CLAIM: Peter writes, “The gospel has for this purpose been preached even to those who are dead, that though they are judged in the flesh as men, they may live in the spirit according to the will of God” (1 Pet. 4:6). Does this mean that people get to hear the gospel after they die?
RESPONSE: Consider a number of different views on this passage:
OPTION #1: This could refer to Christ preaching to the evil spirits.
Some interpreters believe that this refers to the evil spirits of 1 Peter 3:19 (c.f. 2 Pet. 2:4; Gen. 6:4). However, we would disagree. Peter writes that these people were “judged in the flesh,” which cannot refer to spirits. He also explicitly calls them “men,” not spirits (1 Pet. 4:6). Moreover, why would Christ preach “the gospel” to evil spirits, who cannot be saved (Heb. 2:16)? We find this view untenable.
OPTION #2: This could refer to Christ preaching through Noah to people who are NOW dead.
However, at the time of Noah’s preaching, these people would have been alive. Peter writes, “The gospel has for this purpose been preached [past tense] even to those who are dead [present tense]” (1 Pet. 4:6). The NASB footnote for “preached” says: “preached in their lifetimes.” Therefore, this could refer to OT believers in Abraham’s bosom. Jesus taught a parable about how OT believers waited in “Abraham’s bosom” before they were allowed into heaven (Lk. 16:22). This would fit with why Moses and Elijah were talking with Jesus about his work on the Cross at the Transfiguration (Lk. 9:31). This wouldn’t refer to a second chance for salvation. Instead, this refers to Jesus calling OT believers into heaven after his death on the Cross.
OPTION #3: This could refer to Christ preaching to all those who are ultimately saved at the end of human history.
When Lazarus had died in the tomb, Jesus shouted, “Lazarus, come forth” (Jn. 11:43). Similarly, Jesus calls all believers from death into resurrection on the last day. Paul writes, “The Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout” (1 Thess. 4:16). Under this view, Peter is making a general claim about Christians being generally saved at the end of history.
OPTION #4: This is a general statement about people coming to faith in Christ.
Under this view, “those who are dead” refers to all people who are “dead” in their sins (cf. Eph. 2:1). These people are dead in sin, but they “may live in the spirit.” This verb “live” (zōsi) is in the subjunctive mood, which means that they might possibly come to Christ, if they choose to.
This is simply an unclear passage. A common hermeneutical rule is that we should interpret the unclear in light of the clear. Since several viable interpretations can be made on this passage, we shouldn’t base major doctrines on such a verse. Since the Bible clearly teaches that the unsaved do not get a second chance after death (Heb. 9:27), we need to interpret this unclear passage in light of the greater testimony of Scripture.