According to 1 Peter 3:19, after Jesus died “he went and preached to the spirits in prison.” One reading of this verse (often in tandem with the statement in Ephesians 4:8 that Jesus “led captive a host of captives”) concludes that Yeshua pulled righteous souls from Sheol (the realm of the dead) and brought them to heaven. Now that Jesus has done this, the argument goes, all subsequent Christians go to heaven after death. Yet this interpretation of Jesus’ post-mortem proclamation removes the verse from its context and misunderstands the intent of Jesus’ message. Rather than describing the removal of righteous souls from Sheol, 1 Peter envisions a messianic declaration of defeat for evil spirits whom God had imprisoned since the days of Noah.
First Peter states that Jesus was “put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, in which he went and preached (ἐκήρυξεν; ekēruxen) to the spirits in prison” (3:18-19). When English readers see that Jesus “preached,” it is understandable that they would assume his preaching of the gospel (i.e., his death for sins and victory over death through resurrection). However, 1 Peter (and the rest of the New Testament) uses a separate Greek word for preaching the good news or “evangelizing” (εὐαγγελίζω; euangelīzo; cf. 1 Pet 4:6), and the immediate context suggests that the Petrine message is not one of liberation for the righteous. Instead, Jesus proclaims to the “spirits in prison insofar as they formerly did not obey when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah” (3:19-20). The recipients of Jesus’ proclamation are not faithful followers of God, but those who disobeyed the Lord before the flood.
Just prior to the Noahide deluge, the “sons of God” (בני־האלהים; benei ha’elohim)—divine beings subordinate to the God of Israel—had rebelled against the Lord by leaving the heavenly realm and cohabiting with women on earth (Gen 6:2). 1 Peter refers to these rebellious deities as the targets of Jesus’ post-mortem proclamation in “prison” (φυλακή; phulakē)—a term that describes the darkest recesses of the underworld (called “Tartarus” in 2 Peter 2:4). The letter of Jude recalls this antediluvian imprisonment, speaking of divine “messengers who did not stay within their own position of authority, but left their proper dwelling, [so that God] has kept [them] in eternal chains under gloomy darkness until the judgment of the great day” (Jude 1:6). The Petrine allusion to this incident includes Jesus making a proclamation of victory over these demonic forces rather than liberating the righteous from the realm of the dead.
Further biblical background to 1 Peter appears in an apocalyptic vision of Isaiah. Speaking of eschatological judgment, the prophet declares, “On that day the Lord will punish the host of heaven in the heights (צבא המרום במרום) and the kings of the earth on earth. They will be gathered as a captive in a pit (אסיר על־בור) and imprisoned in prison (וסגרו על־מסגר), and after many days they will be punished” (Isa 24:21-22). Jesus visits these rebels not to express encouragement or emancipation from Sheol, but to proclaim God’s victory over demonic forces. Before putting 1 Peter in its proper contexts, readers can come away with any interpretation they choose—including one that envisages the emptying of Sheol and the transference of believers to heaven. However, Jesus’ announcement does not accompany a trip from Hades to Heaven; instead, 1 Peter 3:18 recounts the moment when Jesus delivers decisive judgment upon the inferior divine beings who had rebelled against God.