It is written:
For Christ also suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive by the Spirit, 19 by whom also He went and preached to the spirits in prison, 20 who formerly were disobedient, when once the Divine longsuffering waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight souls, were saved through water. (1 Peter 3:18-20)
The Bible teaches that Christ “preached” to the spirits in prison when He was in Hades between His death and resurrection.
What is the nature of the “preaching”of this passage?
Some contend that Jesus went in spirit form and told these beings in prison that they were one day going to be dammed. Such proponents often claim that the Greek word translated here as “preached” generally did not include a message of pardon and redemption.
Others believe that Jesus went and preached a message of possible redemption to them.
What are the facts?
We will begin by looking carefully at the word used here and translated as “preached.” It is the Greek word kerusso. It is used a total of 61 times in the New Testament.
Since this is such an important discussion, we will list every time this word is used and then examine it contextually.
Matthew 3:1-In those days John the Baptist came PREACHING in the wilderness of Judea,
Matthew 4:17-From that time Jesus began to PREACH and to say, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
Matthew 4:23-And Jesus went about all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, PREACHING the gospel of the kingdom, and healing all kinds of sickness and all kinds of disease among the people.
Matthew 9:35-Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, PREACHING the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every sickness and every disease among the people.
Matthew 10:7-And as you go, PREACH, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand.’
Matthew 10:27-Whatever I tell you in the dark, speak in the light; and what you hear in the ear, PREACH on the housetops.
Matthew 11:1-Now it came to pass, when Jesus finished commanding His twelve disciples, that He departed from there to teach and to PREACH in their cities.
Matthew 24:14-And this gospel of the kingdom will be PREACHED in all the world as a witness to all the nations, and then the end will come.
Matthew 26:13-Assuredly, I say to you, wherever this gospel is PREACHED in the whole world, what this woman has done will also be told as a memorial to her.”
Mark 1:4-John came baptizing in the wilderness and PREACHING a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins.
Mark 1:7-And he PREACHED, saying, “There comes One after me who is mightier than I, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to stoop down and loose.
Mark 1:14-Now after John was put in prison, Jesus came to Galilee, PREACHING the gospel of the kingdom of God,
Mark 1:38-But He said to them, “Let us go into the next towns, that I may PREACH there also, because for this purpose I have come forth.”
Mark 1:39-And He was preaching in their synagogues throughout all Galilee, and casting out demons.
Mark 1:45-However, he went out and began to PROCLAIM it freely, and to spread the matter, so that Jesus could no longer openly enter the city, but was outside in deserted places; and they came to Him from every direction.
Mark 5:20-And he departed and began to PROCLAIM in Decapolis all that Jesus had done for him; and all marveled.
Mark 6:12-So they went out and PREACHED that people should repent.
Mark 7:36-Then He commanded them that they should tell no one; but the more He commanded them, the more widely they PROCLAIMED it.
Mark 13:10-And the gospel must first be PREACHED to all the nations.
Mark 14:9-Assuredly, I say to you, wherever this gospel is PREACHED in the whole world, what this woman has done will also be told as a memorial to her.”
Mark 16:15-And He said to them, “Go into all the world and PREACH the gospel to every creature.
Mark 16:20-And they went out and PREACHED everywhere, the Lord working with them and confirming the word through the accompanying signs. Amen.
Luke 3:3-And he went into all the region around the Jordan, PREACHING a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins,
Luke 4:18-19-The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because He has appointed me to PREACH the Gospel to the poor; He has sent me to heal the broken-hearted, to PROCLAIM liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed; to PROCLAIM the acceptable year of the Lord.
Luke 4:44-And He was PREACHING in the synagogues of Galilee.
Luke 8:1-Now it came to pass, afterward, that He went through every city and village, PREACHING and bringing the glad tidings of the kingdom of God. And the twelve were with Him,
Luke 8:39-Return to your own house, and tell what great things God has done for you.” And he went his way and PROCLAIMED throughout the whole city what great things Jesus had done for him.
Luke 9:2-He sent them to PREACH the kingdom of God and to heal the sick.
Luke 12:3-Therefore whatever you have spoken in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have spoken in the ear in inner rooms will be PROCLAIMED on the housetops.
Luke 24:47-and that repentance and remission of sins should be PREACHED in His name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.
Acts 8:5-Then Philip went down to the city of Samaria and PREACHED Christ to them.
Acts 9:20-Immediately he PREACHED the Christ in the synagogues, that He is the Son of God.
Acts 10:37-that word you know, which was proclaimed throughout all Judea, and began from Galilee after the baptism which John PREACHED:
Acts 10:42-And He commanded us to PREACH to the people, and to testify that it is He who was ordained by God to be Judge of the living and the dead.
Acts 15:21-For Moses has had throughout many generations those who PREACH him in every city, being read in the synagogues every Sabbath.”
Acts 19:13-Then some of the itinerant Jewish exorcists took it upon themselves to call the name of the Lord Jesus over those who had evil spirits, saying, “We exorcise you by the Jesus whom Paul PREACHES.”
Acts 20:25-And indeed, now I know that you all, among whom I have gone PREACHING the kingdom of God, will see my face no more.
Acts 28:31-PREACHING the kingdom of God and teaching the things which concern the Lord Jesus Christ with all confidence, no one forbidding him.
Romans 2:21-You, therefore, who teach another, do you not teach yourself? You who PREACH that a man should not steal, do you steal?
Romans 10:8-But what does it say? “THE WORD IS NEAR YOU, IN YOUR MOUTH AND IN YOUR HEART” (that is, the word of faith which we PREACH):
Romans 10:14-How then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a PREACHER?
Romans 10:15-And how shall they preach unless they are sent? As it is written: ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who PREACH the Gospel of peace, who bring glad tidings of good things!”
1 Corinthians 1:23-but we PREACH Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness,
1 Corinthians 9:27-But I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have PREACHED to others, I myself should become disqualified.
1 Corinthians 15:11-Therefore, whether it was I or they, so we PREACH and so you believed.
1 Corinthians 15:12-Now if Christ is PREACHED that He has been raised from the dead, how do some among you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?
2 Corinthians 1:19-For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, who was PREACHED among you by us—by me, Silvanus, and Timothy—was not Yes and No, but in Him was Yes.
2 Corinthians 4:5-For we do not PREACH ourselves, but Christ Jesus the Lord, and ourselves your bondservants for Jesus’ sake.
2 Corinthians 11:4-For if he who comes PREACHES another Jesus whom we have not PREACHED, or if you receive a different spirit which you have not received, or a different gospel which you have not accepted—you may well put up with it!
Galatians 2:2-And I went up by revelation, and communicated to them that gospel which I PREACH among the Gentiles, but privately to those who were of reputation, lest by any means I might run, or had run, in vain.
Galatians 5:11-And I, brethren, if I still preach circumcision, why do I still suffer persecution? Then the offense of the cross has ceased.
Philippians 1:15-Some indeed PREACH Christ even from envy and strife, and some also from goodwill:
Colossians 1:23-if indeed you continue in the faith, grounded and steadfast, and are not moved away from the hope of the gospel which you heard, which was PREACHED to every creature under heaven, of which I, Paul, became a minister.
1 Thessalonians 2:9-For you remember, brethren, our labor and toil; for laboring night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you, we PREACHED to you the gospel of God.
1 Timothy 3:16-And without controversy great is the mystery of godliness: God was manifested in the flesh, Justified in the Spirit, Seen by angels, PREACHED among the Gentiles, Believed on in the world, Received up in glory.
1 Peter 3:19-by whom also He went and PREACHED to the spirits in prison,
Revelation 5:2-Then I saw a strong angel PROCLAIMING with a loud voice, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and to loose its seals?”
That is every time the word kerusso is used in the New Testament.
Some claim that this word does not imply the idea of salvation per se.
“The verb Peter uses here is ἐκήρυξεν, and it is a generic word that simply indicates proclamation, good or bad, in both the Old Testament (LXX Gen 41: 43; Ex 32: 5; 36: 6; 2 Kings 10: 20; Esther 6: 9; Jon 1: 2) and the New Testament (Lk 4: 19; 8: 39; 12: 3; Rom 2: 21; Rev 5: 2). Elsewhere in 1 Peter, εὐανγγελίζω is used for the specific proclamation of the gospel (1 Pet 1: 12, 25; 4: 6). In other words, there is nothing in 1 Peter 3: 18-20 or in the rest of the canon of Scripture that demands or even implies that this preaching is a postmortem gospel proclamation that can be responded to in faith, resulting in the salvation of those who believe.” (Matthew Y. Emerson, “He Descended to the Dead”: An Evangelical Theology of Holy Saturday, 62 (Kindle Edition); Downers Grove, Illinois; IVP Academic)
While it is true that the word kerusso often could be used to refer to an official proclamation of doom, the word itself does not exclude in any way the idea of forgiveness being extended. In fact, there are several considerations which strongly suggest that the word kerusso used here by Peter was his declaration that the Lord Jesus was offering forgiveness.
First, the word itself often had the meaning of an official offer of pardon and salvation in the Bible and in other Jewish literature before the time of Christ. Simply scan the catalogue of verses listed above which use the word kerusso, and this will be quickly evident. There are statements of salvation, receiving forgiveness of sins, redemption, entering into the kingdom of God, etc., all connected with the Greek word kerusso.
This fact has not escaped the notice of other researchers.
“Second, this view forces an awkward interpretation of the word for “preached” (Greek: ἐκήρυξεν, from the verb κηρύσσω). Schreiner argues that this fact is “the greatest difficulty” for those who claim that Christ preached only to angelic beings. 37 In the New Testament and Septuagint this word is consistently used to refer to evangelistic preaching. 38 These considerations suggest that “on the whole it seems more satisfactory to take κηρύσσω in its normal New Testament sense,” 39 namely as a preaching of the good news of salvation, not as a message of condemnation….A second objection to this “Postmortem Opportunity–friendly” reading is that Peter does not use the word typically used to convey evangelism (εὐαγγελίζω), a word that he uses elsewhere (1 Pet 1: 12, 25; 4: 6). While εὐαγγελίζω is commonly used to convey a proclamation of the gospel, κηρύσσω is used more broadly, as a formal and official proclamation of information. This point is granted, but it is important to note that there is nothing in it that undercuts the notion that Jesus preached the gospel to the dead in Hades. Even if εὐαγγελίζω is more commonly used to convey a proclamation of the gospel than κηρύσσω, there is nothing in the meaning of it or of κηρύσσω that rules out it being used to convey a proclamation of the gospel. In fact, κηρύσσω is used to convey a proclamation of the gospel dozens of times in the New Testament—thirty-two times in the Synoptics alone. 50 Kηρύσσω is also the word used in one of the most obvious “gospel proclamation” passages in the New Testament, Romans 10: 14-15: “How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can anyone preach unless they are sent? As it is written: ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!’” 51 So why κηρύσσω instead of εὐαγγελίζω? It is impossible to say for sure, but perhaps the descent of Christ into Hades was of such significance that Peter chose the word that conveyed a more formal pronouncement—perhaps a pronouncement befitting the entrance of a Conqueror to his conquered realm.” (James Beilby, Postmortem Opportunity: A Biblical and Theological Assessment of Salvation After Death, 147-151 (Kindle Edition); Downers Grove, Illinois; IVP Academic)
Second, it is always a good rule of thumb when studying a text of Scripture to notice how a writer uses a particular word or phrase to help understand its’ general meaning. While it is true that Peter only uses the word kerusso in his first Epistle (here in 1 Peter 3:19), it is not the case that he never uses the word elsewhere!
Remember that Luke records Peter’s sermon to the household of Cornelius. Peter uses the Greek word kerusso two times on that occasion to reference the preaching of the kingdom of God which encompassed salvation for all who will turn to the Lord in obedient faith (cf. Acts 10:37, 42-43, 47-48). Clearly, Peter used the word kerusso to reference preaching which offered salvation and forgiveness.
More specifically, the Gospel of Mark was written based on Peter’s statements to Mark. The writings of the church fathers bear this out quite extensively.
“Having become the interpreter of Peter, Mark wrote down accurately whatever he remembered. However, he did not relate the sayings or deeds of Christ in exact order. For he neither heard the Lord nor accompanied Him. But afterwards, as I said, he accompanied Peter. Now, Peter accommodated his instructions to the necessities [of his hearers], but with no intention of giving a regular narrative of the Lord’s sayings. Accordingly, Mark made no mistake in thus writing some things as he remembered them. For one thing, he took special care not to omit anything he had heard, and not to put anything fictitious into the statements.” (Papias (c. 120, E), 1.155, as quoted by Eusebius)
“After their departure, Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, also handed down to us in writing what had been preached by Peter.” (Irenaeus (c. 180, E/ W), 1.414)
“Mark, the interpreter and follower of Peter, begins his Gospel narrative in this manner.” (Irenaeus (c. 180, E/ W), 1.425)
“Mark was the follower of Peter. Peter publicly preached the gospel at Rome before some of Caesar’s equestrian knights, and adduced many testimonies to Christ. In order that thereby they might be able to commit to memory what was spoken by Peter, Mark wrote entirely what is called the Gospel according to Mark.” (Clement of Alexandria (c. 195, E), 2.573)
With that in mind, notice how Mark’s Gospel connects kerusso with the offer of salvation (Mark 1:4, 14, 38, 39, 45; 5:20; 6:12; 7:36; 13:10; 14:9). Perhaps the most obvious in this regard is the teaching of Jesus that Peter recounted to Mark:
Mark 16:15-16-And He said to them, “Go into all the world and PREACH the gospel to every creature. 16 He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned.
When we carefully examine the usage of the word kerusso in the New Testament, we see that it had the idea of evangelistic preaching.
When we carefully examine Peter’s use of kerusso in the preaching of Peter at Cornelius household, as well as his use of this word in his dictations to Mark, we see that Peter used the word kerusso with the sense of evangelistic preaching.
When Christ descended into Hades and preached to the people of Noah’s day who perished in the Flood, He preached a message of repentance and salvation.
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit, be with you all. Amen.