FaithHopeLove, who is more covert than emeritus these days, asked about the identity of the spirits in 1 Pet 3:18-20:
18 For Christ also suffered for sins once, the righteous for the sake of the unrighteous, that he might lead you to God. Put to death in the flesh, he was brought to life in the spirit. 19 In it he also went to preach to the spirits in prison, 20 who had once been disobedient while God patiently waited in the days of Noah during the building of the ark
First, note that Christ suffered once for sin. And it’s past. Beyond that, here’s the deal.
There are two issues: (1) the translation of the word behind “preach” (kērussō) and (2) the identity of the “spirits in prison.” The two issues are intertwined.
The word kērussō is translated “preach,” “announce,” or “proclaim” depending on what is being said. If it’s the gospel, then “preach.” If it’s the birth of the king’s son, then “announce.” If it’s a new law, then “proclaim.”
Unfortunately, the author of 1 Peter doesn’t tell us the substance of Christ’s message. This leaves us the opportunity to infer it from the audience. The closest idea to “spirits in prison” in contemporary literature is the disobedient spirits of 1 Enoch. These folks were never embodied.
Another idea is that the imprisoned spirits are the spirits of men who had been naughty while they were alive. The main argument against this is that there is no other reference to humans as simply “spirits.” The nearest is Heb 12:23, with its reference to “the spirits of the just made perfect” who are hangin out in the heavenly Jerusalem.
What did Christ preach/announce/proclaim?
Given the uncertainty in the audience, there’s a number of possibilities. If you think the audience is the evil spirits of 1 Enoch, then perhaps Christ went to their prison and announced that their final punishment was at hand.
If you think that the spirits in prison are those of unrighteous men, then he may have announced their final doom to them, or he may, as we teach, have come to preach the gospel.
Is there a way to decide between the two?
Well, yes, I think there is. Consider the larger context of 1 Pet 3:14-22. The entire thing is an exhortation to Christians to treat well those who malign them. Christ is held up as the example of this kind of conduct in his regard for the “unrighteous.” Now would it make sense in this context to talk about telling a prison full of folks who have dissed God that their doom is at hand?
Probably not. So in this case, I expect that those who think Jesus brought good news have the right of it. Whoever those “spirits in prison” are, the author of 1 Peter probably thinks Jesus appeared and preached the gospel of God’s redeeming love.