Peter’s words have certainly raised questions and speculation. We know, however, that Peter can’t be teaching that Jesus went to hell to preach to its residents. What, then, does he mean? As usual with obscure passages, context matters. Peter is seeking to encourage the Christians in Asia Minor to suffer patiently with hope, for such patient and hopeful suffering is a sort of “preaching” to those who persecute them. In 1 Peter 2, he says, “Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation” (v. 12) and “For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people” (v. 15). His admonishment is strengthened by an appeal to the example of Christ, who suffered according to the flesh but was raised to newness of life by the power of the Spirit. So too Christians, by virtue of their union with the resurrected Savior, will be raised to immortality after suffering in the flesh.
With that context in mind, it is hard to see how the suffering Christians in Asia Minor would be comforted by an account of Jesus’ visiting hell and preaching to spirits there. The context seems to rule out the common interpretations of this passage. Martyn Lloyd-Jones states the problem well:
How did these verses strengthen Christian people to endure suffering? What was the use of being told that those who had died impenitent at the time of the deluge were going to have another opportunity of salvation? How did it help those suffering Christians to be told that after death there would be a second chance for the unbeliever? It is utterly irrelevant!
More relevant to Peter’s audience is the example of Noah, who lived among a hostile people, through whom Christ “proclaimed” His word, and who foresignifies what the Lord continues to do in and through the suffering of His people. In this view, the “spirits in prison” were the disobedient and hard-hearted in Noah’s day who are, as Peter writes, confined to hell.
To encourage suffering Christians, Peter holds forth the example of Christ’s patient, witness-bearing suffering. His death, according to His human nature, was followed by a resurrection by the Holy Spirit.
Some understand Peter’s words “being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit” (1 Peter 3:18) as referring to the distinction between Jesus’ body and Jesus’ soul, meaning that Jesus’ body was dead but His spirit was preserved alive. Although we know that the Son’s soul did not die (for that would be impossible), this is likely not what Peter means here. Jesus is a divine person with two natures. His death was according to His humanity, in which the whole human person, as a body-soul composite, passed through death. Peter is distinguishing between Jesus’ human nature and His divine nature (see Rom. 1:3–4). It wasn’t that Jesus’ spirit or soul was preserved from the experience of death but that the Holy Spirit brought Him back to life. This accords with other places in Scripture that indicate that the Holy Spirit raised Christ from the dead (e.g., Rom. 1:4; 8:11).