This is one of the hardest passages in the Bible, and commentators of various faith groups have expressed consternation over it! Here’s the passage found in I Peter 3: For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. (So far so good!) He was put to death in the body but made alive by the Spirit, through whom (by which, KJV) also he went and preached to the spirits in prison who disobeyed long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built (18-20).
The first sentence poses no problems; all Christians embrace the good news that Jesus’ death for us, the unrighteous, brings us to God. And clearly our Lord was resurrected, “made alive,” through the resurrection power of the mighty Holy Spirit. But the rest of Peter’s conclusion is baffling to the most learned of theologians.
Some have proposed that between the crucifixion on Friday evening and when Jesus came out of the tomb on Sunday, his disembodied spirit traveled to an ethereal abode of the lost, where the evil spirits of Noah’s time were held in bondage. His declaration, or “preaching,” to them was then not an appeal for their repentance, but a proclamation of his victory over sin. The Greek words kērussō or kērussein, can mean “to herald” rather than “to evangelize,” and this proposed explanation is that a triumphant Jesus simply informed the rebel powers that they had lost.
It is true that II Peter 2 also refers to the idea of God casting rebel angels into hell – “gloomy dungeons to be held for judgment.” However, Scripture doesn’t explain why some rebel forces would be so held in captive while others are free to openly move about earth and serve Lucifer. This view also seems to do violence to the Bible teaching that man is in an unconscious state between death and the resurrection. (See related questions.)
If the spirit of Jesus left the tomb and went to preach to the souls of real people, several hard questions emerge. Why just the sinners of Noah’s time and not other wicked generations? Could people who rejected Noah and died in the flood receive a second chance for salvation, a privilege denied to sinners of other times? God’s Word plainly teaches that on the other side of death there is no “makeup exam”! Ironically, the controversial parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16) is at least crystal clear on this one crucial point.
Protestants rightly reject the Catholic principle of purgatory, or the idea that lost sinners can slowly move toward salvation even after death. So if Christ went to one group of sinners and preached a saving message to them, such an interpretation would appear to lend credence to this very problematic teaching.
A third explanation offered is that verse 18 and verse 19 in this passage do not necessarily need to be linked by time. Jesus was resurrected by the power of the Holy Spirit. And it was by that same Spirit – “through whom” – that he preached to the very real men and women living in the time of Noah. This great patriarch of long ago proclaimed the promises of God for 120 years, infused and empowered by the spirit of Jesus in his pre-incarnate state.
The well-known Expositor’s Bible takes this view; so does Dr. John Pearson, in his Exposition of the Creed, a classic work held in reverence by the Church of England. The New International Version’s text notes also offer it as a strong possibility.