For Christ also suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive by the Spirit, (19) by whom also He went and preached to the spirits in prison, (20) who formerly were disobedient, when once the Divine longsuffering waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight souls, were saved through water (1 Peter 3:18-20). For this reason the gospel was preached also to those who are dead, that they might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit (1 Peter 4:6).
Many people don’t realize that the gospel was preached in Hell to the Old Testament saints. But it’s true. To understand this, a basic fundamental has to be understood about Old Testament saints that died prior to Calvary. Animal sacrifice under Old Covenant Law only covered sin. Old Testament (OT) saints were not born again in the sense that we are; they had hearts of stone. Old Testament animal sacrifices merely atoned or covered sin; they did not cleanse the individual from sin. OT sacrifice offered a promissory note of salvation, but not actual salvation.
Nothing sinful can enter the presence of our Holy God. So the dilemma for the OT saint is where do they go when they die? Technically, they are still sinners with a promise of new life one day; when the Messiah comes. So what happens when they die?
In Luke 16, Jesus sheds light on the problem of where OT saints went at death. Go read the whole passage sometime, but right now here are the pertinent scriptures: So it was that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom. The rich man also died and was buried. (23) And being in torments in Hades, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom (Luke 16:22-23). And besides all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed, so that those who want to pass from here to you cannot, nor can those from there pass to us (Luke 16:26).
Before Calvary, hell was divided into two compartments; the righteous side, called Abraham’s Bosom, or as Jesus mentioned it to the thief on the cross, paradise; and the unrighteous side where those who didn’t trust God through law and sacrifice went. It was similar to hell now, in that the flames were there. A great chasm divided the two areas of hell. One area was pleasant, the other was horrible. In the above verses, the rich man, not trusting God through OT animal sacrifice, went to the unrighteous side. Lazarus, trusting animal sacrifice, went to Abraham’s Bosom (or lap) or Paradise.
When Jesus died, he went to hell (see Matthew 12:40; Romans 10:6-7; Ephesians 4:8-10). There, He paid the legal penalty for the sins of mankind. When God was satisfied that our sin debt was legally paid for by the Son, Jesus was BORN AGAIN in hell! (See Colossians 1: 15, and 1 Timothy 3:16).
Then, He did what is mentioned 1 Peter 3:18 and 1 Peter 4:6. He preached to the spirits in prison! The OT saints who were awaiting the Messiah’s appearance there in Abraham’s Bosom were paid a visit by the eternal Son! Noah, Abraham, Joseph, Moses, David, Elijah, and the rest of the OT saints were there! Jesus preached the gospel to these OT saints! They were BORN AGAIN! And then Jesus whisked them out of that prison. They were resurrected with Him, and then went on up to heaven! Notice these verses in Matthew 27: 50-53:
And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice, and yielded up His spirit. (51) Then, behold, the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom; and the earth quaked, and the rocks were split, (52) and the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised; (53) and coming out of the graves after His resurrection, they went into the holy city and appeared to many.
So yes, the gospel was preached in hell and the captives were released that day. There is probably an archive in hell of the visit that day of the ETERNAL SON. Hell still trembles at His NAME!