1 Peter 3:18 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: 19 By which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison; 20 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.
The answer is a little complicated, but the facts are as follows:
1. There are no ghosts or disembodied spirits.
Ghosts and disembodied spirits are pagan fictions. The Bible teaches that when we die, we really are dead. We corrupt back into the elements from which we are made. Our spirit or ‘life force’ returns to God.
Ecclesiastes 12:7 Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it.
In death we are unconscious; our thoughts perish.
Ecclesiastes 9:5 For the living know that they shall die: but the dead know not any thing,..
Psalms 146:4 His breath goeth forth, he returneth to his earth; in that very day his thoughts perish
We do not possess an ‘immortal’ soul. We ARE a ‘living’ soul.
Genesis 2:7 And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.
Soul is our whole being. The same Hebrew word (nephesh) is translated ‘creature’ when referring to animals
Ezekiel 18:20 The soul that sinneth, it shall die…
When we are placed in the grave our soul is placed in the grave.
Psalms 89:48 What man is he that liveth, and shall not see death? shall he deliver his soul from the hand of the grave?
For this reason, death is likened to sleep. We all experience the unconsciousness of sleep.
1 Kings 2:10 So David slept with his fathers, and was buried in the city of David.
Acts 7:60 And he (Stephen) kneeled down, and cried with a loud voice, Lord, lay not this sin to their charge. And when he had said this, he fell asleep.
The only way that we can live after death is by resurrection from the dead.
2. The sons of God in Genesis were not angels.
They were men like Seth who called on the name of God.
Genesis 4:26 And to Seth, to him also there was born a son; and he called his name Enos: then began men to call upon the name of the LORD.
Calling on the name of the Lord made them eligible to be called ‘sons of God’.
Romans 8:14 For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God.
Daughters of men were daughters born to men like Cain who had no time for God. As wives, they were a corrupting influence on godly men.
3. Angels do not marry, neither do they sin.
Matthew 22:30 For in the resurrection they neither marry, nor are given in marriage, but are as the angels of God in heaven.
The faithful are promised equality with the angels, if we can still sin and die, we will be no better off than we are now.
4. Jesus remained unconscious in the grave awaiting resurrection on the third day.
He was dead. He didn’t have a conscious soul or spirit that could go and preach anywhere.
1 Corinthians 15:4 And that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures:
5. The dead cannot preach or be preached to.
Psalms 6:5 For in death there is no remembrance of thee: in the grave who shall give thee thanks?
Psalms 88:11 Shall thy lovingkindness be declared in the grave? or thy faithfulness in destruction? 12 Shall thy wonders be known in the dark? and thy righteousness in the land of forgetfulness?
Without Christ all are ‘in prison’ while we live, because through sin we are all condemned to die.
Romans 5:12 Wherefore, as by one man (Adam) sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned:
Hence Christ’s mission
Isaiah 42:7 To open the blind eyes, to bring out the prisoners from the prison, and them that sit in darkness out of the prison house.
Isaiah 61:1 The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me; because the LORD hath anointed me to preach good tidings unto the meek; he hath sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound;
Luke 4:18 The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised,
The people preached to in the days of Noah were those that Noah, a preacher of righteousness, preached to.
Peter 2:5 And spared not the old world, but saved Noah the eighth person, a preacher of righteousness, bringing in the flood upon the world of the ungodly;
Noah was a prophet, and like all Old Testament prophets he had the spirit of Christ within him.
1 Peter 1:11 Searching what, or what manner of time the Spirit of Christ which was in them did signify, when it testified beforehand the sufferings of Christ, and the glory that should follow.
The spirit of Christ was in the prophets because they spoke by the inspiration of God through God’s foreknowledge of the ministry of his Son.
1 Peter 1:20 ASV who was foreknown indeed before the foundation of the world, but was manifested at the end of times for your sake,
Romans 8:29 For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren.
Christ is the redeemer promised from the beginning in the gospel preached by Moses and all the prophets.
Luke 24:25 Then he said unto them, O fools, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken: 26 Ought not Christ to have suffered these things, and to enter into his glory? 27 And beginning at Moses and all the prophets, he expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself.
He was in the gospel preached to Israel in the wilderness.
Hebrews 3:14 For we are made partakers of Christ, if we hold the beginning of our confidence stedfast unto the end; 15 While it is said, To day if ye will hear his voice, harden not your hearts, as in the provocation. 16 For some, when they had heard, did provoke: howbeit not all that came out of Egypt by Moses. 17 But with whom was he grieved forty years? was it not with them that had sinned, whose carcases fell in the wilderness? 18 And to whom sware he that they should not enter into his rest, but to them that believed not? 19 So we see that they could not enter in because of unbelief.
Hebrews 4:1 Let us therefore fear, lest, a promise being left us of entering into his rest, any of you should seem to come short of it. 2 For unto us was the gospel preached, as well as unto them: but the word preached did not profit them, not being mixed with faith in them that heard itChrist existed only in the plan and purpose of God before he was born of Mary, but everything about him was foreknown in the same way that all who will be in the kingdom of God are foreknown.
The ‘spirits in prison’ were the men and women in the days of Noah, condemned to death because of sin. The spirit of Christ preached to them through the words of Noah, who spoke by inspiration. Noah preached a long time while he was building the Ark. They wouldn’t listen and so perished in the flood. Only 8 souls were saved (Noah and his family). All the other souls died.
Peter is making is the point that Noah and his family were saved by water and if we want to be saved, we must repent and submit to baptism by immersion in water. Otherwise we too will perish as the ‘spirits in prison’ did in the days of Noah.
We are all ‘spirits’ in the sense that our character is our ‘spirit’, and we must be born again of water and the spirit.
To be born of the spirit is to change the way that we think by reading and implementing the words of God preached by Jesus and his apostles.
1 Peter 1:23 Being born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by the word of God, which liveth and abideth for ever.
I hope this helps.