1 Peter 3:19—Does Peter support the view that a person can be saved after he dies?

Problem: First Peter 3:19 says that, after His death, Christ “went and preached to the spirits in prison.” But the Bible also says that “it is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgment” (Heb. 9:27). These two verses appear to teach mutually opposing positions.

Solution: The Bible is clear that there is no second chance after death (cf. Heb. 9:27). The Book of Revelation records the Great White Throne Judgment in which those who are not found in the book of life are sent to the lake of fire (Rev. 20:11–15). Luke informs us that, once a person dies, he goes either to heaven (Abraham’s bosom) or to hell and that there is a great gulf fixed “so that those who want to pass” from one to the other cannot (Luke 16:26). The whole urgency of responding to God in this life before we die gives further support to the fact that there is no hope beyond the grave (cf. John 3:36; 5:24).

There are other ways to understand this passage, without involving a second-chance at salvation after death. Some claim that it is not clear that the phrase “spirits in prison” even refers to human beings, arguing that nowhere else is such a phrase used of human beings in hell. They claim these spirits are fallen angels, since the “Sons of God” (fallen angels, see Job 1:6; 2:1; 38:7) were “disobedient ... in the days of Noah” (1 Peter 3:20; cf. Gen. 6:1–4). Peter may be referring to this in 2 Peter 2:4, where he mentions the angels sinning immediately before he refers to the Flood (v. 5). In response, it is argued that angels cannot marry (Matt. 22:30), and they certainly could not intermarry with human beings, since angels, being spirits, have no reproductive organs.

Another interpretation is that this refers to Christ’s announcement to departed spirits of the triumph of His resurrection, declaring to them the victory He had achieved by His death and resurrection, as pointed out in the previous verse (see 1 Peter 3:18). Some suggest that Jesus offered no hope of salvation to these “spirits in prison.” They point to the fact that the text does not say Christ evangelized them, but simply that He proclaimed the victory of His resurrection to them. They insist that there is nothing stated in this passage about preaching the Gospel to people in hell. In response to this view, others note that in the very next chapter Peter, apparently extending this subject, does say “the Gospel was preached also to those who are dead” (see comments on 1 Peter 4:6). This view fits the context here, is in accord with the teaching of other verses (cf. Eph. 4:8; Col. 2:15), and avoids the major problems of the other view.

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This excerpt is from When Critics Ask: A Popular Handbook on Bible Difficulties (Wheaton, Ill.: Victor Books, 1992). © 2014 Norman Geisler and Thomas Howe. All rights reserved. Used by permission. Click here to purchase this book.