Commentary on 1 Peter 3:18-22
About ten years ago I became interested in the spiritual discipline of writing icons, a practice that has less to do with the applied skills of painting than with an ability to reflect prayerfully on the theological work of one’s hands.
There is an order to the craft that must be strictly followed. Novices like me could never begin developing their talents on the more profound mysteries of the faith — the Transfiguration, for example, or the Nativity. Rather, we are first relegated to contemplating some of the lesser luminaries, like the Archangels Gabriel and Michael, or John the Baptist. This has not prevented me, however, from looking into my future and delving into some of the more theologically complex icons of the Orthodox Church.
There is one image that holds a particular fascination for me, primarily because it depicts an aspect of Jesus’ resurrection that we only give passing reference to in our creedal affirmations: “the harrowing of hell.” The icon features Christ in the bowels of the deep, often with Satan under foot, bending down to draw out the souls of the patriarchs and others who have languished in the deceiver’s grasp since the dawn of creation. It is a haunting image, but despite its apparent connection to the text of I Peter 3:18-22, it is not entirely biblical.
On the contrary, the harrowing of hell has more to do with the third-century Gospel of Nicodemus than anything we find stated explicitly in scripture. Yet the tradition prevails, which is in some ways unfortunate, because tradition can too easily cloud the original meaning of this difficult text and prevent us from knowing how Peter’s first-century audience drew hope and encouragement from it.
The key to grasping Peter’s intent lies in focusing on “the spirits” to whom Christ makes his allegedly subterranean pronouncements. Whereas the Orthodox tradition has insisted that this refers to the souls of ages past, “spirits” (pneumatos, 3:19) is never used in scripture in an unqualified way to refer to human beings. Which brings us to a feature of the Genesis narrative too often dismissed by moderns as implausible myth, the “sons of God” (Genesis 6:1-4) living in the time of Noah, understood among Jews of Peter’s day as disobedient angels who were imprisoned in some vague antediluvian judgment. Their captivity is mentioned explicitly in 1 Enoch 21:6: “These are among the stars of heaven that have transgressed the commandments of the Lord and are bound in this place.”
So what Peter has in mind here has little to do with the classic salvation history that later Church Fathers like Clement and Augustine would develop out of this text, a scheme in which righteous humans are released from the bonds of Hell. Instead, Peter is assuring his audience of the cosmic implications of their baptismal vows. The one in whom they have placed their faith, he insists, is indeed the Lord of all creation, of heaven and earth, of things seen and — the point so often discounted by modern interpreters — things unseen.
The impact of this proclamation can be better understood when we consider the chapters that precede this hymnic affirmation of the triumphant Christ. Those to whom Peter addressed his epistle were experiencing in their own lives the kind of suffering that was the result of turning their backs on the Hellenistic status quo. Their pleas to God during this time were not unlike those of the Psalmist: “do not let me be put to shame; do not let my enemies exult over me” (25:2). Their baptism, ironically, is at once the source of their hope and the reason for their earthly trials.
Peter introduces this letter with an allusion to the church as a kind of new Adam living in an old world (1:3-5); as such, the faithful will have to endure, if for but a time, the ills of a culture in which they have been effectively marginalized. Though they are aliens and exiles (2:11), they are nevertheless members of a heavenly household. And the water in which they were baptized, and by which they stand before God with a clear conscience, serves as an appropriate symbol for what they are experiencing in their daily lives. Water, especially in the story of Noah, serves as both an instrument for God’s judgment of the wicked and a means for the redemption of the godly. It is good to be reminded which side one is on, especially in times of trial.
In drawing on the story of Noah, Peter wants to assure his readers that they are indeed the church, a new ark rising and falling with the waters of adversity, yet proceeding toward the day of peace when the chaos around them would recede and a new world would be established. And that day would come, for the Lord into whose body they had been baptized is indeed the Lord of creation. He had made himself known to the spirits of disobedience — even from the first day of his earthly ministry (Mark 1:14-15, passim) — and placed them on notice. Though it might appear to the aliens and exiles that these wayward angels still held sway over their lives, the waters were indeed subsiding.
While talk of principalities and spirits bound in prison may strike us as a vestige of a bygone world, we should not be so quick to discount the contemporary relevance of this text, especially during this season of Lent. Walter Wink has argued persuasively that “the powers that be” are still a very real part of our existence — whether as the collective spirit of a nation, a corporation, or other organizations — and often we are only too willing to offer them the trust and obedience that should be reserved for God alone.
Lent offers us the opportunity to search our conscience, to consider the implications of our baptism, and to assess which side we are really on. Ostensibly, the waters that wash us clean are the source of our salvation, but our actions sometimes suggest an allegiance to the chaos that lies just beyond the walls of the ark. Christ proclaims from the right hand of God that the spirits have been bound, but we too often insist through our words and our deeds that they should once again be set free.