After a good discussion on my Facebook page on this topic, I thought it would make a good blog post. Also, since my blogging this year leaves a great deal to be desired, it is also a good excuse to get something new posted here.
The primary text that we were discussing was 1 Peter 3:19. Thus the question at hand is simple: when and where did Jesus go after His death on the cross and who were the spirits in prison that Jesus proclaimed to (v. 19).
There is a bit to unpack here so let me get right to it. First, let's take a look at what we know from 1 Peter 3:18-22a.
1) Jesus was addressing spirits
2) These spirits were imprisoned
3) They were imprisoned because of their sin before the Flood
4) Jesus went to there to make a proclamation
Next, we need to understand what spirits Jesus was addressing. The Greek word in the text translated "spirits" is pneumasin, a form of the word pneuma, which means spirit, breath, wind. If you happen to use a Strong's Concordance (doing so is beneficial to almost everyone), your Strong's number is G4151. This term is used in Matthew 27:50 for Jesus' spirit and John 14:17 when referring to the Holy Spirit. Angels are also referred to using this term in Hebrews 1:14. We also know that human beings possess a spirit (Hebrews 4:12) but are not ourselves spirits (see also 1 Corinthians 2:11 which mentions the spiritual part of man). Jesus clearly was not speaking to human beings. It also bears mentioning that there is not a "second chance" for men after death since that would contradict Hebrews 9:27 which Jesus would not do.
So the spirits in question cannot be human beings and they certainly are not holy angels since God would not imprison holy angels because...well, they are holy and haven't sinned. That leaves us with another spirit: demons. However, they doesn't mean all demons. In fact, given the demonic activity recorded in the New Testament, we know all of the demons cannot be imprisoned and therefore Jesus' spirit audience in prison must be a specific group of demons. We know from Jude 6 that there were some angels who sinned and are imprisoned and awaiting judgment. We also know about other wicked angels who are also bound (see Rev. 9:1-15; 2Peter 2:4).
So I think this answers who these spirits were but where was this prison Jesus visited to make His proclamation? Actually, we know exactly where Jesus went because He told us! Remember what Jesus said to the thief on the cross in Luke 23:39-43? Jesus yielded His spirit to the Father and went to Paradise. Paradise is part of Sheol, or Hades, which is a general reference to the place of the dead. Paradise, or Abraham's bosom, and the place of torment experienced by the rich man (see Luke 16:19-31) are in the same place. While there, Jesus proclaimed to the spirits imprisoned there (1 Peter 3:19). He then took the believers who were in Paradise with him to Heaven (Ephesians 4:8-10).