Early Church Fathers’ View of 1 Pet 3:19–20

early church fathers 1 pet 3 19 to 20 (2)

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d) 1 Pet 3:19–20: Peter wrote that Christ made a proclamation, “to the ones who once were disobedient while God was waiting patiently in the days of Noah [while] an ark was being built.”

In the history of the church, theologians have developed vastly different interpretations concerning the identity of those disobedient entities.



Prior to 190 AD, Christians asserted that Christ devastated hell. Yet, no extant record exists of the early church employing 1 Pet 3:18–20 as evidence for that concept.[1]

Some of the early church fathers, such as Clement of Alexandria (ca. 150–220 AD), linked this passage with conversion after death.[2]

In this view, Jesus visited Hades, the realm of the dead,[3] between Good Friday and Easter.[4] He preached to the sinful humans who died in the flood, giving them a chance to repent and receive salvation (Gen 6:1–7; Gen 7:17–24).[5]

In this scenario, people can benefit from evangelism even after death (Cf. 1 Pet 4:6).[6] Those who hold this view contend that God will offer everyone who resides in hell such an opportunity, especially if they have never heard the gospel.[7]



However, the apocryphal book of 1 Enoch (second century BC–first century AD) comprises the basis for the proclamation to demons in this passage. That book appears to have been lost during the second century until the late eighteenth century. Lacking that traditional material, theologians began to interpret 1 Pet 3:19–20 in terms of Jesus descending into hell.[8]



In one of his later works, Clement wrote:

David…says, “My heart was glad, and my tongue rejoiced, and my flesh shall still rest in hope. For Thou shalt not leave my soul in hell, nor wilt Thou give Thine holy one to see corruption. Thou hast made known to me the paths of life, Thou wilt make me full of joy in Thy presence [Ps 16:10–11]…

If, then, He preached the Gospel to those in the flesh that they might not be condemned unjustly, how is it conceivable that He did not for the same cause preach the Gospel to those who had departed this life before His advent?…

If, then, in the deluge all sinful flesh perished, punishment having been inflicted on them for correction, we must first believe that the will of God, which is disciplinary and beneficent, saves those who turn to Him…

But whatever is gross, made so in consequence of sin, this is cast away along with the carnal spirit which lusts against the soul.[9]



However, the Hebrew text of Ps 16:10 says Sheol, which means the underworld, rather than hell.[10] The Greek translation of the Old Testament always translates the word as “Hades” (e.g. Gen 37:35).[11]

One of Clement’s supporting texts instead refers to Christians who died before Peter wrote his letter. The context of 1 Pet 4:5–6 suggests it does not apply to people who heard the gospel after their deaths (1 Pet 4:1–8).[12]

Only once in the New Testament does the plural word “spirits” (pneuma) apply to humans (Heb 12:22–24), creating a major issue with this theological theory.[13] In addition, the adjective “righteous” (dikaios) clarifies that the author of Hebrews referred to people.[14]

In normal Greek usage, authors typically employed the word pair “body (sarx) and soul” (psychē)—not “body and spirit” (pneuma)—to refer to the material and immaterial aspects of a person.[15]

While a spirit forms part of every individual, biblical authors never called humans spirits, with the exception just noted in Hebrews (Matt 27:50; Acts 7:59). Indeed, the apostle designated people as “souls” in 1 Pet 3:20.[16]

“Spirits” (pneuma) can also denote angels,[17] both good and evil (Matt 8:16; Luke 10:17–20).[18]



“Prison” (phylakē) refers to a place of punishment for people on earth. It never means torment after death (Acts 5:17–21; Acts 8:3; 2 Cor 11:23).[19]

However, God will confine Satan for 1,000 years in “prison.” It also serves as a place of detention for unclean spirits (Rev 20:1–3, 7; Rev 18:1–2; Luke 8:30–31).[20]

Intertestamental Jewish literature often discusses the confinement of evil angels. For example, 1 Enoch—a text which Clement likely did not have—depicts a vision of stars, a common metaphor for angels (Judg 5:20–23; Job 38:4–7):

And I saw a deep abyss, with columns of heavenly fire…And beyond that abyss I saw a place which had no firmament of the heaven above, and no firmly founded earth beneath it: there was no water upon it, and no birds, but it was a waste and horrible place. I saw there seven stars like great burning mountains…

The angel said, “This place is the end of heaven and earth: this has become a prison for the stars and the host of heaven. And the stars which roll over the fire are they which have transgressed the commandment of the Lord in the beginning of their rising, because they did not come forth at their appointed times.

And He was [angry] with them and bound them till the time when their guilt should be consummated (even) for ten thousand years.”[21]



Peter limited the opportunity for salvation after death to the spirits of those disobedient during the time of Noah. The proponents of the theological construct of the early church fathers cannot answer why that generation alone received the privilege (Heb 9:27).

Furthermore, Jesus’s ascension to the right hand of the Father after his resurrection—not his death—represents the final stage of his accomplishment of redemption (Acts 2:22–36; Acts 5:30–31; 1 Pet 3:21–22). Proclaiming victory while dead would be premature.[22]

Finally, the major theme of this letter calls believers to persevere in righteousness while enduring suffering.

In fact, the apostle contended that our eternal life depends upon remaining faithful to the end (1 Pet 1:3–9, 13–19; 1 Pet 3:8–12; 1 Pet 4:3–8, 17–19; 1 Pet 5:5–10). If God offered people a second opportunity to repent after death, much of the motivation for Christians to bear such hardship disappears.[23]

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Read 1 Pet 3:19–20. Why did some early church fathers contend that Christ preached to the spirits of people who died in the flood? What evidence discounts that view? List the pros and cons for this view in the Summary of 1 Pet 3:19–20.




Go to Augustine’s View of 1 Pet 3:19–20

[Related posts include Overview of 1 Peter 3:18–22Death in the Flesh but Life in the Spirit (1 Pet 3:18); Interpretive Issues in 1 Pet 3:19–20; Augustine’s View of 1 Pet 3:19–20; The Apostles’ Creed and 1 Pet 3:19–20; John Calvin’s View of 1 Pet 3:19–20; Ancient Jewish View Applied to 1 Pet 3:19–20; Modern Scholars’ View of 1 Pet 3:19–20; Summary of 1 Pet 3:19–20; Salvation through Water (1 Pet 3:20); An Appeal to God (1 Pet 3:21); and Seated at God’s Right Hand (1 Pet 3:22)]

[Kings as Sons of the Gods (Gen 6:1–2 cont.); Taking Wives for Themselves (Gen 6:1–2 cont.); Nephilim in the Land (Gen 6:4); God Grieves (Gen 6:5–6); Wiping Out Everyone (Gen 6:7); The Waters Prevail (Gen 7:17–20); The Breath of Life Extinguished (Gen 7:21–24); Obedient to the Point of Death (Phil 2:8); The Name Above Every Name (Phil 2:9–11); Ancient Literature; Intertestamental History; and Greek Translation of the Old Testament]

[Click here to go to Chapter 8: Safely Through (Gen 8:1–19)]


[1]Edward G. Selwyn, The First Epistle of St. Peter, 2nd Ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1981), 340.

[2]Jobes, 1 Peter, 247.

[3]Keener, IVPBBCNT, 1 Pet 3:18–9.

[4]Marshall, 1 Peter,1 Pet 3:19.

[5]Schreiner, 1, 2 Peter, Jude, 185.

[6]Michaels, 1 Peter, 204.

[7]Schreiner, 1, 2 Peter, Jude, 185.

[8]Jobes, 1 Peter, 247.

[9]Clement, “Stromata,” in Fathers of the Second Century: Hermas, Tatian, Athenagoras, Theophilus, and Clement of Alexandria (Entire) (ANF02) (ed. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson; trans. W.L. Alexander; New York: Christian Literature, 1885), 6.6, 491–2, https://archive.org/stream/antenicenefather02robe#page/490/mode/2up. Italics mine.

[10]Brown,Driver, and Briggs, “שְׁאוֹל” (sheol), BDB, 982–3, https://archive.org/stream/hebrewenglishlex00browuoft#page/982/mode/2up.

[11]L. Wächter, “שְׁאוֹל” (sheol) TDOT 14:239–48, 241.

[12]Jobes, 1 Peter, 270–1

[13]Davids, The First Epistle of Peter, 139–40.

[14]Schreiner, 1, 2 Peter, Jude, 186.

[15]Jobes, 1 Peter, 241.

[16]Michaels, 1 Peter, 207.

[17]Schreiner, 1, 2 Peter, Jude, 187.

[18]Michaels, 1 Peter, 207.

[19]Marshall, 1 Peter, 1 Pet 3:19.

[20]Schreiner, 1, 2 Peter, Jude, 187.

[21]Charles, “Book of Enoch,” in The Apochrypha and Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament, 18:11–16, http://www.sacred-texts.com/bib/boe/boe021.htm.

[22]Jobes, 1 Peter, 248–50.

[23]Schreiner, 1, 2 Peter, Jude, 187–8.