to consign to Tartarus, which is neither Sheol nor Hades nor Hell, but the place where those angels whose special sin is referred to in that passage are confined “to be reserved unto judgement;” the region is described as pits of darkness” (Vine’s dictionary, p. 553). Tartarus is to be understood therefore as a prison and in this prison, as Peter says, were cast the angels that sinned, to be reserved in judgment. They are in this prison of darkness reserved for the day of judgment. See that what follows this reference of II Peter is Noah and the reference to the Flood. This is not accidental as both these events are connected and happened not long from each other. But let’s also see the evidence from Jude who also speaks about the same subject:
Jude speaks about the same rebellion as Peter and Genesis. Sometime during the times of Noah, angels “left their own habitation” and went after “strange flesh”, after the daughters of men. The result? They are now “reserved in everlasting chains under darkness for the judgement of the great day.” This is the prison, the Tartarus that Peter speaks about in his letters. To these fallen spirits, fallen angels, spirits in prison, Jesus went and preached, says the KJV. The NKJV has this translated better as “made proclamation”. Now the text does not say what He proclaimed. But I agree with what Vine is saying in his dictionary, when he speaks about the word “kerusso” that is translated in I Peter 3:19 as “made proclamation”:
“In I Peter 3:19 the probable reference is, not to glad tidings but to the act of Christ after His resurrection in proclaiming His victory to fallen angelic beings” (Vine’s expository dictionary of New Testament words, page 883, emphasis added).
To conclude therefore: when in I Peter 3:19 we read that Jesus went and preached to the spirits in prison, we should not read into it dead people living in a prison, without resurrection, and Jesus going to them to preach the good news. What the Word of God is speaking in I Peter 3:19 is not about dead people but about spirits, angelic beings that are in a prison, in the Tartarus, bound in everlasting chains under darkness. Why? Because of what they did in the times of Noah, leaving their own habitation, giving themselves over to fornication and going after “strange flesh”, after the daughters of men.
E. W. Bullinger: The Companion Bible, 1990, Kregel Publications, Grand Rapids, Michigan