555 Difficult Bible Questions Answered

197. Who Are We to Understand by the "Spirits in Prison"?

The passage in I Peter 3:19, 20 is one which has been much discussed. It is generally interpreted as meaning that the preaching to the spirits "in prison" implies not the preaching of the Gospel, but the announcement of Christ's finished work. Nor does it imply a second day of grace. The spirits were clearly those of the Antediluvians. The passage, however, is mysterious and has puzzled Bible students in all times. Peter is the only Bible writer who mentions the occurrence, whatever it may have been, so that there are no other passages to shed light upon it. The apostle was speaking in the context of the operation of the Holy Spirit and it has been generally thought by Augustine among the Fathers and by Dr. Adam Clarke and other modern commentators that he referred to the Antediluvians as having, like others who lived before Christ, been under the Spirit's influence, though they repelled it. In that case his meaning would be that Christ had from the beginning been preaching through, or by, the Spirit, to men in all ages, as he preaches to men now by his Spirit through his ministers. Other theologians, Dean Al-ford among them, contend that somewhere in the universe these Spirits were imprisoned and that Christ preached to them in the interval between his death and resurrection, though that view is surrounded by other difficulties which are obvious. The reference is incidental and does not practically concern us so much as does the lesson Peter is enforcing, that through the Holy Spirit we are enabled to live to the spirit and not to the flesh.