Isn’t the gospel preached to the dead?
Text in question: 1 Peter 4:6
“For this reason the gospel was preached also to those who are dead, that they might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit.”
Proof texts: 1 Peter 3:18 through 1 Peter 4:5
When evaluating Bible texts, it is always important to consider the entire context of the argument being made. This is especially true with the writings of Paul and Peter, who tend to use many texts over several chapters to explain a single point. The text in question, 1 Peter 4:6, is a good example of the importance of this Bible study principle.
A cursory glance at the text could yield the impression that the gospel is preached to the dead, implying that people live on in spiritual form after death with the ability to continue to learn about God. However, we must note two things about this text:
1) It says the gospel WAS preached to those who ARE dead, implying a past event, not an ongoing one.
2) The verse begins with “For this reason,” revealing that this is a conclusion to an argument, not the argument itself. Therefore, we must read the verses prior to this text to understand the whole argument. Indeed, reading the argument in its entirety reveals the past event about which Peter is writing.
The beginning of 1 Peter chapter 4 instructs us to take on the mind of Christ so we can no longer sin in the flesh. In other words, we are helpless to overcome our lusts and fleshly appetites, but Christ did overcome and can cause us to do the same if we adopt His mind instead of our own. Peter tells us that the wicked must give accounts of their actions to God, who judges everyone, both alive and dead. It is, therefore, “for this reason” that the gospel was preached to “those who are dead,” so they might be judged in the same manner as everyone else, but have the chance to live “according to God in the spirit.”
The larger context of Peter's argument, then, is about God’s judgment. God cannot judge some according to one standard and some according to another. That would be unfair. Everyone must have the same standard of judgment and the same opportunity to live “according to … the spirit.”
However, even as early as verse 1, we still see the word “therefore.” Verse 1 is, itself, making a conclusion about a former argument. So we must back up even further to gain the proper perspective.
If we begin reading in 1 Peter 3:18, we see Peter explaining that the Holy Spirit, speaking the words of Christ, preached the gospel to sinners in the time of Noah before the flood, to give them a chance to repent. He then compares this to the Christian practice of baptism, since the Holy Spirit also ministers to bring us to repentance and baptism for the forgiveness of our sins. (For more on this, see the article “Didn’t Jesus preach to the spirits in prison?”)
Baptism, in turn, represents the suffering and death of Christ and His subsequent resurrection (see Romans 6:3–7). We choose to be baptized to symbolize the death of our sinful self and our adoption of the mind of Christ. It makes sense, then, that Peter transitions from a statement about baptism to a command to take on the mind of Christ in chapter 4, verse 1.
We should not be afraid to consider chapter 3 in order to understand chapter 4. Peter did not write his letter with chapter breaks. Rather, the chapters and verses were added centuries later by Bible scholars and translators. When Peter originally wrote, it was just a long, unbroken letter. Chapter 3 and 4 go together. They are the same argument.
In light of this, we can understand that Peter says “the gospel was preached to those who are dead,” referring specifically to sinners in the days of Noah. Certainly, all of those people were dead at the time Peter wrote his letter. Peter’s statement does not shed light on death and the afterlife at all.
*All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.