"Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison..." —1 Peter 3:18-19
When we look at 1 Peter 3:18-19, we find a few key words that give us hints as to Jesus' spiritual activity during that dark time between His death on the cross and His resurrection three days later. Upon physical death of the human body, the spirit is released, and this is just what happened with Jesus. The Bible says that Jesus' physical body died before witnesses upon the cross. With that physical death, His suffering for all humankind was finished, and He "gave up his spirit" (John 19:28-30; Matthew 27:50; Luke 23:46). Jesus' spirit remained alive even as they put His body in a tomb.
We know that, at some point, Jesus joined His Father in Paradise because He had promised the crucified thief beside Him, "Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise" (Luke 23:43). One possible interpretation of Peter’s writing is that Jesus then traveled in some way to the place where He found "spirits in prison" (1 Peter 3:19 ).
Some like to argue that Jesus went to Hell during those three days, but this theory has no biblical foundation. Yes, it’s mentioned in a common creed, but that’s not the same thing as it actually being taught in the Bible. Acts 2:31 (NASB) mentions Christ and "Hades," but Hades is not the same as Hell. Hades refers to the temporary realm of the dead, where both the lost spirits and those saved by faith await resurrection. (Also see Hebrews 10:1-10; Revelation 20:11-15.) A passage in Ephesians may refer to Jesus visiting Hades during this time as well, but more on that later.
1 Peter 3:20 describes the nature of these spirits as ones who had disobeyed God during Noah's time. Who were they? Jude 1:6 speaks of fallen angels who were "kept in eternal chains under gloomy darkness." So these fallen angels may have been the prisoners, awaiting their judgment.
1 Peter 3:19 tells us that Jesus "preached" (KJV) or "proclaimed" (NIV) a message to these imprisoned spirits. What kind of message could He have brought to them? Peter doesn't say specifically, but we do know that Jesus had just performed an act that would grant forgiveness of sin to every human—past, present, and future—who would accept the gift of His sacrifice (1 Peter 3:18; John 3:16). He had just triumphed over death and Satan and his plot to destroy humanity (1 Peter 3:22; Colossians 2:15; Hebrews 2:14-15; Revelation 12:10). That's a pretty important proclamation!
We also don't know how they took it, but the fallen angels would likely have been grieved by this news—for they had no hope whatsoever. Fallen angels were never offered the gift of salvation or the chance to repent; salvation is available exclusively to the human race (Hebrews 2:16).
Ephesians 4:8-10 may be another clue to what Jesus' spirit did during those three days. Speaking of Christ, the apostle Paul quoted Psalm 68:18, "When he ascended on high, he took many captives" (Ephesians 4:8) or "led a host of captives" (ESV). Paul could have been referring to an event which is not described anywhere else in Scripture. After securing their salvation by His death on the cross, Jesus could take Abraham, David, Joshua, Daniel, the beggar Lazarus, the thief on the cross, and all people who had been justified by faith (prior to Jesus' crucifixion) and led them from Hades to their permanent home in Heaven.
Since 1 Peter 3:18-19 is really one of the only evidences of Jesus' spiritual activity between His death and resurrection, much of this is pieced-together speculation. None of these possibilities is anything to get into fights over and belief in one way or another or admission of confusion on the topic does NOT affect your salvation in the least.
From this passage, we know it is likely that Jesus proclaimed His victory over Satan to imprisoned spirits (1 Peter 3:18-19). We know that Jesus suffered and died once for all humanity, and that His work was finished on the cross (v. 18). And we know that no one gets a second chance at salvation after the moment of death; after death comes judgment (Hebrews 9:27).
For this reason, another common interpretation is that Peter’s comment is meant to say that Christ’s spirit, through Noah, spoke to those during the days of Noah, who are now (as Peter is writing) in prison. In other words, Peter might be saying the message given to us, today, is the same one rejected by the world long ago.
Jesus joined His Father in Paradise because He had promised the crucified thief beside Him, "Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise" (Luke 23:43). Then Jesus traveled in some way to the place where He gave a message to the "spirits in prison" (1 Peter 3:19). Jesus likely proclaimed His victory over Satan to these imprisoned spirits (1 Peter 3:20), telling them that His suffering and death was a "once for all" sacrifice for the salvation of humanity (1 Peter 3:18). He may also have taken those who were saved by faith but waiting in Hades to their permanent home in Heaven (Ephesians 4:8-10).
Cat is the web producer and editor of 412teens.org. She loves audiobooks, feeding the people she cares about, and using Christmas lights to illuminate a room. When Catiana is not writing, cooking, or drawing, she enjoys spending time with her two kids, four socially-awkward cats, and her amazing friend-amily.