He Went and Proclaimed to the Spirits in Prison?

This blog post was written by Lexington teaching team resident Garrison Weiner

On October 16th, as part of our series ‘Exiles’ we discussed 1 Peter 3:19-22 and what it teaches about Christian faith and Baptism. This passage is one of those passages in Scripture that isn’t expressly clear on first read. Although Peter’s confusing language doesn’t conflict with the heart of the gospel or who God is... it still brings up the question, “What exactly are you talking about Peter?” 

The specific questions start at the end of v. 18 when Peter describes Jesus as “being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, 19 in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, 20 because they formerly did not obey, when God's patience waited in the days of Noah,”

Peter, who are these spirits in prison Jesus went to? When did he go to them? What did he preach?

In the sermon we talked about four historical options that have been often interpreted and debated from these verses in terms of answering the When, Who and What questions of this passage.


  1. When: During the days of Noah. 
    Who: Noah’s contemporaries. Who were live humans at the time, but have died since and are now spirits in prison because they didn’t listen to the message of grace that was preached to them. 
    What: Either Jesus’ spirit preached through Noah or Jesus’ Spirit preached on His own the message that God is a God of grace and justice. That though they deserved spiritual punishment for their sinful rejection of God, He was making a way of grace for them. All they had to do was humbly repent, trust in God and get in the boat Noah was making.
  2. When: During the time of Jesus’ death and resurrection.
    Who: Noah’s contemporaries who are literally dead spirits in prison at the time that Jesus is preaching to them.
    What: In this case, the message was some manner of triumph and victory; “See I told you. I’ve conquered suffering and made a way for people to be set free from death, but you can have no part of it because you rejected Me.” It can’t be that Jesus offered Noah’s contemporaries a second chance at grace after death because of Hebrews 9:27, “it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment.”
  3. When: During the time of Jesus’ death and resurrection.
    Who: Demonic spiritual beings who were at work in the days of Noah.
    What: In this case, the message is similar to the above case; triumph and victory accomplished through the cross despite these beings work to subvert God’s plan.
  4. When: During the time of Jesus’ death and resurrection.
    Who: Those who died in faith and are in the Jewish place of the dead - sheol.
    What: In this case, Peter is referring to Jesus leading a jailbreak of sorts for God’s people in the Old Testament who died in faith but haven’t been brought into paradise yet. 

As we mentioned in the sermon, option 1 seems to be the best explanation for Peter’s line of thought. While Noah was building the boat, God was making His appeal through Jesus’ Spirit working in the midst of Noah’s faithful and costly obedience. Noah lived the exile life that Peter argues for throughout this entire letter. God patiently offered His mercy through Noah’s humble obedience. And in the same way when we get baptized (v. 21-22), it corresponds to our walking in Noah’s footsteps; receiving God’s gracious favor, trusting our lives in humble obedience to the vessel of God’s grace, and praying for God to patiently proclaim His mercy through our exile lives.

My main problem with options 2 and 3 are motive. What would be Jesus’ motivation for proclaiming triumph to a certain subset of people or demons in hell? Why preach that message at all at this timeframe? And why not preach that message to all of them? And how exactly does this explain any of the context that Peter brings up? 

Comparatively option 4 is a very Biblical and reasonable idea, but I don’t think it’s what Peter is talking about here. If you’re interested in studying some more of the Scriptural position behind this option and what the significance of Jesus descending to Hell might be, you can check out this helpful blog.

The Bible does have confusing passages and when we come upon them it’s worthwhile to consider historical interpretations; cross references with the rest of Biblical truth; and categorically understand that the importance of nailing down a particular interpretation of a particular passage often relates to the importance of the questions being answered. In this case, little if anything that is central to the Christian faith is at risk. The only question is to figure out, “Peter what exactly are you talking about?