DOGMATIC AND SCHOLASTIC - THE VARIOUS QUESTIONS CONNECTED WITH IT CONSIDERED AND PROVED.
CHAPTER XIII. THE PLACE WHERE PURGATORY IS. Part 7.
Having rejected the foregoing notions, let us now turn our attention to the true and common interpretation of the passage. It is this : that Christ descended into hell, and there announced the happy news of their redemption and near deliverance to those souls, "which had been sometime incredulous . ... in the days of Noe," but not always; and hence when they saw the waters rushing upon them from every side, they repented of their sins.
This is the only interpretation of the passage that Can be accepted. It should be preferred to any other, because it gives the literal sense which contains nothing absurd, either in itself or in its circumstances ; and remarkably coincides with the scope of the writer, St. Peter. First, the literal sense contains nothing absurd in itself. There is nothing- more absurd in saying that Christ communicated the delightful news of their redemption and speedy deliverance to the souls in Limbo, than there is in saying that He descended into that prison. One is as reasonable as the other. In fact, if we admit his descent into Limbo at all, it is only natural to infer that He conveyed such glad intelligence to the souls that were there detained. Secondly, the literal sense has nothing absurd in its circumstances. The chief circumstance of it is this, that Christ preached to those spirits who had been some time incredulous in the days of Noe.
Now, what is there absurd in this? Is it that unhappy people, seeing nature herself completely changed; themselves threatened with destruction from every side ; the deluge pouring in upon them from heaven, earth, and sea; no earthly refuge left to them, should turn to God and detest their sins ? So far is this from being absurd that we can conceive nothing more reasonable. We can scarcely imagine how it could be otherwise, than that some of these unhappy people, seeing death certain, would have repented of their sins. This was only what should be expected, especially as it is in adversity, and most of all when destruction is inevitable, that man sees the evil of his ways, and flies to God for help. On this account the Psalmist says : " When he slew them, then they sought him." (Ps. Ixxvii. 34.) Then among those spirits to whom Christ preached in hell, were many who formerly in the time of Noe were at first incredulous. These would not take warning from the building of the ark. But when they found themselves in danger, and be fore they perished in the deluge, it is reasonable to suppose that many of them were touched with repentance for their sins, so that they died without the guilt of eternal damnation.
This supposition is the more reasonable when we remember that, though they were sinners, they adored the true and living God; for there is no trace of idolatry before the deluge. Thirdly, the literal and obvious sense accords wonderfully well with the scope of St. Peter. His purpose was, to praise and recommend the efficacy of the passion and death of Christ, Who, he says, " Died once for our sins, the just for the unjust." He triumphantly proves the virtue and efficacy of His passion. He proves it, first, from the glory of His resurrection, when he says that Christ was "put to death indeed in the flesh, but brought to life in the spirit" He proves it, secondly, from its effects. The efficacy of the death of Christ extended so far as to reach even those who were erstwhile incredulous, while Noe preached repentance to them for such a number of years, but who in the end, when they found themselves about to perish at the hand of an outraged God, repented.
St. Augustine thinks that there could be no motive for saying Christ preached to those who had been sometime incredulous in the days of Noe, since He preached alike to all those who were detained in Limbo.
What they who follow the common interpretation say on their side is this : that Christ preached to all the just souls that were in hell ; but that there is express mention made of those who had been at one time incredulous in the days of Noe. The reasons why the latter are expressly mentioned are as follow:—First, because the greatest praise accrues to the divine mercy, in having brought to eternal salvation, by the brief immersion of the deluge, men who were so steeped in iniquity that the Scripture says of them : "All flesh had corrupted its way." The mercy of God must be very great indeed, it must be wonderful and worthy of all praise, since it has extended to, and led to repentance, those wicked and corrupt men who lived at the time of Noe. Secondly, the souls in Limbo, who had lived in the time of Noe, are singled out for special mention, because there was strong reason to doubt, that any of that wicked and profligate race, who had so much despised the grace of God and outraged Him, had embraced the call to repentance and were saved. They had persisted so much and so long in their evil course, that the Greek version has it that "The patience of God waited for " them. In truth, there must have been great reason to doubt the salvation of such men, or any of them. Thirdly, St. Peter mentions those of the time of Noe in preference to others, because in the next verse he passes on to speak of baptism : " Where-unto baptism being of the like form now saveth you also." It was easy to pass from one subject to the other, to descend from the deluge to baptism, and to connect the latter with the former. He terms baptism, to be " of the like form " with the " water," by which Noe and his family were saved; because this " water " was a figure of baptism.
The ark, too, was a type of baptism. As no one escaped the waters of the deluge but eight persons who were in the ark, so no one can escape eternal death or enter into heaven, unless he receive baptism; or have the desire of receiving it, with the proper dispositions. Then, as Noe and his sons were saved by the ark which rode upon the waters of the deluge, so are we saved by baptism. Another point of similitude between the deluge and baptism would also seem to be employed. As the bodies were immersed in the waters of the deluge, that the souls may seek salvation through repentance; so are our bodies washed with water in baptism, that our souls may be saved. Then, since the safety of Noe in the ark, and the salvation of others at that time through repentance, were types of baptism, of which he was going to speak, St. Peter would connect his subject— the preaching of Christ in hell with baptism—by referring to those souls who had repented at the deluge.
In the second place, his argument can be used against St. Augustine's own opinion. His opinion was that the verse refers to those souls that existed in their body at the time of the deluge, to whom Christ preached through Noe, who exhorted them to repentance, whilst he was building the ark. But it may be objected, that there is no reason why it should be said, that Christ preached to those souls which were in the body—to those people who were alive—in the days of Noe, any more than to those who were alive in the days of Abraham, Moses, King David, or any other person.