4 For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell and committed them to chains of gloomy darkness to be kept until the judgment; 5 if he did not spare the ancient world, but preserved Noah, a herald of righteousness, with seven others, when he brought a flood upon the world of the ungodly; 6 if by turning the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to ashes he condemned them to extinction, making them an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly; 7 and if he rescued righteous Lot, greatly distressed by the sensual conduct of the wicked 8 (for as that righteous man lived among them day after day, he was tormenting his righteous soul over their lawless deeds that he saw and heard); 9 then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials, and to keep the unrighteous under punishment until the day of judgment, 10 and especially those who indulge in the lust of defiling passion and despise authority.
Bold and willful, they do not tremble as they blaspheme the glorious ones, 11 whereas angels, though greater in might and power, do not pronounce a blasphemous judgment against them before the Lord. 12 But these, like irrational animals, creatures of instinct, born to be caught and destroyed, blaspheming about matters of which they are ignorant, will also be destroyed in their destruction, 13 suffering wrong as the wage for their wrongdoing. They count it pleasure to revel in the daytime. They are blots and blemishes, reveling in their deceptions, while they feast with you. 14 They have eyes full of adultery, insatiable for sin. They entice unsteady souls. They have hearts trained in greed. Accursed children! 15 Forsaking the right way, they have gone astray. They have followed the way of Balaam, the son of Beor, who loved gain from wrongdoing, 16 but was rebuked for his own transgression; a speechless donkey spoke with human voice and restrained the prophet’s madness. (2 Peter 2:4–16 ESV)
If yesterday’s passage gave me trouble, this one doubly so. For Peter begins his second letter speaking of faith and virtue adding to knowledge, self-control, steadfast faith in God, and true love for neighbors and brothers. This seems one more long harangue about good character and the need for continence and faithfulness.
However, Peter is reminding us, in this passage, that throughout much of the Bible, sensuality, lust, and disregard for divine authority are not merely the results of bad character or the desire for pleasure, but of idolatry — of the proclamation of false promises to and from false gods. Here he is warning his readers — and us — about the fruits of false prophets — ψευδοπροφῆται pseudoprophetai — those who preach a gospel of men, and not of Christ.
The false prophets Peter writes of here seem to teach a gospel that knows no law, no restraint on human behavior, no love of neighbor that seeks the neighbor’s good. It is not a gospel grounded in Christ, and it isn’t one we have received from God. These false prophets deny Christ. Many will follow these false prophets, Peter writes before today’s passage, and in their greed and with their sensuality they will exploit God’s humble and faithful people with lies and compel them to blasphemy and faith in things that cannot save them.
God, however, is faithful and just, and as Peter writes here, the justice of God does not sleep. “The Lord knows how to rescue the godly from their trials, and to keep the unrighteous under punishment until the day of judgment.”
I don’t know what to make of this passage, though reading it today gives me some renewed faith. I live in a world where the weak and helpless are exploited brutally and violently, where God seems unable or unwilling to help (where are the angels to save them, to show them the way out?), and where those who “indulge in the lust of defiling passion and despise authority” — literally, dominion, Christ’s divine authority over the church and the world — sleep well and untroubled at night. They prosper. Where is their punishment? Where do they suffer for their wrongdoing? How?
I trust the witness of scripture to a saving, delivering faith. I also trust my eyes, that some — no, many — are not delivered from their Sodom and Gomorrah (from that place where they are used and abused, and where that is simply expected), from the waters of the flood, from the armies of Babylon as they lay siege, from the Romans as they torture and crucify. For the first time in my life as a Christian, as a follower of Jesus, I am comforted by pious proclamations. Peter here speaks of a unwavering justice of God against those who would use and abuse and mislead God’s simple, faithful people. And I want to believe this with all my heart and all my soul.
But I am still troubled. I see no punishment in this world for the wicked, for those who greedily eye unsteady souls, who brutally and mercilessly use them for pleasure and profit and throw them away when they are finished. I see a world ruled by the wicked, for their own benefit, and for their own pleasure. And the innocent alone suffer the torments of hell.