By: Mark Tabata (Evangelist)
Quotation For Contemplation
“If in this life there are so many ways for purification and repentance, how much more should there be after death! The purification of souls, when separated from the body, will be easier. We can set no limits to the agency of the Redeemer; to redeem, to rescue, to discipline, is his work, and so will he continue to operate after this life.” (Clement of Alexandria)
In our study of Christ’s Descent Into Hades from 1 Peter, we have seen that Peter teaches that when Jesus died He went and preached to the spirits in prison.
This preaching took place between His death and resurrection, while His body was in the tomb and His Spirit went into Hades.
This of course beautifully harmonizes with what the Apostle Paul taught in Ephesians 4:8-10.
In this final study of Christ’s Descent Into Hades, we will notice another passage from 1 Peter 4:6 which may have reference to His Descent.
1 Peter 4:6-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.
Three Interpretations Of The Text
Through the years, there have been three interpretations of this passage.
Let’s notice all three of these interpretations, examining the strengths and weaknesses of each of these positions.
Interpretation One: The Spiritually Dead Who Are Now Spiritually And Physically Alive
The first view of this passage suggests that the ones whom Peter speaks of are those who were at one time spiritually dead but are now spiritually alive.
The proponents of this view would claim that the persons who were thus saved in this passage were spiritually dead because of sin, and hence were made spiritually alive by the Gospel of Christ.
There is much to commend for this view.
First, it acknowledges the Bible teaching that accountable sinners are dead in sin before the Word of God begins to work in them.
At that point, they begin to pass from death to life, culminating in the new birth of baptism (Romans 6:3-4; John 3:5).
Ephesians 2:1-And you He made alive, who were dead in trespasses and sins,
Ephesians 2:5-even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved),
Luke 15:24-for this my son was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ And they began to be merry.
Luke 15:32-It was right that we should make merry and be glad, for your brother was dead and is alive again, and was lost and is found.’
1 Timothy 5:6-But she who lives in pleasure is dead while she lives.
1 John 3:14-We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love the brethren. He who does not love his brother abides in death.
Second, this view honors the limited context of 1 Peter 4:1-5 in regards to the spiritual death and spiritual life.
1 Peter 4:1-5-1 Therefore, since Christ suffered for us in the flesh, arm yourselves also with the same mind, for he who has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin,
2 that he no longer should live the rest of his time in the flesh for the lusts of men, but for the will of God. 3 For we have spent enough of our past lifetime in doing the will of the Gentiles—when we walked in lewdness, lusts, drunkenness, revelries, drinking parties, and abominable idolatries. 4 In regard to these, they think it strange that you do not run with them in the same flood of dissipation, speaking evil of you. 5 They will give an account to Him who is ready to judge the living and the dead.
Notice that Peter talks about how the brethren had passed from their spiritual lives of sin and wickedness to their new spiritual life of being in Christ.
As a result, their friends who were once living in sin with them will now think that it is strange that their former associates are now no longer “sowing their wild oats” as they once had.
It is in this context that Peter points out that Christ will one day judge “the living and the dead,” and that the “dead” were the ones who had the Gospel preached to them.
Gareth Reese has well written on this passage:
“Literally, even to dead (ones)’. In this writer’s opinion, certain principles of interpretation should be followed. One, it would seem probable that the ‘dead’ in both verses 5 and 6 refer to the same ‘dead ones.’ If one is physically dead, so is the other. If one is spiritually dead, so is the other. Two, it would seem that they were ‘dead’ (whatever that means) at the same time the gospel was preached to them. with these principles in mind, let us study the leading interpretations that have been offered for this verse…(2). The ‘dead’ are the ‘spiritually dead.’ Since Pentecost, and even in the provinces of Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, the Gospel has been preached so people could become spiritually alive (even though this means they may be criticized by their old cronies with whom they run). This interpretation is the one the writers of these notes prefers, thought it is not totally free from difficulties.” (Gareth Reese, New Testament Epistles: A Critical And Exegetical Commentary On 1 & 2 Peter & Jude, 106 (Kindle Edition); Moberly, Missouri; Scripture Exposition Books)
Finally, this interpretation honors the immediate context in regard to the “judging” that takes place.
Please observe that Peter points out that the unsaved friends of the new Christians are perplexed at their friends’ new behavior as children of God.
In a matter of speaking, the new Christians are being “judged according to men in the flesh” (1 Peter 4:6) while their old friends are “speaking evil” of them (1 Peter 4:4).
While there is much to commend for this view, there are some weaknesses that should be observed.
First, while this interpretation notices the connection to the immediate context (1 Peter 4:1-5), it does not account accurately for the larger context (1 Peter 3:18-22).
In fact, it is inconceivable that Peter was not drawing a connection between these two passages. Simply consider the parallels:
In The Spirit
Through The Gospel
William Barclay’s comments on this passage are insightful:
“THIS very difficult passage ends with a very difficult verse. Once again, we have the idea of the gospel being preached to the dead. At least three different meanings have been attached to dead. (1) It has been taken to mean those who are dead in sin, not those who are physically dead. (2) It has been taken to mean those who died before the second coming of Christ, but who heard the gospel before they died and so will not miss the glory. (3) It has been taken to mean quite simply all the dead. There can be little doubt that this third meaning is correct; Peter has just been talking about the descent of Christ to the place of the dead, and here he comes back to the idea of Christ preaching to the dead. No fully satisfactory meaning has ever been found for this verse; but we think that the best explanation is as follows. For mortals, death is the penalty of sin. As Paul wrote: ‘Just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned’ (Romans 5:12). Had there been no sin, there would have been no death, and therefore death in itself is a judgment. So, Peter says, all people have already been judged when they die; in spite of that, Christ descended to the world of the dead and preached the gospel there, giving them another chance to live in the Spirit of God. In some ways, this is one of the most wonderful verses in the Bible –for, if our explanation is anywhere near the truth, it gives a breathtaking glimpse of a gospel of a second chance.” (William Barclay, The New Daily Study Bible: The Letters Of James And Peter, 287 (Kindle Edition); Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press)
Second, this view faces the challenge that Peter is speaking of “antitypes” all throughout the context (1 Peter 3:21).
Thus, even if the surface reading supports the idea that the “dead” here is a reference to those who are spiritually dead, it is very possible (indeed, likely) that there is still a secondary meaning to the passage which refers back to what Peter says Jesus did between His death and resurrection (1 Peter 3:18-22).
Finally, there is the difficulty that the early Christians supported both of these viewpoints.
Interpretation Two: The Physically Dead Who Died While Spiritually Alive
A second interpretation of the passage is expressed in the belief that these Christians are people who had been put to death physically (for their faithfulness to Jesus and preaching and teaching the Gospel).
As a result of their faithfulness to the Gospel, they now live spiritually with the Lord.
There are several things to commend about this view.
First, this view freely harmonizes with the overall context of 1 Peter regarding Christians who suffer for the faith. For example:
1 Peter 1:6-In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while, if need be, you have been grieved by various trials,
1 Peter 2:4-5-4 Coming to Him as to a living stone, rejected indeed by men, but chosen by God and precious, 5 you also, as living stones, are being built up a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.
1 Peter 2:12-having your conduct honorable among the Gentiles, that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may, by your good works which they observe, glorify God in the day of visitation.
1 Peter 3:14-But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you are blessed. “AND DO NOT BE AFRAID OF THEIR THREATS, NOR BE TROUBLED.”
1 Peter 4:12-Beloved, do not think it strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened to you;
There are indications from the passage that the suffering of these Christians was already underway, and that it would only intensify.
As such, this viewpoint honors the overall context of the Book of 1 Peter.
Second, this interpretation does indeed it in with the immediate context of the Christians being persecuted by former friends.
However, this view has the same weaknesses as the ones mentioned in Interpretation One (listed above).
Interpretation Three: The Spiritually And Physically Dead Who Became Spiritually Alive After Death
This interpretation suggests that there is a connection between the preaching of Christ to the spirits in prison (1 Peter 3:18-22), and the preaching of this passage.
There are several things to commend for this view.
First, the context itself is one of the most powerful indicators pointing to this view.
Within virtually a few lines of Peter’s teaching regarding Christ’s Descent to Hades and His preaching, we find a reference to the preaching of the Gospel to the dead.
The contextual immediacy of 1 Peter 3:18-22 with 1 Peter 4:6 is a powerful indicator that these two passages are intertwined.
Second, the parallels in the structure of 1 Peter 3:18-22 with 1 Peter 4:6 argues for a connection between the thought of these passages.
1 Peter 3:18-22.
Through The Spirit
1 Peter 4:6
Through The Spirit
Third, there is another important factor to consider factor to consider in regards to this interpretation of 1 Peter 4:6 and the overall context.
Peter makes it clear that the “preaching” that was done in both instances resulted in an opportunity to teach and convert the ones who were preached to.
Indeed, this is one of the reasons why Peter says that we should strive to maintain a godly attitude when we are persecuted, in the hopes that we will be able to teach our persecutors the way of Christ (1 Peter 3:14-15).
1 Peter 2:12-having your conduct honorable among the Gentiles, that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may, by your good works which they observe, glorify God in the day of visitation.
Peter says we should hope that our enemies will “glorify God” when they observe our Christian conduct in the face of persecution and hardship.
Now, what does the phrase ‘glorify God” have reference to?
“The reference to glorifying God suggests that the salvation of Gentiles is in view.27 Typically in the New Testament people glorify God or give him glory by believing (cf. Acts 13:48; Rom 4:20; 15:7,9; 1 Cor 2:7; Eph 1:6,12,14; 2 Thess 3:1; Rev 5:12–13)….We see the same contrast in Revelation between those who believe and glorify God (Rev 11:13) and those who refuse to repent and do not honor him (Rev 16:9). Peter exhorted believers to live noble lives because in doing so unbelievers will see their good works. Because they observe such works, some unbelievers will repent and believe and therefore give glory to God on the last day.28 The use of the participle “see” (from the verb epopteu) also suggests that salvation is in view, for the same term is used in 1 Pet 3:2, where the submission of wives is intended to lead to the salvation of unbelieving husbands. Peter was confident that some unbelievers will be saved when they notice the godliness of believers. The unbelievers may revile Christians, but as they notice the goodness in their lives, some will repent and be saved, and as a result of their salvation God will be glorified.” (Thomas R. Schreiner, The New American Commentary: An Exegetical And Theological Exposition Of Holy Scripture-1, 2 Peter, Jude-Volume 27, 124 (Kindle Edition); Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group).
So, Peter make a connection between our suffering as God’s people and trying to reach the lost with the Gospel.
Who is the ultimate Example in this regard?
It is Jesus, by Whose suffering and death we have been redeemed (1 Peter 1:22-25).
With this in mind, we see a connection between the suffering and death of Christ, resulting in preaching the Gospel to the lost (wherever they may be-even in Sheol), with hope in their redemption.
Finally, this interpretation makes much sense of the verses between 1 Peter 3:18-22 and 1 Peter 4:6.
The intertwining verses detail how we must be willing to suffer for the Lord, just as He suffered for us.
It will mean that people will turn against us, despise us, and hate us; but we have the higher goal of their salvation in mind in that we strive to teach and preach the Word of God to them in our suffering, in the hopes that they will be prepared for the Day of Judgment (1 Peter 4:5).
Indeed, it was this very same reason that the Gospel was preached to the dead (1 Peter 3:18-22) as well as to the living (1 Peter 4:1-4): in order to try and prepare everyone for the Day of Judgment.
While this interpretation has much to commend for it, there has been two strong objections offered.
Usually commentators object to this interpretation because there is the fact that the immediate context (1 Peter 4:1-4) argues for an interpretation of “spiritually” dead people and not “physically” dead people (as noted above).
As such, it is suggested that the “dead” in this passage must have reference to those who are physically alive and not spiritually dead.
To this, it should be pointed out that the larger context argues for those who are both physically dead and spiritually dead.
As Peter discusses (1 Peter 3:18-22), and as Paul likewise confirmed (Ephesians 4:8-10), Jesus indeed went and preached to the dead in Sheol (and not just to the saved-but, as Paul’s quote from Psalm 68:18 shows, the preaching was especially to the unsaved dead, probably encompassing both unsaved humanity and the fallen angels).
Second, it has been argued that the word “preached” that is used in 1 Peter 3:18-22 is different from the word that is translated as “preached” in 1 Peter 4:6.
In 1 Peter 3:19, Peter uses the Greek word kerusso, and in 1 Peter 4:6 he uses the word euaggelizō.
It is sometimes argued that these two different words imply that the ones in 1 Peter 3:18-22 were not extended an offer of salvation, but were instead told that they were going to be dammed forever in Hell at the Second Coming; whereas in 1 Peter 4:6, the word implies that the ones who thus received the “preaching” would be saved forever in Heaven because they responded to the Gospel while they were physically alive.
In explaining the differences between these two words, Mounce has well written:
“Verb: (euangeliz), GK 2294 (S 2097), 54x. Generally, euangeliz means simply “to bring a message, announce good news” (1 Thess. 3:6, Rev. 10:7). However, the word is used primarily in the specialized sense of preaching the gospel, that is, God’s message of salvation through Jesus Christ (Lk. 1:19, 20; 9:6; 20:1; Acts 5:42; 8:4, 25, 35; 10:36; 11:20; 13:32; 17:18; Gal. 1:16). Reflecting this usage, euangeliz is often translated “to preach the gospel” or “to preach the good news” (our word “evangelize” comes from this word). It differs from keryss (“to preach, proclaim”) in that the latter emphasizes the act of proclamation while euangeliz stresses the content of what is proclaimed….Verb: (kryss), GK 3062 (S 2784), 61x. kryss means to “preach, proclaim, tell, announce a message.” In the NT it is used primarily with two objects: the gospel (Mt. 4:23; 24:14; Mk. 1:14; 16:15; Gal. 2:2; 1 Thess. 2:9) and (Jesus) Christ (Acts 8:5; 1 Cor. 1 19; 15:12; 2 Cor. 4:5; Phil. 1:15). Including these cases, almost all of its occurrences refer to the proclamation of the Christian message (see Mt. 3:1; Mk. 6:12; Acts 10:42; 2 Cor. 1:19; 1 Pet. 3:19). Elsewhere it occurs with such objects as the message of John the Baptist (Lk. 3:3; Jn. 3:1; Acts 10:37), the proclamation by Jews of the law of Moses (Acts 15:21; Rom. 2:21), a message in contrast to the gospel (Gal. 5:11), and an angel declaring the worth and deeds of Jesus in heaven (Rev. 5:2).” (William D. Mounce, Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words, 21360-21376 (Kindle Edition); Grand Rapids, Michigan; Zondervan).
Mounce makes it clear that he rejects the idea that 1 Peter 3:18-22 refers to a ‘second chance’ for those who were dead.
He does not argue from the meaning of the words, however; he argues that “this interpretation goes contrary to the entire NT message.” (Mounce, 21376).
If a case could be made that kerusso precluded the idea of people being saved through the preaching of the Gospel, Mounce would be the one to make it; yet it cannot be done.
Several passages in the New Testament connect kerusso with people being saved (as Mounce himself demonstrates clearly).
Possibly All Three Views Are Correct
There is certainly evidence that Peter is tying together all three of these interpretations in the passage before us.
First, all three views herein expressed are consistent with the overall context of 1 Peter.
Second, the general themes of the entire Book of 1 Peter could harmonize with all three interpretations that we have studied from 1 Peter 4:6.
Third, the fact that Peter uses the word “antitype” (1 Peter 3:21) shows that the Apostle could be tying together several different ideas and concepts.
Finally, the “church fathers” understood all three of these views as being true.
Notice a sampling of testimony from the early second century Christians:
“Those who abandon their faith in this life are judged according to the above judgments, so that they might repent. This is why Peter adds “so that in the spirit they might live as God lives.” Adumbrations.” [Clement of Alexandria, FGNK 3:82.]
“The gospel is preached to the Gentiles who are dead in sin, but this may also refer to the fact that when the Lord was buried in the tomb he went to preach to those who live in hell.” (Hilary of Arles, Introductory Commentary on 1 Peter, [PL Supp. 3:101.])
“Here Peter uses “dead” to refer to the Gentiles, who are dead because of their insurmountable sins and whom he wants to see turn to Christ. Such sinners, after they accept his commandments, judge themselves in the flesh according to their human understanding, by mortifying it in fasting, prostrations, tears and other forms of suffering. They do this in order that they may live in the spirit as God wants them to, being inspired by the word of the apostle Paul, who said: “If our outer man is being destroyed, our inner man is being renewed day by day.” [2Co 4:16.]”. (Andreas, Catena. [CEC 74.]
“So great is God’s concern, so great is his love, so great is his desire that we should be dead to the flesh but alive in the Spirit, that he even decided to preach the message of faith to those who had committed major crimes and who deserved to be put to death for their licentiousness, their lust, their violence, their gluttony, their drunkenness and their illicit worship of idols”. (Bede, On 1 Peter. [PL 93:62.]
“This means that those who are now attacking believers will have to give account of themselves to him who judges everyone, both living and dead, for the dead are also judged, as is clear from Christ’s descent into hell. For when he went there after his death on the cross he preached in the same way as he had preached to those who were alive on earth. Moreover, he did this not in word but in deed. And just as when he came into the world in order to justify those who were ready to acknowledge him and to condemn those who refused to do so, so he did exactly the same in hell. For he went to judge those who had lived according to the flesh, but those who had lived according to the Spirit, that is, who had lived an honest and spiritual life, he raised to glory and salvation.” (Oecumenius, Commentary on 1 Peter. [PG 119:561.]
“It was the habit of the Fathers to take this verse completely out of context. They therefore said that the word dead has two different meanings in Scripture, referring either to those who are dead in their sins and who never lived at all or to those who have been made conformable to the death of Christ, as Paul said: “The life that I now live in the flesh, I live in the faith of the Son of God.” [Gal 2:20.] But if they had paid the slightest attention to the context, they would have seen that here the “dead” are those who have been shut up in hell, to whom Christ went to preach after his death on the cross. (Theophylact, Commentary on 1 Peter. [PG 125:1237-40.]
As we conclude our study of Christ’s Descent Into Hades, let me also point out that there are several other passages of Scripture which the early Christians believed taught the Descent.
They are here provided for the student to continue his studies: Psalm 49:15; 68:18; 69:33; 86:13; 107:16; Isaiah 9:2; 45:2-3; 49:9, 25; Zechariah 9:11-12; Matthew 12:32; John 5:25.
Certainly there is enough evidence from Scripture to conclude that Jesus indeed went and preached to the spirits in the prison of Hades between His death and resurrection.
However, there are still many questions that we are left with, to which we may find answers from further study (1 Peter 2:1-3; Acts 17:11).
In the conclusion of our studies on this topic, I would suggest that one thing is crystal clear: what Jesus Christ accomplished at Calvary transcends more then we can ever imagine.
The love of God reaches out to mankind, descending to our deepest hells (literally and figuratively), and this love demands a response from us.
To those who are not saved: the death of Christ, His burial, and resurrection on the third day (1 Corinthians 15:1-8) beckons us to come to Him TODAY to be saved (Acts 2:37-38).
2 Corinthians 6:2-For He says: “IN AN ACCEPTABLE TIME I HAVE HEARD YOU, AND IN THE DAY OF SALVATION I HAVE HELPED YOU.” Behold, now is the accepted time; behold, now is the day of salvation.
To erring Christians: the Gospel calls upon you to return to the Lord in repentance and prayer (1 John 1:8-2:2; Revelation 3:20).
To faithful children of God: the Lord calls us to be faithful to Him in preaching and teaching the Gospel to the lost (Mark 16:15-16), with the full assurance that He Who conquered death and Hades will one Day return for His people (John 14:1-3).
Revelation 1:18-I am He who lives, and was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore. Amen. And I have the keys of Hades and of Death.
Even so, come Lord Jesus.
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all. Amen.