Saturday, November 16, 2013

What did Peter mean by "the gospel preached also to them that are dead" in 1 Peter 4:6?

Last Sunday evening during our Lynchburg meeting one of the college students asked me about the meaning of 1 Peter 4:6:  For for this cause was the gospel preached also to them that are dead, that they might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit.”  What does Peter mean by the reference to “the gospel” being “preached to the dead”?

Here are some follow ups:

First, the Greek does not include the noun euangelion for “gospel” but the verb euangelizomai “to evangelize” or “to gospel-ize.”  So, the phrase in question reads:  eis touto gar kai nekrois euengelisthe and can be literally rendered, “For this reason also it was gospelized to the dead….”

Second, whatever Peter was saying here, we know that according to the analogia scripturae he was not teaching post-mortem evangelism in the sense of the wicked having the opportunity to hear and believe the gospel after death, a false interpretation sometimes drawn from misunderstanding of 1 Peter 3:19.  Such a view would contradict the teaching of Scripture elsewhere (cf. Matt 10:32-33; Luke 16:25-26; Heb 9:27).   

Third, there are at least two reasonable possibilities of interpretation.  First, it is possible that Peter is speaking here about the evangelization of those who were spiritually dead in their unregenerate state but who were made alive when they received the effectual call, were converted, repented, and believed the gospel.  Indeed, the metaphor of conversion as the transformation from death to life is central in the NT (cf. Luke 15:24, 32; Rom 6:4; Eph 2:1).  Second, it is possible that Peter is speaking here about the benefits of salvation to believers who have experienced physical death.

Fourth, here are some interpretations of the passage from various commentators:

John Calvin (Commentary on 1 Peter, 1551):  Calvin takes the reference as saying “even that death does not hinder Christ from being always our defender. It is then a remarkable consolation to the godly.  Though Christ, then, may not appear a deliverer in this life, yet his redemption is not void, or without effect; for his power extends to the dead.”

Matthew Poole (Commentary on 1 Peter, 1683):    Poole notes that “them that are dead” refers either to: “(1) spiritually dead, i.e., dead in sin, viz. then when the gospel was preached to them; or (2) Naturally, dead, viz. when the Apostle wrote this epistle.”  On the latter possibility, he adds that reference to their being “judged according to men in the flesh” but living “according to God in the Spirit” refers to the removal of “the scandal of these Christians, being reproached and condemned by unbelievers for their strictness in religion, and nonconformity to the world.” Though “condemned by men in the flesh” in this life, they are vindicated God “ending in a life with him in the other.”

Edmond Hiebert (1 Peter, 1984):  Hiebert says the verse “has been described as the most difficult text of the Bible” (p. 265).  A key question:  “How is the term ‘dead’ to be understood?”  He offers the following possibilities:

(1)  “One view understands it to refer to the spiritually dead to whom the gospel is preached so that they might enter spiritual life” (p. 266)

(2) “Others relate the preaching to the dead with the preaching of Christ in 3:19 as an event that took place during the interval between his death and resurrection.”

(3) “A widely accepted view is that those described as ‘dead’ were members of the Christian churches addressed but had died before the writing of 1 Peter.”

Hiebert seems to favor this view, adding, “The fact that they had died like other men might raise the question of whether their new faith had gained them anything.  In the eyes of their opponents, they seemed to have gained nothing.    Though they claimed to have received a new life, they died like other mortals.  Peter assured them that though they had died, they would fully share in the life brought by the Savior” (p. 267).

Thomas R. Schreiner (1, 2, Peter, Jude, 2003):  “Peter considered the case of believers who had died physically.  These people heard and believed the gospel when they were alive but had subsequently died.  Unbelievers viewed the death of believers as proof that there is no advantage in becoming a believer, for all without exception die.  Peter indicated, however, that unbelievers do not understand the whole picture.  Even though from a human perspective believers seem to gain no benefits from their faith since they die, from God’s perspective (which is normative), they live according to the Spirit” (p. 208).

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