1 Peter – more work needed

I’ve been a bit neglectful of late. As I blog for the Big Bible Project, I’ve been reading my way through and around the Old Testament prophets of late. Supplementing this, I’ve also been looking at Jesus, both through the eyes of the gospels and with a more theological bent through Paul (helped partly by N.T. Wright’s in-depth study). A few weeks ago I sat and listened to a former pastor of mine give an exposition of Revelation.

So what’s missing?

Well, there are a few bits, but I’m thinking (well, you read the title didn’t you?) of the book of 1 Peter. The reason this has come into focus is because it is appealed to on two controversial topics within christianity. Yet it’s appealed to from different parts of the spectrum. The two topics I have in mind are 1) atonement, 2) the harrowing of hell.

Not two of the most straightforward subjects and here I only wish to note some points, rather than give a detailed exposition. The passage in question is this (emphasis added):

For it is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God’s will, than to suffer for doing evil. 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.

1) Atonement

I’m generally reluctant to write on this subject as it can be needlessly divisive. Broadly speaking, the two main ideas are referred to as penal substitutionary atonement (PSA) and christus victor (CV).

PSA concerns the idea that Jesus died in our place. It is the meeting point of two of God’s characteristics: justice and love. Justice demands that there must be a penalty for sin, but instead of humans paying the price, God, embodied as Jesus, took the punishment himself as an act of love for us.

CV concerns the idea that Jesus’ death was not as any form of punishment at all, but was his triumph over evil and death. This was a view that was espoused by the Swedish theologian Gustaf Aulén in the early 20th century, although he claimed that it represented the earliest views of the church.

Without going into any depth here, I subscribe the both/and compromise. Some christians will be fiercely PSA-only and some will ferociously defend the idea of CV without PSA. Using a very broad brush, my observation is that PSA-only tend to be more evangelical, while CV-only tend to be more anglican.

The above passage (particularly the first part bolded) is one of the clearest statements of PSA. There are others, including Isaiah 53 and 1 Corinthians 15:3. I was at a talk recently with someone for whom PSA played no part in their theology. It wasn’t that they were CV-only; rather, they were advocating what they referred to as nonviolent atonement (the speaker was from an anabaptist background). In this talk, when someone challenged him about this particular passage he could only respond that he thought Peter was wrong. In fact, that’s the only time I’ve actually heard anyone who didn’t incorporate PSA into their theology tackle this particular backup for it. Usually, it is combated by means of first caricaturing it (often as “cosmic child abuse” or something similar) and then dismissing the caricature using some form of moral argument. i.e. a straw man argument.

Yet we still have the above passage which seems to speak clearly of a substitutionary process: the righteous for the unrighteous.

2) The Harrowing of Hell

This is a question of what happened to Jesus between his crucifixion and resurrection on what is variously called Easter Saturday, Holy Saturday or Silent Saturday. I’m sure there must be other terms used for the same day.

Having grown up an an orthodox, but not traditionalist, evangelical baptist church, the idea that was taught (though not with much emphasis) was that Jesus went to hell. Then somehow (it’s a mystery, the how was never properly explained) he endured multiple eternities in a single day. Once that was over, he rose from the dead.

In later life, I encountered those who took to the idea of the harrowing of hell. Here, Jesus is somewhat more active in his day in hell, doing something akin to a jailbreak. Part of the idea behind it comes from supersessionism whereby Jesus’ death created the problem of “[what do you do with the faithful Jews before Jesus?]” The problem is resolved by the harrowing of hell, whereby Jesus converts dead, faithful Jews to christianity.

I know that’s a slight simplification and that various traditions have subtly different takes on it, but that’s it in a rough nutshell. Now, I take a fairly “high” view of scripture. Not as inerrant, but as the primary epistemological source for christianity. Because of this, I come with the question “how do we know this?” Or, “what’s the backup for the idea?” If you talk to someone from a conservative background, they tend to point primarily to creedal statements rather than scripture. In this case, I get pointed to the Apostles’ Creed which has as one of it’s clauses “He descended into hell”.

Peeling back the layers, the most commonly cited backup for this idea is from Ephesians 4:4-10:

There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling,  one Lord, one faith, one baptism,  one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.

But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Therefore it is said,

‘When he ascended on high he made captivity itself a captive; he gave gifts to his people.’

(When it says, ‘He ascended’, what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is the same one who ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things.)

My reading of this passage has changed over the years. I no longer interpret this as a reference to Jesus’ death (descended) and resurrection (ascended) but rather I see it as a talking about incarnation (descended) and ascension into glory (ascended). It is this revised reading that has been one of the factors (amongst several) that leads me to holding to a position of annihilationism.

Another of the backups comes not the bible but from the later works that are sometimes referred to as the New Testament apocrypha. Specifically, the Gospel of Peter with it’s rather odd resurrection scene with the talking cross that comes out of the tomb and confirms that the dead have been preached to. With hindsight, I think it’s probable that this may have been inspired by 1 Peter, though when I’ve previously read the epistle (the one that seems to be genuine, rather than the more dubious gospel) I’ve rather glossed over this part of chapter 3, so I’ve only come to it after noting story of the talking cross.

Over the Easter weekend, when lots of people were talking on social media about the harrowing of hell, I tended to bite my tongue, though I did finally manage to pin down and articulate another objection to it. It is this: if Jesus was active in salvation on Easter Saturday, then it makes his declaration of “It is finished” a lie. Or at least wrong.

Yet we still have the above passage which seems to speak clearly of Jesus making a proclamation to the dead.

The Puzzle

All this so far has been background. I’ve not tried to argue my position in much detail, just to state it with some clarity. The aim is not to divide (as these topics so often can), the aim is to note the paradox laid out below.

What intrigues me is that these two subjects are closely linked, not only in proximity in 1 Peter, but also by what we might call theological string. The ideas are not disparate strands of theological thought, as one might suppose if considering, say, the doctrine of the fall with Thomas’ scepticism at Jesus’ resurrection. Of course, one might say all things are connected somehow. But the two topics mentioned above rather nuzzle up against one another.

Yet from my experience, those who are most likely to reject PSA are those from the traditions/expressions of christianity that are more likely to embrace the idea of the harrowing of hell. Likewise, those who are more inclined to be advocates of PSA-only are also more inclined to leave out the harrowing of hell from their theological language.

It seems that both camps may be guilty of cherry-picking. I’m sure there must be some christians who take an all inclusive approach and do incorporate PSA with the harrowing of hell; it’s just that in the circles I move in, such voices are absent. There may also be some who reject all aspects of PSA who also don’t teach of the harrowing of hell. Again, such voices seem to be on the fringe.

I may well have missed something significant here, making this whole post little more than a confession of my own ignorance. I’ve clearly got some more studying and thinking to do.

One response to “1 Peter – more work needed

  1. I studied 1 Peter at college, and it is a famously difficult passage. I do believe in Penal Substitution, but not in the harrowing of hell as you describe it. At least, I don’t think it’s taught from this passage. (Did Jesus go to hell? I think probably yes; but did he preach there? I don’t think so).

    We looked at a few different options for interpreting this passage and the one favoured, which made sense to me, was a more symbolic theological meaning where Jesus didn’t physically or spiritually preach to those in hell, but that his Lordship extends through the whole of creation for salvation for some and judgement for others. Note that “make proclamation” is not a positive thing – it could be negative. I’d have to look up my notes for more details though!

    If you want a good commentary on 1 Peter, try Karen Jobes (in the Baker Exegetical series).