By BARBARANNE KELLY|CONTRIBUTOR
The post for lesson 12, part 1 ended not only mid-lesson, but also mid-sentence and mid-verse! In 1 Peter 3:18, Peter pivots from Christ’s substitutionary atonement on the cross to something else Christ has done—and the rest of the sentence, which goes through verse 20, has confounded interpreters and theologians for centuries. What exactly did he do, when and how did he do it? In this post we may not solve the riddle which Peter here sets before us, but we will survey the options. We will also finish the lesson with the discussion of baptism into which Peter segues after writing about Noah. To cover this portion of Scripture in more depth than the study questions have, we will be going off-road, so, fasten your seatbelts as we take a wild ride through the tangled brush of theological history.
“For 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, in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, 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.” (1 Peter 3:18-20)
Verse eighteen begins with Peter’s magnificent declaration of the sufficiency and substitutionary nature of Christ’s cross-work, moves to the glorious result that we now have access to the Father, and then, what? The rest of the passage, right through verse 22 is, according to Daniel Doriani, “by all accounts the most difficult passage to interpret in 1 Peter—some say the entire New Testament.” And yet, “however difficult it may be, if we read the passage in context and hold to the essentials of the faith, we will at least avoid major error.”
Remembering that “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16) and keeping our eyes on the larger context of 1 Peter in which our passage is found will help keep us on the right path. We can be fully confident that God didn’t inspire Peter to write one sentence here that will overthrow whole doctrines clearly taught elsewhere in his holy Word.
So, let’s begin with a parallel passage in 1 Peter to set the context. In chapter two, verses 18-25 Jesus is put before us as the supreme example of an innocent man treated unjustly. “In 1 Peter 2, Jesus suffers injustice and entrusts himself to God. In 1 Peter 3, Jesus suffers for doing good and experiences vindication. In each passage, Jesus both illustrates and empowers righteous action.” Peter has been writing his entire epistle for the purpose of encouraging us to persevere through suffering and he has set our Lord Jesus Christ before us as our ultimate example. We are to follow him through our own suffering, being mindful of God and entrusting ourselves to him, because this is a gracious thing in his sight and through our trials our faith is purified and strengthened.
Now that we have the context, let’s look at what the passage does say:
Jesus was put to death, in the flesh.
Jesus was made alive in the Spirit (or, in his spirit).
Jesus has gone into heaven, is at the right hand of God, and angels, authorities, and powers have been made subject to him (he reigns).
Between the second and third points above is where the uncertainties lie. There are several interpretations afloat, but I will focus on the three main views that I found in my reading.
Three Main Interpretations
- After Christ’s death and his resurrection, Jesus descended into hell and preached the gospel to the spirits of those sinners who perished in the time of Noah.
This is the view held by Origen (184-253 AD), to whom Rob Bell appealed when writing Love Wins, the book in which his apostasy was first openly displayed.
“At the center of Christian tradition since the first church have been a number who insist that history is not tragic, hell is not forever, and love, in the end, wins and all will be reconciled to God.”
It may very well be true that since the first church there have been those who believed such things. Where Bell misses the point is that they were not at the center, but at the fringe of the church; there were heretics then, and to resurrect their teachings today is still heresy. (whether Origen followed his teaching fully into heresy is not my purpose here. Rob Bell, however, did.)
The Russian Orthodox Church’s patristic traditions and liturgy also appeal to 1 Peter 3 to support their doctrine that Jesus “freed all who were held captive,” and “emptied hell” so that no mortals remained. A careful reading of 1 Peter does not lead to this conclusion. Picking and choosing passages of Scripture out of context for the purpose of supporting extra-biblical traditions is neither wise nor safe.
Bell’s and the Russian Orthodox Church’s position is called Universalism, and it simply doesn’t square with the rest of the biblical teaching of salvation. The plain teaching of Scripture leaves no room for ongoing post-mortem preaching or offering the gospel of salvation to those who died in their sins.
“Basic to this theory [that Christ preached the gospel in hades] is the assumption that it is God’s intent to save all humans, that the preaching of the gospel has to be absolutely universal, that all humans must be personally and individually confronted by the choice for or against the gospel, that in making that choice the decision lies within human power, that original and actual sins are insufficient to condemn anyone, and that only deliberate unbelief towards the gospel makes a person worthy of eternal ruin.”
We now move on to the next view, which is the most common understanding of 1 Peter 3:18-22 in the evangelical/protestant church today.
- “The resurrected Christ, during his ascension to heaven, proclaimed to imprisoned spirits his victory over death. The exalted Christ passed through the realm where the fallen angels are kept and proclaimed his triumph over them (Eph. 6:12; Col. 2:15).”
This is the view, with some variation as to particulars, held by Kistemaker and Bavinck, among many others.
“All we are told [in 1 Peter 3:18-22] is that after his resurrection, Christ, made alive in the spirit, went to heaven and by his ascension preached to the spirits in prison and made angels, authorities, and powers subject to him.”
This view does not deviate from the rest of Scripture’s teaching on salvation, and indeed, honors the glory and majesty of our risen and victorious Lord.
“Now Christ indeed was killed in the flesh and made alive and resurrected in the Spirit, since the Spirit of holiness as Spirit was the governing principle of his whole life. And as such, journeying as the vivified, risen Spirit, as Lord and King, he went, not to hell, but as verse 22 indicates, to heaven, and thereby preached to the spirits in heaven. That is, his going to heaven as the risen Lord was a message to the spirits in prison. . . The fact of his rising again and ascending to heaven was itself a rich, powerful, and triumphant message to the spirits in prison.”
If this is Peter’s meaning, the point of the passage would be that, just as Jesus was vindicated, so too Christians will be vindicated. We serve a faithful God, to whom we may safely entrust our lives and our eternal destinies, even though we live in perilous times.
And now, the third view.
- Christ, through the Spirit, preached to the people who were alive in Noah’s day—not in his incarnate form, but through the Spirit—when they were alive. Then, subsequently, they died in their unbelief, faced judgement, they are now imprisoned in hell, though they were not in hell when Jesus preached to them.
This is roughly the view held by Augustine (354-430 AD), and it is the view expounded by Don Carson in his address to The Gospel Coalition’s 2016 Women’s Conference. (I have included the link below and highly recommend you taking the time to watch or listen to his message.) To flesh this out a bit more and to show how it ties to the context of the rest of 1 Peter, I will borrow from Dr. Carson’s message.
Jesus Christ was physically put to death, “in the flesh,” but was made alive in the spirit. This was the same spirit in which he had gone beforehand and made proclamation to the people in Noah’s day. We have already learned from Peter about the Old Testament prophets. Read the following carefully:
“Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired carefully, inquiring what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories.” (1 Peter 1:10-11)
And now, our passage:
“For Christ… being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, 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.” (1 Peter 3:18-20)
Peter teaches in chapter 1 of this epistle that the prophets were speaking by the Spirit of Christ. When the Spirit-of-Christ-empowered prophets were speaking their prophecies of the coming Messiah, they didn’t always understand how or when their prophecies would come about. In his 2nd epistle, Peter writes that Noah was “a herald of righteousness” (2:5, ESV; “preacher of righteousness,” NASB & NIV). Noah, in his day, while the ark was being built, was preaching to the ungodly world around him, and he was rejected and mocked for it. How did Noah preach righteousness? Through the Spirit of Christ in him. Noah called the people to repentance and faith—they didn’t repent and believe—and they are now, therefore, in hell.
Why would Peter use the analogy of Noah and the ungodly people among whom he lived as an example in his epistle? What relevance does this have to his audience?
In Noah’s day there were a small minority of believers (8, to be precise).
In Noah’s day the broader culture didn’t hear or receive God’s Word.
Noah was a righteous man living in the midst of a wicked generation.
Noah bore witness to those around him and was willing to be mocked and insulted for it.
In Noah’s day, judgement was impending.
And, in Noah’s day, the righteous were finally saved, vindicated, and approved.
Every one of those statements held true for Peter’s readers, and they are true of us today. Christians in the first century were a small minority among a broader culture which didn’t hear or receive, but rather, despised God’s true Word. They were righteous people living in the midst of a wicked generation, and as they bore witness to the truth they were mocked and insulted for it. In the first century God’s judgement was impending (1 Peter 4:5), and Peter wants his readers to know for certain that in the end they will be finally saved, vindicated, and approved. As true as it was for first century believers, it is true for us today.
“Peter wants us to know that if we suffer and even die for the faith, God will raise and vindicate us too. It is all too common for Western Christians to obsess over their pains and sorrows. But if we can discipline ourselves to lift our eyes from present troubles, we should find courage in knowing that we will follow the pattern of Christ, through suffering to resurrection and vindication.”
Amen, and amen!
Baptism, Now Saves You
And now we are thrust straight into another conundrum, but if we keep our heads, and our theology, above water, we will come through this, too, with our soteriology intact.
“Baptism, 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, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him.” (1 Peter 3:21-22)
Peter’s flow of thought rolls straight from Noah and the ark to baptism. In speaking of Noah, he observes that only a few, “that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water” (20). The very water that brought judgement and drowning to the wicked world of Noah’s day was the same water that lifted the boat in which Noah and his family found safety and refuge. Peter’s thoughts move logically from the analogy of Noah as a preacher of righteousness in an ungodly world to the means by which true Christians are saved, and I have news: it’s not by baptism.
Well, not really.
Yes, he does write, “Baptism… now saves you.” But we know that the vast testimony of Scripture declares unequivocally that we are saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone, which is a gift from God, not something which we can do for ourselves (Eph. 4:4-9). So, what is Peter saying here?
Don Carson explains in his conference message that Peter is likely speaking of baptism by way of metonymy to symbolize true conversion. Let’s define our term. Metonymy means: a figure of speech that consists of the use of the name of one object or concept for that of another to which it is related, or of which it is a part, as “scepter” for “sovereignty,” or “the bottle” for “strong drink,” or “count heads (or noses)” for “count people.”
For example, I and many people I know have been enjoying the Netflix series, The Crown. It quickly became evident that when anyone in the show, loyal subjects of Great Britain, all, refer to “the Crown,” they are not referring to the actual jewel-encrusted headpiece worn by the Queen for special occasions, but to the institution of the monarchy itself. The Queen herself, though she wears the crown, is subject to the rules, customs, and traditions of the monarchy which go back for centuries. So when she, or anyone, speaks of “the Crown,” they mean something much greater which is so closely associated with the royal crown worn on occasion by Queen Elizabeth II, that it is bound up together in the one simple phrase, “the Crown.”
In the early days of the church, those who came to faith in Christ were baptized right away and joined the church. It was unheard of for someone to be an unbaptized Christian, or a Christian who wasn’t a member of the church. These were all bound up together: true conversion, baptism, and church membership. So, to speak of one who was baptized was to speak of a true believer in Christ who was a member of the church.
What Peter is saying is something to the effect of:
“The water was the means by which Noah and family were saved (then), and this symbolizes baptism now, which saves you—as part and parcel with true conversion to Christ. Your baptism stands by metonymy for your conversion experience in which you have received forgiveness from God because of the substitutionary sacrifice of Christ. You have pledged your allegiance to him. You have a clear conscience before him because you know your sins have been paid for and you stand justified in God’s eyes—and it is all bound up with the symbolism of baptism associated with your conversion.”
Paul himself used similar language when he wrote to the Galatians that, “as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (3:27). The point is, those believers, true converts to Christ, who have been baptized, are in Christ. Do you see the analogy? The eight who were saved went through the waters in the ark. Those who are truly converted go through the waters of baptism in Christ.
Safe in the ark; safe in Christ.
*Disclaimer: While I, as a Reformed, Covenantal, Presbyterian Christian, am a believer in the validity and scriptural ground for infant baptism, I do not think that this passage is speaking of all baptism. As I read this, understanding the analogy that is being made between the ark and Christ, it seems to me that this is only speaking about baptized converted believers in Christ. As such, it does not speak against paedo-baptism. I just don’t think that’s what is in view here. Every reference in Scripture to baptism doesn’t need to support the fullness and breadth of the doctrine in order for it to be true. That said, I hold this understanding loosely; and if shown to be in error by Scripture and sound reason, would gladly trade it in.
So, to sum up our lesson from 1 Peter 3:18-22 with the flow of the whole as taught by Dr. Carson:
Do not withdraw from the culture, for Christ is your example:
- In his sufferings as an innocent victim.
- In the constancy of his preaching through his Spirit, whether in Old Testament times or presently.
- And in his final vindication (v. 22), He is vindicated by his Father and enters into all his authority, and we, too, will be vindicated on the last day.
For, praise be to our Lord, “Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him!”
Soli Deo Gloria.
 Daniel M. Doriani, Reformed Expository Commentary, 1 Peter, (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 2014), 146-147.
 Ibid., 147
 Rob Bell, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived (New York: HarperOne, 2011), 109.
 Doriani, 150.
 Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, trans. John Vriend (originally published 1895-99, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003), 4.632.
 Simon J. Kistemaker, New Testament Commentary: Exposition of 1 Peter, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1986/1987), 145.
 Bavinck, 4.631.
 Ibid., 3.480.
 Don Carson, “Sharing Christ’s Sufferings; Showing His Glory,” https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/conference/resurrection-life/
 Doriani, 148-149.
 Carson, TGC 2016 Women’s Conference.