Question: "Who were the spirits in prison?"
Answer: Speaking of the time between Jesus’ death and resurrection, 1 Peter 3:19 declares, “. . . He went and preached to the spirits in prison…” Who were these “spirits in prison,” why was Jesus preaching to them, and what was He preaching to them? As background, please read our article on “Where was Jesus for the three days between His death and resurrection?”
First, let’s look at the word spirits. It is from the Greek word pneumasin, a form of the word pneuma, which means “air, breath, wind.” It is used in the New Testament to refer to angels (Hebrews 1:14), demons (Mark 1:23), the spirit of Jesus (Matthew 27:50), and the Holy Spirit (John 14:17). While the Bible makes it clear that human beings have spirits (Hebrews 4:12), the Bible never refers to human beings as “spirits.” We have spirits, but are not spirits. God the Holy Spirit, angels, and demons do not have spirits; they are spirits. So the standard meaning of the word spirits in the phrase “spirits in prison” seems to argue for the spirits being something other than human beings.
If the spirits in prison are not the spirits of deceased human beings, and we know that the Holy Spirit is not imprisoned, and that God’s holy angels are not imprisoned, that leaves us with one option—the spirits in prison are demons. Now, it is clear that not all the demons are imprisoned. The New Testament gives countless examples of demonic activity. So the spirits in prison must be a select group of demons who, unlike the rest of their demonic allies, were at one point imprisoned.
What might be a possible reason for some, but not all, of the demons to be imprisoned? Jude verse 6 gives us an important clue, “And the angels who did not keep their positions of authority but abandoned their own home—these he has kept in darkness, bound with everlasting chains for judgment on the great Day.” Again, the New Testament makes it abundantly clear that not all of the demons are “bound with everlasting chains.” Jude verse 6, which is similar to 1 Peter 3:19, must be speaking of a select group of demons who sinned even more grievously against God.
What might this sin have been? Genesis 6:1-4 records the “sons of God” mating with the “daughters of men” and producing a race of giants, the Nephilim. The sons of God were fallen angels (demons) who mated with human females, and this is the most likely identity of the spirits in prison in 1 Peter 3:19. The demons who committed this sin were imprisoned by God to prevent them from recommitting this sin, and to discourage the other demons from participating in the sin. This interpretation is also supported by the fact that 1 Peter 3:20 mentions “the days of Noah,” and the sons of God incident occurred just prior to God sending the flood in Noah’s time (Genesis 6).
The spirits in prison mentioned in 1 Peter 3:19 were demons who sinned grievously against God by “abandoning their proper abode” (Jude 6) in the incident involving the sons of God and daughters of men (Genesis 6:1-4).