The Spirits in Prison

1 Peter 3:19
18For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit:
19By which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison;

This passage is used in the attempt to prove the conscious existence of the dead as "disembodied spirits," the doctrine of purgatory, or "the larger hope," and the descent of Christ into "hell" in the interval between his burial and resurrection. Let us consider Peter's words in the light of the scriptures; and first as to

SPIRITS: This word never signifies disembodied persons in the scriptures. It is applied to the angels: "Who maketh his angels spirits" (Heb. 1:7); "ministering spirits" (verse 14). But the angels are bodily beings possessed of the divine nature. And Christ promises that the redeemed shall be like them (Luke 20:36). Jacob wrestled with one (Gen. 32:24); and others ate and drank with Abraham (Gen. 18:8). But the "spirits" of Peter's allusion were not angels, nor even good men, but "disobedient." Concerning such John said: "Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God, because many false prophets are gone out into the world ... every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God (1 john 4:1-3). These were "seducing spirits" (1 Tim. 4:1), but by no means disembodied. Neither were those to whom Peter alludes in this place. Consider further the

PRISON: This is not the so-called "place of departed spirits," "purgatory," or the hades of rabbinical and anti-Christian superstition, but simply "the grave," whether watery or earthy. This is the real meaning of hades as used in the scriptures, and, as a matter of fact, the word is very properly translated "grave" in I Cor. 15:55: "O Grave, where is thy victory?" As to the "prison," the spirit of God in Isaiah speaks beforehand of the Christ, saying : "I, the Lord, have called thee in righteousness ... to bring out the prisoners from the prison, and them that sit in darkness out of the prison house" (Isa. 42:6,7). See also Isa. 49:8,9: and especially chapter 61:1, which the Lord Jesus quoted as concerning himself in the synagogue at Nazareth: "The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord hath anointed me ... to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound." Again, in Zech. 9, a passage also appropriated by Christ, the word of God by the prophet says of him: "As for thee also, by the blood of thy covenant I have sent forth thy prisoners out of the pit wherein is no water" (verse 11). That is the grave, whence obedient believers are liberated by Christ who is "the resurrection and the life," and who says: "I am he that liveth, and was dead; and behold, I am alive for evermore, Amen: and have the keys of hell (hades, the grave) and of death." He was himself let out of this "prison" by God, who raised him up and "loosed the pains of death" (Acts 2:24); like Jonah, who was let go "out of the belly of hell" (Jonah 2:2), that is, out of his living grave, and became the "sign" of the resurrection of Messiah. The Psalmist also prays: "Bring my soul out of prison, that I may praise thy name" (Psa. 142:7). See also Psa. 16, David's prophecy of the resurrection of Christ, whose body, though entombed, was not suffered to see corruption.

THE SPIRIT OF CHRIST IN THE PREACHER: It will be observed that Peter does not say that Christ himself went and preached to the "spirits" during the time that he was buried, but that "by the spirit ... he went and preached unto the disobedient... in the days of Noah." This was ages before Christ was born, and Peter's words are only intelligible upon the basis of a right understanding of his doctrine concerning "the spirit of Christ" in the prophets (1 Pet. 1:11). Foreseeing the end from the beginning, God, by His spirit, made the prophets speak as though they were Christ, thus: "Behold, I and the children whom God hath given me" (Isa. 8:18, compared with Heb. 2:13). "A body hast thou prepared me" (Psa. 40:6, with Heb. 10:5). "Thou wilt not leave my soul in hell; my flesh shall rest in hope" (Psa. 16:9,10, with Acts 2:27-31). Literally, there was no "flesh" and "body" of Christ in existence when these things were spoken, yet "the spirit of Christ" thus spoke, for God "calleth those things which be not as though they were" (Rom. 4:17). It is therefore not strange that Peter should say that by the spirit Christ preached in the days of Noah, especially as he had before him the divine word in Gen. 6:3, which thus alludes to the crisis: "The Lord said, My spirit shall not always strive with man, for that he also is flesh; yet his days shall be an hundred and twenty years." Noah was the "preacher of righteousness" (2 Pet. 2:5); "by faith ... by which he condemned the world" (Heb. 11: 7).

THE DEATH STATE: "The spirits in prison," were not living when Peter spoke, but dead.He further alludes to such in ch. 4:6, "Them that are dead," although the allusion here is to the righteous dead and not to the "disobedient" dead. But both alike are "spirits in prison," and in that "prison" "there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom" (Eccl. 9:10), for "the dead know not anything" (verse 5). "His breath goeth forth, he returneth to his earth; in that very day his thoughts perish" (Psa. 146:4). "The dead praise not the Lord, neither any that go down into silence" (Psa. 115:17). "They that go down into the pit (the prison, the grave) cannot hope for thy truth" (Isa. 38:18,19). They are in "the dark ... the land of forgetfulness " (Psa. 88:10-12). Christ never preached to such. The spirit of Christ in the prophets preached to men in the flesh contemporary with the prophets; and Jesus preached to living men and women in his day. It is to be remarked here that Peter does not say that JESUS preached to the disobedient spirits of Noah's day, and especially when he was dead and buried, and his "thoughts perished"! It is only false doctrine that has invented such an unscriptural conception.

CHRIST AND PETER ON THE DAYS OF NOAH AND OF CIRIST'S SECOND APPEARING: Peter follows Christ in the beautiful passing comparison of the passage under consideration. Christ compared his preaching with that of Noah.

NOAH preached: "Disobedient spirits" spoke evil of him, judging after the flesh. They were drowned - imprisoned in a watery grave. Noah was saved in the ark - by water. The Lord shut him in.

CHRIST preached: Disobedient "spirits" (Matt. 12: 43-45) spoke evil of him. He was evilly intreated, and "put to death in the flesh." He said, "As the days of Noah were, so shall also the coming of the Son of Man be" (Matt. 24:37). The generation that rejected and crucified him was judged like Noah's contemporaries (read 2 Pet. 3). In prophetic language, "the end thereof was with a flood" (Dan. 9:26). Meanwhile Christ was saved from "the floods of the ungodly" (Psa. 18:4; 32:6) like Noah in the ark. In baptism and sacrifice he "came by water and blood... . And it is the spirit that beareth witness" (1 John 5:6).

PETER and the brethren preached: They, like Christ and Noah, "suffered for righteousness sake." Disobedient "spirits" (I John 4:1-3) spoke evil of them. They looked for "the end of all things" (1 Pet. 4:7) when Christ shall "judge the quick and the dead" (verse 5). They hoped to be saved then in God's ark - that is, Christ, into whom they had been introduced "by water," and the Lord had shut them in, For "as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ" (Gal. 3:27). Therefore, just as Noah and his family were "saved by water," so, says Peter, "baptism doth also now save us." "Few, that is, eight souls were saved by water" in Noah's day! The rest of "the world of the ungodly" became "spirits in prison." This is the substance of the analogy briefly traced by Peter in this place, and the lesson to us is obvious. Shall we be found "in Christ" when he is revealed from heaven "in flaming fire taking vengeance on them that know not God, and that obey not the gospel"? (2 Thess. 1:7).

Reproduced from: The Christadelphian Shield: Papers Explanatory of Wrested Scriptures