This may be overkill, but the question few people address in these sorts of discussions is the fate of Gentiles before the resurrection. Some of these people were doubtlessly good people (as humans perceive good). Some were just as evil as Hitler. There were great atrocities committed in ancient times, but some good things were accomplished as well.
And this leads to the obscure but important doctrine of the patience (or forbearance) of God — his decision to wait on us to repent rather than being done with us. It doesn’t seem that important of a doctrine until you view it through the lens of the covenants.
(Rom 2:4 ESV) 4 Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?
(2Pe 3:13-16a ESV) 13 But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. 14 Therefore, beloved, since you are waiting for these, be diligent to be found by him without spot or blemish, and at peace. 15 And count the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, 16 as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters.
The idea that God was being patient, forbearing with the sins of the Gentiles up until the time of Jesus, makes sense of Paul’s speech at Mars Hill —
(Act 17:30-31 ESV) 30 “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, 31 because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”
And at Iconium —
(Act 14:16 ESV) 16 In past generations he allowed all the nations to walk in their own ways.
In short, before the resurrection of Jesus, those outside of the special revelation found in the Law of Moses did not suffer punishment in the afterlife. When they died, they died a painless second death and died eternally, ceasing to exist — but they had no real chance to know God and so they suffered no real punishment for violating the general revelation of God.
But neither were they rewarded as though they were good people entitled to live forever with the Patriarchs. No, when they died, they died.
I have a friend from Walker County who says, “Dead like Rover; dead all over” — which is pretty cold sounding until you realize that the Second Death is not punishment, especially when the other choice is gehenna. It only seems like punishment because we’ve been raised knowing the hope of eternal life with Jesus — but we don’t deserve that — not even close — and losing it would be terrible only in the sense that receiving no presents on the quarter-versary of my birthday would be terrible. I don’t deserve presents and sure don’t deserve them quarterly. Receiving no presents only would seem terrible in a culture that gave presents every three months. In terms of cosmic justice, we all deserve punishment or we deserve nothing. No one deserves eternal life with Jesus.
The fate of the damned is the very definition of justice and fairness. There is no reason for the damned to live in eternal bliss with Jesus — and thinking that everyone deserves heaven is without scriptural warrant. And if they don’t deserve it, why condemn the idea of God refusing to give someone what he doesn’t deserve?
No, the hard problem is not that God damns. It’s that God saves. There is no justification for this at all. Even harder is that God elects — not in the Calvinist sense but in the national-history sense. God elected Israel. Some in Israel responded and are saved. Some did not, and they are damned. And the Gentiles were not elected. Rom 9 – 11 is clear, but so is Deuteronomy. And the Prophets. And Acts 17. But that has changed.
Another key passage is —
(Rom 3:22-25 ESV) For there is no distinction: 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins.
This passage is well explained by —
We meet here a major problem of exegesis, to which two quite different solutions have been propounded. The problem turns upon the meaning of two Greek words, rendered in RV ‘because of the passing over’ (διὰ τὴν πάρεσιν). (i) It is sometimes held that the noun has the meaning ‘forgiveness’ (that is, it is a synonym of the similarly formed ἄφεσις). If this view of the noun is taken, the preposition must mean ‘with a view to’. Paul’s meaning thus becomes: Christ died and thereby demonstrated God’s righteousness in order to secure forgiveness. (ii) The alternative is to suppose that the noun means not ‘forgiveness’, the full remission of sins, but a mere ‘passing over’, or ignoring of sins—pretermission. If this view of the noun is accepted, the preposition may have its more usual meaning, ‘because of’, ‘on account of’. Paul’s meaning now becomes: Christ died and thereby manifested God’s righteousness because in the past God had merely overlooked men’s sins.
(ii) is undoubtedly the preferable alternative, for several reasons. That there is a real difference between the two Greek nouns mentioned above (πάρεσις and ἄφεσις) seems certain, and it is hard to see why, if Paul simply means ‘forgiveness’, he does not use the ordinary word. Further, (ii) provides better links between this point in the argument and those which precede and follow. The question is why God manifested his righteousness in an act of redemption in Christ crucified. The answer is: In the past he had overlooked men’s sins, and decisive action was necessary if his righteousness was to be vindicated. Paul goes on to speak of ‘his forbearance’; cf. 2:4; 9:22. The meaning is that for purposes of his own God has held his hand when he might have punished (cf. also Acts 14:16; 17:30).
C. K. Barrett, The Epistle to the Romans, Black’s New Testament Commentary, Rev. ed., (London: Continuum, 1991), 75.
God’s forbearance pre-Christ, his refusal to punish a sinful world before he provided them with a Savior in Jesus, is rarely commented on and often skipped entirely in even the best commentaries. Barrett is remarkable for facing the issue head on and in detail.
(Rom 9:22-24 ESV) 22 What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience [forbearance] vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, 23 in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory — 24 even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles?
Evidently, pre-Christ, those without Christ were “prepared for destruction,” but “destruction” means “destruction” not “perpetual conscious torment.” They died and ceased to exist. They did not suffer in the fires of gehenna.
Presumably, God allowed them to be born knowing that the time for Jesus had not yet come. Therefore, in his Providential forbearance, he held his hand. No punishment, not even — not especially — in the afterlife.
Thus, God was patient beyond justice, allowing Gentiles pre-Christ to avoid punishment (but not death and destruction) for their wickedness. But now he calls both Jews and Gentiles to be “vessels of mercy” so that both Jews and Gentiles may receive glory (9:23) — that is, live eternally in the presence of God.
It’s unfamiliar and hard, but it’s important. The reason Jesus hasn’t already returned is to give more and more people time to repent by choosing to love and to follow Jesus.
And it gives those of us who are Christians years to prepare for a world in which there will be no sin and no death — and in which we’ll be expected to get along. It gives us time to practice living the Sermon on the Mount.
And it gives us time to be vessels of mercy — not just recipients of God’s grace but grace-bearers who carry God’s grace to the lost just as Paul and Barnabas did 2,000 years ago.
And it gives us time to realize that the rules have changed. The stakes are higher. Salvation — eternal life with Jesus — is freely available for those who choose to know God and Jesus. But for those who do not, damnation is just as sure. God is now insisting that the nations repent — choose to follow Jesus — or else suffer just punishment for their sins.
We act as though as we’re being asked to teach an impossible lesson to an unwilling audience. But we have the easiest of all products to sell: Jesus. We don’t need to sell a rulebook or a religion or a theory of dispensations. It’s just whether Jesus is LORD. It’s a choice to know and so to love the most lovable of all persons.
And, in the end, it’s about theosis, becoming like God. That takes time, and so God doesn’t snatch us off to heaven out of the baptistry. Rather, he gives us time to spend time with Jesus and be changed.
(You know, I wonder whether some Christians will even enjoy heaven, since they so little enjoy worship and being with Jesus and his Spirit and fellow Christians, which is pretty much what we’re going to do in the afterlife. What makes them think it’ll be more pleasant just because it’ll last for-e-ver??)