Question: Who are the “spirits in prison” mentioned in 1 Peter 3:18-19, and what was “preached” to them?
Here is the passage in both the KJV and the NIV (2011), with the most pertinent section underlined:
1Pet. 3:18-19 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 (KJV).
1Pet. 3:18-19 For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit. After being made alive, he went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits (NIV).
Interpretations of this passage have historically fallen into three general categories:
Interpretation #1 Between his crucifixion and resurrection, Jesus went to the realm of the dead in spiritual form and preached to Noah’s contemporaries. Some in this group believe Jesus offered salvation to the spirits of those who died in the Flood. Others in this group believe Jesus’ proclamation was to officially condemn the unbelievers of Noah’s time. A third view within this group is that Jesus preached good news to those of Noah’s day who had already been saved.
Interpretation #2 Jesus, in His pre-existent, spiritual state, came from heaven to the sinful generation of Noah’s day and preached repentance, which they ignored.
Interpretation #3 After His death on the cross and burial, Jesus went in the Spirit (either Holy Spirit, or in the spiritual realm) to the disobedient spirits (fallen angels) of Noah’s day, described in Genesis 6:1-4, and proclaimed his victory over sin and death.
The word “spirits” in Scripture can refer to humans, angels, God, or the demonic. Context generally determines what kind of spirit is in view. The context of 1Pet. 3:20 makes it clear that Jesus made His proclamation to spirits “who were disobedient long ago in the days of Noah….” Jude also refers to this same group of imprisoned spirits as “angels who did not keep their positions of authority but abandoned their proper dwelling—these he has kept in darkness, bound with everlasting chains for judgment on the great Day” (Jude 6).
The New Testament, then, points to a specific group of angels who are imprisoned by God until the Day of Judgment for their disobedience in the days of Noah. These spirits are not in hell (Gk. gehenna), which is currently empty (Rev. 20:10ff.), but in a special prison called Tartarus:
2Pet. 2:4 For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but sent them to hell (Gk. tartarus), putting them in chains of darkness to be held for judgment…
The only such distinct group described in Scripture in Noah’s day would appear to be “the sons of God who went to the daughters of humans and had children by them” (Gen. 6:4). Following His crucifixion, Jesus was made alive in the Spirit and went to these imprisoned angels, proclaiming His victory over sin, Satan and death!