“They think it strange that you do not plunge with them into the same flood of dissipation, and they heap abuse on you. But they will have to give account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead. For this is the reason the gospel was preached even to those who are now dead, so that they might be judged according to men in regard to the body, but live according to God in regard to the spirit. “ (Reference: 1 Peter 4:4-6 )
This is sort of a hard verse to parse out, The writer of 1 Peter is taking great care to emphasis that both the living and the dead will be judged. There are several possible reasons that the writer is so carefully noting this. And since the faith communities that he is writing to were anticipating Christ’s return soon, and the judgment that would come, the theology expressed in this verse might be different than the one or ones we are more familiar with. So I am taking “tiny steps” in examining the theology. The Easy-to-Read Version puts verse six like this, “Some were told the Good News before they died. They were criticized by others in their life here on earth. But it was God’s plan that they hear the Good News so that they could have a new life through the Spirit.” So this makes it clear that, according to the writer of 1 Peter, those who have already died will be judged just like those who are, or more precisely, were then alive.
But still, I was not satisfied that I had seen this passage from all the possible angles. So I consulted Barnes. And his answer satisfied me. I am excerpting him at length. If you do not want to read through all of it, meet me at the end.
“Many, as Doddridge, Whitby, and others, understand this of those who are spiritually dead, that is, the Gentiles, and suppose that the object for which this was done was that “they might be brought to such a state of life as their carnal neighbors would look upon as a kind of condemnation and death” – Doddridge. Others have supposed that it refers to those who had suffered martyrdom in the cause of Christianity; others, that it refers to the sinners of the old world (Saurin), expressing a hope that some of them might be saved; and others, that it means that the Saviour went down and preached to those who are dead, in accordance with one of the interpretations given of 1 Peter 3:19. It seems to me that the most natural and obvious interpretation is to refer it to those who were then dead, to whom the gospel had been preached when living, and who had become true Christians. This is the interpretation proposed by Wetstein, Rosenmuller, Bloomfield, and others. In support of this it may be said:
(1) that this is the natural and obvious meaning of the word dead, which should be understood literally, unless there is some good reason in the connection for departing from the common meaning of the word.
(2) the apostle had just used the word in that sense in the previous verse.
(3) this will suit the connection, and accord with the design of the apostle. He was addressing those who were suffering persecution. It was natural, in such a connection, to refer to those who had died in the faith, and to show, for their encouragement, that though they had been put to death, yet they still lived to God. He therefore says, that the design in publishing the gospel to them was, that though they might be judged by people in the usual manner, and put to death, yet that in respect to their higher and nobler nature, the spirit, they might live unto God. It was not uncommon nor unnatural for the apostles, in writing to those who were suffering persecution, to refer to those who had been removed by death, and to make their condition and example an argument for fidelity and perseverance.”
I had thought perhaps that the writer of 1 Peter did mean “spiritually dead” but Barnes makes a good case for just plan having passed away. Or perhaps those who had passed away long ago, in the “before the gospel” time. And adjacent to that interpretation is that Christ went “down” to preach to those who died. But again, that did not seem right. No, I think Barnes has the best explanation and solid proof.
What then of us? It seems, beloved, living or dead we do not escape judgment. And more importantly what we believe alive will have great consequences when we have died. And as the Easy-to-Red Version points out, criticism that is received when one is alive pales in comparison to criticism by the God who judges after we have died!
We have heard/read several theories and versions of judgment – from “light judgment” that is tempered by mercy to heavy judgment that is unavoidable and comes with great consequences. It may be hard to know what type of judgment we should anticipate and prepare for. The solution, beloved, is easy. Live your life according to God’s agenda and direction, not any other. Then the judgment that comes will be merely a portal to what is beyond. Selah!