If I’m right that the sinned-against deserve justice from God, then we have to admit that, so far as the scriptures reveal, there is no justice pre-Jesus. If the evil people of the pre-Jesus Gentile world simply died and ceased to exist, then their victims receive neither eternal bliss nor justice.
I don’t know the answer because, the best I can find, it’s not revealed. I can think of two possibilities —
- The damned pre-Jesus receive no justice, no vindication, but neither must they suffer for their own sins. The trade is a painless afterlife in exchange for no vindication.
- In fact, pre-Jesus God punishes evil in the afterlife. There is just no hope of redemption except for those in covenant relationship. And before Jesus, the covenant was solely for Abraham and his physical descendants. Hence, justice was perfectly served, the victims were perfectly vindicated, and all were punished (or not) with whatever God’s perfect justice required.
While I find 2 logically attractive, it seems to be contradicted by —
(Rom 3:21-26 ESV) But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it — 22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. 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. 26 It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.
But it’s possible that C. K. Barnett read this incorrectly. It could be that Paul is speaking of God’s failure to punish the faithful Jews. After all, if we take “God’s righteousness” as meaning “God’s covenant faithfulness,” well, God’s covenanting has nothing to do with pre-Jesus Gentiles. Rather, Paul is possibly answering the question of how God let Elijah and Moses go to heaven even though Jesus had not yet died.
N. T. Wright is uncharacteristically unsure —
In particular, God had passed over, that is, left unpunished, acts of sin committed in former times. God, it seems (Paul here takes this for granted), had been forbearing, patient, unwilling to foreclose on the human race in general or Israel in particular. Paul had emphasized this in 2:3–6, where the same word is used, and he now refers back to that point. The first question at issue, then–the aspect of God’s righteousness that might seem to have been called into question and is now demonstrated after all–is God’s proper dealing with sins–i.e., punishment. Whatever Paul is saying in the first half of v. 25, it must be such as to lead to the conclusion that now, at last, God has punished sins as they deserved.
N.T. Wright, “The Letter to the Romans,” in The Acts of the Apostles-The First Letter to the Corinthians (vol. 10 of New Interpreters Bible, Accordance electronic ed. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002), 472-3.
So it could be that Paul is not saying that God’s forbearance protected the pre-Jesus Gentiles from God’s punishment. He could be saying that they were protected from punishment by the sacrifice of Jesus — reaching back through time — not to grant them possession of the new heavens and new earth, but to protect them from punishment. That is, the pre-Jesus Gentiles suffered no punishment in the afterlife because of God’s grace through the cross.
Or it could be that Paul is speaking only of the faithful Jews, who suffered no punishment solely by the power of the cross, as the Hebrews writer also says.
Fortunately, we have other texts —
(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.”
So is Paul saying that punishment will continue as it always has but now there’s a chance to escape? Or that God used to be more generous than he had to be, and now he’s going to be truly just — exacting just punishment — unless the Gentiles repent?
“Overlooked” is hyperorao, meaning to overlook or disregard. That God overlooked the ignorance of the ancients does not say “did not offer eternal bliss” to the ancients. Rather, this is what a parent does when he pretends not to see his two-year daughter drop food on the floor because he doesn’t have the heart to spank her little hand yet again. God chose not to punish the Gentiles pre-resurrection because they were unaware of his Law.
This then leaves us with sins unvindicated — and we’re back to option 1. The uncertainly is resolved, I think, in Rom 5 —
(Rom 5:12-14 ESV) Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned — 13 for sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law. 14 Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come.
V. 13 says that “sin is not counted where there is no law.” That is, we are only held accountable by God for violating so much of his will as we know.
I take “death” to refer to spiritual death, that is, death for all eternity as opposed to eternal life, that is, life for all eternity. We can argue over whether Adam and Eve would have lived forever had they never sinned — that is, whether physical death entered their lives because of their sin. But as we’ll soon see in 5:17 and :21, Paul is speaking of the death common to all, even the saved. Even Christians die, and so the death from which we are rescued has to eternal death.
(Rom 5:20-21 ESV) 20 Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, 21 so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.
“Reigned in death” in v. 21 is past tense, and yet we still die. But we no longer die eternally. Not Christians.
I take v. 20 to mean that the Torah brought greater knowledge of God’s will and so greater accountability. But because God saved the Jews under the covenant with Abraham — by faith — grace “abounded all the more.”
Hence, Paul seems to plainly say that the pre-Jesus Gentiles suffered spiritual death for their sins — they ceased to exist when they died. But on Mars Hill, he seems to plainly say that they were now at risk of far greater punishment. The cross brings both grace and justice.
(Rom 3:26 ESV) 26 It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.
God was, in fact, not just. Not yet. Rather, in order to bring about justice and fairly punish the damned, he had to reveal himself more fully, to demonstrate true goodness to the world and so hold the world accountable for its sins.