SPIRITS IN PRISON A much discussed phrase in 1 Peter 3:19. Christ went and preached to the spirits in prison “who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah” (1 Peter 3:20, NRSV). This event, unmentioned elsewhere in the Bible, is closely associated with the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead (1 Peter 3:18,1 Peter 3:21).
The framework for this depiction of Christ's work is the notion, attributed to Jesus Himself, that “As it was in the days of Noah, so too it will be in the days of the Son of Man” (Luke 17:26 NRSV; compare Matthew 24:37). The immediate focus of the statement in 1 Peter is not the flood as such. The flood becomes the center of attention in Matthew 24:20-21. Matthew 24:19 focuses on the situation that necessitated the flood (see Genesis 6:1-8). The disobedient “spirits,” accordingly, are not the people who died in the flood, but the evil spirits, or demons, whose influence brought divine judgment on the world. Peter probably viewed these evil spirits as the offspring of the strange union mentioned in Genesis 6:1-4 between the “sons of God” (that is, angelic or superhuman beings of some kind) and the “daughters of men.” (Compare the Jewish apocalyptic book of 1 Enoch 15.8-10: “But now the giants who are born from (the union of) spirits and the flesh shall be called evil spirits upon the earth.”) It is also likely that Peter identified them with the “unclean spirits” over which Jesus had triumphed again and again during His earthly ministry. Jesus' proclamation to these “spirits” must therefore be understood not as redemptive “good news,” but as judgment and defeat at the hands of God (see their anxious question in Matthew 8:29, “Have you come here to torment us before the time?” NRSV).
That the outcome of this proclamation was the subjection of the disobedient spirits is seen from 1 Peter 3:22, where Christ is glimpsed “at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him” (NRSV). Yet if they were already “in prison,” what precisely could further defeat and subjection mean? A possible answer to this question is provided by Revelation 18:2, where “Babylon the great” (or Rome) is seen under God's final judgment as “a haunt for every unclean spirit” (REB). The word translated “haunt” in the RSV is the same word translated “prison” in 1 Peter 3:19. Peter's point is not that the disobedient spirits were “imprisoned” in the sense of being inactive when Christ came to them, but that He came to them in their “haunts” or “havens” to notify them that their power over humanity was finally broken and that now they must surrender to His universal dominion.
J. Ramsey Michaels
These dictionary topics are from the Holman Bible Dictionary, published by Broadman & Holman, 1991. All rights reserved. Used by permission of Broadman & Holman.