1 Peter 4:6 ESV

For this is why the gospel was preached even to those who are dead, that though judged in the flesh the way people are, they might live in the spirit the way God does.

The section just before 1 Peter 3 18-22 has been interpreted by most exegetes, since Bo Reicke's work 1, to be the proclamation of victory by Jesus to the Angels who had offspring with human women in Gen 6. Hence, even though, classically both sections have been connected, indeed, both are talking about different things, as Senior puts it:

One clasical view related this verse to 3:19, assuming that in both instances 1 Peter is citing the tradition of Christ's descent into hell to save the souls of the just imprisoned there. However, there are substantial differences between 3:19. and 4:6. In 3:19 Christ "announces" (ekēryxen) to the "spirits" (not the "dead") who are "in prison." As noted above (see 3:19), this is not the descent into Hades motif but refers to Christ's triumphant confrontation with the hostile spirits and is part of 1 Peter's description of the ultimate victory of Christ over the hostile powers of the universe (see 3:22). In 4:6, by contrast, the text refers to Christian preaching of the gospel to the dead (nekrois)2

Most contemporary interpreters no longer claim an association between 4:6 and 3:19 (Achtemeier 1996: 291; Bandstra 2003: 123; Dalton 1965: 42–51; Dalton 1979; Davids 1990: 154; J. H. Elliott 2000: 730–31; Hillyer 1992: 122; Kistemaker 1987: 163–64; Michaels 1988: 237–38).3

Moreover, in 1 Peter 4:6 the gospel preached to the dead is not preached by Christ:

The impersonal passive verb "preached" rainghathi) does not specify the preacher. It could be Christ whis preached in the dead, but the active form of this verh in the NT vatsale the Gospels usually takes Jesus Christ as th the object and not (Acts 542,835, 11:20, 17:38, Gal. 1:16), and in this spiale the passive form takas the pouped about Cherie as the object (1: 12 things preached 1:25 (word of God) Exengalises preaching the googrel are the likely preachers hom (Kelly 1969, 173-74, Achoumice 1996, 287, Ellon 2000, 732), Chest did no preach the prospef to the deak, rathen, evangelists preached the gospel about him to the dead.4

So far, 1 Peter 3:19 is not the same as 1 Peter 4:6, they are not corollary. Having proved so, I will ask again with more accuracy: who are those dead of 1 Peter 4:6? It seems that willing to put them as spiritually dead is forcing the text, as Bo Giertz said even in his Devotional Commentaries.5 Then, could it be any connection with the tradition compiled by Hermes of Rome in Book III, 9.16 :

Explain to me a little further, sir, I said. What is it that you desire? he asked. Why, sir, I said, did these stones ascend out of the pit, and be applied to the building of the tower, after having borne these spirits? They were obliged, he answered, to ascend through water in order that they might be made alive; for, unless they laid aside the deadness of their life, they could not in any other way enter into the kingdom of God. Accordingly, those also who fell asleep received the seal of the Son of God. For, he continued, before a man bears the name of the Son of God he is dead; but when he receives the seal he lays aside his deadness, and obtains life. The seal, then, is the water: they descend into the water dead, and they arise alive. And to them, accordingly, was this seal preached, and they made use of it that they might enter into the kingdom of God. Why, sir, I asked, did the forty stones also ascend with them out of the pit, having already received the seal? Because, he said, these apostles and teachers who preached the name of the Son of God, after falling asleep in the power and faith of the Son of God, preached it not only to those who were asleep, but themselves also gave them the seal of the preaching. Accordingly they descended with them into the water, and again ascended. [But these descended alive and rose up again alive; whereas they who had previously fallen asleep descended dead, but rose up again alive. ] By these, then, were they quickened and made to know the name of the Son of God. For this reason also did they ascend with them, and were fitted along with them into the building of the tower, and, untouched by the chisel, were built in along with them. For they slept in righteousness and in great purity, but only they had not this seal. You have accordingly the explanation of these also. (Translated by F. Crombie. From Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 2. Edited by Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1885.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. The Shepherd of Hermas)


1 Reicke, B. (1984). The disobedient spirits and Christian baptism. AMS Press.

2 Senior, D. P., & Harrington, D. J. (2003). Sacra Pagina: 1 Peter, Jude and 2 Peter (Ser. Sacra Pagina series 15). Liturgical Press. Para 3

3 Jobes, K. H. (2022). 1 peter. Baker Academic, a division of Baker Publishing Group. P. 272

4 Watson, D. F., & Callan, T. (2012). First and second Peter (Ser. Paideia Commentaries on the New Testament). Baker Academic. P.99

5 Giertz, B., & Erickson, B. (2023). The New Testament Devotional Commentary (Vol. 3). 1517 Publishing. Para 2.

  • He's asking about the source of 1 Peter 4:6. His/her/them('s) cup's half full.
    – Ruminator
    Dec 19, 2023 at 21:29
  • I’m voting to close this question because it is asking about a tradition and not the meaning of the text.
    – Dottard
    Dec 27, 2023 at 10:40

3 Answers 3


There are two matters involved in understanding 1 Peter 4:6

  • A: the translation difficulties
  • B: the intended meaning of νεκρός (= "dead")

A: Translation of 1 Peter 4:6

In order to illustrate the translation difficulties of 1 Peter 4:6, here is my overly literal rendering:

to this, indeed, even to dead was proclaimed, so that they might be judged according to flesh; but that they might live according to God in spirit.

Note that the noun "gospel" does not appear in the text but is included in almost all English versions presumably because it is clearly implied.

However, the subject of the OP's question primarily concerns the second question, namely:

B: What is the intended meaning of νεκρός (= "dead")

Among commentators, three possible meanings of "dead" have been offered:

  1. The Physically Dead, ie, those who had died between the time of Christ and the writing of 1 Peter
  2. The Spiritually Dead, eg, Col 2:13, Rom 6:11, Luke 15:24, 32, Eph 2:1, 5, 5:14, Matt 8:22, Luke 9:60, etc.
  3. The "Spirits in Prison" in 1 Peter 3:18, 19.

Of these #3 is very unlikely because νεκρός (= "dead") is not mentioned.

Therefore, our viable options are really between #1 and #2. Of these νεκρός (= "dead") is explicitly used in V5 which corresponds to #1 above. This is reinforced by the repetition of judging and thus, V5 and V6 appear to in parallel, viz:

  • V5: Him who is ready to judge the living and the dead.
  • V6: ... dead, so that they might be judged as men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit.


νεκρός (= "dead") is a reference to the physically dead who had died before the time of Peter's letter.

I also agree with one of the OP's quotes that this conclusion is further strengthened by the likely subject of the verb "proclaimed" which is not Christ but it object.

However, I see no association with the OP's reference to "The Shepherd of Hermas".

  • Thanks for answering. I should ask what do you think the author had in mind? Are you familiar with any background of second temple regading this? I am not. Only thing is patristic stuff. Dec 19, 2023 at 23:23
  • "patristic stuff" is most of what we have apart from the Mishnah.
    – Dottard
    Dec 19, 2023 at 23:25

This is how Clement of Alexandria (writing in the late 2nd century) understood it -- in discussing his understanding of 1 Peter and the preaching of the Gospel to the dead, he explicitly quotes the Shepherd of Hermas -- a few relevant citations below.

If, then, the Lord descended to Hades for no other end but to preach the Gospel, as He did descend; it was either to preach the Gospel to all or to the Hebrews only. If, accordingly, to all, then all who believe shall be saved, although they may be of the Gentiles, on making their profession there; since God's punishments are saving and disciplinary, leading to conversion, and choosing rather the repentance them the death of a sinner; and especially since souls, although darkened by passions, when released from their bodies, are able to perceive more clearly, because of their being no longer obstructed by the paltry flesh.

If, then, He preached only to the Jews, who wanted the knowledge and faith of the Saviour, it is plain that, since God is no respecter of persons, the apostles also, as here, so there preached the Gospel to those of the heathen who were ready for conversion. And it is well said by the Shepherd, They went down with them therefore into the water, and again ascended. But these descended alive, and again ascended alive. But those who had fallen asleep, descended dead, but ascended alive.

...it is evident that those, too, who were outside of the Law, having lived rightly, in consequence of the peculiar nature of the voice, though they are in Hades and in ward, on hearing the voice of the Lord, whether that of His own person or that acting through His apostles, with all speed turned and believed...So I think it is demonstrated that the God being good, and the Lord powerful, they save with a righteousness and equality which extend to all that turn to Him, whether here or elsewhere...

Did not the same dispensation obtain in Hades, so that even there, all the souls, on hearing the proclamation, might either exhibit repentance, or confess that their punishment was just, because they believed not? And it were the exercise of no ordinary arbitrariness, for those who had departed before the advent of the Lord (not having the Gospel preached to them, and having afforded no ground from themselves, in consequence of believing or not) to obtain either salvation or punishment. For it is not right that these should be condemned without trial, and that those alone who lived after the advent should have the advantage of the divine righteousness. (Stromata 6.6)

Clement specifically refers to the dead in Hades, who died before the advent of Christ on the earth, being taught the Gospel as a matter of justice & impartiality by God. He quotes the Shepherd of Hermas approvingly and applies a portion of very citation in the OP (from Hermas Book 3 Similitude 9 Chapter 16) to make his point.

Clement's argument is lengthy -- for the full text, see chapter 6 here.

  • Thanks. Great answer. I wonder if Peter had something similar in mind. Dec 21, 2023 at 1:18

... as our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him.

He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.

2 Peter 3:15-16 NIV

While Peter's admonition to be careful with the scripture in general and Paul's writing in particular is fair, it seems that the most horribly wrested writings belong with Peter.
While Paul was not only learned, his insights and capacity for clarity with those insights is evident.
Peter, by contrast, an un-sophisticated fisherman, is perhaps best known for impulsiveness stemming from blunt thinking. His letters incessantly swap perspectives, blending current affairs with historical precedent without easily decipherable connection nor objective.

Peter's admonition regarding Paul perhaps stemming from his own admiration of but also struggles with Paul's often lofty topics and elegant expression.

1 Peter 3:18-20

... because also Christ once for sin did suffer -- righteous for unrighteous -- that he might lead us to God, having been put to death indeed, in the flesh, and having been made alive in the spirit ...

... in which also to the spirits in prison having gone he did preach ...

... who sometime disbelieved, when once the long-suffering of God did wait, in days of Noah -- an ark being preparing -- in which few, that is, eight souls, were saved through water ...

1 Peter 3:18-20 YLT

There are two distinct ideas in verses 18 and 20, summarily, the dead christ made alive in or by the spirit, and unbelievers in the time of Noah.
Verse 19, perhaps clumsily connecting these two distinct ideas with the notion of christ alive in the spirit somehow being associated with preaching to those Noahidic unbelievers, who are moreover regarded as being "in prison".

... made alive in the spirit ...

... in which also to the spirits in prison having gone (he) did preach ...

... who sometime disbelieved ...

I firmly believe that most translations have nailed the subject in verse 19 - being the spirit. That spirit by which or in which Jesus was raised. In other words, the subject is absolutely not Jesus himself. That is, "made alive in the spirit in which or by which spirit also proclamation ...".


At the same time, however, I firmly believe that most translations have incorrectly perceived that the trailing clause should be rendered as "having gone he did preach", instead of "having gone did preach" or "having gone preached".
Again, the subject being the spirit through which or in which the christ was raised.

That is to say :

... Christ ... having been made alive in the spirit ...

... through which spirit also, having gone to the spirits in prison, (the gospel) was preached ...

... when once the long-suffering of God did wait, in days of Noah ...

1 Peter 3:18-20

There is a consistency and a linear progression which suits and ties together the opening and closing ideas and I believe is better supported.

Further, this is consistent with the introduction to 1 Peter :

Concerning this salvation, the prophets, who spoke of the grace that was to come to you, searched intently and with the greatest care ...

... trying to find out the time and circumstances to which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing when he predicted the sufferings of the Messiah and the glories that would follow.

It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves but you, when they spoke of the things that have now been told you by those who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven. Even angels long to look into these things.

1 Peter 1:10-12 NIV

Peter connecting the work of the prophets, Noah being the archetype warning of the destruction to come, and labelling that spirit, "the spirit of christ" in them.
A perspective entirely consistent with the flow between verses 18 through 19 to 20 of chapter 3 and providing great weight to the idea of the spirit of christ, operating through the prophets, in this case Noah, condemning unbelievers.

Perhaps the only bone of contention being the curious labelling of those who "disbelieved in Noah's day", as "the spirits in prison".

It should come as no surprise, that when a blunt instrument such as Peter is in the company of John and Paul, that extra effort will be invested in being seen to be original.
John and Paul could rely on their elegant drawing out of simple truths but for Peter, those waters were quite shallow. Encouraging but nonetheless shallow.
Again there's a consistency with Peter in this, but the pertinent question being, is there an equivalency between the two descriptions, i.e., can the unbelievers in Noah's day, be faithfully labelled as spirits in prison?

First and foremost, clearly this is the intent, that at the very least, these Noahidic unbelievers form at least part of those which Peter labels as "spirits in prison".

Consider Peter's phrasing as regards Korah :

For––if, God, spared not, messengers, when they sinned, but, to pits of gloom, consigning them, in the lowest hades, delivered them up to be kept, unto judgment,––

2 Peter 2:4 Rotherham

Not only is there a "borrowing" of the non-scriptural idea of ταρταρώσας - "the lowest hades" - but these rebels are considered "kept" or bound, and bound until some future time, when they will be judged.
Scripturally this is consistent with the notion of the re-animation of the dead, to judgement, through the spririt of the father, in a reversal of the process described by Solomon.
While their flesh might have decayed, their spirit is bound with the most high till that time. They are captive in every sense.

So Peter was kept in prison ...

Then Peter came to himself and said, “Now I know without a doubt that the Lord has sent his angel and rescued me ..."

Acts 12:5,11 NIV

1 Peter 4:2,5-6

...no more in the desires of men, but in the will of God, to live the rest of the time in the flesh ...

... who shall give an account to Him who is ready to judge living and dead ...

... for for this also to dead men was good news proclaimed, that they may be judged, indeed, according to men in the flesh, and may live according to God in the spirit.

1 Peter 4:2,5-6 YLT

Again Peter oscillates between the past and the present, everyday conduct and ideas of faith and so on.
Verse 6 here no doubt providing the greatest obstacle.

Setting aside the jocularity of YLT and "for for" where simply "for this also" suffices, the opening in verse 6 is obviously straightforward.
At that point, the gospel had been preached to a vast multitude, the majority of whom, had at that point, subsequently died.

Obviously for example :

Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham ...

Galatians 3:8 NIV

Abraham died and so did the prophets, yet you say that whoever obeys your word will never taste death. Are you greater than our father Abraham? He died, and so did the prophets.

John 8:52-53 NIV

"... to dead men was good news proclaimed". No problem. Proclaimed to them, and proclaimed by them.

But what is to be made of "that they may be judged, indeed, according to men in the flesh, and may live according to God in the spirit."?

Clearly, these are two classes of listeners, both of which had heard the message of deity.
One class of which, through unbelief, would be judged purely as flesh, their thinking having been unenlightened by that process. Born as men, lived as men purely according to their carnal mind, in spite of the various invitations from above, judged in that and proceeding no further.
The other class, however, having been enlightened, the good seed, would not only live according to the spirit in their fleshly existence, but would as a result continue to live with god in his spirit forever.

These classes are abundantly represented throughout the bible and labelled and referred to in ways similar to what we see here.
The previous verse cues into this :

... who shall give an account to Him who is ready to judge living and dead ...

1 Peter 4:2,5-6 YLT

Not merely referring to state of existence but rather two classes.
The living being those that are acceptable in god's eyes, who even though they might be decayed are written in the book of life, and the dead being those that are unacceptable to the father, regardless of whether or not they are currently above ground.

This theme is consistent throughout Peter and plainly the topic of instruction leading to verse 6 of chapter 4 - these two classes generally and how to avoid being in the lesser category.

In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead ...

2 Timothy 4:1 NIV

Scriptural principles observed.

Sure enough, these ideas are consistent throughout scripture.

Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.

Genesis 2:7 NIV

... and the dust returns to the ground it came from,
and the spirit returns to God who gave it.

Ecclesiastes 12:7 NIV

So will it be with the resurrection of the dead.

If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body.

1 Corinthians 15:42,44 NIV

In other words the spirit of life that was breathed into Adam, and that returns at death, returns again at the resurrection.
In the boundaries of that framework, all the dead are bound by the removal and return of that spirit.
Spirits in prison, certainly when speaking of those who would be raised to condemnation, is not out of order.

May they be blotted out of the book of life
and not be listed with the righteous.

Psalm 69:28 NIV

... only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life.

Revelation 21:27 NIV

But about the resurrection of the dead—have you not read what God said to you, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not the God of the dead but of the living.”

Matthew 22:31-32 NIV

In other words, ultimately whether one is living or dead as far as deity is concerned, is not a matter of health but purely righteousness as recorded in the "book of life".

For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing ...

... never again will they have a part in anything that happens under the sun.

Ecclesiastes 9:5,6 NIV

The dead are regarded as being asleep or unconscious in the grave until the resurrection.
And we are reliably informed that :

But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.

1 Corinthians 15:20 NIV

That is, neither Jesus nor any other deceased human could act nor plan to act while deceased.
There is no preaching of anything to the dead.
There is also no preaching of anything by the dead. And of course 1 Peter, does not mention, the dead preaching nor being preached to whilst dead.

Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’

‘No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’

He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’

Luke 16:29-31 NIV

  • Great articulation but you show lack of familiarity with critical exegesis (I say this irenically). I would recommend you to read the Bo Reicke's work I cited (this shaped all serious exegetical works on 1 Peter 3:18-22 afterwards) and also get "The Fate of the Dead' by Richard Bauckham. I bet you will like it. Dec 22, 2023 at 8:58
  • "For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths." 2 Timothy 4:3-4 NIV Dec 22, 2023 at 10:09

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