In this series, we are looking at one of the most obscure passages in the Bible; 1 Peter 3:18-22. To catch up on this series check out part 1.
Here are the three theories we are going to examine through this series:
When you examine the text in question here, the major question that needs to be answered has to do with the identity of the “spirits in prison.” The text tells us a few things right off:
1) They formerly disobeyed God.
2) They disobeyed God in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared.
3) The Spirit of Jesus (the Holy Spirit) “proclaimed” or “preached” to them.
4) Peter identifies them as “spirits in prison” in the writing of his letter.
A couple of early church fathers adopted a theory I have named “Hell’s 2nd Chance.”:
1) Hell’s 2nd Chance:
The idea is that Jesus, between his death and resurrection, descended into Hell (or Hades) where he preached the gospel to the spirits of people who died in Noah’s day. These people were “formerly disobedient,” and because of that fact Jesus took the journey “south” (if you will) to give them another shot at salvation.
Here is what I would see as the support for this text:
- It is an extremely straight-forward and plain reading of text.
- It could make sense as the reference for the line in the Apostles Creed that says Jesus “descended into hell” after his death.
- The identity of the “spirits in prison” would make sense—as people who disobeyed God in Noah’s day would (as Peter wrote) be in Hell under God’s judgment.
Here is where this theory fails:
- No solid biblical evidence for Jesus “descending into hell” after his death.
- Zero evidence in Scripture that anyone receives a second chance post-death to repent
and be saved.
- Hebrews 9:27 says exactly the opposite: “It is appointed to man once to die and after
that comes judgment.”
- Poor reading of Apostles Creed
So, although this theory does seem to offer a really straight-forward reading of the text, the things it adds to the text make it implausible. The text doesn’t tell us that Jesus “went to Hell” to “proclaim to the spirits in prison,” it just says that he “proclaimed to the spirits in prison”.
Further, I think the actual purpose of this text in context would lead us to exactly the opposite of what this theory espouses. I don’t think Peter wrote these lines in order to convince us that some people get a second chance at salvation. In fact, I think he included these lines to tell us precisely the opposite….but more on this later.
 Origen and Clement of Alexandria
 Ephesians 4:8-10 is clearly not in support of this. I take the “he descended” in Ephesians to refer to the incarnation, not a descent into Hell. Additionally, the earliest and best copy of the Apostles Creed omits that line (via Doctine by Mark Driscoll and Gerry Breshears).