Scripture is so full of beauty, wonder, teaching, truth, and application; yet it also has it’s fair share of “hard passages”. 1 Peter 3:18-22 is one of them and so I want to delve into the passage in order to answer the strange proposition Peter seems to teach – “Baptism…now saves you”. We will also deal with what some interpret as teaching on Christ entering hell to preach the Gospel to the damned. This passage is quite difficult, let’s take a look at some of the questions raised while reading this passage:
Did Jesus preach the Gospel in Hell?
Does Hell belong to Satan?
Is Purgatory a Scriptural concept?
What is the difference between Sheol, Hades, Paradise, and the “lake of fire”?
Does baptism play a part in Salvation?
I remember a few years back having a conversation with someone who adamantly taught that baptism was necessary for salvation, as an actual part of the Gospel? He used many verses to defend his case, but the main one was 1 Peter 3:21. Thus I believe it is worth our time to carefully consider the verse, it’s context, and overall relation to the rest of Scripture.
We will likely not only better understand this passage, but be encouraged by Peter’s main theme in it – not baptism, but in suffering for doing good in hope of reaching eternal home.
This study will be step by step, looking first at two trusted versions (ESV – modern and verse by verse; NET – extremely literal and verse by verse) and then developing and examining Peter’s argument chronologically.
(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. (21) 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, (22) 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 3:18-22, ESV)
(18) Because Christ also suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, to bring you to God, by being put to death in the flesh but by being made alive in the spirit. (19) In it he went and preached to the spirits in prison, (20) after they were disobedient long ago when God patiently waited in the days of Noah as an ark was being constructed. In the ark a few, that is eight souls, were delivered through water. (21) And this prefigured baptism, which now saves you — not the washing off of physical dirt but the pledge of a good conscience to God — through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, (22) who went into heaven and is at the right hand of God with angels and authorities and powers subject to him. (1 Peter 3:18-22, NET)
18 – The context is suffering, which Peter connects to the suffering and death of Christ, being the ultimate example of suffering while doing right. These verses make repeated reference to both suffering and resurrection and must be continually taken into account. The promise of the Christian, why he can willingly suffer torture and even death, is because of the hope of resurrection. The other points only serve to strengthen this primary point and must be understood in that context.
Christ died in the flesh, but rose by the power of God. His death was a victory, for it produced the resurrection and the opportunity for all to be reconciled with God through His death. His death paid for our sins, but Christ being free from personal sin was righteously resurrected by God.
19 – Did Christ descend into hell? There is no direct mention to hell, so it doesn’t seem like a natural correlation, as it only refers to Christ going “in it” (the “it” here being the Holy Spirit) to preach “to the spirits in prison”.
Many ancient scholars would argue that this visit to the spiritual realm happened between the death and resurrection of Christ, but this seems out of place, because the Spirit referred to came on Him during resurrection, so His visit would seem to happen after that event.
Why do many ancient scholars speak of Christ preaching in hell between the death and resurrection? The widely held view between 30 AD and 1000 was that the payment on the cross was to Satan, to free us from the condemnation to hell. This is wrong for many reasons:
First of all, it implies that hell belongs to Satan, and that all humans belong to him unless they are freed by Christ. Revelation 20:10, 15 imply that God is the one that throws Satan, Antichrist, the False Prophet, and the unrepentant into the “lake of fire”, what we refer to as hell. Another important point that can be made here is that it seems clear that either the lake of fire doesn’t exist until after the Tribulation or at least is not used until then. The Jews referred to the place of the dead as Sheol and the New Testament refers to it as Hades. This is a place of suffering it would seem, according to Jesus’ true story on Lazarus and the rich man, where Lazarus is in “Abraham’s bosom” or “Paradise”, and the rich man is in Sheol (Luke 16:19-31).
Secondly, Scripture teaches that Christ paid our debt to God, not to Satan. God was and is the offended party that deserves justice and any who wants to be with Him must be perfect. Christ makes this possible, as even this passage teaches that the “just [suffered and died] for the unjust” (v. 18). The theological concept of the “Payment to Satan” (referenced in the last paragraph) was replaced by “Substitutionary Atonement”, as first developed by Anselm in the 1000’s, later to be amplified by John Calvin and others.
Therefore we can this way show that Christ did not necessarily go into hell, He did not pay Satan for he was not owed anything, yet He likely did enter the temporary resting place of the dead – Sheol. After His death and resurrection, His Gospel proclamation was undoubtedly announced over all the world, the seen and unseen, and those who put their faith in God such as Job, Abraham, and David were made acceptable to God. Those who rejected God were now made aware of their continued state as enemies of God. I don’t want to venture to say much more, for I am speaking mainly from opinion here, as Scripture is written for the living man and only what must be known is known about the dead and their current state.
20 – Peter now makes reference to the worldwide flood in the time of Noah, less than 2000 years after Creation, giving it Biblical credence as something referenced as fact, never fiction. Why make reference to this particular time and not to the whole period before Christ? It seems like Christ would proclaim salvation to any who lived previous to the crucifixion, saving those whom had put the faith in God’s salvation, therefore in Christ. Yet Peter doesn’t say this, instead making mention of a particular people group living previous to the flood that necessitated a special visit. This section actually seems to contradict the previous teaching, which was about suffering for doing good and which was directed at the believers only.
Some might think that Christ went to condemn those who had persecuted God’s people in times past, as many had accused Noah. This is a possible argument, but it seems curious that Peter would point out only those who hated Noah and not those who rejected David and Elijah, for example. Therefore this seems like an illustration to teach a point, not a verse to build doctrine on.
Another concept that might be taken here is the idea of Purgatory, the Catholic heresy which teaches that man can be given a second chance to enter heaven in the afterlife, slowly paying for his sins. Hebrews 9:27 clearly disproves this point and no other part of Scripture teaches this doctrine, which would surely be of great importance if true, being taught throughout it.
John Calvin points out that this verse, though confusing and hard to understand, might have been written mostly as encouragement for believers. That God’s salvation plan that was evident physically in the time of Noah and the ark is repeated now in the time of Christ. Noah obeyed God, suffered persecution and was undoubtedly called a lunatic. He was given his life as recompense for trusting God until the end. In the same way Christians are called to suffer, be persecuted, and be rejected in many ways for believing in Jesus Christ as Savior, but soon the truth will be clear – we will be resurrected and all those who rejected Christ will have their condemnation.
This argument seems very clear and when we get into the strange details of the passage we actually are missing the point of the author. He isn’t writing to us to expand on the mysteries of Sheol but instead finding an argument to encourage us to stand strong under persecution, knowing that just as Noah was physically saved for his faith God’s promise, we will be spiritually and eternally saved for our faith in Christ.
Almost at the start I made mention of the importance of linking the main idea of the author with every verse in the sequence. Biblical authors don’t make mistakes; this is why context is absolutely crucial to Biblical interpretation. In verses 8-18 Peter clearly speaks about suffering for doing good and nothing in verses 19-22 show Peter is changing topic, instead that those verses are an example of how to suffer – in this case the example is Noah the man of faith.
21 – Does water baptism saves us? Some use this verse as their ground to preach salvation by Christ and water baptism. If taken by itself, it does seem to teach salvation by baptism, but several things must be taken into consideration first. As a general rule clear verses interpret difficult verses and multiple verses have more force than a single one. Scripture over and over declares that salvation is by faith alone in Jesus Christ, and not of works (Ephesians 2:8-9). Paul even states that his live ministry was preaching the Gospel, and not baptizing, thus implying that the Gospel cannot include baptism (1 Corinthians 1:17).
A few ways to better interpret this passage have to do with definition of words. There are two types of baptism, water and spirit baptism, the first being a sign and the second being for salvation. Those who are saved have been baptized by the Holy Spirit, and water baptism serves as a sign to recognize that previous act. Therefore the use of baptism here is spiritual baptism, according to the context and the general teaching of Scripture.
So does baptism save you? Yes! Spiritual baptism that is, which occurs at the moment of conversion.
Next we look at the word “saves”, as to be saved can mean being saved from sin and hell, from physical death, from shame, or from a guilty conscience. Peter here states that this baptism does not worry about the external man, but about the internal one, subject to guilt and shame. The word “pledge” makes me think of the Biblical word “guarantee” used by Paul in 2 Corinthians 1:22, 5:5 and Ephesians 1:14, in which it always refers to the work of the Holy Spirit as our guarantee of resurrection and eternal salvation. Here Peter seems to speak of save in the form of saved from sin and hell by the work of Christ. With this in mind Peter’s statement suddenly makes sense – if we suffer for doing good, God will reward us with spiritual resurrection and eternal glory.
Thus the baptism referenced here must speak of spiritual baptism as a guarantee that converts us into Children of God, and the same Spirit that transforms us will also resurrect us from the dead, because Christ was resurrected. This connection to Christ is no coincidence, because if He had not died for our sins or resurrected from the dead, we would have no opportunity to enter heaven. Christ makes salvation possible and the Holy Spirit is the One who works and will work in us to make this a reality. The purpose of the work of Christ and of the Holy Spirit is none other than to “bring [us] to God” (v. 18), thus the whole Trinity takes part in redeeming us for God and giving us entrance into Heaven!
22 – This Christ is the one who now awaits to receive His Kingdom from God, to return to earth and reign as King of Kings and Lord of Lords, extending His glory from heaven down to include earth as well.
Peter asks us to have eyes of faith, to believe that Christ is King, and whatever we may suffer, He sees and will repay accordingly. Those who live and die for Him will certainly be honored!