Disobedient Spirits and Christian Baptism

Reicke, Bo. Disobedient Spirits and Christian Baptism: A Study of 1 Peter III.19 and its Context. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2005 [1943].

Bo Reicke’s monograph remains probably the definitive text on the descent of Christ to the underworld.  Although a critical scholar himself, Reicke understands the text to be about those spirits who rebelled around Noah’s time and are currently locked below Sheol.  Reicke’s work is extremely difficult, as he has long passages in Greek and Syriac that aren’t always translated.  Reader betware.

First problem:  What is the connection between 3:19 and 4:6?  In the history of exegesis, it was tempting for early fathers to conflate the two verses into referring to the same event.  An unfortunate result was something like universalism.  If it wasn’t universalism, it seemed to read the obedient fathers in the Old Testament as the disobedient spirits in prison, which also seemed wrong.

Another possibility, perhaps even more bizarre, is that these referred to disobedient Old Testament persons who were converted by the preaching of Christ (Reicke 27).

Athanasius: connects 3:19 with the traditional “descent” view (Ep. ad Epict, sect. 5).

Syriac tradition:  Standard Hollensturmung motif.  Quite lyrical poetry but nothing really new.

Augustine: Did not think 3:19 referred to the descensus ad infernos. He correctly notes that the text says nothing about the righteous dead.  To be sure, Christ did go down to the realm of the dead or underworld. So far Augustine’s interpretation is quite good.  He then says that the text means Christ appeared to the spiritually dead on earth, which is not what the text says. We can credit Augustine for intellectually separating the descent from 1 Pet. 3:19, but we cannot follow his allegorical interpretation of it.

Bellarmine:  Correctly notes that it refers to the underworld, but he tries to tie it in with Purgatory.  The same difficulties mentioned above apply here.

Scholastic Lutheranism: Correctly rejected the allegorical spiritualism of older Protestantism.  They saw it as Christ manifesting his power over defeated spirits (45).  This has the right idea but it seems forced onto the Noahic context.

Who are the Spirits in Verse 19?

The first observation is that the spirits are connected with the flood story itself (52). Noting that the two possibilities are either fallen angels or human souls, Reicke points out that pneumata is not used in the NT of living humans and phylake in the NT refers to a subterranean compartment (53).

Moreover, if Peter wanted to speak about the dead, he wouldn’t have used pneuma, but psyche (54).  On the other hand, after admitting there are some exceptional cases where pneuma could refer to a dead spirit, Reicke points out that in the literature men, Watchers, and giants are often lumped together.  Paul does the same thing with various categories of angels:  rulers, principalities, etc.

Reiki then goes into an extended analysis on the text of Enoch.  None of this was new to me, having been an adherent to the supernatural worldview for quite some time.  It’s good material, though.  His main argument is that the ideas of 1 Enoch were the background for 1-2 Peter and Jude.  We can say, “God inspired them.”  That is true.  He also inspired them with quotations from Enoch in the context of ‘the angels who sinned.’  

The point common to all passages–Jude/Peter, Enoch, and Genesis 6–is that the motif of Flood is tied with imprisoned spirits who sinned (73).

It’s rare to find a critical scholar give a perceptive analysis of spiritual warfare, but Reicke does just that.  He probably didn’t intend it, which makes it even more illuminating.  He notes that “the evil spirits, pneumata, who are the forms in which the Giants appear on the earth, are thought to belong not only to the past but also to the contemporary world” (79).

1 Cor. 11 is one example.  Anticipating modern scholarship, Reicke connects the Watchers with the angels.  Reicke: “It is difficult here to avoid thinking of the well-known account of how the angels in prehistoric times were lured by the physical beauty of the women on earth. It may be noticed that 1 Cor. xi is dealing with women as they exercise their cult and pray.  And then they were of course in a special way exposed to attack from higher beings like the Angels” (82).

Reicke also connects the Giants in Genesis 6 with the Rephaim (Josh. 13:12, Job 26:5, Isa. 14:9). Reicke suggests a connection not often made in the literature: the demons and/or giants are representatives of the Fallen Watchers (85).  Even if the Watchers are chained in Tartarus, they can still influence the world.  Most amillennialists believe Satan to be currently bound but still able to influence the world.

The final point is identifying Angels/Watchers/Fallen Angels with stars.  This seems fairly standard in the literature and is well-attested in Patristic literature (cf. Ephrem the Syrian). Stars are associated both with earthly kings and fallen Watchers.  There is a close parallel between the Book of Enoch and Isaiah 24:18-22.  This same language now fits quite easily with Jude’s condemnation of “wandering stars.”

Second problem: It’s hard to see how Noah could preach to the spirits in prison.  The text itself says the spirits were already in prison in the days of Noah (99).  If that is the case, then the “spirits” can’t be the ungodly who were watching Noah build the ark.  One possible explanation is that it was Christ preaching through Enoch. Reicke notes that the Greek doesn’t allow that possibility and so concludes that it was Christ preaching.  The question remains: why did Peter seem to tie this in with the Enoch narrative?

Christ is then a New Enoch.  That fits with biblical theology.  Christ is the second Adam, the Greater David, etc. The main clause is the ἐν ᾧ clause.  To whom or what does it refer? Reicke surveys the linguistic arguments on 104ff. 

Whatever else we may think of the esoteric elements of the passage, there is a more obvious question: why did Peter bring in the Noahic elements in the first place?  Most summaries of the gospel don’t include a descent to the shades in the underworld.

What is Baptism?

Peter wants to reject baptism as a mere washing away of dirt or a ritual ceremony (188).  Reicke’s comments are refreshing.  Rather than rehash debates over to what degree baptism saves or regenerates, Reicke keeps the discussion where the text does: in the context of the disobedient spirits who are behind heathen world powers.  Because of the resurrection, baptism gives Christians the freedom from fear of these powers (199).


The locus classicus for apologetics is 1 Peter 3:15.  Every apologetics ministry claims this verse.  If you place the verse within its larger context, you will see it has nothing to do with said ministries.  It is more about humility and freedom from the demon kings of the underworld.

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