This article is part of the Tough Passages series.
18For 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,19in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, 20 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.21Baptism, 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,22who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him.
—1 Peter 3:18-22
1 Peter 3:18–22 is not merely the most difficult passage in 1 Peter; it is one of the more challenging texts in the entire NT.1 Our approach to it thus calls for both careful analysis and hermeneutical humility.2
3:18–193 That Jesus died “once for all” (hapax) puts his sacrifice in contrast with the OT sacrifices, which had to be repeated daily. That he died “the righteous for the unrighteous” (cf. Isa. 53:11) points us to the requirement that an atoning sacrifice be unblemished and spotless and also highlights the unmistakable substitutionary nature of Christ’s death. The aim of Christ was to overcome the alienation brought about by our sin and to bring us to God, a theme found yet again in Romans 5:2 and Ephesians 2:18.
We must not overlook the seemingly unimportant “also” (kai ), which indicates that Peter is here providing the rationale for verses 13–17. In other words, we should readily embrace undeserved suffering because “Christ also” suffered in this way. Needless to say, we do not suffer in the precise way he did, as a substitutionary sacrifice to propitiate the wrath of God, but we should still find in Christ’s atonement an incentive to bear up under the oppressive persecution of the non-Christian world.
The last clause of verse 18 provides an apt transition to a focus on Christ’s triumphant defeat of all enemies, as seen in his resurrection, ascension, and exaltation to the right hand of God. His “being” put to death and made alive suggests either a causal relationship, in the sense that he brought us to God because he died and was raised, or an instrumental emphasis: it was by means of his death and resurrection that we are brought near to God. The difference between these two options is minimal. There may even be a concessive force to the first participle: “Although he was put to death in the flesh, he was also made alive in the spirit.”
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The terms “flesh” and “spirit” do not refer to the two elements of which we are composed—the material (body) and the immaterial (soul or spirit)—as if to suggest that the former dies but the latter survives. Such Greek categories of thought are foreign to the NT. Neither do these terms refer to the two natures of Christ, human and divine. Rather they refer to two modes or spheres of existence. As R. T. France has noted, “sarx [flesh] in the New Testament denotes the natural human sphere of existence, and pneuma [spirit] in contrast with it denotes the supernatural sphere.”4 Again France explains:
Here the contrast is between Christ’s death in the natural sphere, and his risen life in the eternal, spiritual sphere. His earthly life ended, but that was succeeded by his heavenly life. Thus the second phrase [“made alive in the spirit”] does not refer to Christ disembodied, but to Christ risen to life on a new plane.5
In other words, “made alive in the spirit” does not refer to an experience of Christ prior to the resurrection, as if after he died he entered into an intermediate, disembodied state.6 Simply put, the final clause of verse 18 is directly descriptive of the death and resurrection of Christ (cf. 1 Tim. 3:16). He died in the earthly, temporal realm, a realm characterized by flesh, and he was made alive or raised to the heavenly, eternal realm, a realm characterized by spirit.7
The opening relative clause in verse 19, “in which,” clearly has as its antecedent the word pneumati (“spirit”) from verse 18. Since the latter has in view the resurrection of Christ, what follows in verse 19 must be an experience subsequent to his resurrection, not prior to it.8Whereas some argue that the clause “in which” has no antecedent and should simply be translated “when,” each case they cite in 1 Peter as purportedly similar fails to convince insofar as not one of them has a masculine or neuter noun in the preceding clause that might be taken as an antecedent (cf. 1:6; 2:12; 3:16; 4:4).
The verb translated “went” in verse 19a is crucial for the proper interpretation of this passage. There is nothing in the verb suggesting the idea of a “descent” into hell: it is the standard Greek verb meaning “to go” ( poreuomai ). Its significance is seen in its usage in verse 22, where it describes the ascension of the risen Christ: he “has gone” (or “went”) into heaven, where he is seated at God’s right hand. As we will see below, the verb here describes the same event: the ascension and exaltation of the risen Savior. In other words, far from describing a “descent,” it actually describes an “ascent.”9
Who or what are the “spirits in prison” to whom Christ made proclamation? There are three primary competing views. One is that they are the “spirits” of human beings who have died physically. But, as France points out, in none of the purported parallel texts supporting such a view “is pneuma used absolutely; it is always qualified by ‘of the dead’, ‘of the righteous’ [Heb. 12:23], etc. If ta pneumata here meant ‘people who have died’, it would be a unique absolute use in this sense. This does not exclude the possibility entirely, but it casts strong doubt on it.”10
On the other hand, the noun pneuma is frequently used in the NT for angelic beings.11One must also take into account the statement in verse 20 that these “spirits” in prison “did not obey.” If the “spirits” in question were living human beings when this rebellion occurred, we would expect Peter to refer to the “spirits of those who disobeyed.”
Those who insist on taking “spirits” as a reference to human beings identify them as those men and women who rebelled in the days of Noah, perhaps especially those who mocked him for building an ark. Thus it was the preincarnate second person of the Trinity, before he became human flesh in the person of Jesus, who through or in or by means of the Holy Spirit preached to disobedient people living in the days of Noah just before the flood. Christ was not personally present at that time but by means of the Spirit spoke to them through Noah.12
A variation on the notion that “spirits” here refers to human beings argues that it was during the three days between his death and his resurrection that Christ descended into hell and preached to those who were disobedient during the days preceding the flood of Noah. From this some have concluded that he was giving them a second chance to be saved after their deaths.13
The most likely view is that Peter has in mind those rebellious angels (demons) who sought unnatural and immoral unions with female humans. This is the incident recorded in Genesis 6:1–5 (cf. the parallel references in 2 Pet. 2:4 and Jude 6).14 As punishment for their grievous sin, God consigned them to “prison” to await their final punishment in the lake of fire. It was to these demonic spirits that Christ proclaimed his victory and their judgment, after his resurrection and likely at the time of his ascension.15
Where or of what nature this “prison” might be is not stated by Peter. The likelihood is that the term is used figuratively to make the point that these demonic spirits are in some sense confined or restrained by God until the time of final judgment. “The main point to be established is that there is no mention of going down, or of Sheol or Hades (which is never called phylakē [prison] in biblical literature). Christ went to the prison of the fallen angels, not to the abode of the dead, and the two are never equated.”16
But when and in what way did these “spirits” or “demons” disobey, and why was it important for Jesus to proclaim his victory over them? Two other texts likely refer to this same event (cf. 2 Pet. 2:4–5 and Jude 6–7). Each is probably referring to what we read in Genesis 6:1–5, where “the sons of God saw that the daughters of man were attractive” and “took” them “as their wives.” This was the “sin” (or disobedience; 1 Pet. 3:20a) of those demons referred to, for which they are now confined in prison. This sin was not the original demonic rebellion, for why, then, would only some be confined and not all? It cannot be that only the more wicked were permanently confined, for Satan, the most wicked of all, is still free. The context in 1 Peter 3 and 2 Peter 2 (cf. Jude 6) links this “sin” with the flood of Noah, and it is likely that all three passages are referring to the event in Genesis 6.17
The time of this proclamation is clearly indicated in the relative clause with which verse 19 opens: “in which.” Although not overtly temporal in force, its antecedent in verse 18b (“made alive in the spirit”) points to a time subsequent to the resurrection of Christ. What is important to remember is that nothing in this passage suggests that the time of this proclamation was between Christ’s death and resurrection.
Did Christ “preach” the gospel or “proclaim” judgment to the spirits in prison? In favor of the former is the normal use of “herald” (kēryssō) in the NT (but cf. Luke 12:3; Rom. 2:21; Rev. 5:2 for exceptions; possibly also Luke 4:19 and 8:39). Elsewhere in 1 Peter the gospel is made known with the verb euangelizō (1:12, 25; 4:6), while kēryssō appears only this one time in the letter. In support of kēryssō denoting a proclamation of judgment is the use of “herald” in the LXX, where the verb often describes the bringing of bad news as well as good. It is also likely that what Christ “proclaimed” was his definitive triumph over and subjugation of “[fallen] angels, authorities, and powers” (v. 22). All were “subjected to him” by virtue of his death, resurrection, ascension, and exaltation (cf. Eph. 1:20–22; Col. 2:15; Heb. 2:14).
One must also ask what relevance there would be for his readers in the first century in a proclamation of the “gospel” to humans living in the time of Noah. On the other hand, as France has noted, the triumphant declaration to the evil demonic spirits was of immediate practical help to those who were suffering persecution:
They might be called to endure the worst that anti-Christian prejudice could inflict. But even then they could be assured that their pagan opponents, and, more important, the spiritual powers of evil that stood behind them and directed them, were not outside Christ’s control: they were already defeated, awaiting final punishment. Christ had openly triumphed over them. Here is real comfort and strength for a persecuted church which took very seriously the reality and power of spiritual forces.18
The Foreshadow of Christ
Peter’s reference to the “spirits” or demons who disobeyed just before the great flood, as described in Genesis 6, provides the link to his mention of Noah and the building of the ark. Peter sees in Noah’s experience and that of the other seven people with him a pattern or type or prefiguring or foreshadowing of the experience of Christians in his day (and today as well):
- The fewness of the people saved in the ark / the minority to whom Peter is writing
- Noah and his family persecuted and slandered / Peter’s audience persecuted and slandered
- God setting apart Noah and his family in the ark / God setting apart the Christians of the first century and today through baptism
The fallen angels were (and are) in prison “because they formerly did not obey,” that is to say, “when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah.” The period during which God waited patiently falls between the rebellion of the “sons of God” (fallen angels) as described in Genesis 6:1–4 and the flood of Noah (Gen. 7:11), which most believe (based on Gen. 6:3) to have been 120 years, the time during which Noah was building the ark.
Peter’s first-century readers were undoubtedly aware of their small numbers and could easily have been overwhelmed as they compared themselves with the pagan majority around them. Thus they are here reminded that only a “few” (eight persons) were preserved from the judgment of the flood. The ESV translates the preposition dia (followed by the genitive “water”) as local, hence “through water.” This is certainly possible, while others argue for an instrumental sense of dia, “by means of water.” France is probably correct in pointing out that “the instrumental sense is much easier when one considers the typological application: the Christian is more easily viewed as saved ‘by means of’ the water of baptism than by passing through it, though the latter is also possible. Probably Peter is deliberately exploiting the ambiguity of the word dia to assist his passage from the Old Testament story to its typological application.”19
In good faith or conscience we appeal to God for vindication, that we might be considered part of his victory won by Christ in the resurrection.
Antitype of Noah
The grammar in the opening of verse 21 is difficult. To simplify, we should probably understand it in this way: “which (water) now also saves you, (who) are the antitype (of Noah and his family)—(that is) baptism.” In other words, the experience of Noah and his family in the flood is the type of which Peter’s audience and their baptism is the antitype (antitypon). France is especially helpful here:
The essential principle of New Testament typology is that God works according to a regular pattern, so that what he has done in the past, as recorded in the Old Testament, can be expected to find its counterpart in his work in the decisive period of the New Testament. Thus persons, events and institutions of the Old Testament, which in themselves need have no forward reference, are cited as ‘types’, models of corresponding persons, events and institutions in the life of Christ and the Christian church. On this principle, then, . . . Peter takes the salvation of Noah in the flood as a model of the Christian’s salvation through baptism.20
Peter immediately qualifies the sense in which baptism saves us: it is not by the physical action itself, in which dirt is removed from the body. In other words, the physical action of baptism has no intrinsic saving power. There is no mechanical relationship between being immersed in water and being forgiven. The only sense in which baptism saves, says Peter, is insofar as it provides the occasion for an “appeal to God for a good conscience.”
“Appeal” (ESV) is the translation of eperōtēma, which others render as “pledge.” If the former is accurate, the one being baptized “appeals” to God, on the basis of the death and resurrection of Christ (or more literally, “through” or “by means of,” if dia is instrumental; cf. 1:3), to cleanse one’s conscience and forgive one’s sins.21 In good faith or conscience we appeal to God for vindication, that we might be considered part of his victory won by Christ in the resurrection (3:21b). It is only in this light that God uses the water of baptism to save us—as it links us to Christ and his victory and promises.
The focus of verse 22 (based on the language of Ps. 110:1; cf. Acts 2:33; 5:31; Rom. 8:34; Col. 3:1; Heb. 1:3, 13; 10:12; 12:2) is the exaltation and ascension of the risen Savior, which signifies his complete subjugation of all fallen and rebellious demonic powers. “Angels, authorities, and powers” is standard NT language for the fallen demonic hosts (Rom. 8:38–39; 1 Cor. 15:24–27; Eph. 1:21; 3:10; 6:12; Col. 1:16; 2:10, 15). Their subjection to Christ is undoubtedly the content of his proclamation (1 Pet. 3:19).
- Martin Luther’s conclusion is shared by many: “[Verses 18–19] is as strange a text and as dark a saying as any in the New Testament, so that I am not yet sure what St. Peter intended” (cited by Achtemeier, 1 Peter, 252).
- For additional insights on this passage, see Daniel R. Hyde, In Defense of the Descent: A Response to Contemporary Critics (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage, 2010).
- There are numerous textual problems in verse 18. Some manuscripts read “he died” (apethanen) rather than “he suffered.” Some add “on your behalf” or “for you” (hyper hymōn) while others read “on our behalf” (hyper hēmōn). Notwithstanding these variations, the likely reading is reflected in the ESV: “Christ also suffered once for sins.”
- R. T. France, “Exegesis in Practice: Two Examples,” in New Testament Interpretation: Essays on Principles and Methods, ed. I. Howard Marshall (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1977), 267. Paul speaks similarly, although with slightly different terms ( psychikos and pneumatikos), in 1 Corinthians 15:42ff., where his focus is on two different types of bodies adapted or suitable to two different modes of existence.
- Ibid., 267. Likewise, Jobes, 1 Peter, 239
- For an extended defense of the notion that Christ “descended” into Hades after his death but before his resurrection, see the work by Justin W. Bass, The Battle for the Keys: Revelation 1:18 and Christ’s Descent into the Underworld (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2014).
- The datives of “flesh” and “spirit” are datives of either sphere or reference/respect. Again, the distinction is minimal.
- In the words of Peter H. Davids, “It was, then, in his post-resurrection state that Christ went somewhere and preached something to certain spirits in some prison. All these terms call for an explanation” (The First Epistle of Peter [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1990], 138).
- Had Peter wanted us to think of a “descent” he likely would have used the verb katabainō (“to go down, descend”). Achtemeier rightly concludes that “there is no necessity, therefore, to understand the verb poreutheis to mean ‘descend’; it refers to a journey, no more. On the other hand, the verb poreuomai is the verb used in the NT to describe Christ’s ascension” (1 Peter, 257). On this view, then, “the three elements of the redemptive event are in view in 3:18–19: the crucifixion, the resurrection, and the ascension” (Jobes, 1 Peter, 242). 47 France, “Exegesis in Practice,” 269
- France, “Exegesis in Practice,” 269.
- Aside from Hebrews 12:23, the plural of pneuma is used never of humans but only of spirit beings (whether good angels, as in Heb. 1:14; or evil angels, as in Matt. 8:16), and this more than thirty times in the NT. Grudem cites Matthew 27:50 and John 19:30 as instances where pneuma is used absolutely of the human spirit, but in both texts pneuma is singular, not plural.
- The best defense of this view can be found in Grudem, “Appendix: Christ Preaching through Noah: 1 Peter 3:19–20 in the Light of Dominant Themes in Jewish Literature,” in First Epistle of Peter, 203–239, and in John Feinberg, “1 Peter 3:18–20: Ancient Mythology and the Intermediate State,” WTJ 48 (October 1986): 303–336
- On this, see my comments below on 1 Peter 4:1–6. One must also ask, if a second chance for salvation was being offered, why extend it only to this select group of the physically dead and not to all who died prior to the coming of Christ?
- Although only of secondary relevance, it is interesting to observe that this is the view taken by the author of 1 Enoch 6:1–16:4; 18:12–19:2; 21:1–10; 54:3–6; 64:1–69:29.
- The clearest and most succinct defense of this view is found in Schreiner, 1, 2 Peter, Jude, 184–190
- France, “Exegesis in Practice,” 271. As noted, “prison” ( phylakē) is never used of the abode of humans who have died, but is used of the location of Satan and demons (Rev. 18:2 [3x; each of which is translated “haunt” in the ESV]; 20:7).
- For a more thorough explanation of Genesis 6 and its relevance for 1 Peter 3, see Michael S. Heiser, The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible (Bellingham, WA: Lexham, 2015), 101–109, 185–191; as well as my chapter, “Did Jesus Descend into Hell?” in Tough Topics 2: Biblical Answers to 25 Challenging Questions (Ross-shire, UK: Christian Focus Publications, 2015), 63–76.
- France, “Exegesis in Practice,” 272.
- Ibid., 273.
- Ibid., 273–274
- This entails taking the genitive noun syneidēseōs agathēs, “good conscience” (ESV) as objective: one is asking or appealing to God “for” a good conscience, i.e., that one’s conscience might be cleansed of the guilt of sin.
This article is adapted from ESV Expository Commentary: Hebrews–Revelation (Volume 12) edited by Iain M. Duguid, James M. Hamilton Jr., and Jay Sklar.