To Hell with Them? Part 5

” – They who will give an account to him who is ready to judge the quick and the dead. Because it was for this that the good tidings were proclaimed to the dead, that though judged in the flesh according to human beings they might live in the spirit according to God.” 1 Peter 4: 5-6 (from The New Testament: A Translation by David Bentley Hart)

In my fictional piece The Harrowing of Hell, I explored the concept that Christ openly proclaims liberation to those in the grasp of Hades. Death is not an impediment to the victory of Christ, and the Christian doctrine of Christ’s descent into hell ought to give us great hope that all will hear the good news of Christ’s victory over sin and death, this gospel is proclaimed by no less than Christ himself.

Hart remarks in his translational footnote:

This, the locus classicus of the ancient Christian teaching of Christ’s Harrowing of Hades, is definitely a reference to the gospel (… evangelisthe) having been preached to the dead (… nekrios) and not (as some willfully distorted renderings have made it) to an evangelization of men and women who have since died.

For those who do not read Greek, a cursory examination will bear out this reading by consulting and number of interlinear texts. For example, in 4:6  Mounce’s interlinear NT (a standard Evangelical source) reads as follows (Greek terms italicized in bold):

It was for (eis) this (houtos) very purpose · (kai) that the gospel was preached (euangelizō) to the dead (nekros), so that (hina) though men they were judged (krinō) as (kata) men (anthrōpos) in the flesh (sarx), they might live (zaō) · (de) as (kata) God (theos) in the Spirit (pneuma).

Modern translations that render 4:6 to the effect of the gospel being preached to ‘those who have since died’ or ‘those now dead’ are offering an interpolation that not only is not warranted within the rhetorical, semantic, or grammatical context of the verse, they are also translating it with theological assumptions that were not shared by the earliest interpretations of 1 Peter. For instance St. Irenaeus of Lyon affirms Hart this in his short, but powerful work On the Apostolic Preaching which I commend to anyone interested in the Church Fathers. Irenaeus, considered to be the last and one of the greatest theological thinkers among the Apostolic Fathers, was the disciple of Polycarp, who in turn was John’s disciple, and he is interpreting this text within the range of 120-50 years since Peter’s epistles were written. He notes the following:

“He descended to them”

[78] And, in Jeremias, He makes known His death and descent into Hell saying, “And the Lord, the Holy One of Israel, remembered His dead, who already slept in the dust of the earth, and he descended to them, to preach the good news [of] His salvation, to save them. Here He also delivers the reasons for His death, that, His descent into Hell was salvation for the deceased.

Irenaeus is by no means the only Father to teach this, as it was the prevailing view of the Church for quite some time. The reasons why this text has been obscured over time are theologically complex, and I do not think (as Hart does) that translators are rendering the Greek in bad faith so much as they, like we all do, read the text through their own biases and theological commitments. However, it is our task to constantly check the lens through which we read Scripture to ensure we are not bogged down with clouded vision.

All this to say, for those of us who have been tormented by the question of ‘what happens to those who never had the chance to hear the gospel of the risen Christ preached? Will they burn in hell forever simply because they didn’t believe a truth they never had the opportunity to hear?’ The clear Biblical witness, along with the testimony of the early Church is clearly and resolutely no!!! Death is not, nor will it ever be the end of the story, all will hear the gospel, if not among the living, then among the dead. This will certainly empty out the halls of Hell – though for some who, I believe, willfully choose against their own best interests, the only way to see the truth and embrace Christ with love as both Lord and Savior will be through the painful purgation through the fire. The fire of hell is nothing less than the love of God burning away all that has brought ruin to his precious creatures so that in the end they might be free from evil and rejoice in his everlasting presence.

For more on this series see Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4

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I live in Southern California, am married with three kids. I am a member of a Presbyterian church an author, educator, and freelance business consultant.

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