As a pastor in a local church, I deeply enjoy our weekly practice of walking through the Bible together section by section, book by book, and seeing how the timeless word of God comes alive to our people–that even though we are centuries removed from the original writing of the Scriptures and worlds away from the cultural contexts of the first audiences, we are still able by God’s grace to see Jesus, experience his grace, and live in light of his mercy toward us.
At the same time, however, being a thousand years away from the original setting of the Bible can leave us bewildered and confused as to what the text is actually saying. Like being on the outside of an inside joke, we are left scratching our heads while others laugh and carry on without missing a beat. While at times we are able to let ourselves off the hook because the confusion is so great (I mean, what is going on in Revelation?), there are other passages in Scripture that continue to pester us because it appears that we are only a piece or two away from solving the puzzle and discerning the picture.
One of these passages intersected with our church this past week. In our preaching series through 1 Peter, we ran into a text that has left laypeople, pastors, and scholars–as well as the spiritual giants that laypeople, pastors, and scholars consult–at a loss for what exactly is being taught about the faith that we are exhorted to give an answer for (1 Pe. 3:15). In a passage about how to suffer well, 1 Peter 3:18-22 and 4:6 are meant to instruct us how to the church is to persevere, but in what way? How does this passage about Jesus descending to hell, preaching to spirits in prison, and evangelizing the dead help the church endure hardship? Before we look at the puzzle pieces, let’s first try and get a sense of the bigger picture.
For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, because they formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water. Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him.
For this is why the gospel was preached even to those who are dead, that though judged in the flesh the way people are, they might live in the spirit the way God does.
(1 Peter 3:18-22; 4:6 ESV)
When it comes to understanding difficult passages in Scripture, the best approach is to move from the clear to the less clear (see, for instance, the Westminster Confession of Faith 1.9). So, what is the big idea of these passages? Regardless of how one interprets the complicated portions of these texts, there is broad scholarly and pastoral consensus on the overall meaning of 1 Peter 3:18-22 and 4:6.[i] Remembering that Peter is writing to believers facing persecution–which will soon intensify (1 Pe. 4:12)–Peter is seeking to galvanize and strengthen their resolve by pointing them to Jesus and his perfect work on their behalf.
1 Peter 3:18-22. The dominant theme is that the people of God–sojourners and exiles in this present age–are to endure suffering while maintaining a good report of the gospel hope they possess, knowing that at the end of the day, they will be vindicated. This pattern of righteous suffering (v.14), speak a good word (v.15), and await vindication (vv.16-17) is reflective of Jesus himself, the chief righteous sufferer (who suffered to his death, v. 18) who spoke a good word to an evil generation (“proclaimed to the spirits in prison,” v.19) and was fully vindicated as evidenced by his resurrection, ascension, and exaltation (“made alive in the Spirit,” v.18, and “has gone into heaven and is seated at the right hand of God,” v.21-22). Baptism (vv.20-21) is the link which underwrites and confirms that our suffering is not in vain, and that just as surely as Christ is vindicated, so also will his followers. This pattern of, “You do X, for Christ did/was X for you,” fits the pattern that Peter has been using throughout his letter.
1 Peter 4:6. In light of the coming vindication to which 1 Peter 3 points, Peter again exhorts his readers to live righteously so their holy conduct would both call the world around them to repentance and serve as a standard by which that world’s evil conduct is judged and confirmed as evil. The key to understanding this passage is to recognize that Peter, like Paul (see Eph. 2:1-10), is calling those outside the Christian community “dead” in their sin, and the gospel is preached to them in order that they may be brought to spiritual life (1 Pe. 4:7). God is the God of both the living and the dead, the saint and the sinner. Based on this broader context, it is clear that in 1 Peter 4:6, Peter is not talking about the gospel being preached to the physically dead or to people in the afterlife, but to living people spiritually dead in their sin.
With the big idea of these passages in mind, we can now wade our way into the more complicated portions of these verses. When considering 1 Peter 3:18-22 and 4:6, at least three interpretive difficulties emerge, all of which appear in verse 19. Simply put, they are: 1) Who are the “spirits in prison”? 2) Where are these spirits in prison? and 3) What did Christ “proclaim” to them?
Who are the “spirits in prison”? Keeping in mind that the big idea of 1 Peter 3:18-22 & 4:6 is to live righteous lives in contrast to the nonbelieving culture, Peter brings in what is perhaps the strongest biblical analogy to reflect his audience’s situation, the contrast between Noah and the rest of the world in Genesis 6. In that text, we recall that God himself is so disturbed by the wickedness of humanity that he felt grieved in his heart. Moreover, not only was the wickedness of man at an all-time high, demonic activity was also running rampant and amplifying the depravity of Noah’s generation (Gen. 6:1-7). One interpretation (which we’ll call View A) of the “spirits in prison” is to see them as Noah’s contemporaries, with Christ being “proclaimed” through Noah’s conduct and appeals to those around him to amend their ways and turn to God. In this way, Peter is drawing a parallel between his audience and another righteous community (of “eight persons,” v. 20) whose righteousness was vindicated in the day of judgment.
Another interpretation (which we’ll call View B) of this text seeks to identify the “spirits in prison” not with the evil people in Noah’s day, but with the evil spirits. In addition to bringing Genesis into the conversation, this view argues that Peter also makes an allusion to another source called the Book of Enoch (a book that also has echoes in 2 Peter and Jude) which also talks about the story of Noah but with an emphasis on the spiritual and demonic forces at work in Noah’s day. Instead of Christ preaching through Noah in Noah’s time thousands of years ago, View B understands Christ himself to be proclaiming to these evil spirits in real-time after his death.
In summary, the “spirits in prison” are connected to the story of Noah, a righteous person whose family was delivered in a day of judgment from an evil community, either from Noah’s contemporaries (View A) or the evil spirits who were at work in Noah’s time and are still operating in Peter’s time (View B). Christ is either proclaiming to his contemporaries through Noah or Christ himself is proclaiming to the evil spirits. The message to either group is the same: the righteous one has been vindicated, the holy community has been justified and saved through the work of God.
Where are the “spirits in prison”? And, bonus question, how does this connect to “He descended into hell”? The who being identified, it is now time to discern where these individuals are and what is meant when Peter says that Christ “went” to them. This is where the interpretation of this passage gets a bit thornier.
1 Peter 3:19 is one of (but not the only) supporting texts for a line which two ecumenical creeds of the church–the Apostles Creed and the Athanasian Creed–contain, specifically, “he [Christ] descended into hell.” What exactly is meant by this line, and do these 1 Peter passages warrant such a statement?
If, in View A, the spirits in prison are Noah’s contemporaries, then Jesus “went to” them through Noah and preached to them. This means that Christ did not make a descent as the creed says, since Christ’s proclamation was in the past before his incarnation. As a result, adherents of View A diverge and advocate for either:
A1) Deletion: the removal of the words “he descended into hell” from the creeds,[ii] or
A2) Adaptation: a reinterpretation of the phrase to mean that Christ in his soul endured all the agonies and pains of hell on the cross.[iii]
The strength of both views is that they solve the interpretive issue of 1 Peter 3:18-22 and that they (especially A2) reflect the majority position among Reformed theologians, particularly John Calvin and the authors of the Westminster and Heidelberg Catechisms. The gap in this view, however, is that it disrupts the logical order of the creeds, changing suffered/dead/buried/descent into suffered/descent/dead/buried. While the creeds themselves are not inspired or inerrant, we ought to exercise great caution as we consider whether or not to make a change to them and thus break away from the shared confession of centuries of Christian witness.
View B also proposes a plausible interpretation. By taking into account information that was not as widely available to the reformers–specifically the existence of the Book of Enoch and an enhanced understanding of Second Temple Judaism and its conception of the afterlife[iv]–View B argues that Christ, either between his death and resurrection or in his resurrected, exalted state, proclaimed his victory over the evil spirits and powers of the world. Due to the disagreement on when Christ proclaimed his victory (pre-resurrection or post-resurrection), this position has its own diverging points, specifically:
B1) Pre-resurrection proclamation: Before his resurrection, Christ descended to the place of the dead (which in Second Temple thinking was the place of the righteous and unrighteous dead), proclaimed his victory over the evil spirits, and liberated the souls of the righteous dead and brought them into heaven.[v]
B2) Post-resurrection proclamation: It is the resurrection event and Christ’s subsequent ascension and exaltation that is the proclamation of victory over the evil spirits and powers of the world.[vi]
The strengths of these views are that they honor the logical order of the ecumenical creeds, stand in solidarity with the position of the early church fathers (B1 more than B2)’ and take into account the extrabiblical material that likely informs this passage and the imaginations of Peter’s audience, which in modern evangelical and non-evangelical scholarship overwhelmingly agrees is the case (B2 more than B1). The drawback of this view is that it runs the risk of reading too much into the word of God ideas that it does not teach (like the “harrowing of hell” or the Holy Saturday theory).
Taking these views together, a spectrum could be produced that reflects the variety of interpretations around this passage:
Before moving on, one final thing about this point must be said. Regardless of what transpired in 1 Peter 3:18-22 or what Christ endured on the cross, we can say with absolute confidence that Christ did not go to hell to suffer further torment for sin. The last words on Jesus’s lips in John’s gospel are the words, “It is finished,” meaning that all the wrath of God was fully dispensed on Christ during his execution, leaving no more for him to suffer for beyond the grave (Jn. 19:30). Moreover, Luke records that on the cross, Jesus said he was going to Paradise, the place where he also said that his spirit was committed to his Father (Lk. 23:43, 46).
What did Christ proclaim to the “spirits in prison”? Finally, having determined the subject and settingof this proclamation, we can now (shortly) speak to the substance of Christ’s proclamation to the spirits in prison. As we said at the outset, the immediate context around 1 Peter 4:6 and the gospel being preached to the dead is a gospel proclamation to people who are physically alive but spiritually dead, and therefore, this rules out that Christ is evangelizing the dead. For those inclined to View A–that Christ was speaking through Noah during Noah’s day to his contemporaries–the substance of Christ’s preaching was an appeal for repentance and faith. While there is no biblical data of Noah being a preacher in the Old Testament, Peter refers to Noah as a “herald of righteousness” in 2 Peter 2:6, with the word “herald” coming from the same root as the word “proclamation” in 1 Peter 3:19. Through Noah’s words and deeds, Christ was patiently preaching to a hostile community in hope that they would forsake their ways and turn to God.
For those more inclined to View B, the substance of Christ’s proclamation is not a gospel presentation per se, but rather an announcement of his victory over death and the devil. By all accounts, the death of the Son of God, on the surface, can only be seen as a catastrophic failure (1 Cor. 1:18). The resurrection of Jesus from the dead, however, speaks the true and final word on the matter. Death and defeat is not the destiny of the people of God, but resurrection and triumph. In Christ, death has lost its sting (1 Cor. 15:55)!
Whether the proclamation of Christ is repentance or victory, one thing is certainly ruled out. Whether or not a descent occurred, a postmortem proclamation of the gospel and second chance at salvation could not have been part of Jesus’s mission. Both the words of Jesus and the testimony of the New Testament authors affirm that there is only one opportunity for men and women to hear and respond to the free offer of the gospel, and that is in this life (Lk. 13:1-5; 16:19-31; 2 Cor. 6:2; Heb. 9:27). Because there is no chance to believe in Christ after death, this also rules out universalism as a framework for the afterlife.
In summary, Jesus is either proclaiming through Noah to Noah’s contemporaries or Christ himself is proclaiming to the evil spirits. The message to either group is the same: the righteous one has been vindicated, the holy community has been justified and saved through the work of God.
The hope of this brief essay has been to help us make sense of a passage that has puzzled the church for centuries. While there is some variety in how these words of Peter may be understood, their application is still universally true for us today. As Christians, suffering is an inescapable reality, and our response to suffering should be characterized by suffering well, loving those who persecute us, and patiently awaiting the return of Christ and our eternal vindication. Our baptism into Christ is a daily reminder to us that our suffering is not in vain, and that because Christ overcame the world, so will we. Because of this truth, we can say both:
I believe…in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord:
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried.
He descended into hell.
On the third day he rose again from the dead.
He ascended into heaven and is seated
at the right hand of the Father,
and he will come again to judge the living and the dead.
Heidelberg Catechism Question 44. Why is there added, “he descended into hell?”
Answer. That in my greatest temptations, I may be assured, and wholly comfort myself in this, that my Lord Jesus Christ, by his inexpressible anguish, pains, terrors, and hellish agonies, in which he was plunged during all his sufferings, but especially on the cross, hath delivered me from the anguish and torments of hell.
[i] This is a summary view of I. Howard Marshall, 1 Peter (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1991), 120-132, Karen H. Jobes, 1 Peter(Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2005), 238-40, Peter H. Davids, The First Epistle of Peter (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1990), 138-40 and J. Ramsey Michaels, 1 Peter (Dallas, TX: Word, 1988), 206-10.
[ii] See Wayne Grudem, “He Did Not Descend into Hell: A Plea for Following Scripture Instead of the Apostles Creed,” JETS 34.1 (1991): 103-13 as an example of this view.
[iii] See John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox 2011), 2.16.8 and Daniel R. Hyde, In Defense of the Descent (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2010) as examples of this view.
[iv] See L.H. Cohick, “Jews, Judaism,” in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, Second Edition (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2013), 452-458.
[v] See Thomas Aquinas, “Supplement: Treatise of the Resurrection, Question 69” in Summa Theologica and Martin Luther, “Third Sermon at Torgau, April 17, 1533,” in Luther’s Works, vol. 57: Sermons IV, ed. Benjamin T. Mayes (St. Louis, MO: Concordia 2016, 127-38 as examples of this view.
[vi] See Michaels, 1 Peter, 206-10 and Jobes, 1 Peter, 238-40 as examples of this view.
- Herman Bavinck, the Wonderful Works of God (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Seminary Press, 2019), 345-348.
- Matthew Emerson, “Christ’s Descent to the Dead”
- Justin Holcomb, Know the Creeds and Councils. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014.
- Daniel Hyde, In Defense of the Descent. Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2010.
- Benjamin Myers. The Apostles’ Creed. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2018.
- R.C. Sproul, “What does the Apostles’ Creed mean when it says that Jesus descended into hell?”
- Matthew Y. Emerson, “He Descended to the Dead”: An Evangelical Theology of Holy Saturday. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2016.
- Jeffery L. Hamm, “Descendit: Delete or Declare? A Defense against the Neo-Deletionists.” WTJ 78 (2016): 93-116.
- Craig Keener, “He Did Not Come to Help Angels: Posthumous Salvation in 1 Peter 3?” Lutheran Forum (Spring 2020): 46-50.
- Zacharias Ursinus, Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism (Cincinatti, OH: Elm Street Publishing Company, 1888), 225-232.