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Can the Gospel be Preached to the Dead?

The Harrowing of Hell in 1 Peter 3:18-20

by Jeffrey J. Harrison

That the dead can hear the gospel and be saved does at first appear to be taught in Scripture: For the gospel was also preached to the dead (1 Peter 4:6). But though you might assume that this was to living, breathing people devoid of spiritual life, this is not the traditional Christian teaching. The traditional teaching is that Jesus, after he died on the cross, descended into Hades (or Sheol)—the underworld of the dead—and preached the gospel to the souls of those who were physically dead. This is the traditional Church doctrine known as the Harrowing of Hell, or more accurately, the Harrowing of Hades.* Those who believed him and accepted his message then ascended with Jesus to heaven. This continues to be accepted dogma in the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and other traditional churches.

Second Temple tomb Jerusalem
A tomb from the time of Jesus (the Second Temple Period) at Haceldama at the edge of the Old City of Jerusalem

* Harrowing is an old English word for plundering. Hades is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew Sheol, the place where the spirits of the dead 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 and final judgment. Unfortunately, both of these very different places are translated hell in the King James and other translations. This has created a lot of confusion about the Bible’s true message. See our teaching on Hell, Hades, and Gehenna: A List of Verses.

This traditional doctrine refers to a one-time event in the past. But recently I’ve heard of a teaching going around that even today those who are physically 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 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, but on the other made alive by the Spirit;

(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 the Messiah...”

These verses are part of a chapter in which Peter is talking about 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 in the life of believers, even as it is today in many parts of the world. Peter was writing to encourage them not to give up when they experienced suffering.

He then reminds his readers that Jesus, too, suffered for his faith: For 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 [that is, by human beings in his crucifixion], but on the other made alive by the Spirit [in his resurrection] (1 Pet. 3:18). Jesus, too, suffered persecution. But though he was killed, his life didn’t end in despair, but in victory. For by his death, he not only brought us to God, he was also resurrected by the Spirit. This part of Peter’s teaching is easy to understand.

But then, in 1 Pet. 3:19, it gets more difficult. Here he begins to talk about Jesus proclaiming something by (or in) the Spirit. He doesn’t say exactly what Jesus proclaimed, but the word also implies that this was the same gospel that his readers themselves had heard. This message was delivered to those having once been disobedient...in the days of Noah (1 Pet. 3:20), in other words, this same message was shared with 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 (1 Pet. 3:19). To some, this indicates the place where Jesus preached by the Spirit: 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 of all, 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 after his crucifixion, why wouldn’t he also speak to all the millions of other souls there, souls that had died both before and after the Flood? The traditional interpretation claims that all these different generations did in fact hear the message of Jesus, and as a result many, including Adam and Eve themselves, were saved. But Peter only mentions this message going to those of the generation of Noah. This doesn’t match the traditional teaching.

Also, why would Peter only refer to their disobedience while an ark was being prepared (1 Pet. 3:20)? Weren’t these same people disobedient before this, too, which is what convinced God that he needed to send a 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 all 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 rather to the time when Jesus was preaching: when the patience of God was waiting...while an ark was being prepared (1 Pet. 3:20). Jesus delivered this message not at the time of his death, but long before, while the ark was still being built. And how did he do that? Through Noah. This is how Peter understood the ministry of the Old Testament prophets, that they spoke by the Spirit of Messiah who was in them (1 Pet. 1:11). By the Spirit, Jesus spoke through Noah. This matches Peter’s description of Noah as a preacher of righteousness (2 Pet. 2:5).

So what, then, does Peter mean when he speaks of Jesus having also gone to the spirits in prison (1 Pet. 3:19)? The verbal form used here in Greek implies prior action, with the sense: having gone previously to the spirits that are now in prison.* In other words, Jesus delivered his message before they were put in prison—and long before his crucifixion and resurrection, while Noah was still building the ark. This explains why only this one group of people received his message, and why a time limit is mentioned (while an ark was being prepared). Jesus proclaimed his message through Noah to Noah’s generation. But since they rejected that message, they are now in prison.

* This previous action is implied by the Greek aorist participle poreutheis (πορευθεὶς).

Peter then goes on to explain that the rescue of Noah and his family in the ark is an image or model of baptism. This makes baptism an antitype, as he calls it, of the Flood (1 Pet. 3:21).* Just as the people of Noah’s generation had Jesus’ message proclaimed to them through the Spirit, we, too, have God’s message proclaimed to us. Just as those who believed and acted on that belief were rescued through the water of the Flood, we, too, are rescued through the water of baptism.

* An antitype (ἀντίτυπος) is a later event or person that closely matches—or fits the mold of—a preceding example or model or original, known as a type (τύπος). So Adam, for example, is a type of Messiah (Rom. 5:14), and the earthly Temple is an antitype of the heavenly Temple (Heb. 9:24, For Messiah did not enter holy places made with hands, which are an antitype of the true ones, but rather into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us). For Peter, Noah’s rescue from the waters of the Flood is a model or example (a type) that helps us understand baptism (the antitype).

But this baptism is not simply a washing from physical dirt. It’s an appeal to God on the basis of lives changed by the resurrection of Jesus. Here Peter returns to his original theme: Messiah, therefore, having suffered in the flesh, you, too, arm yourselves with the same insight [that suffering for God leads to glory (1 Pet. 3:22)]: for the one who has suffered in the flesh has finished with sin... (1 Pet. 4:1). Therefore we, too, should stop sinning (1 Pet. 4:2-3).

So in fact, Peter is not saying that Jesus preached to the physically dead, but rather that he preaches to us today just as he did to the people of Noah’s day. Some listened and were saved, while others rejected the message and as a result are now in prison. In the same way, we, too, can choose to listen to the gospel or reject it and 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 his theme of suffering for doing what is right (1 Pet. 4:1). Then he mentions that sinners are surprised that we no longer join with them in sin, and speak evil of us because of it (1 Pet. 4:4). But those 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 coming judgment. 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.

You might think this means preaching to the living who are spiritually dead—the ordinary preaching of the gospel in the world today. But if so, why does he use a past tense (was preached to the dead)? This tells us that this preaching took place in the past, and is not something happening today. Nor can it mean preaching the gospel to those who are physically dead. If they are already dead, how can they be judged with regard to men by the flesh? 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 already took 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 died as a result of persecution. They had experienced the suffering he has been talking about all through his letter (1 Pet. 1:6, 2:20-24, 3:14,17-18). These are people who had been judged and rejected by mocking sinners (as in 1 Pet. 4:4, they speak evil against you). But despite their judgment and rejection at the hands of men, they will soon be brought back to life by the power of the Holy Spirit. This is nearly an exact verbal match to what he 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.

* The underlined words are an exact verbal match in the original Greek.

Peter is neither talking about ongoing ministry nor about preaching to the dead. Rather, he is comforting his readers about those who had died as a result of persecution. Like Jesus, they had been rejected by men, but in the end, 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 whatever suffering we may encounter.

Another passage sometimes used to support the idea that the dead can be saved is in 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 sometimes 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: that somehow the wicked will be saved after death. But this is in a chapter 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 the Messiah (1 Cor. 3:11). The work of each person that the fire will test is their work of ministry (1 Cor. 3:15). Those whose ministry makes it through the judgment will receive a reward. But those whose ministry is of inferior quality will suffer loss. So this doesn’t apply to nonbelievers at all, but rather to Christians doing the work of the gospel.

But if it’s true that the gospel can’t be preached to the dead, and can only be accepted in this life, how were the Old Testament saints saved? For Jesus clearly taught that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob will be at the wedding feast of the lamb (many will come from east and west and recline to eat with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of the heavens, Matt. 8:11). At the Transfiguration of Jesus, Moses and Elijah appeared in glory, that is, in heavenly glory (Luke 9:31). How was that possible if they were not yet saved, as the Harrowing of Hell teaching claims?

The answer can be found in 1 Peter 1, where he describes the activity of the Spirit of Messiah operating in the Old Testament prophets:

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 Messiah in them was declaring, bearing witness in advance of the sufferings in Messiah and the glories to follow after these things.

The Spirit of Messiah, Peter says, was in the prophets, just as he had been earlier in Noah. Because of this, they already had a spiritual relationship with the Son of God, just as Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob did through their encounters with the pre-incarnate Jesus.* They were saved just as we are, by faith in the Messiah (Gal. 3:8). As the writer of Hebrews puts it, speaking of the Old Testament saints, All these died in faith... (Heb. 11:13).

* These are the appearances of the Messenger or Angel of the Lord identified as God in the Old Testament. See our post on The Angel of the Lord: A List of Verses or read about specific encounters with the Son of God in Abraham and the Three Men (New Church) or Jacob's Vision at Bethel (New Church).

Unfortunately, this clear Biblical answer to the question of the Old Testament saints was soon set aside in favor of the Harrowing of Hades teaching. This reflects the increasing distance between Church and Synagogue after the mid-2nd century, and the Church’s rejection of even the possibility of salvation before the Christian era.*

* After Augustine (5th cent.), the Biblical teaching was marginalized even further when he rejected what had previously been established doctrine: that the Angel (or Messenger) of the Lord was an appearance of the Son of God (On the Trinity 2.10.17-). But in fact, the identification of the Angel of the Lord with Jesus was an essential step in the development of Christianity and its understanding of who Jesus is and his relationship with the Father. In it’s original Judeo-Christian context, this doesn’t imply that the Son is other than God, as later heretics mistook it, but rather that he is the fullness of God’s self-revelation to us.

Updated 8/18/20. Copyright © 2013-2016, 2020 by Jeffrey J. Harrison.
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