One of the most perplexing passages in the New Testament occurs in 1 Peter 3:19. This verse describes how Christ “went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison.” Nearly every part of this verse has been debated by scholars. However, the keys to unlocking this mysterious passage may lie in the next verse in which the author describes “the days of Noah, during the building of the ark.” What does the story of the flood have to do with a proclamation to “spirits in prison”?
The first step begins with recognizing that many of the strange elements in this passage, such as the references to spirits in prison and an otherworldly journey, are telltale clues pointing in the direction of apocalyptic literature, a genre of Jewish and early Christian writings that reveals hidden knowledge of heavenly realities. After the New Testament Book of Revelation, the most famous apocalypse is a collection of writings known as 1 Enoch, which tells the remarkable adventures of Enoch, a man who walked with God (Genesis 5:22) and toured the heavenly realms. First Enoch, or its traditions, seems to have influenced 1 Peter 3:18–20, in which Christ, like Enoch, makes an other-worldly journey and delivers a message to heavenly beings. Interestingly, only one other person in Scripture besides Enoch is described as walking with God: Noah (Genesis 6:9).