1 Peter 3:18-19 states, “For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He 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.” The phrase, “by the Spirit,” in verse 18 is exactly the same construction as the phrase, “in the flesh.” So it seems best to relate the word “spirit” to the same realm as the word “flesh.” The flesh and spirit are Christ’s flesh and spirit. The words “made alive by (in) the spirit” point to the fact that Christ’s sin-bearing and death brought about the separation of His human spirit from the Father (Matthew 27:46). The contrast is between flesh and spirit, as in Matthew 27:46 and Romans 1:3-4, and not between Christ’s flesh and the Holy Spirit. When Christ’s atonement for sin was completed, His spirit restored the fellowship which had been broken.
First Peter 3:18-22 describes a necessary link between Christ’s suffering (verse 18) and His glorification (verse 22). Only Peter gives specific information about what happened between these two events. The word “preached” in verse 19 is not the usual word in the New Testament to describe the preaching of the gospel. It literally means to herald a message. Jesus suffered and died on the Cross, His body being put to death, and His spirit died when He was made sin. But His spirit was made alive and He yielded it to the Father. According to Peter, sometime between His death and His resurrection Jesus made a special proclamation to “the spirits in prison.”
To begin with, Peter referred to people as “souls” and not “spirits” (3:20). In the New Testament, the word “spirits” is used to describe angels or demons, not human beings, and verse 22 seems to bear out this meaning. Also, nowhere in the Bible are we told that Jesus visited hell. Acts 2:31 says that He went to “Hades” (New American Standard Bible), but “Hades” is not hell. The word “Hades” refers to the realm of the dead, a temporary place where they await the resurrection. Revelation 20:11-15 in the NASB or the New International Version give a clear distinction between the two. Hell is the permanent and final place of judgment for the lost. Hades is a temporary place.
Our Lord yielded His spirit to the Father, died, and at some time between death and resurrection, visited the realm of the dead where He delivered a message to spirit beings (probably fallen angels; see Jude 6) who were somehow related to the period before the flood in Noah’s time. Verse 20 makes this clear. Peter did not tell us what He proclaimed to these imprisoned spirits, but it could not be a message of redemption since angels cannot be saved (Hebrews 2:16). It was probably a declaration of victory over Satan and his hosts (1 Peter 3:22; Colossians 2:15). Ephesians 4:8-10 also seems to indicate that Christ went to “paradise” (Luke 16:20; 23:43) and took to heaven all those who had believed in Him prior to His death. The passage doesn’t give a great amount of detail about what occurred, but most Bible scholars agree that this is what is meant by “led captivity captive.”
So, all that to say, the Bible isn’t entirely clear what exactly Christ did for the three days between His death and resurrection. It does seem, though, that He was preaching victory over the fallen angels and/or unbelievers. What we can know for sure is that Jesus was not giving people a second chance for salvation. The Bible tells us that we face judgment after death (Hebrews 9:27), not a second chance. There isn’t really any definitively clear answer for what Jesus was doing for the time between His death and resurrection. Perhaps this is one of the mysteries we will understand once we reach glory.