For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh but made alive by the Spirit, in which he also went and made proclamation to the spirits in prison who in the past were disobedient, when God patiently waited in the days of Noah while the ark was being prepared. —1 Peter 3:18-20
Does this text teach that between Jesus’s death and resurrection he visited hell and preached the gospel to the dead, offering them a second chance? That’s one of many views that have been taught from the passage.
In his recent commentary on 1 & 2 Peter and Jude for the Christian Standard Commentary series (Holman, 2020), Thomas R. Schreiner lays out the main views that have been taken on the passage and why he understands it as he does (see his commentary for footnotes and a fuller explanation):
View 1: Christ preaching through Noah
Augustine and many others understood the text to refer to Christ’s preaching through Noah to those who lived while Noah was building the ark. According to this view, Christ was not personally present but spoke by means of the Holy Spirit through Noah. The spirits were not literally in prison but refer to those who were snared in sin during Noah’s day.
If this view is correct, any notion of Christ descending into hell is excluded.
View 2: Peter referred to dead people (saints or sinners)
Some have understood Peter as referring to Old Testament saints who died and were liberated by Christ between his death and resurrection.
Others understand the imprisoned spirits to refer, as in 1 Peter 4:6, to the sinful human beings who perished during Noah’s flood. Christ, in the interval between his death and resurrection, descended to hell and preached to them, offering them the opportunity to repent and be saved.
Most of those who adopt such an interpretation infer from this that God will offer a second chance to all those in hell, especially to those who never heard the gospel.
View 3: Peter referred to evil angels
Scholars today largely believe that the text describes Christ’s proclamation of victory and judgment over evil angels. These evil angels, according to interpretations of Gen 6:1–4, had sexual relations with women and were imprisoned because of their sin.
The point of the passage, then, is not that Christ rescues OT saints or offers salvation to those who refused to repent during their lives on earth, but, as in 3:22, his victory over evil angelic powers.
How do we know?
A quick note: in the discussion that follows, the second and third view will be combined since both teach that Christ liberated people from confinement between his death and resurrection.
View 1: A matter of translation
The idea that Christ spoke by means of the Spirit through Noah does not explain adequately the participle (poreutheis) translated “went” in v. 18 and “has gone” in v. 22.
The use of the same term (poreutheis) in other places is a major clue in how the passage should be interpreted. In v. 22, clearly Jesus’s “going” refers to his resurrection and ascension to God’s right hand, implying a post-resurrection event. The word “went” seems out of place for those who defend the Augustinian view, since Christ did not really go anywhere if he preached “through” Noah.
There are instances in the New Testament where the word “went” (poreuomai) refers to the ascension of Christ (Acts 1:10–11; John 14:2,3,28; 16:7,28), while it never refers to his descent into the underworld. We also noticed in v. 18 a clear reference to the resurrection of Christ. The “going” in v. 19, therefore, most naturally refers to Christ’s resurrection body. Indeed, the reference to Christ “going” in v. 19 demonstrates the implausibility of the Noahic view since it is difficult to understand how Christ needs to “go anywhere” if he speaks only through the Holy Spirit. This piece of evidence alone shows that the Noahic interpretation is implausible.
Second, the normal use of the term plural “spirits” (pneumata) points toward angels, not human beings. “Spirits” (pneumata) in the plural—almost without exception in the New Testament—refers to angels (Cf. Matt 8:16; 12:15; Mark 1:27; 3:11; Luke 4:36;; 10:20; 11:26; Acts 5:16; 8:7;; 1 Tim 4:1; Heb 1:14;; 1 John 4:1; Rev 16:13–14; cf. Heb 1:7). The only place where the term clearly refers to human beings is Heb 12:23, and in that instance, the addition of the word “righteous” (dikaiōn) removes any doubt that human beings are in view.
Finally, it is difficult to see what relation preaching through Noah has to the present context. Nothing else in these verses suggests that the Petrine readers were also to preach to their contemporaries.
View 2: Incongruous context
The view that Christ offered salvation to those who died in the flood suffers from some of the same weaknesses as the first. Such a view also reads the term “spirits” to refer to human beings, but we have seen that this is unlikely. The word “went” reveals that Jesus’s proclamation did not come when he was dead but as the risen Lord. If the journey below is placed after the resurrection, at least Christ has a body with which to make the trip.
The “second chance” interpretation has another fatal problem. It makes no sense contextually for Peter to be teaching that the wicked have a second chance in a letter in which he exhorts the righteous to persevere and to endure suffering. All motivation to endure would vanish if Peter now offers a second opportunity after death.
The best solution, therefore, is that the verse proclaims Christ’s victory over demonic spirits after his death and resurrection.
This excerpt is abbreviated and re-formatted from 1 & 2 Peter and Jude for the Christian Standard Commentary series (Holman, 2020), by Thomas R. Schreiner.