Who are the “spirits in prison?”

FaithHopeLove, who is more covert than emeritus these days, asked about the identity of the spirits in 1 Pet 3:18-20:

18 For Christ also suffered for sins once, the righteous for the sake of the unrighteous, that he might lead you to God. Put to death in the flesh, he was brought to life in the spirit. 19 In it he also went to preach to the spirits in prison, 20 who had once been disobedient while God patiently waited in the days of Noah during the building of the ark

First, note that Christ suffered once for sin. And it’s past. Beyond that, here’s the deal.

There are two issues: (1) the translation of the word behind “preach” (kērussō) and (2) the identity of the “spirits in prison.” The two issues are intertwined.

The word kērussō is translated “preach,” “announce,” or “proclaim” depending on what is being said. If it’s the gospel, then “preach.” If it’s the birth of the king’s son, then “announce.” If it’s a new law, then “proclaim.”

Unfortunately, the author of 1 Peter doesn’t tell us the substance of Christ’s message. This leaves us the opportunity to infer it from the audience. The closest idea to “spirits in prison” in contemporary literature is the disobedient spirits of 1 Enoch. These folks were never embodied.

Another idea is that the imprisoned spirits are the spirits of men who had been naughty while they were alive. The main argument against this is that there is no other reference to humans as simply “spirits.” The nearest is Heb 12:23, with its reference to “the spirits of the just made perfect” who are hangin out in the heavenly Jerusalem.

What did Christ preach/announce/proclaim?

Given the uncertainty in the audience, there’s a number of possibilities. If you think the audience is the evil spirits of 1 Enoch, then perhaps Christ went to their prison and announced that their final punishment was at hand.

If you think that the spirits in prison are those of unrighteous men, then he may have announced their final doom to them, or he may, as we teach, have come to preach the gospel.

Is there a way to decide between the two?

Well, yes, I think there is. Consider the larger context of 1 Pet 3:14-22. The entire thing is an exhortation to Christians to treat well those who malign them. Christ is held up as the example of this kind of conduct in his regard for the “unrighteous.” Now would it make sense in this context to talk about telling a prison full of folks who have dissed God that their doom is at hand?

Probably not. So in this case, I expect that those who think Jesus brought good news have the right of it. Whoever those “spirits in prison” are, the author of 1 Peter probably thinks Jesus appeared and preached the gospel of God’s redeeming love.

26 Replies to “Who are the “spirits in prison?””

  1. Why are you speculating on something that has already been clarified by modern day revelation? Just read D&C 137 and the King Follett discourse. I don’t understand why this is a topic on an LDS blog when it so clearly has already been addressed in great detail by the Lord.

  2. Michael,

    Thanks for the opportunity to explain my interests and contributions.

    As an exegete working primarily in historical-critical and narrative analysis, my goal is to explain what the original author may have intended his original audience to understand. Since we are a restoration, the recovery of a canonical author’s intent is not just appropriate, but part of our spiritual birthright.

    My tools are the languages and texts of the NT and the other literature, both religious and secular, of the age. As you might expect, the passage of time and the imperfect nature of these tools and methodologies imposes some limitations. Hence, my obligation to deal explicitly with ambiguity. There is no shame or disrespect in reporting that to a modern reader using only the received text, the intent of the author of 1 Peter is not entirely clear.

    Others are, of course, welcome to add the information derived from modern sources. I, myself, rarely do so because I know my limits. I am untrained in the modern history and theology that would make such an endeavor successful.

    Although the historical-critical reading is not the end of scripture study, there are certain advantages to making it the beginning. For one thing, it gives us the ability to build religious bridges to folks who are not LDS, but with whom we share the NT. For another, it deepens our awareness of God’s gracious act in the restoration and modern prophets. Finally, it helps us work through various interpretative possibilities. As a restoration, we might logically expect that our modern responses have some continuity or parallel with the thought of our ancient brothers and sisters.

    With these caveats regarding my regrettably limited abilities and goals, please feel free to stop back and take a look at what a disciplined reading of the NT can reveal.

  3. I’ve just read D&C 137… I don’t see how it relates to this topic.

    As it happens, I originally asked the question of who the spirits were because I was brought up in a different religion and was taught that those were not spirits, per se, but people in prison. This would be using the definition of spirits (a la Merriam Webster: a person having a character or disposition of a specified nature) – like, we visited the poor spirits at the orphanage, or something.

    Not everyone is a religious scholar – and outside of the bloggernacle, I doubt* very many have read or know the contents of the KFD.

    With a bow of respect to Mogget, I would say that we are all in different stages of Biblical knowledge and you never know what the general Saint will be familiar with.

    On a personal note, Michael, why do you feel the need to post a comment that nothing needs to be discussed? Usually, a good measure of that is the lack of comments.

    * Personal speculation – feel free to correct me

  4. Dearest Mogget,

    Got it! I understand where you are coming from. Thanks.

    Why don’t you give us a little more of the original Greek as concerns the words ‘spirits in prison’. We only seem to touch on the Greek original for ‘preach’. Also, if we have reference to Heb 12:23 then we can see if the wording is similar.

    I am not certain in which language 1 Enoch was written. It may be interesting to see how the word for ‘spirits’ in that text compares.

  5. Dear FaithHopeLove,

    D&C 137 clarifies who those spirits are and what the Savior did when he spent time in the spirit world.

    KFD provides us with a larger picture on the immortality of our spirits and would relate to the discussion of who is actually being referenced by Peter.

    As a gospel doctrine teacher in my ward, I shared the KFD with my class last fall and the large majority were already familiar with it.

    Yes, I agree that the restoration truths have us working backwards with a pre-determined bias on what Peter meant when he wrote of the ‘spirits in prison’. But what is the alternative? To explore a myriad of potential interpretations without the help of the Holy Ghost or modern revelation? To me, that would seem to just be a trip on a merry-go-round where we never seem to come to a definitive understanding.

    I understand that it would help bridge the gap with non-LDS scholars and other Christians, but it would still not have those others understand the quickening that comes from the Holy Ghost. And if they are not willing to accept the Holy Ghost as a teacher, it all becomes just a scholarly exercise in one-upsmanship, wouldn’t you agree?

    Just as a side note: I was raised Catholic and joined the Church at age 19 so I also can relate to a different understanding of the NT.

  6. In regard to suffered “once”. Sure – in the same way that Jesus Christ was “slain from the foundation of the world” (Rev 13:8).

    Also in the same sense as Jesus Christ and the Father are one God, infinite, endless, and eternal. In the same sense that Jesus Christ is the Eternal Father of heaven and earth.

    In the same sense that we suffer in his *name*.

  7. David,

    I live in Florida where most of us are from the east coast. We don’t have those Mountain States hang-ups about only serving milk in our class. We still keep it faith building but we serve some meat every now and then.

  8. Well handled Mogget. I’ve noticed that not everything that modern revelation clarifies is open and shut just because it has been spoken on. A handful of examples come to mind, including 1 Cor. 15 and lots from Revelation. I have found that none of these exercises are pointless or fruitless.

  9. With a bow of respect to Mogget

    and with nice, chaste, Mogget-kisses to FHL…

    use the KFD in Gospel Doctine

    Naughty boys! I only use canonical materials. 😉

    words for “spirit”

    in both Hebrews and 1 Peter, the word is pneuma. In Hebrews it’s “spirits of the just ones,” a genitive contruction, while in 1 Peter it is simply “spirits” without any “of something” that would suggest humans.

    1 Enoch was originally in Greek, but IIRC the most complete version is in Old Ethiopic. I will check to see if it uses pneuma or psyche (soul), but I’m almost completely certain it’s spirit. If it were “soul,” then it would be a reference to humans.

    To explore a myriad of potential interpretations

    There’s a time and place for such things. Usually, it’s here… 😉

    I also teach GD, and if I introduce ambiguities it’s in order to alert folks to what their friends and neighbors might be thinking about a certain passage. I do this in hopes that they’ll be comfortable discussing it rather than surprised at things that don’t match right up. Normally, I select pericope with as few “weird places” as possible.

    I don’t dwell on it there and I do shut down discussion on passages where the ambiguities are unresolvable. And I am, after all, Ceasar Moggeton!

    So…you know…love, laughter, common sense in all things

    it all becomes just a scholarly exercise in one-upsmanship

    My experience is that I can share my deep appreciation for the NT and it’s message and that this sharing is the basis for a good, solid relationship. But yes, if it’s not handled right, then it would be worse than nothing at all.

    raised Catholic

    I do enjoy my association with the Catholics. And please stop back when your time permits.

    slain from the foundation of the world” (Rev 13:8).

    Hm. Well. The phrase “from the foundation of the world occurs twice in Revelation. In 13:8, it is grammatically possible to associate it with either “the Lamb” or “the book of life.” In 17:8, it is unambiguously associated with “the book of life.” So it should probably likewise be taken with the book in 13:8

    The only author I’ve seen take it with “the Lamb” is, IIRC, Leonard L. Thompson. In any case, I wouldn’t rely on a “Lamb slain from the foundation of the world” reading if I could avoid it.

    suffered “once

    Hm, well. It’s hapax epathen.

    Folks will probably recognize the adverb — it’s also used in expressions like hapax legomenon, a word found only once in a document, or sometimes in all of Greek or hebrew or Latin literature. According to BDAG, it can be either a single occurence or a single and unique occurence. In this verse, BDAG opts for the simple “once.”

    Now that verb, epathen, is an aorist and aorists are very interesing beasts.

    There are three basic kinds of aorists:

    1) The punctiliar aorist, which reports an action completed in the past with no interest in internal events. It simply stresses the occurrence.

    2) The ingressive aorist, which reports the beginning of an action. Stative verbs and verbs reporting an action can be ingressive.

    3) The consummative aorist. This aorist stresses the cessation of an action or event.

    In this case, the presence of the adverb “once” suggests that epathen should be read as a consummative aorist. The action is complete and the cessation of the action is somewhat foremost.

    So…the author of 1 Peter mostly likely intended to convey that Christ suffered once, in the past, and that this suffering is complete.

    I dunno how to use expressions like “one God, infinite, endless, and eternal” or “Eternal Father of heaven and earth” in delimiting the nuances of 1 Peter’s aorists unless these expressions represent a Petrine theological motif. If they do, I’m unaware of it.

  10. Nice, chaste Mogget-kisses for J. Watkins, as well…

    So dude, when can we expect another guest post?

  11. The use of the term “spirits” in 1 Enoch does not necessarily imply the wicked angels. The term “spirit” is used to refer to three different things in this writing. First, it is used as an adjective to refer to the beings which inhabit the realm of the heavens (1 Enoch 15:4,6,7,8.). In this sense the Watchers are called “spirits.” When the giants who are their offspring die, they become “evil spirits” who must remain on the earth (1 Enoch 15:8-12). Second, “spirits” refer to the spirits of human beings (1 Enoch 20:3, 6; 22:3-12). In this usage, “spirits” and “souls” are often interchangeable and refer to the disembodied dead (1 Enoch 22:3). Indeed, the manuscripts frequently use “souls” when another uses “spirits” (E.g. 1 Enoch 22:9; 45:3, et al.) Finally, the phrase “Lord of spirits” is used of God, but it is unclear whether the spirits are the souls of humans or supernatural beings (E.g. 1 Enoch 37; 38; 39; 40 et al.) However, given the semantic possibility of “spirits” referring to supernatural beings, the reader of 1 Peter could certainly interpret the reference to the Watchers whether or not 1 Enoch ever called them spirits.

  12. Mogget, I think that on this issue we see precisely the problem with the approach that seeks to: “explain what the original author may have intended his original audience to understand.”
    I think that instead we have to focus on the range of possible meanings which may have been available to the range of early Christian readers. Both the Enochic intertext and the descent of Christ intertext I think provide valid readings of the text. What the author of 1 Peter “intended” seems to be a futile search.

  13. A fine post, Mogget. Thanks. I really enjoy your posts; I prefer your historical-critical approach to gaining insight to the scriptures.

    (Those nice, chaste Mogget kisses sound pretty good!)

  14. Nice, chaste Mogget-kisses to Kevin Barney and the rest of the Bloggernacle, too. Except for anybody who is grouchy and ill-tempered this AM. For you, I have a ferocious Mogget-nipping…

    In this usage, “spirits” and “souls” are often interchangeable

    Excellent. This is precisely the sort of information needed because, IIRC correctly, the Anchor Bible volume on 1 Peter thinks that “spirit” without any modifier is used uniformly for supernatural dudes. I’m working from home this week, but I’ll probably go in next week and take a look. This could be a nice breakthrough.

    focus on the range of possible meanings which may have been available

    I don’t disagree, but I’ve wrapped the potential for multiple readings into the expression “may have intended.” I’ll drag it out into the open next time, because your point is well-taken.

    I do think that at least in prose, the presumption that the author had just one meaning in mind is still a reasonable starting point. Has your work convinced you otherwise?

  15. for you, I have a ferocious Mogget-nipping…

    I hope this isn’t me! I wasn’t trying to be grouchy!

    do think that at least in prose, the presumption that the author had just one meaning in mind is still a reasonable starting point.

    I don’t entirely disagree. But, I think that you have to consider that sometimes authors may intend to be vague or that what they intend does not always match with what they write. Also, I think that focusing on the “original” intent limits you to a period of about 2 seconds in time. The moment that they text is written, it begins to be interpreted. I find the possible interpretations of a text much more illuminating to what early Christians thought than what I think one author really meant.

    Consider the range of interpretations of Paul in early Christianity. We have so many sources on this. First, Paul’s own writings betray what his readers were doing with his texts. Second, we have the deutero-Pauline material, which represent trajectories of his thought in the late first century. In the mid-second century, we have three major developments: Marcion, Pastoral Epistles, and the Acts of Paul and Thecla. Whatever Paul “intended”, he inspired a variety of different interpretations, many diametrically opposed. I find that focusing on the multivocality of a text is much more interesting than a hypothesized univocality of an author, which I think is a fiction. Both the hermeneutical tradition since Dilthey and French post-structuralism have rejected the idea as philosophically untenable as well.

    The Enochic material is all online, if you want to see English translations.

    I actually wrote a paper last year on these two intepretations of 1 Peter. I really tried to engage intertextual theory. The paper argued that both interpretations work depending on which intertexts one brings to the reading. In this regard, I think that it is better than anything else out there on this topic. This is not to say that there aren’t still some problems with the paper, only that I think that my assumptions in the paper are better as a starting point for interpretation.

  16. …nice, chaste, Mogget-kisses to Taylor, as well…

    the multivocality of a text is much more interesting than a hypothesized univocality

    Interesting. There are indeed occasions when writers chose to be ambiguous or to engage through multiple meanings. And whether an author so intends or not, there will be multivocality. As you say, there are a variety of traditions in Pauline interpretation even within the NT.

    But that does not mean that each interpreter had more than one trajectory — though some certainly did. So no, I don’t disagree, but I am interested in that first “2 seconds,” so to speak. It has it’s own relevence.

    I don’t want to sound combative, but sometimes I think that a failure to engage the idea of original intent/original audience interpretation is a bit of a lack of nerve.

    If we say that the whatever the author was trying to convey is unreccoverable, then we never have to struggle with it and we can just propose one interpretation after another, with no real basis for deciding that this or that one is preferable.

    And I do think that we can rule out some interpretations.

    BTW, do you think Paul’s self-understanding included ideas such as multivocality, or does he seem to be trying to nail stuff down? I guess I’m thinking about Bahktin’s comments on scripture, here.

  17. Mogget,
    I haven’t read Bakhtin in a while, so correct me if I’m wrong. I think that he argued that scripture was monological and that the novel was dialogical. To a certain extent, I agree that this is the way that these texts present themselves. However, I think that the insights of Kristeva who expanded on Bakhtin are more or less correct. She argued that all language is necessarily dialogical. Here, deconstruction is another example that exposes the myth of a monological text. For a less radical example, I think of legal hermeneutics, where even straight forward texts produce a variety of meanings. I think that scripture does the same thing.

    I think that the larger issue here is one of authority. The typical argument is that if we don’t give the author complete authority over his or her own text, then “anything goes”. All interpretations are valid, etc. I think that this is a strawperson. Obviously, interpretations are constrained by a number of different factors. Also, I am not sure that authors actually have authority over their texts.

    The real issue is that I am not sure that we have access to the original intent. I don’t think that it is a lack of courage, but a lack of hubris.

    How then do we determine a good interpretation? As Stanley Fish argues, interpretations are held to be valid or invalid by the community. There is no other standard of truth. I think that this explains why you get different trajectories in ancient (and modern) interpretation.

    Think about it this way, if there really is an “original” true interpretation of texts, then we are out of a job!

    (I’m rushing here, so if this isn’t clear, let me know.)

  18. Stanley Fish is clueless. How about we pass a law that declares that pain is an illusion? That jumping off cliffs is good for one’s health? That acetone doesn’t smell? That 1 + 1 = 5? That the law of non contradiction is a cultural construct? That all squares really, in essence, are circles? That sexuality is culturally, not biologically determined? That all women would grow beards and mustasches if only we let them play with Tonka trucks and cap guns? That God is a figment of our imagination? That Santa Claus is real? That we do not need to work for a living? and so on…

  19. In other words anti-foundationalism is one of the most jaw droppingly ridiculous theories ever developed. Without a shared foundation, it would be impossible to learn a new language? Babies would grow up into blithering idiots, good for nothing but honorary posts in second rate “English” departments.

  20. Taylor,

    Why don’t we pause for bit, and do two things. I’ll send everyone a round of nice, chaste, Mogget-kisses and you drop me an email at

    Just a request, of course.

  21. Mark, I’m sensing that you have strong feelings on this topic…

    I think that most critiques of Fish have little to do with what he actually says and are more characatures of relativism. I sense that your critiques are along those lines…but you don’t really spell out a clear argument.

    Regardless, I don’t think that a defense of Fish is necessary for my overall point that authors do not and can not have sole authority over what they write.

  22. Taylor, I agree – the semantics of terms are culturally defined. Not purely relative of course or language would be meaningless. A vector or differance points in a certain direction even when it lacks an origin.

    An author cannot employ the language and semantics of his culture without running the risk that for good or ill those semantics will be used to further enlighten or counteract his original intent.

    Because ultimately he is making an argument in the context of a culture and language which he does not have complete control. If he does not want to be misinterpreted he should account for and anticipate those semantics both present and soon to be, and explicitly disaver semantics he does not intend. And *even* then, if the semantics are sufficiently foundational, one can make a strong case for what his words entail, whether he wants them to or not, or his argument is meaningless.

    The cultural semantics of a variety of Greek terms in the New Testament are a classic example of what appears to be apostasy by unintended semantic.

    And we cannot forget the proto-Calvinists in the Old Testament, whereever their doctrines came from – Hebrew, Greek or otherwise. Did the Hebrews really have such a negative perspective on free will? Were they really adherents of the doctrine of Total Depravity and Irresistable Grace?

  23. the early part were it talks about Spirit/Soul

    Give Mogget a little clue where you’re reading so I can look at the translation and text critical decisions. I don’t know much about the NET Bible beyond its existence, but I’d like to know more about its usefulness.

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