I recently polled my Facebook friends on their interpretation of 1 Peter 3:19-20. There was much discussion, and differing views, which led me to write this blog post.
“For Christ also suffered once for sins, 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 he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, because they formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water.” – 1 Peter 3:18-20
There is much theological debate concerning verses 19-20. Martin Luther wrote in his commentary on First Peter, “…a wonderful text is this, and a more obscure passage perhaps than any other in the New Testament, so I do not know for certain just what Peter means.” As Ed Clowney notes, this confession by Luther should warn us of overconfidence. However, I believe there is enough biblical evidence to make an educated interpretation of this passage.
Much of the debate hinges on the identity of the “spirits” in verse 19. Depending on the context, the word translated “spirits” can either be used in reference of human spirits or angelic spirits (Num. 16:22; 27:16; Acts 7:59; Heb. 12:23). But the word itself in the immediate context is not enough to understand this passage. The references Peter uses here must also be examined in the context of the entire Bible. WIth that said, here are the three major views on the interpretation of this passage.
Option 1: The preincarnate Jesus preached through Noah to people in Noah’s day (Augustine).
The first interpretation understands “spirits” in reference to the unsaved human spirits of Noah’s day. In this sense, Christ (in the Spirit) proclaimed the gospel through Noah (1 Pet. 3:18,20). Therefore, the unbelievers who heard Christ’s preaching through Noah, and did not obey, are now suffering judgment as “spirits in prison” (3:19). In other words, because of their unbelief they are in prison spiritually.
There are several reasons why Biblical interpreters have adopted this view. First, Peter calls Noah a herald of righteousness (2 Pet. 2:5), and the designation “herald” corresponds to the idea of Noah being a preacher (1 Pet. 3:19). Second, Peter says the “Spirit of Christ” was speaking through the OT prophets (1:11). In this sense, Christ could have been speaking through Noah as an OT prophet.
Option 2: Jesus proclaims spiritual triumph over the principalities and powers of evil.
The second interpretation argues that Jesus proclaimed victory over the fallen angelic spirits who were awaiting the declaration of their final judgment even since the days of Noah. In this sense, in Jesus’ victory over death their condemnation is sealed. Simply put, the resurrection of Jesus is a proclamation of his spiritual triumph over the principalities and powers of evil.
One argument against the first view, and a merit of this second view, is that throughout the New Testament the plural word “spirits” most often refers to supernatural beings rather than humans (Matt. 8:16; 10:1; Mark 1:27; 5:13; 6:7; Luke 4:36; 6:18; 7:21; 8:2; 10:20; 11:26; Acts 5:16; 8:7; 19:12, 13; 1 Tim. 4:1; 1 John 4:1; Rev. 16:13–14; Heb. 1:7). Moreover, the word “prison” is not used elsewhere in Scripture as a place of punishment after death for people, while it is used for Satan (Rev. 20:7) and other fallen angels (2 Pet. 2:4; Jude 6).
Option 3: Jesus descended into hell and preached to unbelievers or fallen angels, offering them a second chance (Origen).
In a third view, Jesus supposedly descended into hell on the Saturday between his crucifixion and resurrection – when his body was dead, but spirit was alive. Some have advocated the idea that Christ offered a second chance of salvation to those in hell. This interpretation, however, is in direct contradiction with other Scripture (Luke 16:26, 23:43; Heb. 9:27) and therefore must be rejected on biblical grounds, leaving either of the first two views as the most likely interpretation.
Among the three most common interpretations, the first two fit best with the rest of Scripture and with historic orthodox Christian doctrine. However, because of the reasons stated above (and below), I lean towards the second view. Namely, that 1 Peter 3:18-22 references Jesus resurrection as a proclamation of victory over the principalities and powers of evil. In this sense, the message that Christ proclaimed is one of triumph, after having been “put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit” (1 Pet. 3:18).
On The Proposed Connection Between 1 Peter 3:19-20 and Genesis 6:1-4
Some scholars, including Schreiner, corroborate the “spirits in prison” in 1 Peter 3 with Genesis 6:1-4, but the context of Genesis 6 suggests that God’s anger is directed toward man, not fallen angels having offspring with humans. Moreover, I do not believe the connection between “the spirits in prison” and the Nephilim passage of Genesis 6 is necessary, nor is it congruent with the trajectory of the biblical narrative.
I believe the reference to God’s patience as Noah built the ark as an analogy of His long suffering in general, even at the climax of evil in the Genesis 6 world. During that time period, humanity had plenty of opportunity to repent (Rom. 2:4, 3:25; Acts 14:16, 17:30), and eight did. Moreover, verse 18 of 1 Peter 3, seems to be contrasting the current age and the age to come (Heb. 5:7).
As for Genesis 6, it is often argued that “the sons of God” are angels, but that does not seem to align with the whole of Scripture (Matt. 22:30). In Genesis 6 the “sons of God” begin to marry the daughters of men, bringing about the judgment of God. This judgment could either be taken as limiting man’s life to 120 years, or it could refer to the time left before the destruction of society by flood.
I understand the “sons of God” in Genesis as a reference to the Sethites (those in Seth’s line). So men in the Godly line of Seth began to marry women from the ungodly line of Cain. Therefore, these marriages increased the evil Cainite-types in the earth at the expense of the godly Sethites. For more on this understanding of Genesis 6, see Daniel Fuller’s The Unity of the Bible, Graeme Goldsworthy’s According to Plan, Meredith Kline’s Divine Kingship and Genesis6:14; and Walter Kaiser’s The Promise-Plan of God.