Spirits in prison

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The spirits in prison is a recurrent minor subject in the writings of Christianity.

New Testament[edit]

The subject takes its starting point from a Bible reference:

1 Peter 3:19–20 "By which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison; (20) Which sometime were disobedient, when once the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls were saved by water." (KJV)

Early Christian interpretations[edit]

According to Augustine the spirits are the unbelieving contemporaries of Noah, to whom the spirit of Christ in Noah, preached, or to whom pre-existent Christ himself preached.[1]

Reformation and Enlightenment views[edit]

Unitarians, such as Thomas Belsham, considered that the spirits in prison were simply Gentiles in the prison of ignorance to whom Christ preached through his apostles.[2]

Modern Christian interpretations[edit]

Wayne Grudem (1988) identifies five commonly held views on the interpretation of this verse:

  • "View 1: When Noah was building the ark, Christ 'in spirit' was in Noah preaching repentance and righteousness through him to unbelievers who were on the earth then but are now 'spirits in prison' (people in hell)."[3]
  • "View 2: After Christ died, he went and preached to people in hell, offering them a second chance of salvation."[4]
  • "View 3:After Christ died, he went and preached to people in hell, proclaiming to them that he had triumphed over them and their condemnation was final."[5]
  • "View 4: After Christ died, he proclaimed release to people who had repented just before they died in the flood, and led them out of their imprisonment (in Purgatory) into heaven."
  • "View 5: After Christ died (or: after he rose but before he ascended into heaven), he travelled to hell and proclaimed triumph over the fallen angels who had sinned by marrying human women before the flood."[6]

These views revolve around the identity of the spirits in prison, the time in which the preaching took place, and the content of the preaching.[7]

View 1. Augustinian interpretation[edit]

This is also found in Thomas Aquinas; Summa Theologica (3,52,2). A variant of this view is the view of the Rev. Archibald Currie (1871) that Christ through Noah preached to "the spirits in prison ;" meaning the eight persons interned in the Ark as in a place of protection.[8]

View 2. Harrowing of hell[edit]

The Anglican Edward Hayes Plumptre, Dean of Wells, in The Spirits in Prison starting from the verse in Peter argued for revival in the belief in the harrowing of Hell and the spirit of Christ preaching to the souls of the dead in Hades while his body was in the grave.[9]

Some disagree with this interpretation of I Peter, citing 2 Peter 2:4-5, implying that the spirits were disobedient angels, not dead people. However, Peter already mentioned "angels" in 1:12, so if Peter wanted us to think they were angels, surely he would have used that word. Support for the idea that "spirits" refers to people comes from several other New Testament texts, such as Luke 23:46, James 2:26, and Hebrews 12:23. The fact that Peter says a few verses later that the dead were evangelized in 4:6 points us to the fact that we are most likely dealing with dead people not fallen angels. After all, angels don't die.

View 3. Proclaiming triumph[edit]

This is a variant of the harrowing of Hell idea, except that Christ only proclaims triumph.[10]

View 4. Release from purgatory[edit]

This view originates with Robert Bellarmine (1586) and has been followed by some Catholic Church commentators in relation to a belief in Purgatory.[11]

View 5. The spirits in prison are angels[edit]

  • Jesus proclaimed triumph over the fallen angels

Support for the understanding that the spirits in prison are angelic beings and not people is thought to be confirmed by II Peter 2:4–5 and Jude 6, which refer to rebellious angels, punished by God with imprisonment. Just like I Pet. 3, II Pet. 2 also refers to the time of Noah’s flood, including the number of people saved in the ark. However, the text in 2 Peter uses a different word for the location of the angels than I Peter does. in 2 Peter 2, the word used is tartaroo, other wise known as Tartarus. In I Peter 3:19, the word is phylake (can also be anglic. as Phylace), meaning prison. If the same Peter is writing both 1 and 2 Peter, and he wanted us to think that the spirits and the angels were the same, and that they went to the same place, why would he not just say the same thing in both passages? Clearly, Peter is talking about two different beings and locations in these respective passages.

  • Angels and the Book of Enoch

Friedrich Spitta (1890),[12][13] Joachim Jeremias and others suggested that Peter was making a first reference to Enochic traditions, such as found again in the Second Epistle of Peter chapter 2 and the Epistle of Jude. Stanley E. Porter considers that the broad influence of this interpretation today is due to the support of Edward Selwyn (1946).[14]

Human souls[edit]

The concept that the dead await a general resurrection and judgment either in blessed rest or in suffering after a particular judgement at death was a common 1st century Jewish belief (see Lazarus and Dives and bosom of Abraham). A similar concept is taught in the Eastern Orthodox churches, was championed by John Calvin (who vigorously opposed Luther's doctrine of soul sleep), and is reflected in some Early Church Fathers.[who?]

Other religious traditions[edit]

In Mormonism, the verse is used as a starting point for belief in a spirit prison in the spirit world.

This belief also appears in Islam as barzakh, and in 9th-century Zoroastrian writing (after and perhaps due to two centuries of Muslim influence and several more of Christian influence).

Greek Philosophy[edit]

In the Phædrus, Socrates likens the soul of the body to be as imprisoned withal as an oyster is bound to its shell[15] during the discourse on metempsychosis (saṃsāra) with Phraedrus.

Etymology of Phrædrus [Φαῖδρος] (Greek for radiant);[16] from phærma [φάρμακον], philtre[17] spell or enchantment,[18] to effect[19]


Etymology of Spirits - translated from Greek pneu masin [πνεύ μασιν],[20] the 'Invisible Elements' (Spirits) of Time,[21] referencing the continually reincarnated soul[22]

Etymology of Prison - translated from Greek phylakē [φυλακῇ],[23] guarded by, or guardians[24]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Leonhard Goppelt A Commentary on I Peter p254
  2. ^ Thomas Belsham A calm inquiry into the Scripture doctrine concerning the person 1817 p106 "Christ was raised to life by the spirit, that is, the power of God : by which spirit, after he was gone to heaven, he preached by the ministry of his apostles to the spirits in prison, not to the dead, but to the Gentile world who were .."
  3. ^ Grudem notes: "'St. Augustine, Letter 164, chs. 15–17; Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, part 3, question 52, art. 2, reply to obj. 3; Leighton, pp. 354–366; Zahn, p. 289; W. Kelly, Christ Preaching to the Spirits in Prison (London: Morrish 1872), pp. 3–89; DG Wohlenberg... etc.
  4. ^ Hilarion Alfeyev, Christ the Conqueror of Hell: The descent into hades from an orthodox perspective, (St. Vladimirs:
  5. ^ Bo Reicke The Disobedient Spirits & Christian Baptism: A Study of 1 Peter 3:19 and Its Context 1946
  6. ^ The First Epistle of Peter: an introduction and commentary
  7. ^ Stanley E. Porter, Michael A. Hayes, David Tombs Resurrection p110
  8. ^ The Scripture view of Christ preaching to the spirits in prison p80 ".. he acted to " the spirits in prison ;" the persons interned in the Ark as in a place of protection. "
  9. ^ Edward Hayes Plumptre The Spirits in Prison ch.1 Descent into Hades
  10. ^ Lenski p169
  11. ^ Porter, Resurrection p110
  12. ^ F. Spitta, Christi Predigt an die Geister Gottingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1890
  13. ^ William Joseph Dalton Christ's proclamation to the spirits: a study of 1 Peter 3:18–4:6 p46 1989 "The pioneer of this new tendency, Spitta, remained to some degree within the Augustinian hypothesis. While he identified the spirits in prison with the rebellious angels who instigate the wickedness of the flood, he followed Augustine.."
  14. ^ Edward Selwyn, The First Epistle of St. Peter (London: Macmillan, 1946)
  15. ^ Phædrus 249d-250c'" http://www.mc.maricopa.edu/~davpy35701/text/plato-beauty.html
  16. ^ A Greek-English Lexicon, see φαιδροτέρην λιβάδων, radiance of a woman in a meadow http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:text:1999.04.0057:entry=faidro/s
  17. ^ Definition http://www.dictionary.com/browse/philtre,
  18. ^ Etymology http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=pharmacy
  19. ^ Etymology http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:text:1999.04.0057:entry=fa/rmakon
  20. ^ http://biblehub.com/text/1_peter/3-19.htm
  21. ^ Lange's Commentary on the Holy Scripture, Volume, By J.P. Lange, pub. 2014, Delmarva Publ. https://books.google.com/books?id=GS5cCgAAQBAJ&pg=PT540&lpg=PT540&dq=πνεύμασιν+etymology&source=bl&ots=4kdBeXU9Nn&sig=Jv8GIvi9AsMBblTnPhBxkiuVtWM&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwilk76cnMLPAhXFJiYKHRqvByEQ6AEIIzAE#v=onepage&q=%CF%80%CE%BD%CE%B5%CF%8D%CE%BC%CE%B1%CF%83%CE%B9%CE%BD%20etymology&f=false
  22. ^ The Oxford Handbook of the Archaeology of Ritual and Religion, by Timothy Insoll, OUP Oxford, 2011:135-137 https://books.google.com/books?id=U4_ylNNHBy4C&pg=PA135&lpg=PA135&dq=continually+reincarnated+soul+spirit+of+tim&source=bl&ots=RyM_wKrXH3&sig=rJSjsux9nIFpORWYY-VFogiQICo&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiz3abRn8LPAhXEMyYKHdtAChgQ6AEIIDAC#v=onepage&q=continually%20reincarnated%20soul%20spirit%20of%20tim&f=false
  23. ^ 1 Peter 3:19 http://biblehub.com/text/1_peter/3-19.htm
  24. ^ Strong's Greek: 5438 http://biblehub.net/searchstrongs.php?q=φυλακῇ