What I find so very interesting about it is how it treats sin, death, and the afterlife. The purported "harrowing of hell"? It looks like a mistake. Why? Because the first thing "harrowing hell" requires is a hell. All we have in 1 Peter is a place where the dead go: Sheol. No devil, no ruler over this place in antithesis to God and heaven. None of the trappings of "imprisonment" of the "disobedient" for punishment. All the suffering is this-worldly, and comes whether you do good or bad things. But the suffering is separate from God's judgment on your deeds.
This realization came about because I had a friend ask me, basically, "what's going on in 1 Peter 3:19-20?" Which is a legit question -- the author's Greek doesn't boil down to English very well, let alone into colloquial paraphrase. This is because it's fairly "high" syntax, a relative clause in a long sentence without a clear object. But after breaking it down, I received a question I didn't expect. "So, are their sins forgiven?" Are the sins of the spirits in Sheol forgiven?
My instinctive answer was, "of course." My second answer was, "well, the passage doesn't talk about sin, just salvation." And then my third answer was to comb 1 Peter looking for sin. Because I'm pretty sure my first answer is wrong! But if sins aren't forgiven, the author gives us no evidence that they are retained after death. And that requires quite a shift in what we think "sin" and "sins" are. To that end, this is basically going to be a mini-commentary on the eschatology of 1 Peter.
There are a few sections of 1 Peter that we can go to for explicit "sin" language, and the best of them is 1 Pet 2:19-25. Context is important here: the author is exhorting his audience of gentile converts in the diaspora throughout the East -- people who had been pagan but now respond to Judean cultural logic -- to do good in their societies because they trust God. He is exhorting them, therefore, to engage in a kind of cultural self-discipline, submitting under things that do not matter in order to be seen witnessing where it does matter. He doesn't make any effort to say that what he asks for in terms of cultural assimilation is just -- quite the opposite. And here's the logic behind it:
For this is grace, if through your awareness of God you undergo some pain while suffering injustice: for what sort of reputation will you have if, while sinning and being beaten, you endure? But if while doing good and suffering, you endure, this is grace sent by God. You were called to this, because Christ also suffered on your behalf, leaving for you the example so that you should follow the trail of him who did not sin, nor was deception found in his mouth; who never returned abuse while being abused, never threatened while suffering, but committed himself to the one who judges justly; who carried our own sins himself -- in his own body -- upon the cross so that, having been freed from our sins, we might live justly; by whose stripes you were healed. For you were like wandering sheep, but you have now returned to the one who tends and watches over your lives.Think of this as the logic for living as a small community of God's people on the underside of pagan culture. What the author gives as specific examples (slaves submitting to masters, wives submitting to husbands, the community submitting to kings, emperors, governors, etc.) is not how Christian society should work, but it is how pagan society works. It is a matter of enduring the opportunity costs in order to be able to witness to God from within another culture.
So: what is sin? We're dealing with hamartia here, and it is a) the opposite of doing good, b) what Christ did not do, c) what Christ carried upon the cross, d) what Christ's death freed us from, and e) the opposite of (or at least impediment to) justice. It is a bad and/or unjust deed with effects and consequences. Sin is justly punished, and enduring punishment for sin simply makes one obstinate -- the point of punishment for sin is that you break, and return to acting justly. "A broken and contrite heart, O Lord, you will not despise." On the other hand, it is unjust to punish someone who has not sinned, and enduring such unjust punishment is a form of witness to true justice.
The next reference to sin in 1 Peter is in our lectionary reading from Lent 1, in 3:18 at the beginning of an explanatory hoti clause describing Christ's death. And the best context for that begins in 3:8, after the author finishes discussing marriage roles. And here we receive a repetition of 2:19-25 with expansion from Christ's life and death to the lives of the faithful in the diaspora.
The goal is for all of you to share a common sense, to suffer together, to love your siblings, to be truly compassionate, and humble of mind, not returning evil for evil or abuse for abuse -- quite the opposite: to bless, because you were called to this, so that you should inherit a blessing. Indeed, the one who wants to love life and to see good days must restrain their tongue from evil and their lips so that they do not utter deception; must lean away from evil and do good; must seek peace and pursue it -- because the Lord's eyes see the just, and his ears hear their requests, but the face of the Lord is set against those doing evil.There's a theme here: suneidesis, usually translated "conscience" because the nearest Latin equivalent is conscientia. This isn't what we colloquially mean by "conscience" -- no Jiminy Cricket training your personal moral compass. Con-scientia is knowing-with. The Greek is similar, since oida is "see" and its perfect implies that what we have seen, we therefore know. But suneidesis agathes isn't therefore a "good conscience" in the moral sense. It relies on common witness, the consensus of a community. I've translated it as "right awareness," and therefore also suneidesis theou as "awareness of God." God-consciousness, but in a ratified sense. This is the ethical root-concept, the thing that makes suffering injustice personally bearable. This is, if I may say so, the apocalyptic ethical norm. The world also has a suneidesis tou agathou, a consensus regarding what is good and right. That doesn't make it a suneidesis agathes, a good and right consensus -- consensus alone is not sufficient for right awareness, any more than catholicity makes for orthodoxy. And so the demonstration of right awareness, of the correctness of the consensus fidelium, is baptism -- "which is not the removal of bodily grime, but rather the response of right awareness to God."
And who will do evil to you, should you become zealous for what is good? You might suffer because of justice, but you are fortunate. Neither fear nor be agitated by the fear of them; sanctify the Lord Christ in your hearts, prepared always with a reason to answer everyone who asks you about your hope -- but with humility and fear, having a right awareness, so that those who insult your good (if counter-cultural) way of life should be put to shame by it when you are spoken against.
For it is better to suffer while doing good than while doing evil, if the will of God so inclines -- because Christ, too, suffered once with respect to sins, the just for the unjust, in order to bring you to God. Christ was killed in the flesh and made alive in the spirit, and by means of the spirit he also went and announced to the guarded spirits -- spirits once unpersuaded, back in the days of Noah when the patience of God anticipated the construction of an ark in which a few (that is, eight) lives were rescued by means of water.
And this corresponds to the baptism that saves you in the present time, which is not the removal of bodily grime, but rather the response of right awareness to God, because of the resurrection of Jesus Christ who, having departed to heaven, is at God's right hand with messengers, authorities, and powers subject to him.
Right awareness therefore presumes trust in God -- which takes us back to 1 Peter 1 and 2 for the primary language of pistis. 1:3-5 gives the audience a foreshadowing of 3:18-22, because it is their story of salvation:
Blessed is the god and father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the one who according to his plenteous mercy rebirthed us into living hope by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead -- reborn to an inheritance that does not decay, stain, or diminish, which has been kept safe in the heavens for you, those who are being guarded by the power of God through trust for the ready rescue to be revealed in the final season.This is to telos tes pisteos humon soterian psuchon, "the goal of your trust: the rescue of your lives," in 1:9. For these gentiles, that trust in God has its model and hope in Jesus Christ. 2:6-8 uses the cornerstone/stumbling-block analogy for Christ, and speaks of two classes of people: those who trust in God and those who do not. But unlike Paul's use in Romans, those who trip on the Christ-stone aren't Judean. They are gentiles unpersuaded (not disobedient -- peitho is about persuasion) by the message of Christ, who do not therefore trust God.
And now we have circled back around to the point. And it will help to note that the language of "the guarded spirits" in 3:19, tois en fulake pneumasin, is part of a set of "guarding" terms, and God guards also the audience, who trust in God, as well as their permanent inheritance. All of these "guarding" terms have a basic ambivalence -- they cover the watcher, the place where one watches, and the thing watched, and they do not specify good or bad. The root concept is protective custody. So let's figure out how they got to be where they are, and why, and then we can move on to 1 Peter 4 and check our work.
First: how do you get to be a spirit? You die. There's a world of living flesh, and a world of dead spirits, and God enforces a separation between them. (Remember 1 Sam 28 and what happened to Saul when he tried to consult across -- the living aren't supposed to have anything to do with the dead; they're supposed to live.) But the same God is Lord of both. And there's as much ancient speculation about Sheol as there is in numerous other cultures about their various afterlives -- it seems everybody bothers speculating about the afterlife at some point. The easiest bit of that to access from scriptures is the difference between Sheol and Gehenna, and the notion of the latter as a place of punishment. But we have none of that here -- all we have in 1 Peter is a reference to protective custody of spirits after death. Which suggests Sheol, the place where the dead go.
Second: how do you die? There are a million ways to die, and they all lead to the same place: where the dead go. But we're dealing with death as in relationship to soteria, salvation or rescue. And the vast oversimplification available from 1 Peter is that you die because God didn't save your life. And God didn't save your life because you weren't persuaded and didn't trust God. The hidden term would seem to be prophecy, and Noah brings that out for us. And prophecy -- here's the circle -- is a response to sin. Prophecy is corrective instruction for God's people, generally so that they don't die or other horrible things don't happen to them, but also in the event of something horrible happening. Like the Flood. Or the Exile. Or the destruction of the Temple and resulting dispersion of Israel.
Prophecy is designed to save lives. It witnesses to catastrophe in advance, presenting an opportunity for justice and the aversion of said catastrophe. Prophecy is the result of judgment; catastrophe is the consequence of the sin judged. Noah was given a warning and an opportunity, and he was persuaded, and he trusted God, and his life and the lives of those with him were saved. This is salvation, and the analogue for baptism. Noah's right awareness of God kept him alive, and his prophetic utterance saved others. But not everyone was persuaded by what God told Noah. In fact, the overwhelming majority weren't. They did not reconsider their actions, and they did not take advantage of the opportunity, and they did not trust God, and they died. So their sin got them killed. If the question is, "are their sins forgiven," the missing middle term assumes that their sins are retained, that their actions in life "stick" to their spirits after death. Which is a pretty normal Christian assumption about the afterlife and the eternal judgment. It's why most English versions translate en fulake as "imprisoned," and apeitho throughout the text as "disobey."
And I don't think that's the case. Not for 1 Peter, at any rate. The people who were not on the ark died, and remain as spirits in the place where spirits are kept. But there is no language about sin or forgiveness here. No "release" language. No sense that on some condition of hearing Jesus they will be transferred from where they are to heaven with Christ -- that's not what the heavens are. No language, in fact, to make us think that they remain accounted as sinners. The language in 1 Pet 3:19-20 is about kerygma, announcing or preaching, to the unpersuaded -- albeit in spirit and not in flesh. And while the intensive meaning of peitho is persuasion, the extensive meaning is trust -- persuasion produces pistis regarding what is said and the one who says it. And the implied result of this is the same for the spirits as it is explicitly for us in flesh: salvation, the rescue of our lives, because of the resurrection of Christ from the dead. And this is one of the key eschatological hopes of Israel -- the resurrection of the dead, of which Christ becomes the first and signal.
So I propose, as in the title of this long and wandering post, that there is no "double jeopardy" with God. You are not liable to eternal death, repetitive or persistent punishment after death, for mortal sin. Only death, which is what "mortal" means. And whatever the proximate cause of your death due to sin, the root cause is failure to be persuaded by the word and acts of God, and thus failure of trust in God. Which is a reparable defect -- and Christ repairs it by persuading even the dead, even and especially these exemplary scriptural sinners for whom the world was laid waste -- sinners over whose death God grieved, and cut a new covenant with Noah and all surviving creatures to never do that again. And so it appears to me from the text that death is one possible end of sin, and repentance produces continued life as the other possible end. Either you die or are forgiven, but either way the sin is judged and treated and finished. And you aren't, even if you die, because God is patient, and is in it for the really long game. For the salvation of your life in the end of cyclic time, the resurrection hope. And this is also the hope of those who die as a result of injustice and not as a result of their own sin. This is the reward of faith.
Which reminds me that, when Barth went for the resurrection of the dead, he did it through 1 Corinthians. Something to look for in Paul, certainly -- and across the differences between Petrine and Pauline concepts of the world. Because Paul has to deal with a threefold division: Torah-observant Judeans, Gentiles in Christ, and everyone else (the mission field). But Paul hasn't seen the destruction of the Temple, either, and I think this apostle Peter has. So while Paul asserts contrary to politics that the first two are Israel, 1 Peter doesn't bother to note any distinction between its Gentile-Judean audience and "real" Torah-observant Judeans. The world of this text is made of those who trust God, and those who do not (yet). All observance, at this point, is Pharisaic. All observance is in the world, in daily life, away from the sacred precincts. All action in the world is for the glory of God -- or it is not.
So let's jump into 1 Peter 4 and check out how this all unfolds. 4:1-6 wraps quite a bit of the foregoing, so I'll translate it:
Considering therefore that Christ suffered in the flesh, equip yourselves with the same concept, because the one who suffers in the flesh has rested from sin, so as to spend the remainder of their time living in the flesh upon what God wants rather than on unseemly popular desires. For the time that has now gone was sufficient to have worked out the purposes of the pagan nations, having trafficked in incontinence, unseemly desires, wining, carousal, boozing, and uncustomary idolatry -- by which they are estranged when you do not run together with them into the same prodigal effusiveness, and they slander you; they will render an account to the one whose job it will be to judge the living and the dead. Indeed, because of this it was announced to the dead, so that though they be judged on human terms in the flesh, they shall live on God's terms in spirit.And in view of this we shouldn't be surprised that we suffer, because the eschaton is near, the judgment of all things and the resurrection of the dead. Peter is concerned that we suffer for the right reasons:
Indeed, don't any of you suffer as a murderer, a thief, an evildoer, or as a meddler in others' affairs -- but if you suffer as a "Christ-lackey," don't be ashamed; glorify God by that name, because the season of judgment will commence with the household of God; and if with us first, what will be the end for those who are unpersuaded by the announcement of God? And if it seems that the just are only barely rescued, how will it seem for the impious and sinful? So then, let those who suffer according to the will of God present their lives to the faithful Creator by doing good. (4:15-19)But the rewards for this come either in life -- in "barely surviving" as the people of God in the world -- or in the resurrection of the dead, which is new life. It seems to me that Peter has already handled the case of the dead; I'm not sure to what extent it's a repeatable case! The crucifixion was a one-time event, and the persuasion of the dead would seem to have also been a one-time event between Christ's death and resurrection. I wonder to what extent there is preaching and persuasion extended to the dead after that, in the world of the text. The judgment of sin will be death to those who are not persuaded to trust God and act justly; 1 Peter doesn't make provision for what happens after that. It's a cipher. But to the original question, my answer is that the sins of the dead have been judged, and punished, and resolved, and in Christ they received a second chance, which will be rewarded in the ultimate resurrection, the new heavens and the new earth. The same chance at persuasion has been extended in Christ to the gentiles, and baptism is the just response to being persuaded to respond to God with trust.
How all that might translate into our eschatology, I'm not going to touch -- that's a much heavier task!