1 Peter 3:18-20 “He (Jesus) was put to death in the body, but made alive by the Spirit, through whom also he went and preached to the spirits in prison who disobeyed long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built.”
“Spirits in prison” can’t mean anything other than “spirits in hell” in the context in which Peter is writing. In his next letter Peter writes about God putting the angels who sinned “into gloomy dungeons to be held for the judgment.” But these aren’t angels here in 1 Peter. They are the spirits of people like those “who disobeyed long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built.”
Those aren’t the only spirits involved on this trip to hell that Jesus took. Peter mentions them specifically because they were so much like the persecutors of the Christians to whom he was writing. Just like Noah, the Christians who received Peter’s letter were surrounded by unbelievers. They ridiculed and attacked their faith at a time when God’s promised judgment was getting closer. It is just a matter of time before people like that wind up in the prison cells of hell.
A trip to hell sounds like even more suffering for Jesus, but Jesus didn’t descend to hell to suffer. He came to preach. In this case he wasn’t fishing for converts. He was announcing his victory. Preaching, you may know, is not the same thing as teaching. Teaching aims primarily at increasing your knowledge. Preaching is more like announcing the news. It aims primarily at certainty. The only thing Jesus expected these spirits in prison to “believe” is that the rebellion against God’s kingdom had failed, and God and his people had won. That wouldn’t be anything like saving faith. It would be like the faith of the demons James writes about in his letter. They believe that there is one God and shudder at the thought.
So where is the good thing in all of this for Christians patiently enduring persecution? Are God’s people bloodthirsty, and does this satisfy their desire for revenge? No, those who know what it is like to receive unmerited and unlimited forgiveness, who have come to share God’s great heart of love for the world, prefer the conversion and salvation of their enemies. They prefer it infinitely where possible. Hell brings no happiness to anyone, whether you are on the inside or on the outside.
But where people will not convert, we cannot wish for the success of God’s enemies. We don’t want evil to win. Christ’s descent into hell is further proof that he has conquered hell and everyone on its side. It is further comfort for those who wait for the day when Christ’s victory will be visibly and unquestionably demonstrated to those who live, as well as to those who have died.