The two short letters we have from the Apostle Peter are treasures. Though containing about 3 percent of the New Testament, they survey the major doctrines of the early Church: the Atonement, repentance and baptism, priesthood power, the threatening apostasy, and Christ’s second coming. These doctrines come from no less than the person given the keys to lead Christ’s church anciently—keys bestowed in the presence of the transfigured Christ and the translated prophets Moses and Elijah.1
When in his ministry did Peter write the letters? The first half of the book of Acts narrates Peter’s Palestinian ministry in the two decades after the Resurrection, ending with the Jerusalem Council at mid-century, as explained in Acts 15. This meeting was held right after the first Gentile converts in Asia Minor joined the Church and the Apostles had to decide the relevance of the law of Moses for them. It took about another decade to evangelize the whole of Asia Minor. So it was probably in the early sixties when Peter wrote his first letter, addressing Christians of five major provinces in that area. (See 1 Pet. 1:1.) Consistent with this date is the fact that within fifty years, 1 Peter was being quoted as authoritative by two early Christian bishops in the region.2
Determining a date for 2 Peter is more problematic. As Paul did in his final letter to Timothy, Peter speaks in his second letter of shortly putting “off this my tabernacle, even as our Lord Jesus Christ hath shewed me” (2 Pet. 1:14), possibly a reference to the resurrected Lord’s prophecy of Peter’s crucifixion. (See John 21:18–19.) Since the first Christian chronologies state that Peter was martyred in Nero’s last years (A.D. 67–68), the letter would have been written before then.
We cannot discuss all of 1 and 2 Peter’s themes in depth here, but we will focus on two: Peter’s challenge to members to “grow in grace, and in the knowledge of our Lord” (2 Pet. 3:18), and his insights into the opportunity for the dead to progress by hearing the gospel.
Peter holds up the goal of becoming godlike in every sense of the term. Repeating Jehovah’s calls to ancient Israel, Peter challenges early Saints to be holy, since they bear the name of God, who is holy. (See 1 Pet. 1:15; see also Lev. 11:44.) Indeed, as Christ was foreknown (1 Pet. 1:20),3 so they were foreknown (1 Pet. 1:1–2) and called to become “a chosen generation” and “a royal priesthood” (1 Pet. 2:9; see Ex. 19:5–6). The “holy priesthood” had been reestablished (1 Pet. 2:5), and Peter asked presiding elders everywhere to lead, not drive, their flocks—by example above all (1 Pet. 5:1–3).
Baptism by this authorized priesthood was a critical beginning. He says that baptism saves us (see 1 Pet. 3:21), stressing the need to be “born again” (1 Pet. 1:23). Then he adds that members will remain infants before God unless they are constantly nourished by “the sincere milk of the word, that ye may grow thereby.” (1 Pet. 2:2.)
Apart from the Master, no one exceeds Peter in plainly naming the steps of development after baptism. Yet so beautifully and profoundly does Peter deal with the subject that many commentators would agree with Joseph Smith, who, in referring to 2 Peter, said, “Peter penned the most sublime language of any of the apostles.”4
“The ladder of salvation” is a useful label for the opening of 2 Peter. Here the purpose is obtaining, through the power of the Atonement, the “great and precious promises” of the gospel as a means of ultimately sharing “the divine nature.” (2 Pet. 1:4.) Traditional Christian doctrine defines salvation only as living with God, but Peter taught the possibility of gaining the moral and spiritual powers epitomized by the Lord—in essence, becoming like God ourselves.
In 2 Peter this process is summarized in eight steps, whereas in 1 Peter examples of their operation are given. The process starts with faith, which leads to virtue and knowledge. (See 2 Pet. 1:5.) If the one baptized continues in faith and adds virtuous living, a sure testimony of the Savior’s gospel follows. Yet this is only midway in the journey, for above this plateau rise the peaks of godliness, “brotherly kindness” (in Greek, “love of brethren,” with love of sisters implied), and finally the pure love called charity. (2 Pet. 1:7.) Between the first level of knowledge and those high achievements are the rock ridges of temperance and patience. (2 Pet. 1:6.) No one can ascend to the summit of godly love without conquering these challenges.
The chief Apostle had done this himself. Though Peter had gained a powerful testimony of Christ’s divinity (see Matt. 16:16–17), he still had many hard lessons before him in the areas of personal sacrifice (see Matt. 16:23–24) and humility (see Matt. 18:1–4). By his own spiritual climb, Peter mapped the path we too must follow. The exact words he used are far stronger than the English equivalents used in the King James Version. The Greek term translated in English as “temperance” is en-krateia—literally “inner strength,” generally rendered as “self-control.” And Peter’s next step of “patience” is the Greek hupomone—literally “a remaining under,” generally translated as “endurance.”
So Peter taught that godliness and godly love are only acquired after spiritual self-discipline and dedicated perseverance. Inner qualities of this magnitude can come about only through mastering the intermediate stages of curbing selfishness and of maintaining faith in the face of every discouragement. By this process one’s calling and election is made sure (see 2 Pet. 1:10), a subject well discussed by Elder Bruce R. McConkie.5
There is more than theory here. Peter saw Jesus transfigured in glory and gave an unrivaled witness of his divinity. (See 2 Pet. 1:16–17.) But Peter also saw the Savior driven to the limit in suffering for others, “leaving us an example, that ye should follow his steps.” (1 Pet. 2:21.) The Apostle saw divine self-mastery and endurance from one “who, when he was reviled, reviled not again.” (1 Pet. 2:23.) Peter calls on those committed to Christ to use this forbearance in their relationships with others, particularly their families—creating a climate of mutual compassion, empathy, and blessing. (1 Pet. 3:8–9.)
Historic Christianity has barely recognized the divine potential in God’s sons and daughters. Every soul possesses deep longings for improvement that cannot stop with the death of the body. The chief Apostle gives two summaries of the Savior’s activity in the spirit world, and they must be combined to get Peter’s full thought on this subject.
Peter first says that Jesus “went and preached unto the spirits in prison” (1 Pet. 3:19; italics added); then Peter returns to the subject by noting that “the gospel [was] preached also to them that are dead” (1 Pet. 4:6; italics added). The two italicized verbs are the leading words used throughout the New Testament to describe the delivering of the missionary message. Kerusso is a word of formal announcement meaning “to proclaim,” used almost always in the sense of declaring the Christian message. The second italicized term is euangelizo, meaning to “announce good news,” which for the early Church meant proclaiming the gospel news of the Atonement and the first principles of the gospel, including baptism.
Thus, the episode when the Savior preached to “the spirits in prison; which sometime were disobedient, when once the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah” (1 Pet. 3:19–20) is related to the time when “the gospel [was] preached also to them that are dead” (1 Pet. 4:6). The latter is the broader statement, especially since it is prefaced by Christ’s authority “to judge the quick [Greek, ‘living’] and the dead” (1 Pet. 4:5)—one of the concepts that the Savior taught Peter after the Resurrection. (See Acts 10:42.)
Side by side, these summary doctrines outline a general teaching for all the dead, of which the special teaching to the generation of the flood is a part. Correlating these two concepts solves a main problem raised by Christian scholars from ancient times to the present. Why would the Savior go to the most wicked generation and ignore the rest? The answer is not either/or, but both. The Savior’s depth of concern was so great that even the generation that rejected Noah was taught.
Conservative analysts often deny that these verses refer to the Lord’s personal ministry to the dead while his body lay in the tomb. Instead, they say that the verses refer to the Spirit of Christ being present in Noah’s earthly ministry. Despite the partial truth of this theory (see Moses 8:19–24), that is simply not what Peter says, for his narrative is chronological: he discusses the Crucifixion (1 Pet. 3:18), Jesus’ preaching to the departed spirits (1 Pet. 3:19), and afterward the Lord’s resurrection and ascension (1 Pet. 3:22).
Many commentators reject the doctrine of preaching to the dead because, they insist, this gives the disobedient a “second chance.” This problem was answered by Joseph Smith’s great vision of the degrees of glory. Those “kept in prison” in the spirit world rejected the gospel on earth but received it afterward through the missionary labors of those whom the Lord appointed to teach them. (See D&C 138:11–37.) But though Christ’s visit to the righteous, and the missionary force he sent to the wicked, prepared the wicked for judgment, their reward will not be the highest glory. (See D&C 76:73–78.)
With current commentators from other Christian faiths so confused on the subject of preaching to the dead, it is impressive that the major Christian writers of the second and third centuries agree that Christ visited the spirit world after his crucifixion in order to bring salvation to the repentant dead. More than their random reading of Peter must account for such agreement. Nearly forty years ago Hugh Nibley exposed the large quantity of information on this subject in early Christian literature, gathering evidence from both orthodox and apocryphal literature. Discoveries since then have only enhanced this position.6
The most important issue is: What teachings on this subject probably go back to Christ’s Apostles? Among nonapocryphal figures in the second century who allude to the doctrine of salvation for the dead are two authors writing about A.D. 175. The first is Celsus, an anti-Christian who wrote against well-established Christian beliefs. He parodied a Savior who converted so few on earth that “he went to Hades to gain over those who were there.”7 About the same time, Bishop Irenaeus reasoned at length on the mercy Jesus had extended to “those of old time,” attributing this doctrine to “a certain elder who had heard it from those who had seen the apostles.” In this context of apostolic teaching, Irenaeus declared: “The Lord descended into the regions beneath the earth, preaching his advent there also, and [declaring] the remission of sins received by those who believe in him.”8
Even earlier, about A.D. 150, two writers presented similar orthodox Christian teachings. Debating with the Jew Trypho, Justin Martyr used a proof-text that he claimed was still in some copies of Jeremiah. Soon afterward, Irenaeus attributed the same verse to both Isaiah and Jeremiah. Whether or not the source was Jewish, Christian apologists justified the Savior’s mission to the spirit world by using evidence from an earlier era: “The Lord God remembered his dead people of Israel who lay in the graves; and he descended to preach to them his own salvation.”9
Also at midcentury, Hermas, a simple Christian more likely to preserve apostolic tradition than invent it, recorded a series of visions on the condition of the Church. In commenting about baptism for the dead, he extended the preaching in the spirit world beyond the Lord’s personal visit: “These apostles and teachers who preached the name of the Son of God, having fallen asleep … preached also to those who had fallen asleep before them.”10
How did Hermas know that Christ and/or the Apostles continued teaching the gospel in the spirit world unless the Twelve had left that knowledge with members of the early Church? Many important Christian scholar-historians of the third century perpetuated this tenet because they had clear evidence that it was taught by the apostolic generation. Among these historians were Hippolytus, Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, and Origen.
Peter’s final letter warned of the coming apostasy and predicted that scoffers and skeptics would persist until the Second Coming. With the intellectual climate today, no wonder so many find Peter’s doctrine of preaching to the dead hard to understand. Commentaries often rate Peter’s passages as “obscure” or “the most difficult in the New Testament.” The problem is both lack of faith and the rigidity of a traditional faith which insists that at death “man’s destiny is sealed, and the period of grace and repentance has ended.”11
But a strong minority of commentators see that Peter had broader views of the progress of the departed. Perhaps classics professor E. M. Blaiklock understates what we learn from Peter, but he honestly acknowledges that Christianity has failed to preserve an important original belief: “The mystery of this pre-resurrection ministry of Christ (1 Pet. 4:6) eludes explanation. … Peter knew what he meant. Those who heard or read his letter knew what he meant. We do not, because we have lost some piece of relevant information or some vital clue.”12
Confusion about the Savior’s mission to the dead demonstrates the reality of apostasy and the validity of the gospel’s restoration through modern prophets. Here is a teaching of the chief ancient Apostle, held strongly by major Christian teachers for some centuries, but now largely misunderstood by Christian interpreters.
Not only did modern revelation solve the puzzle of the fate of the unrepentant of Noah’s day (see D&C 76:73–76), but Joseph Smith verified the ongoing work in the spirit world alluded to in the first Christian sources. His inspired translation of the Bible changed Peter’s “was preached” to “is preached” (see 1 Pet. 4:6), indicating that missionary work to the dead has continued since that time. The Prophet taught that extending the gospel to those who haven’t heard it is only fair and just: “All who have not had an opportunity of hearing the gospel, and being administered to by an inspired man in the flesh, must have it hereafter, before they can be finally judged.”13 This great missionary labor is the subject of the majestic vision of a twentieth-century prophet, Joseph F. Smith. (See D&C 138.)
If so many commentaries question a “second chance” for those who have died, the answer is in Joseph Smith’s great revelation that a first chance is justly extended to “all who have died without a knowledge of this gospel, who would have received it.” (D&C 137:7.) The human race stands on either side of the dividing line of death, and the true priesthood is organized on both sides to teach about Christ’s atonement, how to accept it through repentance and the ordinances, and how to prepare for the day when Jesus shall judge all.
Whether in his first or second letter, Peter makes Christlike love the ultimate measure of spiritual progression. (See 1 Pet. 1:22; 2 Pet. 1:7; see also 1 Pet. 4:8.) But, says Peter, it is achieved deliberately—through self-control, the purification of suffering, and a willingness to serve and endure as sure steps to receiving the divine nature.