Can the Gospel be Preached to the Dead?

by Jeffrey J. Harrison


For many who read 1 Peter 3:18-21 and 4:6, it seems to teach that the dead can hear the gospel and be saved. This led to the doctrine known as the “Harrowing of Hell” (or more accurately, the Harrowing of Hades*). According to this teaching, Jesus, after he died on the cross, descended into Hades (or Sheol) and preached the gospel to the souls of the dead. Those who believed then ascended with him to heaven. This is the traditional interpretation of the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches.

* “Harrowing” is an old English word for “plundering.” Hades is the Greek word for the underworld of the dead (called Sheol in Hebrew), the place where the spirits of the dead go to await the resurrection. This should not be confused with Gehenna, called the “Lake of Fire” in Revelation, where the unrighteous will be punished eternally after their resurrection. Unfortunately, both of these very different places are translated “hell” in the King James Version, which has caused a lot of confusion about the Bible’s teaching.

This traditional doctrine refers to a one-time event. But recently I’ve heard of the teaching going around that even today the dead can receive the gospel and be saved. Is it true that the gospel can be preached to the dead? Let’s take a closer look at these verses using a literal translation from the original Greek:

1 Peter 3:18: “For Christ [Messiah] also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring you to God, having on one hand been put to death by flesh [in his crucifixion], but on the other made alive by the Spirit [in his resurrection];

(19) by whom [by the Spirit], having also gone to the spirits in prison,
he preached (20) to those having once been disobedient
when the patience of God was waiting in the days of Noah,
while an ark was being prepared,
in which a few, that is eight souls, were saved through water,
(21) which now as the antitype, baptism, saves you, too; not being a removal of dirt from the flesh, but rather the appeal of a good conscience to God, because of the resurrection of Jesus Christ…”
The topic of the chapter in which these verses appear is suffering for doing what is right: “Rather even if you should suffer because of righteousness, you are blessed” (1 Pet. 3:14), “For it is better to suffer for doing good…than for doing evil” (1 Pet. 3:17). Persecution had already become a reality of life for the believers, even as it is today in many parts of the world. Peter was writing to encourage them not to give up when they experience suffering.

He reminds his readers that Jesus, too, suffered for his faith: “For Christ [Messiah] also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring you to God, having on one hand been put to death in the flesh, but on the other made alive by the Spirit” (1 Pet. 3:18). Jesus, too, suffered persecution. But although he was killed, his life didn’t end in despair, but in victory! For by his death, he not only brought us to God, but was resurrected by the Spirit (as Paul also teaches in Eph. 1:19-20). Yes, Jesus died. But he had victory in death. And so will we if we suffer with him. That part of Peter’s teaching is easy to agree about.

But then, in v. 19, it gets more difficult. Here Peter begins to talk about Jesus proclaiming something by (or “in”) the Spirit. Though he doesn’t say exactly what Jesus proclaimed, the word “also” implies the same gospel that his readers themselves had heard. This message was delivered to “those having once been disobedient…in the days of Noah” (v. 20), in other words, to those who turned away from God and were drowned in the Flood. But when and where did they receive this message from Jesus?

The first phrase that identifies this group of people calls them, “the spirits in prison” (v. 19). To some, this seems to indicate the place that Jesus went by the Spirit to preach: that he was preaching in Hades or Sheol. From about the 4th century on, this became the traditional interpretation, that Jesus preached the gospel to the dead in Hades after his own death and before his resurrection.

But there are a couple of problems with this interpretation. First, why does Peter say that only one group of people, sinners from the time of Noah, received this message? If Jesus was really preaching to the souls in Hades, why didn’t all the millions of other souls there also hear the message, from both before and after the time of the Flood? The traditional interpretation claims that all of the dead from all these different generations heard the message of Jesus, and that many, including Adam and Eve themselves, were saved. But this verse in 1 Peter only mentions those from the generation of Noah. This doesn’t agree with the traditional teaching at all.

Also, why would Peter refer to their disobedience only “while an ark was being prepared” (v. 20)? Weren’t these same people disobedient before this, too, which convinced God that he needed to send the Flood? As it says in Gen. 6:5-7: “And the LORD saw that the evil of man on the earth was great.… And the LORD said, ‘I will wipe out man…from the face of the land.’” This was before Noah started building the ark.

So what is Peter talking about? A better way to interpret verses 19 and 20 is not as a reference to the place but to the time when Jesus was preaching: “when the patience of God was waiting…while an ark was being prepared” (v. 20). Jesus delivered this message not at the time of his death, but long before, while the ark was still being built.

This matches what Peter himself says in 2 Peter 2:5, when he calls Noah “a preacher of righteousness” (using the same Greek root that appears in 1 Pet. 3:19). Jesus preached his message by the Spirit through Noah, when he was building the ark.

So what does Peter mean when he says, “having also gone to the spirits in prison” (1 Pet. 3:19)? It means ‘having gone previously to the spirits that are now in prison.’* Jesus delivered his message before they were put in prison (and long before his crucifixion and resurrection), while Noah was building the ark.** This explains why he preached only to this one particular group of people, and what the time limit “while an ark was being prepared” refers to. Jesus proclaimed his message through Noah to Noah’s generation. But since they rejected that message, they are now “in prison.”

* The idea of previous action is implied by the Greek verb tense used here (an aorist participle).

** This sense of prior action is reinforced in v. 20 when a second aorist participle is used (“having once been disobedient”). The resulting sense is, “having also gone previously to the spirits in prison (just as he did to you), he preached to those having once been disobedient…”

Peter goes on to say that the rescue of those in the ark points forward to baptism (the antitype, 1 Pet. 3:21).* Just as they had Jesus’ message proclaimed to them through the Spirit by Noah, we, too, have God’s message proclaimed to us. Just as those who believed and acted on that belief were rescued through the water (Noah and his family), we, too, are rescued through the water of baptism. But this baptism is not simply a washing from physical dirt, but an appeal to God on the basis of changed lives (doing good) that give us “a good conscience,” to which we have been inspired by the resurrection of Jesus. Here Peter returns to his original theme: “Christ [Messiah], therefore, having suffered in the flesh, you, too, arm yourselves with the same insight [that suffering for God leads to glory (3:22)]: for the one who has suffered in the flesh has done with sin...” (1 Peter 4:1). Therefore we, too, should stop sinning (4:2,3).

* An “antitype” is the fulfillment of a type, a kind of Scriptural foreshadowing. Here rescue from the Flood in Noah’s Ark points forward to and is fulfilled by baptism.

Peter does not say that Jesus preached to the dead, but rather that he preaches to us today just as he did to the world in Noah’s day. Some listened and were saved, while others rejected the message and are now in prison. So we, too, can decide to listen to the gospel or perish in the coming judgment.

This brings us to the second place Peter mentions preaching to the dead, in 1 Peter 4:6. Here he continues the theme of suffering for doing what is right. In vs. 4, he mentions that sinners are surprised that we no longer join them in sin, and speak evil against us because of it. But these same sinners, he says, “will give an account to the one who is ready to judge the living and the dead” (1 Pet. 4:5). They cannot escape God’s judgment, which is coming soon.

Then he says:

1 Peter 4:6: “For this reason, the gospel was also preached to the dead, that on the one hand they might be judged with regard to men by the flesh, but on the other, they might live with regard to God by the Spirit.”

Here, too, many get the impression that Peter is talking about the gospel being preached to those who are physically dead. But again this creates serious difficulties. Since Peter uses the past tense to refer to this preaching (“preached to the dead”), whatever preaching he may be talking about is clearly in the past, and is not occurring now.

This creates a problem for those who say that “the dead” in this verse refer to those who are spiritually dead but physically alive: that Peter is talking about the ordinary preaching of the gospel by the Church in the world today. But if this is talking about the ordinary preaching of the gospel, he would have used a present tense instead of the past (“preached”). So what is he talking about?

The key phrase here is “that…they might be judged with regard to men by the flesh.” If Peter is really talking about preaching the gospel to the souls of the dead, what could this mean? The only judgment that awaits those who are physically dead is God’s final judgment, not any human or fleshly judgment.

Here again, the most likely solution is that this preaching had already taken place before they died. This explains why the past tense is used. But what does it mean “that they might be judged with regard to men by the flesh”? Peter is talking about believers who had died because of persecution (the "suffering" Peter has been talking about all through this letter), who had been judged and rejected by mocking sinners (as in vs. 4, “they speak evil against you”). But despite their judgment and suffering at the hands of men, they will soon be brought back to life by the power of the Holy Spirit. This matches exactly what Peter said earlier about Jesus: “having on one hand been put to death by flesh [in his crucifixion], but on the other made alive by the Spirit [in his resurrection]” (1 Peter 3:18). Just as Jesus had suffered at the hands of men and been raised to life, so would they be.

In these verses, Peter challenges the believers to live holy lives while at the same time comforting them about those that had been killed in persecution. Those who had died were rejected by men, but God will reward them for their obedience. As he says in the next verse, “But the end of all things has drawn near, therefore exercise self-control and be sober in your prayers” (1 Pet. 4:7). The judgment is coming, therefore we must be careful how we live, in spite of the suffering we may encounter.

Another passage used to support the idea that the dead can be saved is 1 Corinthians 3:

1 Cor. 3:13-15: “The work of each person will be clearly seen, for the day will make it clear, for it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will prove what the work of each one is like. If anyone’s work that he has built on it remains, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, but he himself will be saved, but in this way: as through fire.”

The claim is made that the phrase “but he himself will be saved” (1 Cor. 3:15) means that even the wicked will be saved in the end. But this section is clearly talking about Christian ministry: “I planted, Apollos watered” (1 Cor. 3:6), “as a wise master builder I laid a foundation, and another is building on it, but let each one be careful how he builds on it” (1 Cor. 3:10), “for no man can lay a foundation other than the one which is laid, which is Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 3:11). The “work of each person” that the fire will test (1 Cor. 3:15) is their work of ministry. This section does not apply to nonbelievers at all.

So if the gospel must be accepted in this life, how could the Old Testament saints be saved? For Jesus clearly teaches in Matt. 8:11 that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob will participate in the wedding feast of the lamb. The answer can be found in 1 Peter 1:

1 Peter 1:10-12: “…about which salvation the prophets sought out and inquired carefully, after they prophesied about the grace (to be extended) to you, inquiring into who or what time the Spirit of Christ in them was declaring, bearing witness in advance of the sufferings in Christ and the glories (to follow) after these things.”

This tells us that the Spirit of Christ was in the prophets, just as he had also been in Noah. They already had a spiritual relationship with the Messiah, just as Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob did through the appearances of the pre-incarnate Jesus to them. (These are the appearances of the Messenger or Angel of the Lord, identified as God, that take place so many times in Genesis.) By faith in the coming of the Messiah, these Old Testament saints were made righteous just as we are, by faith in the Messiah (Gal. 3:8).*

* This clear Biblical answer to the question of the Old Testament saints was rejected after Augustine (5th cent.) because he did not accept that the Angel of the Lord was the Son of God. This was because of the influence of Greek philosophy on Christian thinking. This led Augustine to consider that an expression or generation of the Son from the Father implied a subordination or inferiority of the Son, and so he rejected the traditional teaching. (This, together with an increasing anti-Semitism in the Church that questioned the salvation of any before Christ, is what made the “Harrowing of Hades” explanation necessary.) But the original identification of the Angel of the Lord with Jesus was an important and necessary step in the development of the Christian faith. In a Judeo-Christian context, this did not at all imply that the Son was less than God, but rather that he was fully God. (See our Jewish Roots of Christianity Seminar for more information on this topic.)

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Updated 4/25/16. Copyright © 2013-2016 by Jeffrey J. Harrison.  All rights reserved.
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