How are we to understand 1 Peter 4:6?
This passage is one of the few in the New Testament which are relatively difficult to know for sure the exact meaning. In the context, Peter is talking about the suffering of Christ on our behalf (1 Pet 4:1-2) and about our salvation when we were baptized into Christ (1 Pet 3:20-22). Peter says that, in view of Christ’s suffering, we should live righteous lives and not fall into the sins we indulged in the past (1 Pet 4:3-4). He goes on to say that judgment is coming on those who give themselves over to sin and those who abuse people to commit to a righteous life (v. 5).
Then Peter makes a comment which is a bit difficult to be sure of its meaning: “For this is the reason the gospel was preached even to those who are now dead, so that they might be judged according to men in regard to the body, but live according to God in regard to the spirit.” The most obvious interpretation is that “those who are now dead” but who had the gospel preached to them would be a reference to people who had died since the gospel was preached—ie since the Day of Pentecost in Acts 2—but who had heard and rejected the gospel. Peter is saying that those who have been persecuting the Christians out of jealousy because of their godly lifestyle will be judged by God. Therefore, the saints should put their trust in God who judges and not fear their persecutors.
The first half of 1 Pet 4:6 is fairly straightforward. It is the second half of the verse which is a bit problematic. “… so that they might be judged according to men in regard to the body, but live according to God in regard to the spirit. What does it mean to judged according to men in regard to the body? It is likely that the second half of this phrase is the key. Peter says the alternative to being judged in regard to the body is to live according to God in regard to the spirit. Here is what I believe Peter is saying. He is saying that those of us who have the Holy Spirit dwelling in us will not be judged according to the sins we committed “in regard to the body” but instead we will be judged by God based on the Holy Spirit who lives in us. The Holy Spirit is a deposit, guaranteeing our salvation when Jesus comes back (Ephesians 1:13-14), In other words, Peter is telling us to not fear those who are not saved. They will be judged according to their actions, but God will save us, as we have the Holy Spirit living in us.
Do not forget the big picture. Peter is talking about our response to those who are not in Christ who hate us and who want to destroy us. They will be judged by God but God will save us. Therefore we should trust in Jesus who also suffered at the hands of evil men.