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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Spirits in Prison

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This expression appears in 1 Peter 3:19, and some of its implications have been already discussed under Descent into Hades. It remains to summarize the principal interpretations that the phrase has received.

1. Augustine argues (Ep. clxiv. ‘ad Euod.’ 13 ff.) that 1 Peter 3:19 alludes to a preaching by the pre-incarnate Christ to the contemporaries of Noah, imprisoned in the darkness of ignorance, who were afterwards overwhelmed in the Flood for their sins. He is led to this conclusion by the difficulty which is presented by the apparent restriction of Christ’s preaching, if it was in Hades, to one section only of the men who lived before His advent, viz, the antediluvian patriarchs. Augustine’s interpretation has had a wide influence, but it must be dismissed as inconsistent with the whole tenor of 1 Peter 3:17 f. It was after Christ had been ‘put to death in the flesh’ that He was ‘quickened in the spirit,’ in which He ‘went and preached unto the spirits in prison.’ The words must refer to a ministry of Christ in Hades, after His Passion. To whom was this ministry addressed?

2. πνεύματα in the NT generally means ‘angels,’ and it has been held that the fallen angels are indicated by τὰ πνεύματα ἐν φυλακῇ. This would agree with the language of Judges 1:6 and 2 Peter 2:4, the latter passage (as in 1 Peter 3:19) going on to speak of Noah and the Flood. So in Eth. Enoch, x. 12, the sons of God who had taken wives of the daughters of men (Genesis 6:2) are represented as bound fast under the hills until the Day of Judgment; cf. also Eth. Enoch, xxi. 10, and Slav. Enoch, vii. 1, where the fallen angels in the second heaven are described as ‘the prisoners suspended, reserved for the eternal judgement,’ So also Apoc. Baruch, lvi. 12f.: ‘Some of them descended, and mingled with women. And then those who did so were tormented in chains.… And those who dwelt on the earth perished … through the waters of the deluge.’ But in this literature there is no trace of a preaching by Christ to the fallen angels; although in Eth. Enoch, xii. 4, xiii. 8, the ‘watchers of the heaven’ who have fallen from their high estate are reproved and condemned by Enoch. Again, the ‘spirits in prison’ of 1 Peter 3:19 must be included among the νεκροί of 1 Peter 4:6 to whom the gospel was preached, and these cannot be angels. Augustine, indeed, was forced by the exigencies of his theory to explain νεκροί of the spiritually dead, but the contrast between ‘the quick and the dead’ in the preceding verse (1 Peter 4:5) proves that the physically dead are in view.

The objection of Loofs (Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics iv. 659) that σαρκί in 1 Peter 4:6 proves that the νέκροι must be alive in the flesh is not convincing. When they were judged, they were in the flesh; but ‘the difference in tense in κριθῶσι, ζῶσι makes the former verb antecedent in time to the latter, and the sense is the same as if St. Peter had written ἵνα κριθέντες ζῶσι’ (Bigg, International Critical Commentary , in loc.).

3. We have, then, to interpret πνεύματα of the disembodied spirits of men (as in Hebrews 12:23; cf. Luke 24:37; Luke 24:39), and φυλακή of Sheol or Hades, in which after death they are imprisoned, according to Jewish belief. Thus in Apoc. Baruch, xxiii. 4, we read of ‘a place prepared where the living might dwell and the dead might be guarded’; cf. 2 Es 7:85, 95 and Isaiah 42:7; Isaiah 49:9; Isaiah 61:1 for phrases out of which the idea of Sheol as a prison might have grown (see, further, Descent into Hades, 3). The idea was taken over by the early Christian Church. E.g., Hippolytus (c. Graecos, ed. P. A. de Lagarde, Leipzig 1858, p. 68) writes: τοῦτο τὸ χωρίον (sc. Ἅδης) ὡς φρούριον ἀπενεμήθη ψυχαῖς, and describes Hades as divided into two compartments, for the good and the evil both guarded by angels, the unrighteous being haled to their own place as prisoners (ὡς δἐσμιοι ἑλκόμενοι). And Tertullian (de Anima, 58) explains the φυλακή of Matthew 5:25 as the Hades of discipline for the soul. Indeed, the Peshiṭta Syriac of τοῖς ἐν φυλακῇ πνεύμασιν (1 Peter 3:19) is equivalent to ‘animabus illis quae detinebantur in inferis,’ which leaves no doubt as to the sense which the Syriac translators attached to the phrase under consideration.

4. The ‘spirits in prison’ of 1 Peter 3:19 are, therefore, human souls in Hades or the abode of the departed, to whom Christ ‘preached’ after His Passion, a further allusion to the same mysterious ministry being found in 1 Peter 4:6. This has already been discussed under Descent into Hades, where it has been shown that various opinions were held by the early Christian theologians as to the scope of Christ’s mission to the under world, some confining it to Jews, some to Gentiles, and some admitting all the departed, righteous or unrighteous, to a share in its benediction. But in 1 Peter 3:19, where alone in the NT the phrase ‘spirits in prison’ is found, it is immediately followed by the words ‘which aforetime were disobedient, when the long-suffering of God waited in the days of Noah,’ etc.-an apparent restriction of its content which is not easy to understand.

An explanation which has much to recommend it is that the Noachian patriarchs are here particularly specified, because the Flood was the great typical judgment of the ancient world, and thus the ‘disobedient in the days of Noah’ are representative of the disobedient in every age (see an excellent discussion of this by F. H. Chase in Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible (5 vols) iii. 795). There is, however, no suggestion in 1 Peter 3:20 that the Noachians are mentioned as representative of all those who died in sin. The emphasis is on the fact of Christ preaching in Hades after His death, and not upon the persons to whom He preached. Great stress was laid in the next age upon this ministry as the direct issue of the Passion. Irenaeus actually says (Haer. iv. 33) that the final cause of Christ’s sufferings was that, having died, He might thus visit and deliver the dead. And Origen (in Psalms 3:6), arguing that Christ effected by the separation of His soul from His body much more for the salvation of mankind than would otherwise have been accomplished, quotes 1 Peter 3:19 in proof. Thus the words θανατωθεὶς μὲν σαρκὶ, ζωοποιηθεὶς δὲ πνεύματι lead directly to the recital of the Descent into Hades. If any of those to whom Christ preached were to be specified, the argument would, indeed, require mention of ἄδικοι, as it is the suffering of the just for the unjust that is in question; but to proceed to specify any individuals at this point is a digression. It must be remembered, however, that the two topics-Hades and the Flood-were closely associated in Jewish thought, although to the modern mind they are quite distinct. For the Flood was caused primarily by the breaking forth of the fountains of the great deep (Genesis 7:11), upon which the earth rested, and which was the mysterious abode of dread monsters and evil things (Genesis 1:21, Isaiah 51:9). These abysmal waters were waters of destruction; and the ‘abyss’ (Luke 8:31) was the home of devils, from which the Beast of the Apocalypse came forth (Revelation 11:7; Revelation 17:8). Now Sheol or Hades, the place of departed souls, was conceived as beneath these abysmal waters under the solid earth. ‘They that are deceased tremble beneath the waters and the inhabitants thereof’ (Job 26:5). And it was into this ‘abyss’ that Christ descended after His Passion (Romans 10:7).

Hence the mention of the Descensus would at once suggest to a Jew the abyss, whence the waters of judgment burst forth at the Flood. Of the countless souls imprisoned there, the writer recalls, naturally and immediately, those who were carried to its depths in that overwhelming visitation of God’s wrath. To these (but not to the exclusion of others) Christ preached, that, having been judged in the flesh as men are judged (κατὰ ἀνθρώπους), they might henceforth live in the spirit as God lives (κατὰ θεόν, 1 Peter 4:6). And so was Christ’s ‘quickening in the spirit’ manifest after His death.

Literature.-To the books named under Descent into Hades may be added A. Schweizer, Hinabgefahren zur Hölle als Mythus biblische Begründung, Zürich, 1868; E. H. Plumptre. The Spirits in Prison, London, 1887; R. H. Charles, Eschatology, Hebrew, Jewish, and Christian, London, 1899.

J. H. Bernard.


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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Spirits in Prison'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/hdn/s/spirits-in-prison.html. 1906-1918.

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