For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight people, were saved through water.
This densely packed passage is a ‘proof-text’ of both conservatives and liberals to justify beliefs; whether it be evidence of Christ preaching to the dead on Holy Saturday or as conclusive evidence that Peter, writes of a spiritual, not a bodily, resurrection.
The tradition of Jesus descending to Hell has its basis in the 3rd Century Gospel of Nicodemus and the writings of Augustine. Likewise, to read this text as making a distinction between body and spirit is misunderstanding Peter’s use of ‘flesh’ (meaning this life/realm, not body) and ‘spirit’ (meaning the realms which we cannot see, not ‘soul’). Furthermore, ‘descended to Hell’ does not appear in Western Creeds to until the 700s. The parable of the Dives and Lazarus (Luke 16) suggests the dead should require no such ministry for they had the Law and the Prophets.
What then, to put it bluntly, was Peter on about?
Helpfully, the Letter gives some hints to context. Peter encourages the infant vulnerable and persecuted Church. The term ‘spirits’ (note he mentions neither the dead nor Hell) references the realms we can’t see, in comparison to ‘the flesh’ (not body) the realms we can see. In the context of the vulnerable Early Church he is setting up an argument for remaining steadfast in current travails, by having confidence in that which we cannot see. Peter is pointing to Jesus’ dominion over things unseen as well as seen.
Peter then links the Noah story, (someone who ‘saves’ the righteous through water) and the saving nature of the waters of baptism. A baptism which, in the first readers’ context, was in a very real sense the cause of both their persecution in ‘the flesh’, but reason for their hope of salvation ‘in the Spirit.’ The one in who they have put their faith is the Lord of all creation, both seen and unseen.
Being a baptized follower of Christ had its cost, but stay strong says Peter, and trust in Him.
God of all, both seen and unseen, may we place our trust in you; for you speak truth to powers we cannot see and turn even the power of death to life. Amen.
The Rev’d Mike Walsh is a Special Category Minister in Chorlton, South Manchester