1 Peter 3:18-22 (NRSV)
This sermon, packaged as a letter, may have been written and distributed near the end of the first century. It is addressed to “To the exiles of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia…” These are Christian exiles who have fled some sort of tribulation or persecution, perhaps in the wake of the Jewish War in 66-70 CE or perhaps in the wake of some more local trouble. Responding to persecution and remaining faithful in times of trial is one of the themes of the letter.
In the opening verses, the writer reminds them that they have had to “suffer various trials”. The Greek word here is “peirasmos,” which is another form of the word for “temptations” or “testing” that we find in the gospel reading. Here it is clear, at least in the first chapter, that the emphasis is on testing rather than temptation. The verb in 1 Peter 1:7 is “dokimazo,” which means to test or try the quality of someone or something.
The letter continues with calls to holiness, faithfulness, and steadfastness in faith and practice. In chapter 2, the writer reminds the listeners that they are chosen to live as honorable servants of God. The community has either engaged in or is contemplating some forms of resistance or civil disobedience. The writer discourages that course of action and encourages the vulnerable communities to live as law-abiding and peaceful citizens who “fear God” and “honor the emperor” (2:17).
That cautious perspective continues by counseling slaves to “accept the authority of your masters with all deference, not only those who are kind and gentle but also those who are harsh” (2:18). This is one of the passages most detested by Americans enslaved and/or opposed to slavery prior to Emancipation. And it was one of the favorite texts of the chaplains to enslavement who filled the pulpits of southern Christian congregations before and during the American Civil War. The writer points to Christ, patient in suffering, as the example the slaves should emulate in their patient, passive, and obedient endurance in suffering.
In light of what is now a troubling emphasis, reprehensible in its ancient usage as well as its American application, I am reluctant to preach on this little letter at all. Of course, it gets no better in chapter three. Wives are counseled to “accept the authority of your husbands, so that, even if some of them do not obey the word, they may be won over without a word by their wives’ conduct, when they see the purity and reverence of your lives” (3:1). Wives are to refrain from drawing physical attention to themselves and rather are to “adorn themselves by accepting the authority of their husbands” (3:5). Husbands are to “show consideration” for their wives since “they too are also heirs of the gracious gift of life” (3:7).
These communities have accumulated some privilege, it would seem, and are loath to put that privilege at risk. The recommended path is to keep their heads down, live as quiet and conservative citizens of the Empire, and give the appearance of stable townspeople who will cause trouble to no one. They are not to compromise the testimony of their faith, but even in that case they are to exercise care. “Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an account of the hope that is in you,” the author writes, “yet do it with gentleness and reverence” (3:16).
We arrive now at the appointed text. Just as Christ suffered while doing good, so the listeners are counseled to endure their trials. In the midst of this quietist conservatism, we get one of the several paragraphs in the letter that draw some positive attention. To illustrate patient endurance, the writer describes Christ’s death in the flesh and new life in the Spirit. In the power of that Spirit, Christ “also went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison.” This is one the primary Scripture texts standing behind the credal claim that our Messiah and Lord “descended to the dead (or “into hell”).”
Alan Lewis spends several pages (37ff.) on this topic in his Between Cross and Resurrection: Toward a Theology of Holy Saturday. He notes that the interval of Holy Saturday was not a time, in the Creeds, of divine inaction. Rather, he says, something happened – the “descent into hell.” Lewis notes that theologians have typically viewed this statement either as the conclusion of Christ’s death or the beginning of his Resurrection. Each perspective, he says, “seeks our consent to the exclusion of the other” (page 38).
I appreciate (no surprise forthcoming) that Lewis embraces both perspectives and holds them in tension. The descent into hell is both the conclusion of Christ’s death and the beginning of his victory. It is the clear statement of faith that Christ’s death is real, full, and human – not a symbolic or “apparent” suffering and death. “If death and hell are only defeated by the divine submission to death and hell,” he writes, “then for the gospel’s own sake is it not imperative that nothing cancel out the deadly hellishness of all the Son of God endured?” (page 40).
With the descent into hell we stand, as Lewis puts it, “on the boundary between yesterday and tomorrow” (page 43). The second reading helps us to see Jesus’ temptation as a foreshadowing of that descent, as he embraces the struggles with sin, death, and the devil, which are central to the life of the believer in a world still beholden to those powers. I would suggest that this is why the text is found here on this first Sunday in Lent – shaping our view of Jesus’ testing as a vision of things to come.
Other theologians have found this small article of faith to be an important symbolic platform for deeper theology. Hans Urs von Balthasar calls this the center of all Christology in his Mysterium Paschale. The descent into Hell is the final and full expression of Christ’s self-emptying, as described in Philippians 2. In that descent, Balthasar suggests, Christ proclaims the good news to all who are imprisoned by the power of death. Christ “plants within eternal death a manifesto of eternal life,” he writes (page 180).
In that descent, according to Balthasar, Christ also offers liberation to all the imprisoned from the power of death. Since he proclaims good news to those who are imprisoned, the offer of liberation is an accomplished fact. That proclamation is described in 1 Peter 4:6 — “For this is the reason the gospel was proclaimed even to the dead, so that, though they had been judged in the flesh as everyone is judged, they might live in the spirit as God does.”
All that is left for the prisoner is to walk through the open door into forgiveness, life, and salvation. Balthasar asserts that this is not a ground for assuming Christian universalism, but I’m not sure he’s right on that score. Several ancient witnesses suggest that once the doors of the prison are opened, the prison is emptied of inhabitants. I suppose that at some point we’ll find out who is right on that one.
As Balthasar points out, the descent into Hell is seen as “the decisive image of redemption” in the Eastern Church, “that is, in the breaking down of Hell’s gates and the liberation of the prisoners” (page 179). This is captured in a line from Maximus the Confessor, quoted by Lossky in the Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church: “The death of Christ on the cross is a judgment on judgment” (page 152). The descent into Hell, in this framework, is part of that conquest of our bondage to sin.
For Martin Luther, the details of the descent were of little interest or import. Instead, he focused on what he saw as the central importance of this small article of faith. In his 1533 sermon at Torgau “On Christ’s Descent into Hell,” Luther said, “It is useful and gives the power that we have from this: that neither hell nor the devil can take us and all others who believe on him captive nor can they do us harm.”
For Luther, this proclamation to the “spirits in prison” was not an historical or one-time event. It is rather a symbol for Christ’s desire to reach all spirits in any prison whatsoever at any time. Christ will go “to Hell and back” in order to bring us to the abundant life with him.
Despite my dislike of Peter’s first letter on balance, this message will preach. And if I were to preach on this text, I would not be able to resist talking about the need to preach the gospel to the spirits currently in prison among us. I’m not talking about prison ministry, although I have experience in that regard and think that ministry is a critical part of the church’s work.
No, I’m talking about the importance of working for criminal legal reform and the end of our racialized system of mass incarceration. People don’t have to wait for death to spend time in the hell of prison — and often for offenses that would get white people a fine and some public service time. Lives are ruined. Families are destroyed. Communities are decimated. A whole culture is polluted with our ongoing commitment to pseudo-slavery under the guise of law and order. Unless our gospel is just pie in the sky in the sweet by and by, then our proclamation must be on behalf of the spirits in prison now.
There. I feel a little better about this text.
Resources and References
Hurtado, Larry. Mark (Understanding the Bible Commentary Series). Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker Books, 1989.
Lewis, Alan. Between Cross and Resurrection: A Theology of Holy Saturday. Grand Rapids, MI.: Eerdmans, 2001.
Lossky, Vladimir. The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church. Crestwood, NY.: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1957.
Malina, Bruce, and Rohrbaugh, Richard L. Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels Kindle Edition.
TDNT VI: 23-26 (Seesemann), peira, etc.
Von Balthasar, Hans Urs. Mysterium Paschale: The Mystery of Easter. San Francisco, CA.: Ignatius Press, 1990.
Wallace, Daniel B. Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics. Grand Rapids, MI.: Zondervan Publishing, 1996.