Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Gospel Was Preached to the Dead (1 Peter 4:3-6)

Icon of the Harrowing of Hell


3 For we have spent enough of our past lifetime in doing the will of the Gentiles—when we walked in lewdness, lusts, drunkenness, revelries, drinking parties, and abominable idolatries. 4 In regard to these, they think it strange that you do not run with them in the same flood of dissipation, speaking evil of you. 5 They will give an account to Him who is ready to judge the living and the dead. 6 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.


And St. Peter’s readers need not miss their previous lifestyles, for as he (in a somewhat tongue-in-cheek manner) reminds them, they have spent plenty of time in doing the will of the Gentiles (pagans), including being involved with “lewdness, lusts, drunknenness, revelries, drinking parties, and abominable idolatries.” But they should be prepared to take some flack over making a break from their sinful lifestyles, as the apostle points out in verse 4: “they think it strange that you do not run with them in the same flood of dissipation, speaking evil of you.”


But as St. Peter has already pointed out (see 3:9), there is no need for us to retaliate against those who speak evil of us, for as he points out in verse 5, “they will give an account to Him who is read to judge the living and the dead.” It is for God, not us, to avenge wrongs done against his people. One day, all those who blaspheme and persecute others will have to give an account for their conduct to God.

St. Peter closes this section with an interesting statement, saying that “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.” He had already referred to this event once in 3:19, where he calls the dead “the spirits in prison.” But here he uses a different Greek word to describe Christ’s activity. In the previous chapter, he had used kerysso, which refers to any heralded proclamation. But here, he uses euaggelizo, which is a technical term used in the New Testament for preaching the Gospel of Christ.

Fr. Lawrence Farley (hereafter “FF”) sees this preaching of the good news not as Christ giving a second chance to people who had not believed in and lived for God, but rather as more of a completion of their knowledge of God—the “rest of the story” (so to speak). Listen to his commentary on verse 6:

“When Christ descended to the land of the dead after His own death, He proclaimed the Gospel to them all, so that all who had pleased god by their righteous lives might go with Him to the Father…Those of the dead who have lived righteously find the proclamation that Christ has triumphed is indeed good news brought to them, for they are to be rescued from the sentence of death and one day rise to immortal life. The thought here is not of the dead being given a chance to respond to the Gospel and to choose whether or not they will accept it. Rather the thought is of those already saved by their God-oriented lives (see Rom. 2:7) welcoming the good news that rescue is at hand” (95).

1 comment:

Elliott P said...

but the differences between these two verses are clear. These verses differ in subject (Christ in 3:19 versus an impersonal subject in 4:6), verb (as you point out), and object ("spirits" vs. "dead'). Furthermore, they are in entirely different contexts, with 3:19 referring to condemnation of evil spirits, while 4:6 is offering hope concerning those who are dead. The gospel being preached to dead humans goes against the testimony of scripture (Heb. 9:27) and “would hardly encourage those who are being persecuted to resist unto death.” Therefore, Peter must be referring to the evangelization of these people while they were still alive. Peter speaks often of the recipients of his letter as having been evangelized (1:12; 1:25), and it makes good sense to view him here speaking of those among his recipients that had died.