18 For also Christ suffered once for sins, righteous for unrighteous, in order that he might bring us to God, having been put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the Spirit; 19 in which also having gone he proclaimed to the spirits in prison, 20 those formerly disobeying when the patience of God waited in the days of Noah, with the ark being constructed, in which a few, that is eight souls, were saved through water. 21 The antitype now saves you, baptism, not a removal of dirt of the flesh but an appeal of a good conscience to God, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, 22 who is at the right hand of God, having gone into heaven, with angels and authorities and powers having been subordinated to him.
Here’s another approach to Easter at an exegetical tangent. This question came up as part of a discussion about the supposed “intermediate state” between death and resurrection. My view is that Jesus died, was dead, and was raised from dead, setting a pattern for all subsequent deaths and resurrections. This seems to me the point of Acts 2:31: Jesus was not abandoned to Hades, he was not left in the grave, he was not left dead, his flesh did not see corruption (the women only went to embalm his body two days after he died); he was raised to new life. Peter Wilkinson, however, seems to think that Jesus could not simply have been dead, body and soul, but that his spirit or soul had to be somewhere. He points to this passage in support of his view. It’s certainly a difficult text to understand, but I don’t think it is saying that between his death and resurrection Jesus went somewhere (hell?) to preach to an obscure and limited set of “spirits” from the time of Noah.
First, it seems very unlikely that Peter is saying that Jesus was “made alive” before the making alive of the resurrection. It is much more likely that “having been made alive by the Spirit” refers to the resurrection (cf. Romans 1:3-4). The verb zōopoieō is used most often in the New Testament to speak of the actual resurrection of believers (John 5:21; Rom. 4:17; 8:11; 1 Cor. 15:22, 36).
The verb poreuomai, which is used for “having gone” in verse 19, is used in verse 22 (and in Acts 1:10-11) for the ascension. That would suggest the following sequence: death, resurrection, ascension, proclamation to the spirits in prison. It would still be puzzling (there is nothing to correlate it with), but it would not require an un-Jewish “intermediate state” between death and resurrection.
However, Peter (the apostle) says that in the same Spirit by which he was raised from the dead Jesus also went to “proclaim to the spirits in prison”. If we take poreutheis as a reference not to the ascension but simply to Jesus’ ministry to Israel “in the Spirit”, we would then only have to understand the allusion to Noah figuratively. Peter draws an analogy between the world before the destruction of the flood, when God’s patience (makrothumia) with sin had been exhausted, from which a few escaped by the ark, and “unrighteous” Israel before the judgment and destruction of AD 70, from which a few were saved by the antitype of baptism.
So Jesus did not go in the spirit and proclaim to the generation of humanity before the flood. He went in the power of the Spirit that would later raise him to life to proclaim to a generation of Jews which was like the generation of humanity before the flood.
“In prison” (en phulakēi) would be a metaphor for Israel’s captivity to sin or satan (cf. Matt. 12:29; Mk. 3:27; Lk. 11:21). Isaiah says that the servant of the Lord will “bring out from bonds those who are bound and from the prison (phulakas) house those who sit in darkness” (Is. 42:7 LXX).
It is basically the same argument that Jesus makes in Matthew 24:37-38 (= Lk. 17:26-27): just as the world was taken by surprise by the judgment of the flood, from which only Noah and his family were saved, so Israel will be taken by surprise by the judgment of the coming war, from which only a few will be saved. Paul upbraids the Jews for presuming on God’s patience (makrothumia), which was meant to lead them to repentance (Rom. 2:4); and he asserts in Romans 9:22 that God’s patience (makrothumia) has run out with Israel.
This seems to me to make good Jewish-narrative-historical sense of this troublesome passage. It is coherent with what we find elsewhere in the New Testament. We don’t have to explain why Jesus went to proclaim to one rather arbitrary set of antediluvian spirits. And we can allow Jesus to stay dead between his death and his resurrection from the dead.
Hallelujah! He is risen indeed!