We worked through 1 Peter 4 today in General Epistles class. 1 Peter has to be the "naughty verse" capital of the Bible, especially for Protestants. Just today, we came across:
4:1--"Since Christ has suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves also with the same mentality, for the one who has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin."
4:6--"For this reason [the gospel] was preached even to the dead so that they might be judged in the flesh according to mortals but might live in spirit according to God."
4:8--"love hides a great number of sins"
I usually conclude that verses like these are actually as strange as they sound--and that the evangelical scholarship that comes out with "nice" interpretations is usually a wonderful example of Kuhn's thesis. Kuhn's thesis is that paradigms usually (he would say always) have anomalies that can't be fit into the paradigm. These anomalies are the seeds of paradigm change, but of course the power brokers of paradigms resist new paradigms and usually use their power to oppose them. Most scholars in the field of course devote their considerable intelligence and energy to finding possible ways of explaining the anomalies.
So it seems to me that 1 Peter 4:1 does mean to say that the sufferings of the audience, which Peter understands to be the beginning of the judgment with the house of God, are "purgatorial" in nature. God's discipline really does in some sense address their sin. Yet the discipline also has corrective force that leads them to avoid sinful behavior too. This is not a very good Protestant interpretation, but it is the one that seems to me to fit the text of 1 Peter the best.
1 Peter 4:6 sounds like the gospel was preached to the dead, who had in a sense endured punishment for their sins in death. The verse sounds as if these dead had an opportunity thereafter for their spirits to be resurrected. Scot McKnight gives a good argument for the NIV addition of the word "now" in his commentary--the gospel was preached to those who are now dead, but they weren't dead when the gospel was preached to them.
It's a close call, but it seems to me the text could have easily have been clear about this if it were the intended meaning. I fall off the log today with the interpretation that this refers to Christ preaching to the righteous dead of pre-Christian times, giving "saints" like Abraham a chance to be a part of the resurrection. In this sense it would be a one time event, since the living since Christ have the benefit of hearing the gospel while they are living (not getting sidetracked into the question of those who have never heard).
The final verse, 4:8, it seems to me does in fact turn out to have a "nice" interpretation. The key is to understand "sins" here in terms of wrongs done to others. When our fundamental attitude is love toward one another, we are much more likely to overlook any wrongs that we might do to one another. That will preach!