Noah--Baptism--Hell: What is 1 Peter 3 talking about?

1 Peter 3:18-21 is one of the more interesting and difficult passages to interpret. In fact, Martin Luther even said  that he couldn't fully interpret these verses with absolute certainty--so it stands to reason, if Martin Luther could not interpret these verses confiently, this should teach us to tread lightly as well...I did find some interesting thoughts and hopefully, these will be beneficial to you in your study of God's Word...

  • One question from these verses is--is baptism necessary for salvation?

As with any single verse or passage, we discern what it teaches by first filtering it through what we know the Bible teaches on the subject at hand. In the case of baptism and salvation, the Bible is clear that salvation is by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, not by works of any kind, including baptism (Ephesians 2:8-9). So, any interpretation which comes to the conclusion that baptism, or any other act, is necessary for salvation, is a faulty interpretation. For more information, please visit our webpage on "Is salvation by faith alone, or by faith plus works?"

Those who believe that baptism is required for salvation are quick to use 1 Peter 3:21 as a “proof text,” because it states “baptism now saves you.” Was Peter really saying that the act of being baptized is what saves us? If he were, he would be contradicting many other passages of Scripture that clearly show people being saved (as evidenced by their receiving the Holy Spirit) prior to being baptized or without being baptized at all. A good example of someone who was saved before being baptized is Cornelius and his household in Acts 10. We know that they were saved before being baptized because they had received the Holy Spirit, which is the evidence of salvation (Romans 8:9Ephesians 1:131 John 3:24). The evidence of their salvation was the reason Peter allowed them to be baptized. Countless passages of Scripture clearly teach that salvation comes when one believes in the gospel, at which time he or she is sealed “in Christ with the Holy Spirit of promise” (Ephesians 1:13).

Thankfully, though, we don’t have to guess at what Peter means in this verse because he clarifies that for us with the phrase “not the removal of dirt from the flesh, but an appeal to God for a good conscience.” While Peter is connecting baptism with salvation, it is not the act of being baptized that he is referring to (not the removal of dirt from the flesh). Being immersed in water does nothing but wash away dirt. What Peter is referring to is what baptism represents, which is what saves us (an appeal to God for a good conscience through the resurrection of Jesus Christ). In other words, Peter is simply connecting baptism with belief. It is not the getting wet part that saves but the “appeal to God for a clean conscience” which is signified by baptism, that saves us. The appeal to God always comes first. First belief and repentance, then we are baptized to publicly identify ourselves with Christ.

An excellent explanation of this passage is given by Dr. Kenneth Wuest, author of Word Studies in the Greek New Testament. “Water baptism is clearly in the apostle’s mind, not the baptism by the Holy Spirit, for he speaks of the waters of the flood as saving the inmates of the ark, and in this verse, of baptism saving believers. But he says that it saves them only as a counterpart. That is, water baptism is the counterpart of the reality, salvation. It can only save as a counterpart, not actually. The Old Testament sacrifices were counterparts of the reality, the Lord Jesus. They did not actually save the believer, only in type. It is not argued here that these sacrifices are analogous to Christian water baptism. The author is merely using them as an illustration of the use of the word 'counterpart.'

"So water baptism only saves the believer in type. The Old Testament Jew was saved before he brought the offering. That offering was only his outward testimony that he was placing faith in the Lamb of God of whom these sacrifices were a type....Water baptism is the outward testimony of the believer’s inward faith. The person is saved the moment he places his faith in the Lord Jesus. Water baptism is the visible testimony to his faith and the salvation he was given in answer to that faith. Peter is careful to inform his readers that he is not teaching baptismal regeneration, namely, that a person who submits to baptism is thereby regenerated, for he says, 'not the putting away of the filth of the flesh.' Baptism, Peter explains, does not wash away the filth of the flesh, either in a literal sense as a bath for the body, nor in a metaphorical sense as a cleansing for the soul. No ceremonies really affect the conscience. But he defines what he means by salvation, in the words 'the answer of a good conscience toward God," and he explains how this is accomplished, namely, 'by the resurrection of Jesus Christ,' in that the believing sinner is identified with Him in that resurrection.”

Part of the confusion on this passage comes from the fact that in many ways the purpose of baptism as a public declaration of one’s faith in Christ and identification with Him has been replaced by “making a decision for Christ” or “praying a sinner’s prayer.” Baptism has been relegated to something that is done later. Yet to Peter or any of the first-century Christians, the idea that a person would confess Christ as his Savior and not be baptized as soon as possible would have been unheard of. Therefore, it is not surprising that Peter would see baptism as almost synonymous with salvation. Yet Peter makes it clear in this verse that it is not the ritual itself that saves, but the fact that we are united with Christ in His resurrection through faith, “the pledge of a good conscience toward God through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 3:21).

Therefore, the baptism that Peter says saves us is the one that is preceded by faith in the propitiatory sacrifice of Christ that justifies the unrighteous sinner (Romans 3:25-264:5). Baptism is the outward sign of what God has done “by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5).


Another interesting/difficult aspect in these verses is who was Jesus preaching to and when/where did this happen? Again, there are several interpretations--I found this article the website gotquestions.com who use commentators/pastors that are typically very solid expositors of God's Word...hope it helps...

"The “spirits in prison” are mentioned in the context of what Jesus did in the time between His death and resurrection. First Peter 3:18–20 says, “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.” Note that Jesus’ body was dead and awaiting resurrection, but He was spiritually alive during the time that His body was in the grave. As background, please read our article on “Where was Jesus for the three days between His death and resurrection?

We know three things for sure about the spirits mentioned in 1 Peter 3:19. They are incorporeal, they are imprisoned, their sin was committed before the Flood. The verse also seems to indicate that Jesus visited the place of their captivity to make an announcement to them. Who exactly these spirits are has been the subject of some speculation through the years.

We take the view that the spirits in prison are fallen angels or demons. The spirits in prison cannot be holy angels, because they have not sinned and are not imprisoned. It is clear that not all the demons are imprisoned, for the New Testament gives many examples of demonic activity on earth. So the spirits in prison must be a select group of demons who, unlike the their demonic allies, are held captive.

What might be a reason for some, but not all, of the demons to be imprisoned? Jude 1:6 gives us an important clue: “The angels who did not keep their positions of authority but abandoned their proper dwelling—these he has kept in darkness, bound with everlasting chains for judgment on the great Day.” There are some fallen angels that committed an egregious crime of some kind; Jude 1:6 does not give details, but the demons’ sin was related to how they “did not keep their own position but deserted their proper dwelling.” Revelation 9:1–1214–15, and 2 Peter 2:4 also speak of a group of wicked angels that are currently bound.

The sin the spirits in prison committed could be the one in Genesis 6:1–4, which records the “sons of God” mating with the “daughters of men” and producing a race of giants, the Nephilim. If the “sons of God” were fallen angels, then the sin of Genesis 6 involved angels leaving the place where they belonged in an act of disobedience before the Flood—and that corresponds to what the apostle mentions in 1 Peter 3:19. It could be that the demons who cohabited with human women were imprisoned by God to prevent them from repeating that sin and to discourage other demons from trying it.

According to 1 Peter 3:19, Jesus “made proclamation” to these spirits in prison. The Greek word translated “proclaimed” or “preached” means “to publicly declare” or “to herald.” If the spirits are demons, then Peter says that Jesus went to the Abyss and proclaimed His victory to the fallen angels imprisoned there. They had lost, and He had won. The cross triumphs over all evil (see Colossians 2:15).

Another view of the identity of the spirits in prison is that they are the human spirits of those who perished in the flood of Noah’s day.

As for Christ preaching to them, there are two interpretations: 1) Christ preached to them figuratively, in and through Noah, while they were in the flesh; and 2) Christ preached to them literally in between His death and resurrection. According to both interpretations, the spirits are called such because they were in a spiritual condition when Peter wrote; they were no longer in the flesh but lived in Hades.


  • Here is a more detailed article by a Dr. Joseph Nally, Jr who tends to take the view of Jesus preaching to those who were spiritually dead through Noah before the flood...

"Four main interpretations of have been promoted of 1 Peter 3:19-20

(1) The section refers to preincarnate preaching (i.e., that Christ preached through Noah [cf. 2 Pet. 2:5] to Noah's wicked contemporaries while they were still alive). He called them to repentance, but they disobeyed and are now imprisoned. The point of Peter's argument would then be the parallel between God's vindication of Noah in a world of unbelievers and his vindication of Christians in similar circumstances. This is the most reasonable interpretation of our passage.

(2) This passage refers to preresurrection preaching (i.e., preaching that occurred between Christ's death and resurrection, during a "descent into hell"). One variation of this view holds that Christ announced his victory and their doom to the spirits of Noah's wicked contemporaries in the place of the dead.

(3) Another version of the preresurrection approach holds that Christ proclaimed the same message to fallen angels, who are often identified with the "sons of God" of Genesis 6:24 (cf. Job 1:62:1), in their place of confinement.

(4) These two verses refer to postresurrection preaching (i.e., Christ proclaimed his victory to fallen angels at the time of his ascension into heaven). The point of the last three interpretations is that just as Jesus was vindicated, so God will vindicate Christians. In no case was Peter suggesting that Christ offered deceased unbelievers an opportunity to receive the gospel and thus be saved.

Taken by itself, the phrase spirits in prison could refer either to human spirits in hell or to fallen angelic spirits in hell. 2 Peter 2:4 and Jude 1:6 speak of sinful angels being imprisoned and punished, while Luke 16:23-24 and 2 Peter 2:9 refer to unbelievers who have died and are in a place of punishment. . . . and in every case where it means 'angelic spirit' as well as every case where it means 'human spirit' the context makes it clear what kind of spirit is meant.


The spirits in prison are those who formerly did not obey (better: 'disobeyed', since the word has a sense of active rebellion), when God's patience waited in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark. These phrases indicate that only human spirits can be intended, for nowhere in the Bible or in Jewish literature outside of the Bible are angels ever said to have disobeyed 'during the building of the ark'. Genesis 6:5-13 clearly emphasizes the human sin, which provoked God to flood the earth in judgment. . . . When God's patience waited in the days of Noah also suggests human, rather than angelic, disobedience. God's patience waited for human beings to repent before bringing the judgment of the flood (this is also a frequent theme in extra-biblical literature), but never is there any hint that fallen angels have a chance to repent - it is only given to sinful human beings (cf. 2 Pet. 2:4Jude 1:6).

But why does Peter refer to 'spirits' if he has in view disobedience by human beings who were not just 'spirits' but bodies as well? This is best explained by understanding the text to mean 'spirits who are now in prison' (i.e. at the time Peter was writing), but who were people on earth at the time of Noah, when Christ was preaching to them. (The NASB translates, 'the spirits now in prison'.) A similar expression is found a few verses later at 1 Pet. 4:6, 'For this is why the gospel was preached even to the dead', which is best understood to mean 'the gospel was preached to those who are now dead' (but who were alive when the gospel was preached to them; see discussion below). One can speak the same way in English: 'Queen Elizabeth was born in 1926' is an appropriate statement, even though she was not Queen when she was born - we mean 'She who is now Queen Elizabeth was born in 1926.'

The phrase who formerly did not obey is better translated 'when they formerly disobeyed', thus specifying that this was the time when Christ 'in spirit' preached to these people: i.e. 'when they formerly disobeyed when God's patience was waiting in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark.' Peter elsewhere mentions ideas similar to the thought that Christ 'in spirit' preached through Noah, for in 1 Pet. 1:11 the Spirit of Christ is said to have been active in the prophets of the Old Testament era (cf. 1 Cor. 10:4).

Although Peter does not specifically call Noah a prophet in 2 Peter 2:5, he terms him a 'herald of righteousness', and uses the noun (keryx) which is related to the verb 'preached' (kerysso) in 1 Pet. 3:20.

By saying that Christ went and preached rather than just saying that he 'preached', Peter suggests that Christ did not stay in heaven but 'went' to where people were disobeying, and there preached to them through the lips of Noah. The content of this preaching was not a message of final condemnation . . . or the completion of redemption . . . , but concerned the need to repent and come to God for salvation. This is what Noah would have preached to those around him (even without extra-biblical literature we would draw this conclusion from 2 Pet. 2:4). It is the right message to preach when people are disobeying 'while God's patience is waiting' (cf. 2 Pet. 3:9).

This interpretation is very appropriate to the larger context of 1 Pet. 3:13-22. The parallel between the situation of Noah and the situation of Peters readers is clear at several points:

(1) Noah and his family were a minority surrounded by hostile unbelievers; so are Peter's readers (1 Pet. 3:13-144:412-13).

(2) Noah was righteous in the midst of a wicked world. Peter exhorts his readers to be righteous in the midst of wicked unbelievers (1 Pet. 3:13-1416-174:3-4).

(3) Noah witnessed boldly to those around him. Peter encourages his readers to be good witnesses to unbelievers around them (1 Pet. 3:1416-17), being willing to suffer, if need be, to bring others to God (just as Christ was willing to suffer and die 'that he might bring us to God', 1 Pet. 3:18).

(4) Noah realized that judgment was soon to come upon the world. Peter reminds his readers that God's judgment is certainly coming, perhaps soon (1 Pet. 4:572 Pet. 3:10).

(5) In the unseen 'spiritual' realm Christ preached through Noah to unbelievers around him. By saying this Peter can remind his readers of the reality of Christ's work in the unseen spiritual realm and the fact that Christ is also in them, empowering their witness and making it spiritually effective (cf. 1 Pet. 1:81112252:4). Therefore, they should not fear (1 Pet. 3:14) but in their hearts should 'reverence Christ as Lord' and should 'always be prepared' to tell of the hope that is in them (1 Pet. 3:15).

(6) At the time of Noah, God was patiently awaiting repentance from unbelievers, before he brought judgment. So it is in the situation of Peter's readers: God is patiently awaiting repentance from unbelievers (cf. 2 Pet. 3:9) before bringing judgment on the world (cf. 2 Pet. 3:10).

(7) Noah was finally saved, with 'a few' others. Peter thus encourages his readers that, though perhaps few, they too will finally be saved, for Christ has triumphed and has all things subject to him (1 Pet. 3:224:13195:102 Pet. 2:9).

This passage, once cleared of misunderstanding, should also function today as an encouragement to us to be bold in our witness (as Noah was), to be confident that, though we may be few, God will certainly save us (as he did Noah), and to remind us that just as certainly as the flood eventually came, so final judgment will certainly come to our world as well, and Christ will ultimately triumph over all the evil in the universe.




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