In every field, there are both simple and complex issues.  In the field of Mathematics, there is simple arithmetic and complex calculus.  In medicine, there are common colds and intricate auto-immune disorders.  In finance, there is balancing the checkbook and investing in hedge funds.

In Bible study and theology, the same simple/complex dilemma occurs.  Some verses of Scripture are easy to understand and apply.  I Thessalonians 4:3-5 is an example of a simple to understand verse:  “It is God’s will that you should be sanctified:  that you should avoid sexual immorality; that each of you should learn to control his own body in a way that is holy and honorable, not in passionate lust like the heathen, who do not know God.”  These verses are straight-forward and easy to understand both their meaning and application.

There are other passages of Scripture, however, that are not quite so clear.  1 Peter 3:18-22 is one of those complex passages of Scripture.  Cryptically these verses read in the NIV, “For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God.  He was put to death in the body but made alive by the spirit, through whom also He went and preached to the spirits in prison who disobeyed long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built.  In it only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water, and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also – not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a good conscience toward God.  It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at God’s right hand with angels, authorities and powers in submission to Him.”  This passage is quite difficult to understand and apply.  In order to help facilitate further understanding and application, I am going to share my thoughts on this passage here to continue a dialogue on these verses.  I would love to know what you think!

The overall context of this entire section of 1 Peter has to do with Christians suffering and being persecuted because of their faith in Christ.  In 2:13-25, Peter encourages Christian citizens and slaves to persist in doing good, even if they are persecuted, following the example of Christ (who suffered on the cross unjustly, but remained silent and in fidelity to His Divine calling.)  3:1-7 continues this line of thinking, and applies it to wives who are living with unbelieving spouses.  They are to persist in doing good and faith, even if they experience difficulties with their spouse as a result.  3:8-17 continues this discussion by admonishing Christians to persevere if they are suffering because of their faithfulness to Christ, knowing that Christ will exalt them eventually.  At the end of this discussion comes our perplexing verses on Jesus and His preaching ministry in Noah’s day.  Understanding this context should help us interpret the correct meaning of these verses.

Noah lived in a time when all the humans on the planet were living in direct rebellion against God.  In fact, things were so bad that God had decided to flood the earth, sentencing all humanity to death if they did not repent of their sin, and embrace the only life-saving measure God allowed at the time: getting on Noah’s ark.  In the end, only 8 people (Noah and his family) heeded God’s direction and got on the ark.  In the process of building that ark, Noah and his family experienced insults and ridicule.  Once the flood began, however, they were vindicated and experienced salvation.  As Peter wrote this letter to the persecuted church of Asia Minor, he thought of an interesting parallel between Noah’s experience, and the experience of the first century church.  Like Noah, the early church had received by faith the saving message of salvation (for Noah – the boat, for the first church – salvation through  Jesus Christ).    Like Noah, the early church had been charged with sharing this saving message with the world around them.  Like Noah, the early church was ridiculed and persecuted because of their beliefs.  I believe Peter used this illustration to remind the early church (and by application us as well) that though we may be mocked for our faith today, eventually, it will lead to the salvation of our souls and our eternal vindication.

“OK, so that may explain why He used the example of Noah, but what about Jesus preaching to the imprisoned spirits?  What’s that all about.”   I’m glad you asked!  I think that 3:19 refers to the fact that Noah’s preaching ministry during the construction of the ark was something that was done in the spirit of Christ.  In other words, Jesus was imploring the world through Noah to be reconciled to God.  This reminds me of 2 Corinthians 5:20 which says of all Christians, “We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making His appeal through us.  We implore you on Christ’s behalf:  Be reconciled to God.”  On Christ’s behalf, Noah was making an evangelistic appeal to the dying world around Him.

Now, this is certainly not the provocative interpretation you may have heard before concerning these verses.  You may have heard before about Jesus going to hell between His crucifixion and His resurrection to preach to people there who had died during Noah’s flood.  While this is an interesting and thought-provoking concept, I do not believe it is what this passage was intending to communicate.  Again, the overall context helps us to understand this.  The whole context of this section was to encourage Christians to maintain their testimony in the midst of persecution.  Noah’s experience of speaking the message of Christ to a dying world was far more analogous and relatable to the early church than Jesus’ preaching ministry in Sheol before His resurrection on the third day.  Additionally, no place else do we get this notion of “preaching to the dead.”  For these reasons, I think it is best to understand Noah’s preaching ministry as being Christ’s ambassador in that setting.  Believers today are called to be His ambassador in hostile settings as well.

Think about this for you today.  Are you living out your Christian faith in a hostile environment?  Do those you work with, live around, or are related to mock you for your faith in Christ and attempt to tear you down?  Have you ever considered that in those situations Christ wants to speak through you to call them into a relationship with Him?  Do you remember that even though life is hard, Christ has promised to exalt and vindicate us eventually?  These are some of the questions we live out in our complex lives.  Thankfully, the answer Christ seeks from us in response to these questions is quite simple.  He will preach through you and He will exalt you as you persist in faith.

5 thoughts on “A Complex Question

  1. One further thought I had on this passage is this: Jesus does not preach to the physically dead in Sheol as some have suggested this passage indicates, but He does preach to the spiritually dead all the time through the testimonies of His followers.

  2. I’m curious, why do you believe that the easier explanation (that the words mean what they appear to say) is false? Do you believe it is contradictory to other passages?

    In general, I hold the opinion that interpretation should follow the plain reading, and only look to allegorical explanations if the plain reading must be incorrect for some other reason. (Or there is strong evidence that the book/passage itself is more poetic, rather than literal, neither of which would seem to apply here.)

    All in all, it seems one has to jump through more hoops to come to a non-literal reading than a literal one, and baring an apparent contradiction with other scripture, one would think the literal interpretation to be correct.

    Thanks, Mark! 🙂

  3. Hey Nathan,

    Great question. You are absolutely correct that the normal reading of a passage is the best one. The key to any good exegesis is to understand the passage as it would have been understood by the original reader. That said, here is some more of the reasoning behind my interpretation of the passage.

    1 Peter 3:23 indicates that the example is intended to be a type or symbol. Literally, the passage reads “this water is an antitype for baptism.” This is one of those passages where the Scripture itself tells you that the author is doing something poetic in the comparison.

    Second, the whole force of the section and passage moves toward the emphasis being on preaching truth that resulted in persecution/rejection. It seems unlikely that Jesus gave those who died in the flood a second chance after His death on the cross. This seems inconsistent with other passages of Scripture. If I felt like the Bible was stronger on texts describing purgatory or some other intermediate state of the soul, I might be more agreeable to this idea, but it seems the breadth of Scripture indicates that we live once, then comes judgment. It seems far more consistent with the literal understanding of what the force of the overall passage is, that Peter was referring to the non-believers rejection of the offer to get on the ark in the days of Noah. Jesus giving this offer to these people while they were still alive seems like the far more normal understanding of the passage.

    Now, that said, there is one other interpretation that I think has some merit (but I don’t tend to buy into). This interpretation says that Jesus preached to fallen angels between the Friday of his death and the Sunday of His resurrection. The exegetical reasons for this are that the word for “spirit” used in 3:19 is used most frequently (but not exclusively) for evil spirits/demons in the New Testament. Peter also talks about demons being imprisoned in 2 Peter 2:4-ff. while Noah was saved. These two points give some credence to the view that Peter was referring to Jesus preaching to fallen angels and declaring His victory during the period of time between His death and resurrection. If this view is accurate, I would not be shocked, but I tend to favor the “Jesus preaching through Noah” type for the above mentioned reasons.

    The least likely scenario, in my opinion, is that Jesus preached to dead humans in hell or Sheol between Friday and Sunday. I don’t think this is the most “normal” reading of the passage for the original audience.

    Of course, I could be wrong on this one. There are some truths that I hold onto with a tight grip. This passage is difficult, and I hold to it with a looser grip. This is just what I understand it to be saying. Hope this helps!

    Thanks for the comments. This passage should cause all of us to ask questions and be slow to be dogmatic. As John Piper says, “Thank God for difficult truth because it forces us to trust Him with our minds.”

    Talk to you soon.


  4. I happened across this post because I am teaching this section of 1 Peter tomorrow in our women’s bible study – how timely! Quick question for you: you mentioned that we see nowhere in Scripture the idea of “preaching to the dead”. What do you make of 1 Pet 4:6? The author of the study we are following takes the novel view that Jesus, in spirit, preached to the spirits of dead Jewish exiles, emprisoned and awaiting the fulfillment of the promises of Isaiah (referenced throughout Peter’s writing). I’m not sold on that, but he uses the relationship between 3:18 and 4:6 to argue that Jesus was preaching the Gospel, not merely proclaiming victory (as He might have done to fallen angels). I still find the waters pretty murky.

  5. Amy,

    Thanks for the question. My understanding of 1 Peter 4:6 is that the Gospel was preached to people who responded by faith WHILE THEY WERE STILL ALIVE. However, after professing faith in Christ, they experienced physical death . . . but they still have spiritual life in Christ. The English Standard Version captures this idea well as it translates the passage:

    “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.”

    Eugene Peterson’s “The Message” paraphrase, captures 4:6 this way:

    “Listen to the Message. It was preached to those believers who are now dead, and yet even though they died (just as all people must), they will still get in on the life that God has given in Jesus.”

    I hope this helps. These passages do not teach having a preaching ministry to those who have already passed away. The Bible is clear in Hebrews 9:27, as well as the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, that after people die physically, they no longer have a chance to repent.

    I know these sections are difficult to understand and it would be quite arrogant for me to proclaim to have full understanding of these passages. What I am sharing is just my best understanding of the passages. May the Spirit of God guide all of us into the Truth!


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