Did Jesus Preach The Gospel In Hell?
1 Peter 3:18-22 is one of the most debated passages in all of Holy Scripture. The text reads as follows:
"For 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, 19 in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, 20because they formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water. 21 Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, 22 who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him." (1 Peter 3:18–22 ESV)
Admittedly, at first glance, that passage does seem to teach that Jesus descended into hell and preached the Gospel to certain persons and left hell with a train of liberated folks and took them back into heaven. However, the actual grammar of the text is ambiguous and linguists admit 4 equally viable interpretations.
View 1: When Noah was building the ark, Christ ‘in spirit’ was in Noah preaching repentance and righteousness through him to unbelievers who were on the earth then but are now ‘spirits in prison’ (people presently in hell).
View 2: After Christ died, he went and preached to people in hell, offering them a second chance of salvation.
View 3: After Christ died, he went and preached to people in hell, proclaiming to them that he had triumphed over them and their condemnation was final.
View 4: After Christ died, he proclaimed release to people who had repented just before they died in the flood, and led them out of their imprisonment (in Purgatory) into heaven.
The first view is held by most Protestants, following St. Augustine, the second view would closely resemble the Eastern Orthodox view, the third view is the standard Lutheran understanding, while the fourth view is taught by the Roman Catholic church; as I said, this text is among the most debated texts in all of Scripture!
While all 4 views are viable from a grammatical perspective, there are other factors to be considered when dealing with a debated text. The first factor to be considered is the immediate context within the letter in which this text appears. Are there any other similar statements that would help us understand this statement? In fact there is a very similar statement in chapter 1. In 1 Peter 1:10-12 the Apostle says:
"Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired carefully, 11 inquiring what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories. 12 It was revealed to them that they were serving not themselves but you, in the things that have now been announced to you through those who preached the good news to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven, things into which angels long to look." (1 Peter 1:10–12 ESV)
In this passage Peter says that the Old Testament prophets were preaching and prophesying by the Spirit of Christ in them. Jesus was active in the Old Testament speaking to people through the Old Testament prophets! This aligns very closely to the interpretation in View #1 for 1 Peter 3:18-22. Peter seems to be saying that Jesus is the Spirit of prophecy – Old Testament and New. Whenever God is reaching out to people with a message of salvation he is doing it through and as the second person of the Trinity. Jesus, the Son, is that part of God that reaches out in mercy to men and women. The Spirit of Jesus was working in Noah calling people into the ark as it was in Amos or Isaiah or Hosea calling people to repent. The more straightforward passage in 1 Peter 1 helps us understand the more complicated passage in 1 Peter 3.
The other factor to consider when dealing with a complicated text is the testimony of the Bible as a whole upon the various interpretations that are being considered. Christians who believe in the inspiration of the Bible do not expect the teaching of one passage to contradict the teaching of another. The 39 Articles of the Anglican Church for example say that the church must never: “so expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another”. In street level English that means that what you draw out of one text should not be contrary to what is clearly taught in others.
That begs the question: is there any other text in the New Testament that clearly teaches that Jesus descended into hell and offered a second change to the spirits of departed people? The answer to that is a clear and definite ‘no’. Not only is there no such passage, but there is a passage that clearly teaches the opposite. In Jesus’ parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus Jesus makes it very clear that there is an impassable divide between this world and that world and that there is nothing that can be done to relieve the suffering of people who have passed out of this world in a state of unbelief. Jesus said:
"The rich man also died and was buried, 23 and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. 24 And he called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame.’ 25 But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish. 26 And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.’" (Luke 16:22–26 ESV)
None may cross from there to us. That seems very clear.
Therefore, while all 4 views above are grammatically possible only one is in harmony with the internal context of 1 Peter and also with the wider context of the New Testament. The most likely meaning of 1 Peter 3:18-22 is that Jesus, in Spirit, was in Noah preaching repentance and offering salvation to men and women. It is neither safe nor wise to say more than that.
 Wayne A. Grudem, 1 Peter: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 6 of Tyndale New Testament Commentaries. IVP/Accordance electronic ed. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1988), 212-213.
 Article XX.