What Is the Bible’s View?
Who Are the “Spirits in Prison”?
THE apostle Peter wrote about the resurrected Jesus Christ’s preaching to the “spirits in prison.” (1 Pet. 3:19) Were these “spirits” persons who had died? Or, were they spirit persons that had been put under some restraint?
To establish the identity of the “spirits in prison,” we must first consider the setting in which reference is made to them. We read: “Even Christ died once for all time concerning sins, a righteous person for unrighteous ones, that he might lead you to God, he being put to death in the flesh, but being made alive in the spirit. In this state also he went his way and preached to the spirits in prison, who had once been disobedient when the patience of God was waiting in Noah’s days, while the ark was being constructed.”—1 Pet. 3:18-20.
Since mention is made of Noah’s days, we must examine events of that time for clues as to the identity of the “spirits in prison.” With the exception of Noah and his family, the human society was disobedient to God. Could it have been that the resurrected Jesus Christ preached to the spirits of those disobedient people? No. Why not? Because the Bible clearly shows that all conscious existence ends at death. For example, in Ecclesiastes we are told: “The living are conscious that they will die; but as for the dead, they are conscious of nothing at all, neither do they anymore have wages, because the remembrance of them has been forgotten. Also, their love and their hate and their jealousy have already perished, and they have no portion anymore to time indefinite in anything that has to be done under the sun.”—Eccl. 9:5, 6.
Furthermore, there is no difference between the spirit or life force animating animals and that animating humans. Ecclesiastes 3:19 states: “There is an eventually as respects the sons of mankind and an eventuality as respects the beast, and they have the same eventuality. As the one dies, so the other dies; and they all have but one spirit.”
Thus the Holy Scriptures rule out linking the “spirits in prison” with the people who perished during the global deluge. We must, therefore, look outside the human sphere for clues regarding the identity of these imprisoned spirits. The Bible book of Genesis enables us to do that. It tells us about what certain “sons of the true God” or angels did in the days of Noah. We read: “It came about that when men started to grow in numbers on the surface of the ground and daughters were born to them, then the sons of the true God began to notice the daughters of men, that they were good-looking; and they went taking wives for themselves, namely, all whom they chose. The Nephilim proved to be in the earth in those days, and also after that, when the sons of the true God continued to have relations with the daughters of men and they bore sons to them, they were the mighty ones who were of old, the men of fame.”—Gen. 6:1, 2, 4.
In taking up living as husbands with women, the angelic sons of God were acting contrary to the purpose for which they were created. They were also proving unfaithful to their assignment of service in the holy heavens. For this serious transgression they were punished. The Bible reports: “God did not hold back from punishing the angels that sinned, but, by throwing them into Tartarus, delivered them to pits of dense darkness to be reserved for judgment.”—2 Pet. 2:4.
The “spirits in prison” are, therefore, disobedient angels. When the global deluge began, they must have dematerialized the human bodies they had used. Jehovah God, however, did not permit them to regain the position they had abandoned in the heavens when coming to the earth. He put them under a restraint. As spirit persons they could not have been restrained in literal “pits” or with physical “bonds.” Nevertheless, they must have come under a form of confinement that was comparable to being put in pits and tied with bonds. The kind of imprisonment under which they came evidently prevented them from again materializing as men and living as husbands with women.—Jude 6.
Their being cast into “Tartarus” points to their being debased, cut off from God’s favor and all enlightenment. This is evident from the fact that the expression ‘throwing into Tartarus’ in the original Greek is a verb. So the reference is to an act of debasement and not to a literal place. The idea conveyed is similar to that of the English word “debase,” which incorporates the noun “base” but does not in itself suggest the existence of a literal base.
In view of their being in a debased condition on account of their unfaithfulness, these spirit persons would not have had opened up to them an opportunity for repentance through Jesus Christ. He did not die for any disobedient angels but exclusively for mankind. God’s Word says: “There is one God, and one mediator between God and men, a man, Christ Jesus, who gave himself a corresponding ransom for all.” (1 Tim. 2:5, 6) “He [Jesus Christ] is really not assisting angels at all.”—Heb. 2:16.
Since the ransom benefits do not apply to disobedient angels, their situation is like that of spirit-anointed Christians who forsake true worship, becoming apostates. Regarding such individuals, Hebrews 6:4-6 states: “It is impossible as regards those who have once for all been enlightened, and who have tasted the heavenly free gift, and who have become partakers of holy spirit, and who have tasted the fine word of God and powers of the coming system of things, but who have fallen away, to revive them again to repentance.” Surely, then, it would be just as impossible for willfully disobedient angelic sons of God to repent of their rebelliousness.
Accordingly, the resurrected Jesus Christ could only have proclaimed a message of condemnation to the disobedient angels. Shortly before his death on an execution stake, he told his disciples: “When that one [God’s spirit] arrives he will give the world convincing evidence concerning sin and concerning righteousness and concerning judgment: in the first place, concerning sin, because they are not exercising faith in me; then concerning righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will behold me no longer; then concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world has been judged.” (John 16:8-11) The ‘ruler of the world’ is also the ruler of the disobedient angels or demons. (Compare Revelation 12:7-9.) Hence, in harmony with the “convincing evidence” of God’s spirit, the resurrected Christ could proclaim a fully justified judgment against the “spirits in prison.”
So the combined evidence of the Scriptures makes it plain that the “spirits in prison” are rebellious angels. They are not the spirits of dead humans, for the spirit in man is but an activating life force.