Certainly one of the most challenging passages of Scripture comes to us in 1 Peter 4:6. It reads “For 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”. Now, taken by itself, the verse can be confusing. Is Peter trying to say physically dead people have the Gospel preached to them? After all, some cults and offshoots from Christianity have used this very verse in an attempt to justify baptism and the possibility of salvation for the dead.
Just like the rest of the Bible, however, this verse does not exist in a vacuum. We must always look to context, and to the clear verses to explain the hard things in Scripture. In this instance, the meaning becomes clear if we but back up a few verses. Peter has been instructing the Christian in abstaining from the sensuality and lusts of the world in the preceding verses 1-4. In verse 5, writing of those who malign Christians for their abstinence, he states, “but they will give account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead”. Peter is speaking of judgment, and the fact that the wicked will stand before a just God one day, to answer for their sin.
So when we come to verse 6, we see that it is speaking of the reason the Gospel was preached to those now dead while they were alive, that although they were sinners, destined to die in the flesh, that is not the end for those who have come to Christ. Note in verse 6 Peter says “This is why….”, which connects to his end of the statement, that “they might live in the spirit the way God does”. Those who have been born again in Christ are regarded as righteous in the eyes of God, through the atonement on the Cross by Christ.
It’s a well-worn jest to state no one gets out of life alive. Peter would certainly agree with that—he’s reminding his audience that the power of the Gospel is not limited or focused on our physical selves in this world, and that for all of us, there is an end to our short time on this earth. The individuals Peter mentions in verse 6 have died physically—perhaps while being persecuted, given the emphasis of the rest of the letter, but perhaps due to age or accident—but whatever the cause, they have been gifted eternal life. The Gospel isn’t about saving a temporary existence here on earth, or expanding our mortal lifespan, but about guaranteed eternal life before the Throne of God.
Hebrews 9:27 says, “it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment”. That is true of the great and small, weak and strong, poor and rich. All will be judged, and all will receive right judgment from a perfect God. And although we could never deserve it, those who have repented and put their faith in Christ have Christ’s righteousness credited to their account, no longer under the condemnation that sin brings, but saved solely by the good pleasure and grace of God. No matter the persecution or suffering here on earth, in Christ we have the ultimate victory. Those souls Peter mentioned may have died in the darkened eyes of the world, but are gloriously, fully alive in their spirit.