The New Testament has some striking things to say concerning those who died in the great flood. Within its pages, the Holy Spirit breathes new insight concerning the days leading up to the global flood and especially the steps taken to save the world.
If we read only the Genesis account of the flood, we may mistakenly conclude that God’s wrath toward mankind was absolute, and no attempt was made to give them a message of hope. But this was not the case. In 2nd Peter, we learn more concerning Noah, that he wasn’t tasked with just building the box for the salvation of his family, but that he was a messenger of salvation to the lost world. Peter reports that Noah was “a preacher of righteousness” (2:5), that is, a herald, a messenger with authority, to proclaim the divine word. Peter said that Noah preached “righteousness”, in other words, justification, or the way in which man may attain a state of approval by God. But it was in Peter’s first letter that he speaks in greater detail concerning the message of salvation in the days of Noah.
“For Christ also suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive by the Spirit, (19) by whom also He went and preached to the spirits in prison, (20) who formerly were disobedient, when once the Divine longsuffering waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight souls, were saved through water.” (1 Peter 3:18-20).
Peter, in speaking of Christ’s suffering for sins, explained that Christ, “the just”, suffered “for the unjust”, that He might bring us, the unjust, to God. This was accomplished by His death “in the flesh” and his resurrection by the power of “the Spirit”. Peter exemplified this point by showing how the message of salvation was proclaimed to the antediluvian (before the flood) people. Christ, in suffering for all men, suffered for the antediluvian people, too, that they might be saved. But, sadly, only eight were saved out of the whole population of the world. Peter states that it was by the Spirit of God that Christ preached to that generation, who are now suffering their fate as “spirits in prison”. This preaching Jesus accomplished by the Holy Spirit through Noah, the herald of justification to the ungodly world. It’s important to note that Christ did not preach to them in their prison of torment after they lost their lives in the flood (as some false teachers say), but Peter makes it clear (though false teachers cannot see with clarity), that Christ preached to them “when once the Divine longsuffering waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared”. They heard the word of justification during the days that the ark was being prepared by Noah. That was their moment of hope, before the flood.
This was an important message for Peter to focus on, for greater reasons that we will discuss in a moment, for we see him continue to reference it further in the letter. In 2 Peter 4:6, Peter states:
“For this reason the gospel was preached also to those who are dead, that they might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit.”
Now, what is Peter saying here, and to whom does he refer? Some regard “those who are dead” to be the gentiles in the first century, who were spiritually dead in their sins when they heard the gospel from the disciples of Jesus. Others believe that “those who are dead” refers to the martyrs of Christ in the first century, who were physically dead, but “live according to God in the spirit.” But neither of these interpretations is satisfactory if the context is considered (and it should!). Now, it is evident that the statement: “those who are dead” has no reference to the spiritual dead, but the physical dead, for the previous verse is also talking about those physically dead when Peter says, “They will give an account to Him who is ready to judge the living and the dead.” But those who were then physically dead cannot be new testament martyrs, for this is estranged from the context, so who then does Peter refer? If we treated the text as one whole letter (which it is), then we’d pay no attention to the chapter breaks, and reading 1 Peter 3:18-4:7 would naturally flow as one thought. Thus, those in 3:19-20 who were disobedient in the days of Noah are those referred to again in 4:6, when Peter says “for this reason the gospel was preached also to those who are dead”. All that Peter is doing in this verse is concluding his discussion of the antediluvian people.
Chapter four begins with Peter’s conclusions of the material in chapter three, as he writes, “Therefore, since Christ suffered for us in the flesh, arm yourselves also with the same mind, for he who has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, that he no longer should live the rest of his time in the flesh for the lusts of men, but for the will of God.” (4:1-2). This has a direct correlation to his discussion of the suffering of Christ in 3:18. Peter said of Christ, “being put to death in the flesh but made alive by the Spirit”. Concluding this, Peter gives us an application: “for he who has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin” (4:1). We, therefore, who decide to suffer the loss of our will for the will of God are made alive in the Spirit. Peter notes that we have spent enough of our lifetime doing the will of the world (4:3), and that those who do the will of the world will have to “give an account to Him who is ready to judge the living and the dead” (4:5). Peter then circles back to those who died in the judgment of the great flood, saying “For this reason the gospel was preached also to those who are dead”. The gospel was preached to the antediluvian people? Yes, Peter explained that just nine sentences ago (3:19). He said that Christ, by the Spirit, preached to the ungodly world; this was the Spirit’s work through Noah. So, now in 4:6, Peter is concluding the reason why the good news of salvation was preached to them: “that they might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the Spirit.” That is, Noah’s preaching of justification and hope, might bring men to recognize their condemnation according to their works in the flesh, so that they might turn to live according to God, as was being directed by the Spirit of God that rested upon Noah. Peter is showing that the world that existed in those days had the word of Christ and the opportunity to respond appropriately, but they did not. This is part of a bigger message and a New Testament theme, which pairs the judgment upon the old covenant world with the judgment of the great flood. Which I plan to dive into next.
Article by Tanner Campbell.