Who Were “The Spirits In Prison” ?

Noah the Prophet



1 Peter 3:18-20


The passage of scripture in  1 Peter chapter 3, verses 18 thru 20,  is often misunderstood.  So much so, that in 1852, the misuse of this scripture led to a split in the congregation in Nashville Tennessee.  A man named Jesse Ferguson was the preacher for the congregation, and his views on these verses were contrary to other bible teachings.  And it turned out that this was just the beginning of Ferguson’s departure from God’s word.


A Rule of Interpretation


Something that needs to be understood as a “rule” in interpreting the scriptures, is that if a particular interpretation of a verse, CONTRADICTS other more plain and straightforward bible teachings, then that interpretation MUST be wrong!

And since this scripture is STILL the source of misunderstanding, I’d like for us to study these verses.

So again, the passage is from  1 Peter 3, verses 18 through 20,  but I think it’s mainly  verse 19  that’s the cause of the misunderstandings.  There are two things about this verse that cause confusion.  First, is the fact that there’s a figurative phrase in this verse, that people have a difficult time with;  And secondly, some versions of the bible, have done a poor job of translating the verse.

To begin with, let me read the passage from the King James Version, which is one of the very good translations of these verses.


1 Peter 3:18-20;   “For 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, by which also He went and preached unto the spirits in prison, 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.”

I’m going to repeat one part of this scripture that I want us to focus on.  Here it is:   “..being put to death in the flesh, but quickened in the Spirit, by which also He went and preached unto the spirits in prison..”

Christ was  “quickened in the Spirit, BY WHICH also He went and preached..”   This is the part that’s sometimes translated very poorly.  But this KJV makes it perfectly clear.  What this verse is saying, is that the MANNER in which Christ is said to have gone and preached, was  “in the Spirit”.    “He was made alive in the Spirit, BY WHICH He went and preached..”

But now let me read a different version, that causes a problem here.  It’s the New International Version.  Now granted, the NIV wasn’t even around in 1852, when so much trouble was cause in the congregation in Nashville, but the way that the NIV is translated is probably the RESULT of people’s misunderstanding of this verse.

Here’s the NIV reads;  “AFTER being made alive, He went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits.”   The words, “after being made alive”,  are completely inaccurate and uncalled for.  The original text is exactly what the KJV says;  “By which also”.

This verse is telling us HOW Christ went and preached;  He went in the Spirit.  But the NIV translators felt the need to change the words, so as to tell us WHEN Christ went.  So the NIV says;  “AFTER being made alive”.  

God never used the word “after”, in this verse.  And so that’s a complete CHANGING of the word of God.  Christ didn’t preach to those captive spirits AFTER He was resurrected.  He preached to those spirits at the very time, that they were being disobedient.  He preached to them while they were sinning.  It makes no sense to preach to spirits after they’ve left their physical bodies, because then it’s too late to repent.

But what this “mistranslated” verse, in the NIV is trying to suggest, is that there WAS an opportunity given to those people who had sinned during Noah’s day, to repent, long after they had physically died.  That is contrary to the rest of the scriptures.  We’re told clearly in  Hebrews 9, verse 27;  “..it is appointed for men, once to die, and after this comes judgment.” 


No Second Chance


There’s no “second chance” to repent of our sins after we die.  That’s why we’re warned in  Heb 4, verse 1;  “Therefore, let us fear, lest while a promise remains, of entering His rest, any one of you should seem to have come short of it.” 

And that’s why  verse 7  says;  “TODAY, if you hear His voice, do not harden your hearts!”   Where’s the promise of tomorrow?  There is no promise of tomorrow!  That’s why if you hear His voice TODAY, that’s your chance to be saved.


Who Did Christ Preach To, and When did He Preach?


So let’s study these verses from  1 Peter chapter 3.   Let’s consider WHO was preached to, by Christ.  The scripture says it was,  “..the spirits in prison, who were formerly disobedient, WHEN the longsuffering of God was waiting in the days of Noah, as the ark was being prepared, in which few, that is eight souls, were saved by water. 

The phrase, “who were formerly disobedient” can also be translated, “who were at that time disobedient”.   But either way, that phrase is simply used as a further description, of those spirits who were in prison.  So, in other words, if that extra descriptive phrase were left out, the scripture would be saying;  “..He went and preached to the spirits in prison, WHEN the longsuffering of God was waiting, in the days of Noah..” 

Doesn’t that make it clear as to WHEN those spirits were preached to?  Those spirits in prison, who were at that time disobedient, were preached to by the Spirit of Christ, when God was patiently waiting, while the ark was being prepared.  What was God waiting for?  Was God simply waiting for Noah to slowly and painstakingly build an ark?  Or was God waiting for mankind to repent, for their sins, so they could be saved?


Noah the preacher


In  2 Peter 2, verse 5,  Noah is called a  “preacher of righteousness”, or a “proclaimer of righteousness”.   Why does God have “righteousness proclaimed”?   It’s so that people can repent, isn’t it?   Why did God send forth His Son?  Wasn’t it so that Jesus could proclaim righteousness, so that people could repent of sin, and be saved?   The very first thing that Jesus started proclaiming was  “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”   Mat 4, verse 17. 

Jesus said;  “You shall know the truth (that’s righteousness) and the truth shall make you free.”   John 8, verse 32.   What are we made free from?  We’re made free from sin, because sin holds us in it’s power. And  unless we hear the word, and obey it, and become free from sin, it continues to hold us prisoner.   We’re slaves to sin, right?   Romans 6, verse 17  says;  “But thanks be to God, that though you were slaves to sin, you became obedient from the heart, to that form of teaching to which you were committed.” 


A figurative Phrase


Remember how I said there was a figurative phrase, in  1 Pet 3:19,  that confuses people.  Well here it is;  “..the spirits in prison”.   A better way of saying that would be,  “..the spirits who were imprisoned”.   These spirits weren’t in a literal prison, like a jail house.  But they WERE “imprisoned”.  That’s what the word translated “prison” means.  It means..  “to be imprisoned”.

Another way of saying that, is that those spirits were in “captivity”.  Sin holds us in captivity.  And until Jesus died and was resurrected, there was no way OUT of that captivity.  That’s why it says in  Ephesians 4, verse 8;  “When he ascended on high, He led captivity captive, and gave gifts to men.”

The spirit of evil and sin, has the power to hold us captive, and to condemn us to eternal death.  But when Jesus was resurrected from the dead, He broke the hold that sin and death had on us.  He overcame sin by overcoming all the trials of this life, and He overcame death through His resurrection.  And the bible tells us that by faith in Christ, we too, can overcome the temptation to sin.

In  1 Corinthians 10, verse 13,  God states a fact;  “No temptation has overtaken you, but such as is common to man.  And God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation, will provide the way of escape also, that you may be able to endure it.” 

God says that we HAVE the ability to overcome the temptation to sin.  But we’ll fail at times, and sin will take hold of us again, but we also know, that by faith in Christ, we can overcome the HOLD that sin has on us, through the blood of Christ.  And we can also overcome death by that same faith in Christ.


Now back to those spirits.  The scripture says that these spirits were “formerly disobedient, when the longsuffering of God was waiting in the days of Noah..”   So then the period of TIME, in which they were disobedient, was during the days of Noah.   When someone is disobedient, they’re in sin, aren’t they?  When we disobey God, we sin.  And the bible repeatedly speaks of being in sin, as being “in bondage”. 

Peter told Simon the sorcerer, in  Acts 8:23;  “For I see that you are in the gall of bitterness, and in the bondage of iniquity.”   “The bondage of iniquity”.   That’s sin!

Jesus said in  John 8:34;  “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin, is the slave of sin.”   If you’re enslaved to sin, you’re imprisoned by sin.

So then, the phrase,  “..the spirits in prison”, is simply a figurative expression that means that the spirits of those people who  “were disobedient in the days of Noah”, were in the grasp of sin.   Those people’s spirits were “in the bondage of iniquity”.  They were slaves to sin. 


A Different Interpretation


But many people don’t believe that “the spirits in prison”, refer to the people who were held captive by sin.   The argument is that the bible never refers to people as “spirits”.  They say the word “spirits” always refers to departed spirits, never spirits that are still in the body.  And so they say that “the spirits in prison” must refer to departed spirits that are imprisoned in sheol, or as we would say, in hades.

You could very well say, that the unrighteous spirits in hades, are imprisoned there.  They certainly can’t get out, and they can’t change their destiny.

We read in  2 Peter 2, verse 9;  “The Lord knows how to rescue the godly from temptation, and to KEEP the unrighteous, unto the day of judgment, for punishment.” 


Changing The Word of God


And that brings me to a very INCORRECT translation, from what is called The Aramaic Bible in Plain English..

It says;  “And He preached to those souls who were held in sheol.”   The original text says NOTHING about anyone being held in sheol.  But this translation does serve to prove a fact.  Many translators, are guilty of actually changing the original words, according to their own preconceived ideas about what THEY believe the bible teaches.   So then they don’t really “translate” but rather, in some instances, they “paraphrase”, according to their own beliefs.

A perfect example is when the KJ translators changed the word “Passover”, to “Easter”, in  Acts 12, verse 4.   They believed in celebrating Easter, and so that’s how they choose to translate the word “Passover”, in their KJ translation.


But let’s get back to these “spirits in prison”.  As I pointed out earlier, the scripture says clearly, WHEN Christ preached to these spirits, and also HOW He preached to them.  The WHEN is, “When the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah”.   He didn’t preach to them AFTER He was resurrected.  He preached to them “in the days of Noah, when the ark was being prepared.”   So then, that rules out departed spirits in sheol.   The scripture must refer to “the spirits in prison” because it’s the spirit of man that is held captive by sin.  It’s not the body that’s held captive. but it’s the spirit. 


How Did Christ Preach?


Now let’s talk about HOW Christ preached to these spirits.  The scripture says that He preached to them “in the Spirit”.   He was  “quickened in the spirit, by which also He went and preached..”  So then He wasn’t physically there preaching.  Only His Spirit was there.  How did Christ’s Spirit, preach to the people of Noah’s day?  Did they hear a voice from heaven?  Or did Christ’s spirit occupy some other person’s body, and use that person to preach to the people?

It says in  2 Peter 1, and verse 19;  “And we have the prophetic word made more sure, to which you do well to pay attention to, a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning arises in your hearts.” 

Peter says God’s word is a “prophetic word”.  It was spoken by prophets of God.  And we’ll do well to let it shine in our hearts.  And it was the same for the people of Noah’s day.  Remember how we read in chapter 2 and verse 5, that Noah was “a preacher of righteousness”?  Noah was a prophet of God, with a prophetic word for the people.  And what he was prophesying about was a great flood that was going to destroy the world.  And God the longsuffering of God was waiting on the people to repent, and to join Noah and his family in the ark.

And how was the prophetic word given to the prophets of old?   Verses 20 & 21, of 2 Peter chapter 1,  tells us exactly how the prophets received the word of God.  And here’s what it says;  “But know this first of all, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of personal interpretation, for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will.”   In other words the prophets weren’t speaking their own words, from their own minds.  So where did their words come from?   The scripture says;  “But men MOVED by the Holy Spirit, spoke from God.”   Noah as well as all the other prophets, got their words, from the Spirit of God.

Now I ask you;  How did Christ go and preach to the people of Noah’s day?  He did it through Noah didn’t He?  Christ went in the Spirit of God, and spoke through Noah, the prophet of God.  Therefore the scripture says that Christ went and preached to the spirits in prison, in the days of Noah, while God patiently waited.


To say that Christ went AFTER His resurrection, and preached personally to departed spirits in hades, is completely contradictory to the rest of bible teaching.  Therefore that interpretation CANNOT be correct.

The bible, from Genesis to Revelation, makes up the ONE word of God.  And every part, of that ONE word of God, is in complete harmony with every other part of His word.


Thanks for studying God’s word with us today, and may God bless you in your further studies.


I humbly urge you to respond to this study, and every study on this site, by leaving your comments or questions below.  Let’s talk about God’s word. 




This article has 1 Comment

  1. This is indeed a clear teaching of the passage, I struggled with this for a long time, thanks so much and God continue to enrich your wisdom…

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