A common question around 1 Peter 3:18-22 involves where Christ was between his death and his resurrection. Many argue this text suggests that Christ did indeed descend into Hell and the earliest creed of Christendom in fact says so! But, is this the case? Did Christ go into Hell and proclaim the gospel? Another question around this text involves the roll of water baptism in salvation. Read carefully the following text and then consider my findings.

For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit. After being made alive, he went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits—to those who were disobedient long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built. In it only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water, and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also—not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a clear conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at God’s right hand—with angels, authorities and powers in submission to him.

1 Peter 3:18–22.

First, it’s important to set straight what Peter is seeking to accomplish in his writing to believers who were suffering. In essence, Peter is saying that because Jesus suffered unjustly and rose victoriously and because we are united to Him, there is every reason to expect that believers will share in the same experience, namely, suffering and victory! Just as Christ’s death had a definitive purpose (“for sins”), so too does our suffering, though that purpose is not always readily apparent. It should not escape our notice that vindication is the major theme of this context and should guide us in addressing the following controversies (cf. 1 Peter, Wayne Grudem. See also Nick Peters’ post.).

QuestionPossible Answers
Who are the spirits in prison?
  • Unbelievers who have died
  • OT believers who have died
  • Fallen angels
What did Christ preach?
  • Second chance for repentance
  • Completion of redemptive work
  • Final condemnation
When did Christ preach?
  • In the days of Noah
  • Between his death and resurrection
  • After his resurrection
What place does water baptism have in salvation?
  • It is necessary for salvation.
  • It is not necessary, but reflects the reality of salvation.

My findings, though tentative and by no means exhaustive, are:

  1. The plural “spirits” (πνεύμασιν) never refers to human spirits in the NT. Most likely they are fallen angels “in the days of Noah” (see Gen. 6:1-4; 2 Pt. 2:4). The spirits are now in prison (NASB) but were disobedient in the days of Noah. “Through whom” (NIV) is better translated “In which,” viz., Christ’s post-resurrection state. Moreover, 3:22 states that “angels, authorities and powers” are subject to Him.
  2. Christ proclaimed victory, not the Gospel. The choice of verbs is significant (ἐκήρυξεν “to proclaim/announce” not εὐηγγελίσθη “to speak the good news” as in 4:6). What Christ declared was victory over death and their final doom.
  3. There is no indication of a specific direction (descent or ascent) in the verb chosen by Peter (πορευθεὶς “he went” or literally, “having gone”). This is contra The Apostle’s Creed. Note that Peter clearly states in 3:22 that Jesus went (same verb, πορευθεὶς) into heaven. Thus the only direction explicit in the context is up! Having said this, there are some ambiguities on the whereabouts of Jesus between his crucifixion and resurrection (cf., Acts 2:27; Lk. 23:43) and no final conclusions should be drawn.
  4. Water baptism does not convey salvation. Faith alone saves (see my essay “Against Baptismal Regeneration”). The analogy of Noah that Peter uses has multiple points of identity for his readers and fits well with the overall context.
    • Noah and his family were a minority in a hostile world; so were Peter’s readers.
    • Noah was righteous and Peter exhorts his readers to be righteous in the midst of wickedness.
    • Noah witnessed boldly in the face of persecution and Peter encourages us to do the same.
    • Noah proclaimed imminent judgment and we must not shrink back from speaking of Hell when presenting the Gospel.
    • Just as God was patient in Noah’s day before he brought judgment, God continues to be patient to bring salvation to some (2 Pt. 3:9-10).
    • Noah was finally saved, albeit with persecution and suffering, and so shall we be.
    • The pledge or “appeal to God for a good conscience” is synonymous with that act of saving faith whereby the Spirit convicts and enables belief unto salvation, which is symbolically represented in water baptism.

In sum, the path to victory is through suffering and those who oppose Christians will be defeated in the end. Because Christ is risen, he supremely reigns over all creation and brings ultimate victory.

We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed—in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’ ‘Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?’ The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

1 Cor. 15:51-57

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3 Comments

  1. Thanks for this post, Paul. I do wonder about the last point in regards to baptism. Why do you not mention the parallel of the water in both cases? That is, the verse does seem to say that it is the water which saved (by the work of God) in carrying the Ark, which is then paralleled to baptism. Why do you not mention that as one of the parallels? There is water with Noah, being carried along by it in the ark, which parallels the water which is used in baptism, being used by the Holy Spirit.

    Moreover, even in the translation you used, I wonder how one can go from this: “this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you” to this “Water baptism does not convey salvation.”

    The parallel with the water makes this even more peculiar to me. Why both ignore the seemingly intentional parallel of water in both cases and ignore the statement which simply says that that water [the Flood’s] symbolizes baptism [with water] which now saves you [believers at the time]? I admit I see no reason to ignore them both, and I think they make a fairly strong argument for a position like mine, which is Lutheranism.

  2. Hey J.W.
    Thanks for your careful reading. The parallels I drew were by no means exhaustive. You’re right that another parallel is the vehicle of water used by God to save Noah does correspond to the baptismal experience of believers. Nevertheless, the focal point of identity which I believe Peter is making is that God is the Savior here, not the water.

    To your second observation, I would say that the water merely “symbolizes” (Gk ἀντίτυπον) that which God accomplishes by regeneration just as the inner sanctuary “symbolizes” (Gk ἀντίτυπον) the heavenly realm where Christ ascended (see Heb 9:24). Thus, it’s not so far a distance to travel showing that water does not convey/impart the salvation experience, just as the inner sanctuary does not convey/impart heaven to us, but only is a shadow of such.

    The baptismal event is a signpost to the reality of salvation, but itself is not the reality. Put differently, water does not convey salvation; water displays salvation.

    I may not entirely understand the Lutheran position, so please do forgive me.

  3. I realize that my comment response here apparently didn’t post. I don’t have much time now but I think there are two quick points:

    1. I don’t know of anyone, including Lutherans, who say “water” saves. God saves, but uses water. God uses means in salvation, whether that is prophecy (Nineveh), Word (the Bible is the means by which people here and understand and receive the Holy Spirit), or even water (through baptism). It is simply a misunderstanding to say that “water doesn’t save” as though that were the Lutheran position. Water doesn’t save, but God certainly can use water as a means. Going back to the verse itself: did the water save Noah? Strictly speaking no, but God used the water to transport the Ark which kept them safe.

    2. Not sure about the parallel being drawn here. The antitype is the water of baptism, which corresponds to / is the antitype of the water during Noah’s flood. Both are means by which God brings about salvation.

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