The ancient Hebrews had a dim notion of the afterlife: literally dim, as they saw it as a shadowy and spectral place, hard to speculate about and not, generally speaking, a source of hope. The Psalter calls it “the land of destruction,” which is not too cheerful; then again, “the country where all is forgotten” (Ps. 88: 12,13). This last could mean that the residents are forgotten, or possibly that it’s the place where people go to forget. Greek mythology also had this notion, where you crossed the river Styx only to drink the waters of Lethe, the waters of forgetfulness. Exile, from the land of the living; and separation from one’s own memory, as well.
We see these notions reflected in our reading from the First Letter of Peter. “The spirits in prison” conjures up the idea of the afterlife as a jail, which adds another metaphor to an intimidating list. But St. Peter mentions the jail house only to interject a new idea of liberation, a proclamation of “release to the prisoners” (Is. 61:1) as Isaiah put it. The same God who through the Prophet promised comfort to those who mourn (Is. 61:2), now, according to St. Peter, flings open the prison door of death.
First Peter gives us, both in this third chapter and the one that follows, an expansive vision of the meaning of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Our Lord Jesus Christ is not only able to save those to whom he preached and those who have come after; those who have heard the word from him or from his followers. Not only those, but also “the spirits in prison” (1 Pet. 3:19): that is, all the departed, all those who have gone before. As it says in the fourth chapter, “For this is the reason the Gospel was proclaimed even to the dead, so that, though they had been judged in the flesh as everyone is judged, they might live in the spirit as God does” (1 Pet. 4:6).
Even today, in the Eastern Orthodox tradition, the chief Easter image is the icon of Christ raising the dead to life. The visual shows the doors of the prison rent asunder, and Jesus holding the hands of his ancestors to lead them out. That gates of hell are off their hinges! The English tradition had a similar idea, “the harrowing of hell,” in which Christ between crucifixion and resurrection descended into the place of departed spirits in order to free all those who had been kept in captivity until now.
If you’ve wondered about the meaning of the phrase in the Apostles’ Creed, where Jesus descends to the dead or descends into hell, this is what the Creed means. An early Christian sermon imagines Jesus saying to the captives, “I did not create you to be held a prisoner in hell. Rise from the dead, for I am the life of the dead” (An Ancient Homily on Holy Saturday).
It’s an expansive vision that First Peter gives us, but in keeping with the universal scope of Christ’s mission. As it says in our reading, “For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God” (1 Pet. 3:18). He was the worthy one who gave himself for the unworthy, a word that pretty much covers all the rest of us. The point is to bring us into the presence of the living God.
It’s an encouraging vision for us today, as we embark on another Lent. I say “another” because it hardly seems like we ever left the last Lent, marked as it was by tornados and the beginning of the pandemic. Yet St. Peter is launching an appeal to us, here at the beginning of Lent: “an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 3:21). He sets before us our identity as baptized people, who have been marked with the sign of the cross. This is a time of preparation for those who are getting ready for baptism at Easter; also, a time for the rest of us to remember our identity as baptized people, a chance to repent and return to the Lord.
Remembering is key: recalling who we are and who God is in relationship to us. Forgetting these things will keep us in prison, in bondage to our sins, here and now. That kind of death, a spiritual death, doesn’t need to wait for the end of our lives. It seems to me that we in the world are always in the process of forgetting what is most important; and always in need of remembering our true identity. Yet God always remembers who we are.
Now, this Lent, is the time for us to wake from the deep sleep of sin, and to remember who we are. Christ Jesus has risen from the dead, and brought us back from “the country where all is forgotten” (Ps. 88:13). Our spiritual forbearers may have taken a dim view of the afterlife, but Christ has redeemed it all. Lent ends with Easter, the celebration of new life. Jesus is risen from the dead, and that means new life for us: here and now, in the midst of this Lent, and in the life of the world to come.