I did a sermon on 1 Peter 3:13-4:11—a passage that containing these puzzling verses:
Christ then preached to the spirits that were being kept in prison.
The good news has even been preached to the dead, so that after they have been judged for what they have done in this life, their spirits will live with God.
1 Peter 3:19, 4:6, CEV
I think we need to keep 2 key themes of the letter in mind:
- Peter is trying to encourage Christians. He does this by showing them how they fit into God’s big story—from Creation, Abraham, Israel, and ultimately in Jesus. He reminds them that they have a new hope, a new identity, and a new family.
- Peter is giving his readers some guidance on how to respond to the inevitable suffering they’ll face because of their faith.
How does Jesus preaching to the spirits and the dead encourage and inspire hope? What guidance does it give when you’re suffering?
To attempt to answer these questions, I’m going to walk through Peter’s account, starting at verse 20, where he talks about the days of Noah.
Most people had disobeyed God while Noah built the ark and they spiraled out of control and received the colossal, chaotic consequences. In Genesis, their story ended in them drowning but in 1 Peter we discover the story continued… they were spiritually imprisoned. Often that’s referred to as hell, although Hades, Sheol, or the underworld are probably better ways to describe it.
So far, in this story countless people have died, worse, they’ve been imprisoned below, which I don’t find encouraging or hope inspiring! However, even in Genesis, God gives us a glimmer of hope because “eight people went into [Noah’s] boat and were brought safely through the flood.” That would’ve been a relief for Noah but it still leaves us wondering about everyone else… and I think this is what Jesus revealed to Peter.
So zooming forward from Noah to Jesus. Again, the world was evil but this time God had a different approach. God entered our world as a human. Jesus preached the good news and did good deeds. A few people listened and followed Him but most objected and so He was crucified. He descended to the dead in Hades, including, we are told, those who had died in the days of Noah.
Again, so far, this is tragic—particularly as Jesus was meant to be the Messiah saving the whole world! However, Jesus was God and remained God, even in Hades—He is the eternal Life. Like someone turning on a light in a darkroom, death didn’t stand a chance! This was the turning point of history! He defeated death and, on the third day, he rose again.
For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit.
1 Peter 3:22, ESV
Now Christ has gone to heaven. He is seated in the place of honor next to God, and all the angels and authorities and powers accept his authority.
1 Peter 3:18, ESV
It’s reassuring to know that ultimately Jesus always has the last word.
Some Christians see the descent as metaphorical but it’s worth remembering that the lines “He descended to the dead (or hell)”; “On the third day he rose again“; and “He ascended into heaven“, were all included in the Apostles’ Creed, which is the oldest and most widely accepted Church creed. The descent to Hades is also mentioned in other passages, for example:
But what does “he ascended” mean except that he also descended to the lower parts of the earth?
Ephesians 4:9, CSB
[Christians don’t need to ask] “Who will go down into the abyss?” that is, to bring Christ up from the dead.
Romans 10:7, CSB
Throughout Church history, Christ’s actions in Hades have been seen as very significant:
[B]elief in Christ’s descent into Hades and his preaching to the dead is not a theologoumenon [personal opinion], but belongs to the realm of general church doctrine. … It was shared by all members of the ancient church as reflected in the New Testament, the works of the early Christian apologists, fathers, and teachers of the church, ancient and later writers of both East and West, as well as in the baptismal creeds, eucharistic services, and liturgical texts.
Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev, Christ the Conqueror of Hell, 208, 203
Here are two examples, of many, of how it was interpreted:
[Christ says,] I am the one who destroyed death, and triumphed over the enemy, and trampled Hades under foot, and bound the strong one, and carried off man to the heights of heaven.
St Melito of Sardis (AD 170), Homily on the Passion
[I shall] remove [them] from punishment and I shall grant them a beautiful baptism of salvation.
Apocalypse of Peter (Ramelli’s translation of the 3rd century Rainer fragment)
Scholar Brad Jersak explains that before Calvin:
Rowan Williams also reflected on the defeat of Hades (source: Experimental Theology):
Because Jesus went “fully into the depths of human agony”, no matter when we rebelled or how far we’ve fallen, “Christ has been there, to implant the possibility, never destroyed, of another turning, another future…” I find that encouraging.
The above is the first post in a mini-series unpacking my talk below. In addition to looking at how Jesus’ journey through Hades encourages, inspires hope, and guides us when we suffer, it will look at how should we respond to slander, defend our hope, and treat each other. The second post is Is your life hell? WWJD?