I was listening to a wonderful set of talks on CD called “Our Savior” from a lecture series at BYU last year. One of the lecturers made a statement that Jesus did not actually preach to the spirits in spirit prison after his crucifixion; but he did organize the angels/beings who did preach to them. Every other lecturer who has also mentioned it has stated that Jesus himself preached to those in spirit prison after his crucifixion. Which is correct? And how do we know exactly?
Dear Jennifer, This concept of the Savior preaching to the spirits in prison can be a little confusing. We read in 1 Peter 3:18-20—
For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit:
By which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison;
Which sometime were disobedient, when once the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls were saved by water.
It is not illogical to interpret the phrase, By which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison, as if the Savior had gone in person to the disobedient spirits. However, the more detailed account, found in Doctrine & Covenants 138 reveals that the Savior went in person only to the righteous—
While this vast multitude waited and conversed, rejoicing in the hour of their deliverance from the chains of death, the Son of God appeared, declaring liberty to the captives who had been faithful;
And there he preached to them the everlasting gospel, the doctrine of the resurrection and the redemption of mankind from the fall, and from individual sins on conditions of repentance.
But unto the wicked he did not go, and among the ungodly and the unrepentant who had defiled themselves while in the flesh, his voice was not raised;
Neither did the rebellious who rejected the testimonies and the warnings of the ancient prophets behold his presence, nor look upon his face.
Where these were, darkness reigned, but among the righteous there was peace (D&C 138:18-22).
Verses 28-34 of this section clarify how the gospel was preached to the wicked spirits—
And I wondered at the words of Peter–wherein he said that the Son of God preached unto the spirits in prison, who sometime were disobedient, when once the long-suffering of God waited in the days of Noah–and how it was possible for him to preach to those spirits and perform the necessary labor among them in so short a time.
And as I wondered, my eyes were opened, and my understanding quickened, and I perceived that the Lord went not in person among the wicked and the disobedient who had rejected the truth, to teach them;
But behold, from among the righteous, he organized his forces and appointed messengers, clothed with power and authority, and commissioned them to go forth and carry the light of the gospel to them that were in darkness, even to all the spirits of men; and thus was the gospel preached to the dead.
And the chosen messengers went forth to declare the acceptable day of the Lord and proclaim liberty to the captives who were bound, even unto all who would repent of their sins and receive the gospel.
Thus was the gospel preached to those who had died in their sins, without a knowledge of the truth, or in transgression, having rejected the prophets. These were taught faith in God, repentance from sin, vicarious baptism for the remission of sins, the gift of the Holy Ghost by the laying on of hands,
And all other principles of the gospel that were necessary for them to know in order to qualify themselves that they might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit .