First Peter 3 invokes language that is contested among scholars. In the below summary, I will discuss this passage in Enoch the Prophet and how Christ’s preaching to imprisoned spirits could be interpreted as a biblical type for baptism. Inspiration for conclusions is based on a lecture from Dr. Heiser.
1 Peter 3:18-20 reads: “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit. After being made alive, he went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits—to those who were disobedient long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built.”
Christ Preaches to the Dead?
This passage has been subject to much debate and interpretation over the years. Some scholars believe it refers to Christ preaching to souls in Hades after his death, while others interpret it as a reference to Christ preaching to fallen angels who were imprisoned before the flood.
One way to understand this passage is through an exegetical and hermeneutic analysis of the figure of Enoch. In the Old Testament, they described Enoch as a righteous man who walked with God and was taken up to heaven without experiencing death (Genesis 5:21-24). In the Book of Enoch, which is part of the Apocrypha, they portray Enoch as a prophetic figure who was taken up to heaven and shown visions of the future.
In 1 Peter 3, the reference to the “imprisoned spirits” who were disobedient in the days of Noah could be a reference to the fallen angels who were also mentioned in the Book of Enoch. According to Enoch, these angels had descended to earth and had children with human women, leading to the corruption of humanity. This interpretation would suggest that Christ’s proclamation was to the fallen angels who were imprisoned for their disobedience. The corruption of the earth led to a primary causal factor in the flood as God’s plan became poisoned by the influence of the Nephilim. Can we characterize 1 Peter 3, spiritual warfare for the baptized?
Another possible interpretation is that Christ’s proclamation was to the souls of the dead who had not believed in God during their lifetime. We support this interpretation because the Greek word used for “imprisoned spirits” (pneumata en phylake) can also be translated as “disobedient souls.” This would align with the idea of Christ preaching to souls in Hades, as described in other parts of the New Testament (e.g. 1 Peter 4:6).
Baptism as a typology for spiritual warfare
After the resurrection, Christ preached to the imprisoned souls in the underworld, does this infer that the dead in Christ can achieve salvation? Previous biblical references support salvation only through faith and works in the physical body. We should also consider baptism as spiritual warfare. Once cleansed publically in the baptismal ritual, we announce to all and the spirit world we belong to Christ. We put on our armor and stand with Christ in God’s sight through baptism.
Ultimately, the exact meaning of this passage is still subject to interpretation and debate. However, by considering the figure of Enoch and his prophetic role in the Book of Enoch, we can gain insight into some interpretations of this complex and intriguing passage.