“Would you please explain 1 Peter 5:18 – 21? Some friends of ours say that Christ, while His body was in the tomb, was in Hell preaching to the spirits. They also say that 1 Peter 4:6 supports and confirms this.”
A lot of speculation has arisen around this passage and most of it completely ignores what the passage actually says.
“For Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, so that He might bring us to God, having been put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit; in which also He went and made proclamation to the spirits now in prison, who once were disobedient, when the patience of God kept waiting in the days of Noah, during the construction of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through the water. Corresponding to that, baptism now saves you— not the removal of dirt from the flesh, but an appeal to God for a good conscience—through the resurrection of Jesus Christ . . . For the gospel has for this purpose been preached even to those who are dead, that though they are judged in the flesh as men, they may live in the spirit according to the will of God.” - 1 Peter 3:18 – 21; 4:6 (New American Standard Bible)
First, let us look at what the text says. “Spirits now in prison” – what prison is that? Let God answer:
“The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, Because the Lord has anointed me To bring good news to the afflicted; He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, To proclaim liberty to captives And freedom to prisoners; To proclaim the favorable year of the Lord And the day of vengeance of our God; To comfort all who mourn” - Isaiah 61:1, 2
Jesus quotes this passage with regard to Himself in Luke 4:18, 19 at the beginning of His public ministry. He was revealing (fulfilling) His work “to seek and to save that which was lost” (Luke 19:10). The “prison” is obviously, then, imprisonment in sin. Being in bondage to Satan (Hebrews 2:14, 15).
Nothing is said in this passage (or any other) about Christ preaching while He was dead. Read it again. Instead, it is in connection with His resurrection from the dead. He was put to death and died like a mere mortal man. But He was “made alive” by the Spirit.
By what Spirit? The same Spirit by which He once preached to the spirits who were imprisoned by sin in the days of Noah (i.e. to these people during their lifetimes). When did this preaching take place? The passage plainly states: “when the patience of God kept waiting in the days of Noah.” But how could Christ preach during the time of Noah? Let the apostle Peter explain . . .
“As to this salvation, the prophets who prophesied of the grace that would come to you made careful searches and inquiries, seeking to know what person or time the Spirit of Christ within them was indicating as He predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories to follow. . . But know this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God” – 1 Peter 1:10, 11 and 2 Peter 1:20, 21
Put these passages together and it all is made clear. The prophets of old spoke as the Holy Spirit (Spirit of God, Spirit of Christ) directed them to speak. Thus, “Noah, a preacher of righteousness” (2 Peter 2:5) preached to the people of his day. That is exactly what Peter (in 1 Peter chapter 3) says took place. Christ (through the Holy Spirit in Noah) preached to the rebellious people of Noah’s generation. The preaching of 1 Peter 3:18 – 20 was not done while Christ was in the tomb, nor after His resurrection. It was done during the time of Noah.
But what about 1 Peter 4:6 (“the gospel has for this purpose been preached even to those who are dead”)? Notice the change of tense in that clause. The gospel “was preached” (past tense) to those who “are dead” (present tense). The gospel wasn’t preached to them after they were dead, but they were dead when Peter was writing this.
I could speak of George Washington and others and say: “Our freedoms were given to us by those who are dead.” That doesn’t mean they were dead when they gave us those freedoms. The same premise is used by Peter in 1 Peter 4:6. The gospel was preached to people in the days before the Flood, by Christ, through the Holy Spirit in Noah; those people are now dead. That is what the passage is saying.
Notice the importance of Peter’s message to Christians today. The apostle Paul wrote. . .
“But if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you.” - Romans 8:11
The same Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead also gives spiritual life to us. And that is the same Spirit (the Holy Spirit) by which Christ preached (through Noah) to those people who lived before the Flood.