Reference: Descent Into Hades
The general meaning of the word 'hell' (Hades) in the OT is the unseen, hidden place. It is the shadowy dwelling-place of the spirits of the dead. At first there was no idea of a distinction between good and bad. But such an idea grew up, and in the NT our Lord sanctioned the belief. In the parable of Dives and Lazarus (Lu 16:19-31), while the soul of Dives was said to be in torment the soul of Lazarus was taken to the society of Abraham. The promise to the penitent robber (Lu 23:43) 'To-day shalt thou be with me in Paradise,' points in the same direction.
The Apostles seem to have taught from the first that the soul of Christ Himself passed into Hades at His death. This appears in the first sermon of St. Peter (Ac 2:24-31), when he quotes '/Psalm/16/10'>Ps 16:10, 'Thou wilt not leave my soul in Hades,' as a prophecy of the Resurrection. St. Paul also, adapting some words from De 30:13, wrote to the Romans (Ro 10:7) that it is not necessary to search the depth, since Christ is risen from the dead. His reference to 'the lower parts of the earth' in Eph 4:9 has been interpreted to mean 'came down to earth in the Incarnation': 'Now this, he ascended, what is it but that he also descended first into the lower parts of the earth?' But the phrase had been used in Ps 63:9 with reference to Hades, and has probably that meaning in this passage also. Through obedience even unto death, Christ became Lord of the under world also, and in His descent asserted His Lordship (Php 2:10).
Thus we find the way prepared for explanation of the difficult passage 1Pe 3:18-20 : 'Because Christ also suffered for sins once, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God; being put to death in the flesh, but quickened in the spirit; in which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison, which aforetime were disobedient, when the long-suffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing'; cf. 1Pe 4:6 'For unto this end was the gospel preached even to the dead, that they might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit.'
Until the time of St. Augustine this passage was interpreted to mean that Christ preached to the spirits of men and women who were drowned in the Flood. The Apostle bids his readers take courage from the fact that Christ's death was followed by a quickening in the spirit. If persecution should bring them to death also, similar increase of spiritual energy would follow. There is a reference to the Ascension in v. 22, which marks the time that Christ preached and excludes the idea that Christ in Noah preached to the men of Noah's time, which was first suggested by St. Augustine. This view, however, though supported in modern times by the great names of Hammond, Pearson, and Barrow, is generally regarded as impossible.
There is one other interpretation, which must be mentioned as a possible alternative. Some critics suggest that the preaching was to the fallen angels mentioned in 2Pe 2:4; Jude 1:6, either after Christ's death or before the Incarnation. The word 'spirits' is used of angels in the NT (Ac 23:8), but is used also of spirits of the dead (Heb 12:23, cf. Lu 24:37-39), and 1Pe 4:6 seems to prove that this is the sense here.
We may pass by fanciful theories such as that the passage refers to the preaching of Enoch regarded as an incarnation of the Messiah. The apocryphal Book of Enoch records preaching of punishment to fallen angels, but says nothing of a preaching of salvation to the souls of men. And the word 'preached' in 1Pe 3:19 implies preached the gospel.
If it is asked why should only one set of sinners be mentioned, we may reply that they were typical sinners, whose fate, as Dr. Bigg shows (Com., ad loc.), was much questioned at the time when St. Peter wrote. There is some evidence that a belief was current in the Jewish schools to the effect that a time of repentance would be allowed to the sinners who perished in the Flood before the final judgment. We may hope for fresh light on the point from further research, and for the present may rest content with the interpretation which enables us to quote these passages in 1 Peter. as proving that moral distinctions exist in Hades, and that moral change is possible for moral beings there as here, unless they sin against light.
A. E. Burn.