In the past, some have used I Peter 3.19 to proclaim that The Messiah preached to the demons in prison. This has been stated with dogmatic authority. We are going to endeavor to prove that this is not what the Scriptures say at all.
There has been much misunderstanding about this Scripture for hundreds of years. E.W. Bullinger, in his book, “How to Enjoy the Bible,” pages 188-195, discusses this subject in detail. He shows a confusion of belief during his day about this passage of Scripture and then proceeds to add to the confusion with his own, in my opinion, misinterpretation. Moreover, unless there is a mistake, the KJV translators totally misunderstood what was being said.
Some teach that The Messiah went to some "spirits in prison" during His burial period. However, that is false, as it would contradict the Scriptures about the sign of Jonah. Therefore, who or what were these "spirits in prison?”
1Peter 3:18 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: 19 By which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison; 20 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.
The confusion arises from two words in verse 19: spirits and prison. The word <spirits> in the Greek is Strong's #4151, pneuma. This word has several meanings, but when referring to beings it may be used for holy spirits, evil spirits, or human spirits. The references to human spirits are fewer, than the other two, but do occur as in Luke 8.55, Acts 7.59, Acts 17.16, Romans 1.9, etc. Usually these references are of a psychological nature when referring to man, as our psyche is the only part of us that is spirit for the present time.
Luke 8:55 And her spirit came again, and she arose straightway: and he commanded to give her meat.
Acts 7:59 And they stoned Stephen, calling upon God, and saying, Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.
Acts 17:16 Now while Paul waited for them at Athens, his spirit was stirred in him, when he saw the city wholly given to idolatry
Romans 1:9 For God is my witness, whom I serve with my spirit in the gospel of his Son, that without ceasing I make mention of you always in my prayers;
One reference is especially interesting: Hebrews 12.23 "...and to the spirits of just men made perfect." This verse is very similar to I Peter 3.19, but in contrast to the type of spirits in I Peter 3.19. The Hebrews reference is to good men and the 1Peter reference is to evil men! These evil men were imprisoned by the traditions of the evil society of their day.
Hebrews 12:23 To the general assembly and church of the firstborn, which are written in heaven, and to God the Judge of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect,
Anytime this word pneuma is used to refer to beings, we must let the context help us determine which of these three meanings is intended.
E.W. Bullinger, on page 184-185 of How to Enjoy the Bible, says, "We believe what we have received from man; and we do our best to get it confirmed by the Bible. When we are unable to get the confirmation we are in search of, then we find what we call a "difficulty." But the difficulty is not in the Word of God itself, it is in our own minds." He goes on to say that, "The real difficulty is in giving up our own views because we fail to make the Bible conform to them. It does not, at first, occur to our minds that we may have to abandon some of our views if we would get rid of the difficulty." Bullinger was adept at looking at the Scriptures without preconceived ideas, but in this case, his new look seems to have added to the confusion.
Let us look at the Scripture in question thinking of the word spirits, not as demons, but as the spirits of human beings. Our next question is “Why were these spirits in prison?” The word prison in the Greek is Strong's #5438 phulake. This word is translated in the KJV as: cage, hold, imprison, imprisonment, prison, ward, watch.
A Possible Translation
1Peter 3.19-20 "And it was by the spirit that He (The Christ) went to preach (through Noah the preacher of righteousness
2Peter 2.5) to those spirits (people) who were in bondage to disobedience in the days of Noah, while God patiently waited for the ark to be completed, in which only eight people were brought to safety through the flood."
The Messiah went, not in person, but by the holy spirit; and He went during the 120 years that the ark was being built, not during His burial or after His resurrection. Of course, He would not have been referred to as the Christ, but probably as Melchizedek, who during the time of this writing in 2Peter had become the Messiah.
Perhaps the reason Peter used the word <pneuma> was to show the depth of these people's bondage to sin. It had a psychological hold on them. They were like the Sodomites at Lot's door whose minds (spirits) were so perverted, that even after the angels blinded them, "...they became weary trying to find the door." They wearied themselves so that they might gratify the desires of their flesh. These were indeed the spirits of evil men, imprisoned to sin – otherwise, God would not have destroyed them.
One reason the word spirits has been interpreted as demons is probably the following Scriptures.
2Peter 2.4-6. (4)"For if God did not spare the angels who sinned, but cast them down to hell and delivered them into chains of darkness, to be reserved for judgment; (5) and did not spare the ancient world, but saved Noah, one of eight people, a preacher of righteousness, bringing in the flood on the world of the ungodly; (6) and turning the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah into ashes, condemned them to destruction, making them an example to those who afterward would live ungodly..."
Some commentaries connect verses 4 and 5 together as though they are referring to one event. This passage of Scripture is speaking about three different occurrences, each happening at very different times. Verse four is referring to the angels who followed Satan in his rebellion. Verse 5 is referring to the flood in Noah’s day. Verse 6 is referring to the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in Abraham and Lot’s time. These are three separate events.
Adam Clark, in his commentary, seems to agree with my line of reasoning, and at least one translator seems to also agree. Let me quote J.B. Phillips:
1Peter 3.19-20 "It was in the spirit that he went and preached to the imprisoned souls of those who had been disobedient in the days of Noah- -the days of God's great patience during the period of the building of the ark, in which eventually only eight souls were saved in the flood."
One might ask, "Does this do violence to the Scriptures?" Bullinger says that the scope of this passage is verse 17, "It is better, if the will of God be so, that you suffer for well doing than for evil doing." What follows in verse 18, shows that The Messiah suffered for doing well and now He is alive forever in glory. Verses 19-20 show that even though The Messiah (YHWH) made a special effort to save the people of Noah's day, they persisted in doing evil; and they suffered death for their evil doing. Noah and his family had undoubtedly suffered for well doing, enduring the sneers and jeers of these evil people for 120 years. However, these eight souls were brought through the flood to safety.
The Scriptures have suffered no violence. Rather, they have been enlightened! On the other hand, how would the Messiah going to preach to demons – while He was dead – fit in?