“. . . in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison.” 1 Peter 3:19
Considering there are nearly 180 different interpretations of 1 Peter 3:18–20, we can confidently say this passages is one of the most difficult in the entire Bible. Even Martin Luther was confounded by this passage, saying, “A wonderful text is this, and a more obscure passage perhaps than any other in the New Testament, so that I do not know for a certainty just what Peter means.”
When studying the Bible, it’s important to remember that all Scripture is equally inspired but not all Scripture is equally clear (2 Timothy 3:16; 2 Peter 3:16). This is why we should interpret those passages that are unclear with those that are clear.
Writing over three hundred years ago, the Westminster Divines provided this advice,
All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all: yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation are so clearly propounded, and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.
They further said,
The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself: and therefore, when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture (which is not manifold, but one), it must be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly.
Simply said, when there is a lack of clarity for any given passage, we must be humble and rely upon the Holy Spirit for illumination through passages that are clearer.
What makes 1 Peter 3:19 so tricky is the strange language and ideas that seem to come from nowhere. In the passage, Peter has been talking about doing good in the midst of suffering and persecution, with Jesus as our supreme example. Then suddenly Peter switches gears and talks about Jesus preaching to spirits in prison, Noah, and the ark, before returning to the idea of suffering in chapter 4.
So, what’s going on here?
Face Persecution Fearlessly
With a passage like this, it’s easy to lose the forest for the trees, so we need to remember Peter’s main point: believers suffer and are persecuted, but suffering is not pointless and there’s a way to do it well. I. Howard Marshall is right that“Peter’s main purpose in this section is to encourage his readers to face persecution fearlessly and positively by showing them the significance of Jesus.” So Peter writes to encourage his readers in the face of suffering. Jesus is brought in to bolster this encouragement as one who “also suffered once for sins . . . being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the Spirit” (3:18). But then things change in verse 19.
Jesus Went Where? When? And Preached to Whom?
1 Peter 3:19 reads, “in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison.” The first phrase of the verse, “in which” (en hō), is debated by some, but it seems to refer to the Spirit mentioned at the end of verse 18. Jesus went “in” or “by means of” the Spirit (in his resurrected state, as I’ll argue below).
Beyond this we are left with a lot of questions, ones that have been discussed endlessly since early in the church’s history. For us, though, the most pressing issues on which everything else hangs are where and when Christ went and preached, and the identity of the “spirits in prison” to whom he preached. Because the language is so strange here, it’s not surprising that there have been a lot of different views on what is going on. Though there has been a host of suggestions offered in understanding this passage, I believe we can boil them down to just three categories, which even have variations within them.
View 1: The Pre-Incarnate Christ Preached through Noah
One view says that Jesus was present within Noah by means of the Holy Spirit and preached the need for repentance through him to those who disobeyed while the ark was being built (1 Peter 3:20). This idea originates with the church father Augustine and has been adopted by many others since.
In this view, the “spirits in prison” are the spirits of those who perished in the flood and are now in hell. The idea is that these spirits are now in prison, even though Christ preached to them through Noah in the days before the flood.
A significant problem with this view, however, is that it doesn’t explain very well the fact that Jesus “went” (poreutheis) somewhere. This seems an odd way to say that Jesus preached through Noah.
Also, the end of verse 18 speaks of Jesus being “made alive” before it speaks of him preaching to spirits in prison. This seems to indicate that his being “made alive” happened after his resurrection, not in the days of Noah.
Another problem is that the word “spirits” (pneumata) typically refers to angels more than to humans in the New Testament. Finally, those familiar with Jewish thought would in all likelihood understand this word as a reference to a supernatural being such as a fallen angel. None of these points are fatal to this interpretation, but they do raise question marks.
View 2: The Resurrected Christ Preached to Fallen Angels Kept in Prison Who, in Noah’s Day, Left Their Positions to Marry Human Women
This second view has gained support in recent times. This view has Jesus going to a prison not between his death and resurrection, but after his resurrection. There he preached victory over fallen angels, specifically the ones mentioned in Genesis 6:1-4 who left their proper place and had sexual relations with women. This is observed in Peter’s reference to “in the days of Noah” (1 Peter 3:20).
The most obvious problem with this view is that it sounds very odd to modern ears. One scholar writes that the problem for us “lies in our not knowing what were the common ideas, the common background of thought, which Peter shared with his readers.”  In other words, Peter could mention something that sounds strange to us, but not to the people of his day.
Supporters of this view argue that Jesus preached after his resurrection. This position seems to cohere with Jesus being “made alive in the spirit” and his resurrection mentioned in verses 21-22. It’s said that Jesus didn’t necessarily go downward into hell, but somewhere in the heavenly realm where fallen angels are kept until the final judgment. Jesus’ preaching, then, would not be a preaching of the gospel for salvation but rather a proclamation of victory.
This view also seems to connect well with two other passages in the New Testament, 2 Peter 2:4 and Jude 6. Both of these passages talk about fallen angels kept in prison (phylakē) awaiting judgment. We see further evidence in support of this connection in that Peter was the author of one of these verses, and it is often thought that Jude and 2 Peter are linked, in that one made use of the other.
This view can also be seen to fit the context of the text. A reminder that Jesus has triumphed and proclaimed victory over the cosmic forces would be encouraging for those who were suffering and persecuted. Elsewhere the New Testament pictures suffering, persecution, and pain as a battle with supernatural forces, one that God is fighting through and for the believer (Ephesians 6:12).
The two main difficulties of this view include (1) its general strangeness—especially to those far removed from a first-century Jewish context—including the way it hangs on another difficult and disputed text in the Old Testament (Genesis 6:1-4). I discussed in a previous Tough Text post why I think Genesis 6:1-4 does not refer to angelic beings, but rather giant warriors. Though I see a level of legitimacy with this position, I find this to be my biggest hang-up; and (2) its assumption that Peter would use tradition outside of Scripture. Neither of these difficulties is insurmountable, but are worth considering before adopting this view.
In the third view, Jesus, between his death and resurrection, descended into the place of the dead. This place is often referred to as Hades, which is where the dead are held until they’re judged and thrown into hell, which is the second death (Revelation 20:11-15; cf. Revelation 2:11; 20:6; 21:8).
To say that Jesus descended to the place of the dead is not the same as saying he descended to hell. The idea of Jesus descending to hell between his death and resurrection is rooted the early church doctrine of the “Harrowing of Hell” found in the Apostles’ Creed (though the originality of the phrase has been questioned). Though some that adhere to this view believe that Jesus descended to hell, not everyone who holds to this view believes so (such as Calvin).
For those that disagree, like myself, they look no further than to Jesus’ words to the thief on the cross when he told him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43). Hell has been called many things, but I don’t believe Paradise is one of them. This is why I don’t believe Jesus descended into hell.
Within this third view we find two variations.
One is that Jesus preached to the spirits of the people who disobeyed in the days of Noah. This preaching was either a chance to repent or a proclamation of victory over these wicked people (both are legitimate uses of the word “preach” [kērussō]). While the idea that people after death are given a chance to repent contradicts other Scripture (Luke 16:26; 1 Peter 1:17; Hebrews 9:27) the idea that Christ proclaimed victory over these people is still possible. This leads us to the second variation of this view.
Another variation of this view is that Jesus’ proclamation to the “spirits in prison” was to the Old Testament saints, especially those who lived during “days of Noah,” who looked forward to His arrival to die, take away their sins, and open up heaven. John Calvin is a known proponent of this view, as well as many others. There are a few reasons why I see support for this position too.
First, in Luke 16, Jesus describes a holding place for those that die as believers or unbelievers. What we see observe is that the rich man who died ended up in Hades, whereas Lazarus “was carried by the angles to Abraham’s side” (Luke 16:22). At this time heaven and hell have not been opened and the people in these different places of holding are waiting for either salvation or damnation. This is the prison I believe Peter is referring to.
Second, we read in Ephesians 4:8-10 that Jesus descended and ascended. It is said of his ascension that “he led a host of captives” with him (quotation from Psalm 68). When Jesus opened heaven by his ascension, he took the Old Testament saints with him.
I believe that when Jesus went and proclaimed to the “spirits in prison” it was a victorious proclamation that those in both Abraham’s side and Hades heard. Those waiting in Abraham’s side heard his message and followed him to heaven, whereas those waiting in Hades heard it as a means of condemnation and now await the final judgment where they’ll be sentenced to hell (Revelation 20:11-15; cf. Revelation 2:11; 20:6; 21:8).
That being said, this view isn’t without its problems either. There are three difficulties with this position. First, the verb in the passage is “went” (fromporeuomai) and not “went down” or “descended” (which would be katabainō). Also, the text never says where exactly the prison is located. Second, the idea also must account for the same issue as the first view that “spirits” typically refers to supernatural beings, not human spirits. Although this is the case, the grammatical range of pneuma does not exclude the possibility that the verb can refer to human spirits (Acts 7:59; Hebrews 12:23). Third, as already mentioned, the surrounding text appears to refer most naturally to a time after the resurrection, not between death and resurrection. Like in the first view, though, none of the problems are completely fatal. On the one hand, it could be argued that a traditional theological doctrine (Christ’s descent into hell) has influenced the reading in some ways here. But, on the other hand, it could be argued the other way, too: the church based its position on texts like this one.
No interpretation of this passage is easy. They all have strengths and weaknesses. In non-essential matters as these, we need to be open handed. Whatever view you adopt, though, the point is clear: believers should expect to suffer, and when they do, they should suffer well, like Jesus. Pain is not random and aimless. Suffering and evil have been defeated forever. God overcomes it all, making it a pathway to glory.
We also observe from this passage is that suffering can both be deserved and undeserved. We read in 1 Peter 3:17, “For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil.”
Suffering that is deserved are those times that we do evil. In other words, we make evil or foolish choices and we are now suffering as a consequence of our decisions. Basically, we do it to ourselves. Suffering that is undeserved is experienced when we do good and perhaps someone sins against us, causing us undue suffering.
Most of us can see the evil or foolish things we’ve done that lead to bad consequences, but what do we do with suffering that is undeserved? I believe that we need to learn from Jesus’ suffering. We need to remember Jesus Christ and the suffering that he endured on our behalf. The point of the Christian life is not to deny or avoid suffering. Rather it is to glorify God whether when we are enjoying blessing and when we are suffering. Remember Jesus, and see your suffering in the context of his suffering to see that it is meaningful, purposeful, and hopeful. In life, our greatest need isn’t the absence of suffering but rather the presence of God and the hope provided by and in Jesus.
________________________________________ See Bandstra, “‘Making Proclamation,” 120.  Schreiner, 1, 2 Peter, Jude, 184. Also see Wayne Grudem, 1 Peter, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 158.  Peter H. Davids, The First Epistle of Peter, New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), 138-39. Wayne Grudem adheres to this position (see Wayne Grudem, 1 Peter, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 158.  The language used here is the same verbal form used in verse 22 describing Jesus’ ascension into heaven (“who has gone into heaven”).  Ibid., 139; Schreiner, 1, 2 Peter, Jude, 186-87.  R. T. France, “Exegesis in Practice: Two Examples,” in New Testament Interpretation: Essays on Principle and Methods, ed. I. Howard Marshall (Exeter, UK: Paternoster, 1977), 269  France, “Exegesis in Practice,” 268.  See, e.g., Schreiner, 1, 2 Peter, Jude, 415-19.  If Peter did use tradition this way, however, this does not mean he held those such tradition to be Scripture, or that he endorsed everything written them, or that he would allow them to contradict or trump Scripture.