It is written:
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. (1 Peter 4:6)
The final passage which we will examine regarding the Descent of Christ into Hades is another text from the pen of the Apostle Peter.
Barclay has summed up the three different interpretations of this passage which have been suggested throughout the years.
“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)
Is Peter saying that the Gospel was preached to those who were spiritually dead, and then made alive?
Is Peter saying that the Gospel was preached to those who were spiritually dead, and then had died physically?
Several clues make it clear that these are not the focus of Peter.
First, notice that the “dead” in this passage are obviously those who are physically dead. This is made clear in the verse directly before the one under consideration:
1 Peter 4:5-They will give an account to Him who is ready to judge the living and the dead.
The idea of “the living and the dead” is used throughout the Bible to reference those who have lived and died (physically). For confirmation of this, see: Numbers 16:48; Ruth 2:20; Ecclesiastes 9:5; Isaiah 8:19; Matthew 22:32; Acts 10:42; Romans 14:9; 2 Timothy 4:1.
Second, notice that Peter does not use the Greek word nekros (dead) to refer to anything but physical death:
“It is hardly credible to define the “dead” here as the spiritually dead, for when combined with the word “living,” it refers to all people who have ever lived….“Verse 6 is joined to the preceding by the word “for” (gar), and we will return in due course to how this verse relates to the preceding. The words “for this reason” (eis touto) do not point backward to v. 5 in this case (cf. 1 Pet 2: 21; 3: 9) but ahead to the purpose clause (“ so that,” hina). 986 The reason the gospel was preached to the dead is articulated in the last clause of the verse. Before we examine the purpose, we must investigate what Peter means by preaching the gospel to the dead. The CSB reads, “The gospel was also preached to those who are now dead.” The word “now” represents an interpretation of the text, one to which we will return. It should be noted at this juncture, however, that the word “now” is not in the Greek text. The CSB translators supply it in order to interpret the text. The NRSV supplies a more literal translation: “For this is the reason the gospel was proclaimed even to the dead.” The NRSV translation, which renders the original text well, raises a question: What is meant by the word “dead” (nekrois) here? Various answers have been given. 987 Some scholars argue that the term means “spiritually dead” (cf. John 5: 25; Eph 2: 1, 5; Col 2: 13). 988 This interpretation avoids the problem of the gospel’s being proclaimed to people who are physically dead and fits with Paul’s notion that unbelievers are spiritually dead. The solution should be rejected, however, because Peter nowhere used the term “dead” (nekros) to refer to spiritual death.” (Thomas R. Schreiner, 1-2 Peter and Jude: The Christian Standard Commentary, 5320-5353 (Kindle Edition); Holman Reference)
Third, please consider that there are numerous contextual clues which show that Peter is not addressing Christians who had died.
“The second interpretation of “the dead” is that the phrase refers to those who heard the gospel when they were alive, but are now dead. This view doesn’t have the ancient lineage of the “spiritually dead” view, but has garnered increasing support in recent decades, owing largely to the work of W. J. Dalton58 and E. G. Selwyn. 59 On this view, Peter is assuring his readers that believers who have died have not ceased to be and are enjoying a blessed existence in the eternal realm. 60 The NIV attempts to bolster this reading by inserting the word “now” into the text of this verse—“ the gospel was preached even to those who are now dead”—while admitting in a study note in the NIV Study Bible that the word “now” is not in the original Greek. Their proffered rationale for the addition is that they believe that the Bible teaches elsewhere that there are no opportunities for salvation after death. This is problematic because, as I have argued in the previous chapter, it is not obvious that Scripture does rule out salvation after death. Moreover, even given dynamic equivalence (“ thought for thought”) translation, this is an egregious example of overstepping the task of translation, for there is nothing in the text to suggest that the word “now” should be included. As such, the inclusion of “now” in the text of 1 Peter 4: 6 constitutes an obvious example of the imposition of the translator’s theology onto the text. If they wanted to suggest a particular reading of the text, they should have done so in a footnote. 61 As popular as the “now dead” interpretation of 1 Peter 4: 6 has become, it has a number of serious problems. One problem with this interpretation is that it seems highly unlikely that the author of 1 Peter would need to assure his readers about the salvation of those who had recently died because “there is no indication that the readers of 1 Peter doubted this.” 62 David Horrell has argued (persuasively I think) that projecting a worry similar to that addressed in 1 Thessalonians 4: 13-18 onto the readers of 1 Peter is implausible. 63 Moreover, understanding the preaching of the gospel to those that were alive and are now dead doesn’t fit the immediate context of the passage very well. Peter is reminding his readers that those who engage in riotous living, and who “heap abuse” of Christians for refusing to join them “will have to give account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead” (1 Pet 4: 5). As Horrell notes, “Since the phrase ‘the living and the dead’ has a general reference, we should expect the same to be true of ‘dead’ in vs. 6.” 64 The immediate context provides no justification for limiting the “dead” in 1 Peter 4: 6 to only the Christian dead.” (James Beilby, Postmortem Opportunity: A Biblical and Theological Assessment of Salvation After Death, 152-154 (Kindle Edition); Downers Grove, Illinois; IVP Academic)
So, are there any evidences that Peter is here continuing his discussion of Christ’s Descent into Hades between His death and resurrection?
Yes, there are.
First, the context of the passage argues that Peter is here still discussing the Descent of Christ into Hades. 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 these passages.
1 Peter 3:18-20
1 Peter 4:6
Through The Spirit
Through The Spirit
1 Peter 3:18-20.
• Through The Spirit
1 Peter 4:6
• Through The Spirit
Third, there is some evidence from the church fathers that the earliest Christians understood this to be a primary reference to the Descent of Christ into Hades (although they also sometimes saw merit in the other two viewpoints mentioned above).
“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.” [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.
Now, 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.