Monday on the blog we introduced 1 Peter 3:18-22 as one of the most confusing and difficult passages in the entire New Testament. Our goal this week is to study this passage as an example of how to rightly handle difficult texts. Tuesday we explained Step 1—we must begin by affirming what is clearly taught. Yesterday we introduced Step 2—we must reject what is clearly false. Today let’s tackle Step 3—we must examine what is unclear. And along the way let’s see if we can make sense of one of the most confusing interpretative mysteries in the New Testament.
Now that we’ve cleared away some of the rubble, there’s still one major portion of our passage that is unclear. Who are the spirits in prison that Peter talks about in verses 19-20? Let’s read the verses one more time: “in which [Jesus] 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, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water."
Who are the spirits in prison? There are probably dozens of unique views on this verse alone, but let me summarize the four main views. We’ll look at them in order from least to most likely:
A. The Second Chance View
This is the view that says Jesus descended into hell and gave damned sinners a second chance. Yesterday we refuted this view as incompatible with the rest of Scripture.
B. The Limbo View
We’re not talking about the Caribbean game where you dance underneath the pole as it keeps getting lower and lower. Limbo is from the Latin word limbus, meaning edge or boundary. This view is based on medieval theology and has deep roots in the Roman Catholic church. It’s an attempt to answer what for some is a puzzling question: what happened to Old Testament saints when they died? Could they really go to heaven and be in the presence of God before Christ had died on the cross? In this theory, Limbo (sometimes called Abraham’s Bosom) is some sort of temporary holding place on the edge of the underworld where these saints were kept until Jesus died on the cross.
Think of it like a layover between destinations. So when Peter says Jesus proclaimed to the spirits in prison, He’s helping Old Testament saints get their connecting flight from Limbo to Paradise.
C. The Preacher Noah View
This view says that Jesus was preaching with Noah as his mouthpiece. While Noah was building the ark, he was also preaching. We know that Noah was preaching because 2 Peter 2:5 calls him a “herald of righteousness.” It was the Spirit of Christ that filled Noah, enabling him to preach to the disobedient world that was imprisoned by their sin.
D. The Victory Speech View
Here’s my view, although if you put a gun to my head on this one I’d flip faster than a flapjack. Many scholars believe that the “spirits in prison” isn’t referring to human beings at all, but to evil spirits, also known as demons. In the days of Noah, there was this group of people called “the sons of God” that sinned sexually with human women. The story is mentioned in Genesis 6. Many believe the “sons of God” in that story is a group of fallen angels. 2 Peter 2:4 and Jude 6 both refer to these angels and mentions them being kept in chains until the final judgment. Perhaps that’s why Peter calls them “spirits in prison.”
So sometime after the cross, Jesus goes to these demons and He preaches a sermon. But what does He preach? What’s the title of His sermon? Here it is, you ready? “I WON! YOU LOSE!” When all seems lost, Jesus is giving a victory speech. Just when it looks like everything is lost, Jesus is dropping the mic.
On December 26, 1944, Hiroo Onoda, a Lieutenant in the Japanese Imperial Army was stationed in the Philippines on Lubang Island. He was ordered not to surrender. And Onoda intended to obey that command. His mission was to do everything in his power to disrupt life for the Allied forces on that 45-square-mile island.
In October 1945, Onoda first saw a pamphlet that announced the Japanese surrender two months earlier. Onoda refused to believe. This was just Western Propaganda. He would not surrender. Towards the end of the year, leaflets were dropped over the island by air, ordering him to surrender. Again, Onoda refused to believe. In 1952 letters and family pictures were dropped by air. Once again, Onoda believed they were a trick and refused to surrender. On February 20, 1974, a traveler named Norio Suzuki met Onoda and told him about the end of the war, but still Onoda refused to surrender. He would not surrender until he heard orders form a superior officer. It wasn’t until Onoda’s commanding officer was sent to the island to order his surrender that Onoda finally stopped fighting World War 2, nearly thirty years after the war was over.
Whether you agree with my interpretation or not, this much is certain. Satan and his demons represent a very real enemy to God’s people. Peter will tell us in 5:8 to Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. But even though they’re a real and present danger, they have already been defeated. And unlike Hiroo Onoda, they know they’ve been defeated. As Paul put it in Colossians 2:15, He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.