Bible, Theology

An Exegetical Analysis of 1 Peter 3:18-22

January 15, 2021

 For many students of the Bible, and particularly of the New Testament, 1 Peter 3:19-22 stands as one of the most difficult passages to interpret and understand. Christians and scholars throughout church history have struggled with various interpretations surrounding what exactly happened to Jesus after he was crucified.[1] In fact, the great Reformer Martin Luther once said about this passage, “A wonderful text is this, and a more obscure passage perhaps than any other in the New Testament, so that I do not know for a certainty just what Peter means.”[2]

While we cannot be certain and dogmatic of any position, we can give our best exegetical analysis of what is happening in this text. The purpose of this paper is to bring clarity to the predominant issues in the text. 

 Two problems arise from a cursory reading of 1 Peter 3. First, what does it mean that Jesus went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison? Who are these spirits? What does it mean that Jesus “went”? How does the death of Jesus relate to the story of Noah? Second, what does it mean that Peter says, “baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you”? How does the story of Noah provide a typology for water baptism in the New Testament? How does baptism intersect with salvation? In order to fully argue my position on these two issues, a holistic approach must be taken, meaning that we will examine each issue exegetically, theologically, and historically. 

1 Peter 3:18-20  – The Proclamation of Jesus to the Spirits in Prison

1 Peter 3:18–20 (ESV)

18 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, 19 in 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.

1 Peter 3:18–20 (NA28)

18 ὅτι καὶ Χριστὸς ἅπαξ περὶ ἁμαρτιῶν ἔπαθεν, δίκαιος ὑπὲρ ἀδίκων, ἵνα ὑμᾶς προσαγάγῃ τῷ θεῷ θανατωθεὶς μὲν σαρκὶ, ζῳοποιηθεὶς δὲ πνεύματι 19 ἐν ᾧ καὶ τοῖς ἐν φυλακῇ πνεύμασιν πορευθεὶς ἐκήρυξεν 20 ἀπειθήσασίν ποτε, ὅτε ἀπεξεδέχετο ἡ τοῦ θεοῦ μακροθυμία ἐν ἡμέραις Νῶε κατασκευαζομένης κιβωτοῦ εἰς ἣν ὀλίγοι, τοῦτʼ ἔστιν ὀκτὼ ψυχαί, διεσώθησαν διʼ ὕδατος

For this section, the sum of the problem can be summarized in a few questions. Where did Christ go after he died (with the usage of the word “went” [πορευθεὶς])? Who are the spirits that Jesus spoke to? What does it mean that Jesus “proclaimed” [ἐκήρυξεν]? Why are these spirits in prison? Should the images be taken literally or figuratively? How does Noah relate to these spirits that are in prison? How does the conjuction (for or because [ὅτι]) inform how we interpret the verse? 

Key to understanding of verses 19-20 are how verse 18 fits into the proclamation theme. If Jesus goes to proclaim to the spirits, what exactly is he proclaiming? Peter addresses this very reality in verse 18, noting that Jesus suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous. In other words, the death of Jesus was a vicarious and substitutional suffering, so that those who are unrighteous may be spared of the punishment that was rightfully theirs. In the Old Testament, God instituted the sacrificial system that was typologically pointing to the final sacrifice in Christ. Throughout the sacrificial system, animals were slaughtered vicariously for sins (περὶ ἁμαρτιῶν) which is now appropriated for Jesus himself as the sacrifice par excellence. The death of Jesus provides an offering which atones for those that are truly deserving in the story: those that are unrighteous. 

Even more than that, Christ did not simply die, but was “made alive in the spirit,” meaning that Christ not only has borne the sins of mankind but has resurrected, proving that the atonement work was accepted as sufficient. The resurrection of Jesus demonstrates that God in Christ is victorious over sin and death and therefore, all who trust in the atoning work of Jesus become partakers of the benefits of Christ: his death and resurrection. Furthermore, 3:22 notes that Jesus has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, linking the ascension as one of key themes of the redemptive moment of God.[3] Notice the logic of the Gospel proclamation in 3:18-22: Christ was put to death, he was made alive, he went into heaven.[4]

Now, as we get to the exegetical crux of the passage, we need to understand where Christ went, who the spirits in prison were, and what he said to them.[5] Several solutions have been presented for these questions, some with more credibility than others. For Christians who grew up reciting the Apostle’s creed, it may seem strange, if not wrong, to deviate from the traditional belief that “Christ descended into hell.” In terms of the Apostle’s Creed, it is interesting to note that Peter uses the verb go (πορεύσομαι) and not descend (καταβαίνω) in 3:20. Although it is not outside the lexical scope for πορεύσομαι to be used as “descend,” it much more likely that Peter would have used καταβαίνω. Even if Peter were to use πορεύσομαι as “descend” which is linked to hell, it is unlikely that Peter would be referring to hell as Peter’s text does not indicate any of the common vernacular for hell (Hades, Tartarus, Sheol). Furthermore, there is not a single instance in the entire Old Testament where “prison” is used as a reference to hell.[6]

Before we proceed with the meat of the exegetical argument, it may be helpful to hear a summary of the four major views that Schreiner helpfully outlines as follows:

First, Augustine, and since him many others, understood the text to refer to Christ’s preaching through Noah to those who lived while Noah was building the ark. According to this view, Christ was not personally present but spoke by means of the Holy Spirit through Noah. The spirits are not literally in prison but refer to those who were snared in sin during Noah’s day. If this view is correct, any notion of Christ descending into hell is excluded.

Second, some have understood Peter as referring to Old Testament saints who died and were liberated by Christ between his death and resurrection.

Third, others understand the imprisoned spirits to refer, as in 4:6, to the sinful human beings who perished during Noah’s flood. Christ in the interval between his death and resurrection descended to hell and preached to them, offering them the opportunity to repent and be saved. Most of those who adopt such an interpretation infer from this that God will offer a second chance to all those in hell, especially to those who never heard the gospel. If salvation was offered to the wicked generation of Noah, surely it will also be extended to all sinners separated from God. 

Fourth, the majority view among scholars today is that the text describes Christ’s proclamation of victory and judgment over the evil angels. These evil angels, according to Gen 6:1–4, had sexual relations with women and were imprisoned because of their sin. The point of the passage, then, is not that Christ descended into hell but, as in 3:22, his victory over evil angelic powers.”[7]

First View – Jesus Preaching Through Noah

Again, an ancient perspective on this text is that the preincarnate Christ was preaching through Noah towards the sinful people of that particular generation. This interpretation is held by many esteemed church fathers, such as Augustine and Aquinas, and was actually one of the dominant views during the Reformation. Augustine, writing in the 4th and 5thcenturies, was not proficient in Greek, and thus argued his position from a theological standpoint rather than an exegetical standpoint. Within the argument that Jesus descended into hell came an assumption that Jesus offered postmortem salvation to those who have died. Augustine rejected postmortem salvation and thus, provided an alternate solution to the 1 Peter 3 problem: Christ preached through the lips of Noah. But can this interpretation hold up not only under theological scrutiny but exegetical scrutiny?[8]

From the exegetical standpoint, there is difficulty in finding a strong argument for Christ’s preaching through Noah. According to Jobes, “the syntax of 3:18 forms a contrasting parallel” between “put to death” and “made alive,” so that it renders the text, “although he was put to death in the flesh, he was made alive in the spirit.”[9] From an exegetical standpoint, the way the Greek text is organized suggests that we interpret the verbs following a noun to be interpreted in the same way in the following verses. Grudem argues that the nouns (in the Greek text, a dative noun) should be viewed locatively, meaning that the translation would be “made alive in spirit,” which is not a reference to Christ’s resurrection but to “realm into which he was resurrected.” This realm is the same realm that Christ preached through the mouth of Noah. 

Yet, if Christ preached through Noah, why would Peter talk about Jesus “going” somewhere? If Jesus preached through the mouth of Noah, the verb of “going” seems so out of place. Furthermore, the contrast of the text is between Jesus “going” to the spirits in prison and his “going” into heaven. Surely, Jesus did not need a resurrection body to speak through Noah as is indicated in 1 Peter.[10] Furthermore, if Christ were preaching through Noah to the wicked generation, it would be awkward for Peter to use “spirits” [πνεύμασιν] as it is often in reference to angels and not humans. In fact, when the word “spirits” [πνεύμασιν] is used in the plural, it is used almost exclusively for angels in the New Testament.[11] As mentioned before, the word “prison” is never used as a place where human beings go after they die; it is always used for the place of punishment for humans on earth.[12] Strikingly, the only place the word is used to refer to anyone held in bondage outside the earth is Satan in Rev 18:2. 

From an exegetical standpoint, this view simply does not hold weight. While it may help give some theological explanation to what is happening in the text, this interpretation does not align with what the text is actually saying. 

Second and Third View – Old Testament Saints and Christ’s Descension to Hell

The second and third views suffer from many of the same issues as the first view. First, it should be noted, that “spirits” is not used for human beings, which would rule out view two out completely. Jesus is not visiting Old Testament saints who have died because this is lexically how the noun is used in the New Testament. The third view, which is often called the descensus ad inferos, or “the harrowing of hell,” which is that Christ descended into hell during the time between his crucifixion and resurrection.[13] Again, like the previous view, Christ’s descension into hell was not necessarily driven by exegesis but as an answer to two theological questions: (1) How could the saints of the Old Testament be saved pre-Christ? And (2) Where and what was Jesus doing in the time between his death and resurrection? 

Jobes notes that the only way this view is plausible is if you take the contrast between “flesh” and “spirit” of 3:18 referring to a contrast between “body” and “soul.” In the letter of 1 Peter, “flesh” [σάρξ], only two occurrences may be rendered as the “human soul” rather than the physical, material body. Rather than assuming a dualistic body-soul dichotomy (which, according to historical record, Peter would not have believed in), we should rather see Peter’s proclamation that Jesus was “put to death in the flesh,” as a reference to his crucifixion, not his descension into hell. 

Coupled with this view is the belief that because Christ descended into hell, by proclaiming to the spirits in prison, he was offering a second chance to the evil generation of Noah. If the evil generation of Noah was offered salvation post-death, why would God not allow all humans the second chance? Does this theologically even fit with the rest of Peter’s corpus? Absolutely not! Schreiner notes:

“It makes no sense contextually for Peter to be teaching that the wicked have a second chance in a letter in which he exhorted the righteous to persevere and to endure suffering. Indeed, we have seen in many places throughout the commentary that eternal life is conditioned upon such perseverance. All motivation to endure would vanish if Peter now offered a second opportunity after death. The benefit of braving suffering is difficult to grasp if another opportunity to respond will be offered at death.’[14]

If Peter were to argue that Jesus offers a second offer of salvation to all those who have died, it not only would invalidate many parts of his letter, but the rest of the New Testament, including the words of Jesus himself. Elliot rightly notes that this view “would be completely inconsistent with the outlook of 1 Peter, which envisions divine judgment according to one’s deeds (1:17; 4:17–18) and condemnation of the disobedient (2:7–8; 4:17–18).… And any notion of a possibility of conversion or salvation after death would seriously undermine the letter’s consistent stress on the necessity of righteous behavior here and now.”[15]

Fourth View – Christ’s Proclamation to Fallen, Evil Angels

The fourth solution, and the one that I subscribe to, is that Peter is proclaiming Christ’s victory over demonic spirits after his death and resurrection.[16] As mentioned before, Satan is described as imprisoned in Rev 20:7, which may fit with the theme of fallen angels engaging in sexual intercourse with women in Genesis 6:1-4. According to Genesis 6:1-4, there were fallen angels that engaged in sexual activity with women and thus, were banished to “prison” for their wickedness. 

One of the key components of this view is the discovery of the scroll of 1 Enoch in the Qumran caves in the 20thcentury. 1 Enoch is an ancient Hebrew apocalyptic text which gives us material on demons, giants, and why some angels fell from heaven. 1 Enoch was probably written around the time of 300-200BC, which gives us invaluable insight to how Jews around the time of Jesus would have considered themes of religion.[17] While 1 Enoch is surely strange to modern readers, the similarities between the imagery of 1 Enoch and 1 Peter is stunning. As those who live in the 21st century, reading 1 Peter in light of 1 Enoch seems bizarre, but for a culture that was familiar with 1 Enoch, it would not have been strange at all—it would have been natural. Even though Enoch is only mentioned in Genesis 5:21-24, he plays a key role in Jewish tradition, a time in which the NT was written. 

The text explains that when Enoch was taken away from the earth, he went to dwell with “the Watchers and the holy ones.” For Enoch, “the Watchers” is a key link to the “mighty men” (Nephilim) in Genesis 6:1-4. Jobes notes, “First Enoch tells a similar but more elaborate tale. The Watchers were the fallen angels who had abandoned heaven (12.4), slept with human women (15.3), and produced children referred to as “giants” from whose bodies “evil spirits” have come (15.9)”[18] The progeny of these fallen angels are full of shame and sin, and thus, are banished “inside the earth, imprisoned all the days of eternity.” Again, Jones is compelling: 

“This tradition as documented in 1 En. 12-16 appears to offer a background that fits well with 1 Pet. 3:19-20. Both involve spirits who receive a proclamation from God and who closely associated with the story of Noah, which immediately follows in both Gen 6:9-9:29 and 1 Pet 3:20. If this is the assumed tradition behind 1 Pet. 3:19, then the spirits to whom Christ preached should be understood as fallen angels and/or demonic spirits. Their imprisonment represents in spatial terms God’s restraining power over them, and the message Christ preached to them is the confirmation that “the day of the great conclusion,” first announced by the flood, is now upon them. Christ’s ascension itself may have been the proclamation of their defeat. In other words, the apostle Peter is identifying Jesus Christ as the victor over all evil in both the spirit and human worlds forevermore.”[19]

It seems that Peter is drawing upon the common knowledge of 1 Enoch to use as theological background to explain what is happening in Jesus’ proclamation of victory. But, does this verse hold under the weight of exegetical scrutinity?

From an exegetical standpoint, this verse makes the most sense. According to verse 19, Jesus went to the spirits in prison and proclaimed[20] his victory over the evil spirits. Again, this fits the lexical usage of the word, since human beings are never called “spirits” in the New Testament. In this case, Jesus must be heralding victory over something other than humanity. It would only make sense that Peter would draw on Jewish tradition surrounding the “mighty men” from Genesis 6:1-4 as a way of discussing Jesus’ victory over evil.  This verse is thus a proclamation of Jesus’s victory over fallen angels who imprisoned, “sealing their doom as he triumphed over sin and death and hell, redeeming human beings.[21] Some English translations render the word proclaimed as preached, which is not the most accurate translation. The term is better translated as “herald” or “proclaim,” as there is another verb that could have been used for “preach.”[22]

Thus, in 1 Peter 3:19-20, the author is giving us insight into what happens in death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ: he proclaims victory over evil spirits in particular, and evil in general. Jesus did not descend into hell, nor did he preach through Noah, but rather, he demonstrated his mighty power over demonic, fallen angels who have been imprisoned due to their disobedience in Genesis 6:1-4. 

1 Peter 3:21-22  – Does Baptism Provide Salvation?

1 Peter 3:21-22 (ESV)

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 3:21–22 (NA28)

21 ὃ καὶ ὑμᾶς ἀντίτυπον νῦν σῴζει βάπτισμα, οὐ σαρκὸς ἀπόθεσις ῥύπου ἀλλὰ συνειδήσεως ἀγαθῆς ἐπερώτημα εἰς θεόν, διʼ ἀναστάσεως Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ 

22 ὅς ἐστιν ἐν δεξιᾷ τοῦ θεοῦ πορευθεὶς εἰς οὐρανὸν ὑποταγέντων αὐτῷ ἀγγέλων καὶ ἐξουσιῶν καὶ δυνάμεων.

Another puzzling text for Christians throughout the century has been 1 Peter 3:21. Simply put: is Peter teaching that salvation is produced by baptism? Is this a textual argument for baptismal regeneration?[23] If baptism doesn’t save in itself, is it necessary for salvation? If someone does not get baptized, whether intentional or not, is their eternal security in jeopardy? Notice that these sorts of questions are significant to the Christian faith as a whole. How then shall we understand 1 Peter 3:21 in its immediate context while also taking into consideration the broader biblical context surrounding baptism, salvation, and regeneration? 

Before we jump into these questions, let’s look at the context of the verse to understand how baptism corresponds to the story of Noah and the flood. You will notice that Peter makes the connection between the flood of Noah and how Christians are saved via the waters of baptism now. In the story of Noah, the waters of the flood covered the ancient world and were an agent of judgment and death upon a wicked generation. So too, in some way, the waters of baptism symbolize judgment, as the one who is baptized is “baptized into Christ Jesus,” as Romans 6:1-3 notes. How believers endure the judgment of God in relation to the waters of Noah is by their union with Christ, since he has absorbed their judgment in their stead. Just like the story of Noah, judgment is coming for wickedness on the earth, “but believers are rescued from these waters in that they are baptized with Christ, who has also emerged from the waters of death through his resurrection.”[24]

More than just a symbol of judgment, the flood story is also a picture of redemption and salvation. God had chosen to save a select few who would be spared while pouring his judgment upon the rest of the wicked generation. For the original readers of Peter’s letter, they “will be among those who escape the second ‘flood’ of judgment because they have already passed through the waters of Christian baptism, which saves them by virtue of the vindicating resurrection of Jesus Christ.”[25] Does baptism work mechanically then? If we randomly baptize people (infants, youth, adults, etc), will they automatically gain salvation? Notice that Peter grounds his argument in the resurrection of Jesus, noting that salvation does not merely come via baptism but through the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. 

Does Peter then endorse the doctrine of baptismal regeneration? Peter seems to heighten the typological connection between Noah and Christian baptism to communicate that baptism does indeed save (and by inference, regenerate). Yet, Peter includes the resurrection as the means by which salvation is accomplished, thus nullifying any basis for water baptism without resurrection. In other words, baptism symbolizes and gains fuel for what it symbolizes in the resurrection of Jesus. 

 You will notice that the sentence is structured as a contrast,[26] saying that “baptism corresponds to this, but not that.” Peter says that baptism is not about putting off the filth of the flesh but serves as an appeal to God for a good conscience. There is a direct contrast between two different sets of words (removal and appeal; flesh and good conscience). Many have speculated that Peter is talking about external washings or some form of religious ritual, but Peter is actually addressing “the moral filth characteristic of a carnal (fleshly) existence.”[27] Again, Jobes is helpful here:

“Therefore, the apostle is saying that the baptism that saves does not remove moral filth from Christians in such a once-and-for-all way that Christians need not care about how they live after being baptized. In fact, he uses the cognate verb of apotheosis in 1 Peter 2:1 to admonish them to put off the characteristics that impede their spiritual nourishment, and in 2:11 he exhorts them to abstain from the desires that wage war against the soul … Rather, Christian baptism is a pledge to God of a good conscience—a pledge to live rightly ever after.”[28]

The contrast in the text is about those who are baptized have purged themselves of moral filth and thus, resolve to live with good consciences towards God, meaning that their souls have been awakened to the regenerating power of the Gospel. Thus, it is not water baptism that saves but rather, God awakening our spirits through the work of regeneration that is symbolized in the waters of baptism. At baptism, believers in Christ have pledged to live in relationship with God and thus, the exhortation is to continue to live godly lives in the present moment. 

So, we can clearly see that baptism is the means by which salvation is obtained, but is required for salvation? Speaking directly from the text, Peter does not seem to be addressing this particular issue. If we consider the wider biblical data, we would conclude that the New Testament commands baptism but does not require baptism for salvation. The thief on the cross is the most prominent example of someone who is saved (today you will be with me in paradise) and who is not baptized. Christian baptism symbolizes our union with Christ, having our sins cleansed from us, and our joining of the covenant of God, but it does mean that salvation is found within its water and salvation is not withheld if you are not baptized. 

Conclusion

While this text poses many theological and textual difficulties, we can confidently proclaim that Jesus has suffered vicariously for his people, given them the promise of cleansing and forgiveness which is symbolized in Christian baptism, and has proclaimed victory over every force of evil in the world. Many Christians may hold views different than the ones presented here, and they are within their biblical convictions to do so. The issues raised in 1 Peter 3:18-22 are not first-tier issues to the Christian faith, rather, third-tier issues that deal with some of the peripheral theological issues of the Bible. Let us confidently rest in the person and work of Jesus, who has scarified himself for our sins, risen from the grave to declare victory, and ascended to the right hand of God where he rules and reigns over all things. 


[1] Karen Jobes argues that 1 Peter 3:18-22 is “one of the most debated and written about” texts since the inception of the church in Karen H. Jobes, 1 Peter (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2005), 236. 

[2] Martin Luther, Luther’s Works: The Catholic EpistlesVol. 30 ed. Jaroslav Pelikan, trans. Walter Hansen (St. Louis,: Concordia, 1967), 113. 

[3] Jobes., 242. 

[4] Ibid. 

[5] Ibid., 243. 

[6] Ibid., 243. 

[7] Thomas R. Schreiner, 1, 2 Peter, Jude, vol. 37, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2003), 184-185.

[8] When I distinguish between “theological” and “exegetical,” what I mean is that there are various ways to deduce doctrinal positions. The former would seek to determine a doctrine based upon a whole set of Scriptures and positions, i.e. a theological perspective of hell; whereas the latter would seek to define the doctrine based upon what the text is saying. In this example, Augustine was not necessarily basing his arguments on exegesis but upon a more theological understanding. 

[9] Ibid., 240.

[10] Schreiner, 187. 

[11] The only place in the entire New Testament that the plural form of “spirits” is used in reference to human beings is Hebrews 12:23 but the author of Hebrews adds the adjective “righteous” to indicate that these are humans are not angels.

[12] See Acts 5:19; 8:2; 2 Cor 6:5; 11:23. 

[13] Jobes, 241.

[14] Schreiner, 188.

[15] Elliot, 1 Peter, 661-62.

[16] Schreiner, 188. 

[17] For those unaware, the intertestamental period is roughly 400 years where God did not speak personally or through a prophet. Through this time, a period known as “Second Temple Judaism” was developed. Various themes of Judaism were developed in this time period and shed insight to how the average Jewish man or woman would have thought abought life, religion, and religious themes in the 1st century. 

[18] Jobes, 244.

[19] Ibid. Emphasis mine. 

[20] Some versions may say “preached,” which is not the most accurate translation. 

[21] Peter H. Davids, The First Epistle of Peter, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1990), 141.

[22] C.f. 1 Peter 4:6 where the proper word is used εὐαγγελίζω, which means “to preach the good news.” 

[23] This doctrine states that baptism is the rite that produces regeneration, which is the washing away of sin, the renewal of the heart, and essentially, is tied directly to salvation. For a rebuttal of such a doctrine, please view https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/erik-raymond/pulpit-magazine-on-baptismal-regeneration/.

[24] Schreiner, 194. 

[25] Jobes, 252. Emphasis mine. 

[26] Which is apparent in the Greek text with ἀλλὰ.

[27] Jobes, 254. 

[28] Ibid. 

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