The Apostle Peter wrote two letters that we now have as a part of our New Testament. In the first letter, he addresses his audience as the exiles of the dispersion. In his second letter, he says he is writing to all those that have obtained faith in Jesus our Savior the Messiah. Peter’s letters are very much concerned with Christ’s followers learning to model their lives after his example of servanthood, suffering and enemy love. Peter provides several examples to his readers explaining that the gospel is a matter of life and salvation or death and judgement. Peter closes his second letter reminding his readers that God’s desire is for all to repent and be saved so that they might gain eternal life in Christ and avoid perishing. (2 Peter 3:9, see also John 3:16). Peter is not concerned with the idea of saving his readers from a place called Hell so they can go to a place called Heaven. His gospel message is not concerned with eschatological geography. Instead, Peter’s concern is about a relationship with God that leads to eternal life or a lack of relationship that will end in death.
Five Commonly Held Views
1 Peter 3:19-22 has historically been interpreted in several different ways all of which have ramifications for how we view Jesus’ death and resurrection as well as our own. Cynthia Long Westfall in the book entitled “Resurrection”, a collection of scholarly essays, states that there have historically been five commonly held views on the interpretation of this verse. Quoting Grudem’s commentary on 1 Peter, she explains these five views.
Each of these views takes a slightly different vantage point of the text as it attempts to define the following categories:
The subject: who is doing the preaching
The object: to whom is the preaching being delivered to
The action: the content of the preaching
The location: where the preaching took place
The time: when the preaching took place
“When Noah was building the ark, Christ ‘in spirit’ was in Noah preaching repentance and righteousness through him to unbelievers who were on the earth then but are now ‘spirits in prison’ (people in hell).”
“After Christ died, he went and preached to people in hell, offering them a second chance of salvation.”
“After Christ died, he went and preached to people in hell, proclaiming to them that he had triumphed over them and their condemnation was final.”
“After Christ died, he proclaimed release to people who had repented just before they died in the flood, and led them out of their imprisonment (in Purgatory) into heaven.”
After Christ died (or: after he rose but before he ascended into heaven), he travelled to hell and proclaimed triumph over the fallen angels who had sinned by marrying human women before the flood.”
The Way the Text is Commonly Read:
In the modern era, evangelicals have been tempted to fill in the gaps of the text with their preconceived theological understandings of what they think happened. Readers often bring with them the belief that while Jesus died as a human, he continued to live in some form after his death as a soul or spirit. Simply put, they come with the assumption that God cannot die. Knowingly or not, this is based partially from the theologian Anselm’s ontological argument for God. Anselm proposed that we can know what God is like by conceiving of the greatest possible thing. That which is greater than anything else that we can conceive of must be what God is like, or so the argument goes. This is where we get our understanding of categories such as omnipresence, omnipotence, omniscience and the immutability of God. Along with these ideas readers also tend to bring to the table the belief in the immortality of the soul. They expect that all people continue to exist in a disembodied spirit our soul and will take up residence in either Heaven or Hell when they die. As a result of this, many readers fill in the blanks reading the text in the following way.
While the body of Jesus was dead and, in the grave,
He went down as a spirit/soul to Hell,
While he was in Hell he preached the gospel to the spirits/souls of dead people.
There are a multitude of problems with this type of reading of the text. What follows is an attempt to show where readers and scholars have made assumptions in the text that simply are not there.
The following are a list of problems that need to be addressed within the text:
Some readings of the text propose that Jesus was alive ‘as a spirit’ while his body remained in the grave. This presents a multitude of problems. Jesus himself stated that he would die and be in the grave for three days. (Mark 9:31, Mark 8:31, 10:34, Matt 16:21, Luke 9:22, 18:33, 24:7, 46). Jesus expected to give his life (Greek-psuche sometimes translated soul as a ransom i.e. death. (Mark 10:45, Matt 20:28, 1 Tim 2:6, Heb 9:15) Jesus tells his disciples that he was not a ‘spirit’ upon being resurrected. (Luke 24:39). Jesus said that he untrusted his spirit or breath of life to God the Father upon death; he did not expect to continue to live on as a spirit. (Luke 23:46) He also told Mary that he had not yet ascended to the Father. (John 20:17). In addition, the consistent testimony of both Peter and Paul in the book of Acts is that Jesus was dead and inactive and only resumed activity after God raised him from the grave. (Acts 2:23-24, Acts 3:15, Acts 4:10, Acts 5:30, Acts 10:39-41, Acts 13:27-30). Finally, Jesus own words to John in the book of Revelation were “I was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of death and of Hades.” (Revelation 1:18)
The text is often used to promote the idea of a downward descent into Hell, but verse 22 clearly states Jesus was resurrected and then ascended to God. There is absolutely no langue of downward motion whatsoever.
The second, third and fourth views all propose a scenario in which Jesus preached to the spirits while he was dead, between his death and resurrection. But the text says that he was made alive by the spirit and then went and made a proclamation to the spirits after he was resurrected.
Four out of the five views propose that Jesus preached to the spirits in Hell. This idea gets proposed through eisegesis, the process of reading something into the text that is not originally there. The Greek word used to describe the location is phylakē. This word is never used in the New Testament to refer to the abode of the human dead, but it is often used as the location of Satan or demons. (Rev 18:2, 20:7; 2 Pet 2:4). The word literally means; “a watching, keeping guard; a guard, prison; imprisonment.” Phylakē is not the equivalent of the Hebrew Sheol or Greek Hades. It is a place or prison that is kept watch over.
Often what has been proposed is that Jesus proclaimed the gospel to people who had previously died offering them a chance to receive him. However, the Greek word euangelion or “good news” which is most often used in the Bible for the presentation of the gospel is not used in the text.
The word used in the text to describe the hearers of the proclamation is not psuche (which at times has been poorly translated as soul denoting the idea of a disembodied person) the word used is pneuma which means spirit. We will begin by looking more into how the Bible uses that word and who it is talking about when it does.
The Biblical Use of the Word Pneuma
The Greek word “pneuma” (Strongs 4151) is used 383 times in the New Testament. The word is often attached to the word holy, to refer to the third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit. (1 Peter 1:2, 22, 3:18, Jude 1:19) It can also be used in reference to the Spirit of God. (1 Peter 2:5). The gospels use the word to refer to demons as unclean spiritual beings. (Matt 10:1, Mrk 1:23, Lk 4:36, Acts 8:7) It is important to note that the word angel is used to refer to a spirit being as well. The word angel means messenger and is a denotation of a job and not a type of being. Just like someone might say my father is a lawyer or doctor, the term is used to describe their job and not the fact that they are a human being. The word can also be used to refer to the wind or breath as well as a person’s mental faculties or personhood. The word at times can also be used to describe the disposition of a group or person. The context that the word is found in usually gives the interpreter clues as to how to understand the way in which the word should be translated.
The Message Comes Through The Holy Spirit
When reading Peter’s letters, it is important to note that he speaks several times of God communicating through the spirit (Greek pneuma). 1 Peter 1:11 says that the prophets spoke by the Spirit (pneuma) of Christ in them. 1 Peter 1:12 says that those who now preach to his audience have done so by the Holy Spirit (pneuma). 1 Peter 3:18-20 has often been used to promote the idea that Jesus as a spirit (a disembodied being) went and preached to other spirits (either dead people or angels) in Hell. We will visit that text more in-depth momentarily. 2 Peter 1:20 says that all prophecy has been inspired by the Holy Spirit. When the Holy Spirit speaks the communication is said to happen through people. The consistent theme of Peter’s message is the spirit works through others to communicate the message of God.
In the following texts, two questions become important for our understanding of what is being communicated.
- Did Jesus, as a spirit (not in the flesh), preach to other spirits between his death and resurrection?
- Were these spirits, human beings that had died or spiritual beings (i.e. angels)?
As a follow-up, we will also look at two more questions that pertain to the context of the scripture that we will examine:
- What do these texts say is the fate of these “spirits”? Are they immortal?
- How are the Old Testament stories of the Flood and Sodom and Gomorrah used as prototypes for what will happen to the ungodly on the day of judgement?
Peter develops a model or rhythm in his writing that is found in both of his letters as well as the letter of Jude. This pattern has four different aspects that are present in the three texts. First, is the statement that angels or spirits will be imprisoned and held in captivity until the day of judgement. Second, there is a reference to a group of people that have been saved. Third, we are told of the unbelievers or ungodly that have died. Finally, we are told that these unbelievers provide us with a prototype or example of what will happen to both spirits and the ungodly on the day of judgement. The model will become evident as we read the texts and important as we evaluate them together.
1 Peter 3:18-20 says
“For Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, so that He might bring us to God, having been put to death in the flesh, but made alive by the spirit; in which also He went and made proclamation to the spirits now in prison, who once were disobedient, when the patience of God kept waiting in the days of Noah, during the construction of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through the water.”
Contextually, Peter is calling his audience to suffer and service. Peter asks his listeners to model themselves after Christ who died and was raised by God. (see 1 Peter 1:21). Peter uses baptism as the practice of modeling this death to ourselves and being raised as the example of living a new life in the spirit, just as Jesus was resurrected by the Holy Spirit and now lives a new life. Verse 21 helps clarify within the immediate context that Peter has the resurrection of Christ in mind. So, when Peter says Jesus was “put to death in the flesh, but made alive by the spirit”, he is speaking of Jesus’ resurrection. (see also Romans 8:11). Peter used the phrase ‘made alive by the spirit’ to pivot his subject matter to speak about something else. Jesus spoke to the “spirits now in prison” but not while he was dead. To be clear, Peter is not saying that Jesus died and went ‘as a spirit’ between his death and resurrection to make a proclamation. What we see then is that Jesus proclaiming this message post-resurrection, not pre-resurrection.
When we examine the text further, we see that Peter is drawing a direct parallel between two statements both are concerned with death and resurrection.
- Jesus suffered for sin (died on the cross) Jesus brings us to God (through resurrection)
- Jesus died in the flesh (died on the cross) Jesus is made alive by the Spirit (resurrected)
We see this same parallelism used by Paul in Romans 8:11 only in the reverse order
- (the Holy Spirit) who raised Christ Jesus from the dead
- Will also give life to your mortal bodies
Paul also speaks of this in 1 Corinthians 15:42 saying just as animals have different types of bodies, “so also is the resurrection of the dead.” Paul goes on to explain that the Christian hope is planted firmly in the resurrection of the body. Paul leaves open no hope for a disembodied intermediate state declaring that if Christ was not raised, we could not be raised, and we of all people are most to be pitied. Paul describes the following transition from death to the resurrection as a movement from:
From a Perishable body To an Imperishable body
From Dishonor To Glory
From Weakness To Power
From a Natural (psuche) body (soma) To Spiritual (pneuma) body (soma)
We also find similar language in the letter to the Philippian church describing Christ’s kenosis or self-emptying as he became and man and was faithful even to death on a cross. In return, God raised Christ in glory and he is exalted above all. (see Philippians 2:5-11)
Throughout the New Testament, the imagery of baptism is used to describe death and resurrection. The metaphor of baptism that Peter uses in verse 21-22 confirms that he is talking about the death and resurrection of Jesus. Peter states:
“Corresponding to that, baptism now saves you—not the removal of dirt from the flesh, but an appeal to God for a good conscience—through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who is at the right hand of God, having gone into heaven, after angels and authorities and powers had been subjected to Him.”
Jesus himself spoke of his own death as a baptism. Speaking of his own impending crucifixion he states “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” (Mark 10:38) The metaphor of baptism is that the baptized person is metaphorically dying to themselves as they are dunked under the water and the raising out of the water symbolizes their future promise of resurrection in Christ. Paul tells the church in Rome “therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.” (Romans 6:4) In order for the metaphor of baptism to work in any context, there must be both a death and a resurrection. If Peter is appealing to the metaphor and act of baptism in verses 21-22 and did not mean to infer Jesus death and resurrection in verse 18 the coherency of his thought falls apart. Peter’s appeal to baptism only makes sense in light of previously referring to Christ’s death and resurrection!
The theme of Jesus death and resurrection as victory over the devil and fallen angels is found elsewhere in the New Testament. What Peter is doing in this text is not proposing that Jesus is talking to dead people but spirits or fallen angels in prison. The content of his message is the proclamation of victory over the powers and death. In fact, Peter concludes his thought with the following statement, “through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who is at the right hand of God, having gone into heaven, after angels and authorities and powers had been subjected to Him.” (1 Peter 3:21b-22). Here Peter summarizes his previous thoughts. Jesus died and has been resurrected. Before going to heaven, and after his resurrection he proclaimed victory over the angles (spirits: see verse 18) and authorities because they have been subjected to him. The following three texts also confirm who our battle is with, how they have been disarmed, and Christ’s victory over death through resurrection.
Ephesians 6:10-12 states our battle is not against flesh and blood but the devil and powers.
“Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of His might. Put on the full armor of God, so that you will be able to stand firm against the schemes of the devil. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places.”
Colossians 2:13-15 tells us the resurrection has disarmed the rulers and authorities.
“When you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive together with Him (Jesus), having forgiven us all our transgressions, having cancelled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us, which was hostile to us; and He (Jesus), has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross. When He (Jesus), had disarmed the rulers and authorities, He (Jesus), made a public display of them, having triumphed over them through Him.”
Hebrews 2:14 declares death is powerless in the wake of the resurrection.
“Therefore, since the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself likewise also partook of the same, that through death He might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil.”
Preaching to the Dead:
What has sometimes been proposed, is that these previous verses along with others can provide an argument that Jesus went and preached to dead people who are now ‘spirits’ or ‘souls’ in Hell. However, this idea fails to consider the language and context, and it brings with it a preconceived understanding of anthropology that forces the text to fit an already assumed belief system. This text has been paired with 1 Peter 4:5-6 to propose such an idea.
1 Peter 4:5-6 says:
“but they will give account to Him (Jesus) who is ready to judge the living and the dead. For the gospel has for this purpose been preached even to those who are dead, that though they are judged in the flesh as men, they may live in the spirit according to the will of God.”
What 4:5 tells us is that Jesus is ready to judge the living and the dead. There are two categories; those that are alive and those that have already died. For a judgement to take place, the dead must be raised. Scripture repeatedly states that judgement will take place corporately not individually and it will happen after the resurrection, not post-mortem. The following verse 4:6 says that the gospel was preached to those who are dead now, it does not mean that the gospel was preached to ‘spirits’ or ‘souls’ of people who have already died. Peter says that these people have already been judged (they have died in the flesh) but they will be made alive in the spirit (resurrected). Here Peter is promising that those that have already heard and accepted the gospel, while they have died, the promise is that they will be resurrected by the Holy Spirit just like Jesus was. This perfectly matches Peter’s words in 3:18-20 that refer to Jesus dying in the flesh and being resurrected by the spirit. Did Jesus, as a spirit and not in the flesh preach to other spirits between his death and resurrection? The answer is no. Our answer to the second question of whether these spirits are human beings that had died or spiritual beings i.e. angels will be clarified as we examine two more texts.
2 Peter 2:4-5
“For God did not spare even the angels who sinned. He threw them into Tartarus, in gloomy pits of darkness, where they are being held until the day of judgment. And God did not spare the ancient world except for Noah and the seven others in his family. Noah warned the world of God’s righteous judgment. So, God protected Noah when he destroyed the world of ungodly people with a vast flood. Later, God condemned the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah and turned them into heaps of ashes. He made them an example of what will happen to ungodly people.”
In these two texts, we see this simple pattern emerge.
1. ANGELS/SPIRITS- are imprisoned and held in captivity until the day of judgement.
2. THE SAVED- Noah and his seven family members are spared by the ark.
3. THE LOST- The ungodly people were destroyed in the Flood.
(and) The ungodly in Sodom and Gomorrah turned to ash.
It is important to note the distinction between the people who die and the angels/spirits that remain alive and go to prison. The people who are referenced have died and are destroyed completely. This falls in line with the rest of scripture that says that when people die they go to Sheol, the grave. These two places, prison, and Sheol are not the same. In fact, the word Tartarus is a verb or action word and not a noun. It is not a place but a word used to describe the action of these spirits being thrown or cast into a pit of darkness, a prison. Peter is clear to make a distinction between people and angels/spirits. This text also coincides with the first, bringing clarity to the question, who are these ‘spirits’? The answer becomes obvious that they are angels. The angles that are thrown in prison are nowhere associated with the words Hades or Gehenna which are the two New Testament words that get translated into our English word Hell.
Our final text agrees with the previous two and also helps bring confirmation and clarity to the situation. Jude, like Peter, references the angels who are cast into darkness, a day of judgement, Sodom and Gomorrah and the final destruction.
“Now I desire to remind you, though you know all things once for all, that the Lord, after saving a people out of the land of Egypt, subsequently destroyed those who did not believe. And angels who did not keep their own domain, but abandoned their proper abode, He has kept in eternal bonds under darkness for the judgment of the great day, just as Sodom and Gomorrah and the cities around them, since they in the same way as these indulged in gross immorality and went after strange flesh, are exhibited as an example in undergoing the punishment of eternal fire.”
This text confirms the initial three points previously mentioned and confirms a fourth point found in both Peter and Jude:
1. ANGELS/SPIRITS- are imprisoned and held in captivity until the day of judgement
2. SAVED- Israelites saved out of Egypt
3. LOST- Unbelievers destroyed
(and) The ungodly in Sodom and Gomorrah (turned to ash)
4. FUTURE- This is the fate of the ungodly on the day of judgement
Eternal fire- defined as death, destruction
All three texts again bring clarity to the fact that these spirits are not people who have survived their deaths as ‘spirits’ and are living as disembodied beings in a place called Hell. The pneuma or spirits that both Peter and Jude are referring to are fallen angels that have rebelled against God. The following chart helps us see the congruity between the texts.
|1 Peter 3:18-20|
Time of Noah
|2 Peter 2:4-5|
Time of Noah
|angelon/angels (in chains)|
(verb not noun, action not place)
Exodus from Egypt
|angelon/angels (in chains)|
The Pre-incarnate Christ:
It is interesting to note that both Jude and Peter talk about Jesus in a pre-incarnate state in Old Testament stories. 1 Peter 1:11 says the Spirit of Jesus spoke through the prophets. Jude 1:5 says that Jesus saved Israel out of the land of Egypt. This is an aside to the main topic but these are texts that can be drawn upon to show that Jesus is a member or the triune Godhead and not simply a created man.
Peter and Jude are both clear that the stories of both the Flood and Sodom and Gomorrah
are prototypical to the final fate of the angels and the ungodly. In the story of the Flood, the ungodly drowned and die. In the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, the ungodly are burned to death and become ashes. In both cases, they are completely destroyed. Peter drives this point home multiple times and emphatically says in 2 Peter 2:12 the ungodly will be “destroyed in their destruction.” In addition, those that have died are not described as still alive in any way shape or form. The dead are not conscious in any way but instead 2 Peter 3:4 says the “Fathers fell asleep”. This is keeping with the common Biblical theme of referring to death as sleep. Again 2 Peter 3:7 says the destruction of ungodly will happen by fire.
The use of the phrase eternal fire has been used by some to promote the idea of eternal conscious torment. This phrase, eternal fire (aiōnion pyr) is found in scripture in 3 places. (Matthew 18:8, 25:41, Jude 1:7)
Matthew 18:8 (the ungodly)
“Wherefore if thy hand or thy foot offend thee, cut them off, and cast them from thee: it is better for thee to enter into life halt or maimed, rather than having two hands or two feet to be cast into everlasting fire.”
Matthew 25:41 (Devil and angels)
“Then He will also say to those on His left, ‘Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil (Diablo) and his angels (aggelos).”
These texts also confirm that both the ungodly along with the Devil and his angels will be thrown into eternal fire. But this is not a fire that lasts forever. It is eternal because the fire comes from God. Here we need only to look at the context of Jude to see that this eternal fire is the same as the fire of Sodom and Gomorrah that turned people to ash. This is not a torturous fire that inflicts punishment forever but a destructive fire that completely destroys and consumes. Revelation 20:14 summarizes saying, “Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire.”
In conclusion, the following texts that have been examined have helped us to see that:
- Jesus was not alive ‘as a spirit’ preaching to people ‘as spirits’ in Hell between death and resurrection. The text speaks to Jesus proclaiming to the spirits after he was resurrected by the Holy Spirit.
- The ‘spirits’ that were preached to, were fallen angels that were disobedient in the days of Noah. Human beings are mortal and do not survive their deaths. Spirits are angelic or demonic beings, not human beings.
- The stories of the Flood and Sodom and Gomorrah are used to illustrate that believers will be saved and given life and the ungodly will finally be destroyed along with the Devil and his angels. These two stories are used as a ‘type’ which points forward to the judgement and punishment that will occur on ‘the day of the Lord’.
- The language of complete destruction speaks to the fact that humans and angels are created beings that are dependent and contingent upon God for life. Angels and people only live forever if God gives them the gift of eternal life and not all angels and people will receive that gift. This is best represented by the ‘Tree of Life’ that sits as bookends within the Biblical books of Genesis and Revelation.
- Eternal fire in context should be understood as a fire that destroys its subjects completely. The ‘types’ of the flood and Sodom and Gomorrah only work if there is a parallel in the final result of the unbeliever with the rebellious in the original story.