N. T. Wright’s The Day the Revolution Began, Romans Reconsidered, Part 5 (the Salvation of the Jews pre-Pentecost)


N. T. “Tom” Wright has just released another paradigm-shifting book suggesting a new, more scriptural way of understanding the atonement, The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion. Wright delves deeply into how the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus accomplishes our salvation.

Available Light [JFG]

Now, is Paul saying that some people are good and saved and some people are evil and damned and some people are evil but in Christ and so saved by grace? That is, are the good people in Rom 2:6-10 only those saved by grace through faith in Jesus? Or does any good person qualify?

Wright does not directly address this question, but it does keep coming up, so while we’re re-learning Romans in light of Wright’s scholarship, we’ll see what else Paul has to say. But the rest of the book of Romans only addresses salvation by grace through faith in Jesus. There is not another word mentioned about the possibility of someone being found righteous other than by grace. In fact, chapter 3 sure seems to clearly deny the possibility —

(Rom. 3:9-20 NET)  9 What then? Are we [Jews] better off? Certainly not, for we have already charged that Jews and Greeks alike are all under sin [Sin], 10 just as it is written: “There is no one righteous, not even one,  11 there is no one who understands, there is no one who seeks God.  12 All have turned away, together they have become worthless; there is no one who shows kindness, not even one.”  13 “Their throats are open graves, they deceive with their tongues, the poison of asps is under their lips.”  14 “Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness.”  15 “Their feet are swift to shed blood,  16 ruin and misery are in their paths,  17 and the way of peace they have not known.”  18 “There is no fear of God before their eyes.”  19 Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world may be held accountable to God.  20 For no one is declared righteous before him by the works of the law, for through the law comes the knowledge of sin. 

(Rom. 3:21-23 NET) 21 But now apart from the law the righteousness of God (which is attested by the law and the prophets) has been disclosed–  22 namely, the righteousness of God through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction,  23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.

Maybe the context of the remainder of chapter 2 will change that result — and we’ll take a fresh look at some of these passages in light of Wright’s new analysis in the next few posts. But how can all fall short of the glory of God when some live such good works that they’re saved without faith in Jesus — as the Available Light advocates would have it?

Rom 2:12

(Rom. 2:12 NET)  12 For all who have sinned apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law.

Paul now recapitulates what he’s already said. In chapter 1, he showed that those outside the law are sufficiently accountable for their sins that they will “perish” despite not having the Law of Moses to reveal God’s commands. And all who’ve sinned under the Law of Moses will, of course, also perish. That’s kind of, you know, everybody.

Further on Available Light [JFG]

I realize that many good Christians believe that salvation is available to those who’ve never heard the gospel. This is called the doctrine of “Available Light” and is not a consensus view, but it’s an increasingly common view.

Most center their argument on Rom 2:6-10. The argument is that good people who’ve never heard of Jesus could not be justly condemned to everlasting torture. In fact, any number of other scriptures speak of the damned as those who rejected the gospel.

I believe that this is a misreading of Romans and, in fact, contradicts many NT teachings as well as the Acts narrative. Why would Paul risk his life to save people — including many Jews — who were already good people just to save them when they were already saved?

On the other hand, I agree that a just God would not torture someone for all eternity who never even heard of Jesus. Well, if you take a Platonic/pagan view of spirituality, then you might assume that human souls are innately immortal and so, after death, a soul must either go to heaven or hell — or suffer in Purgatory or have a second chance to believe in Jesus. The one possibility a Platonist cannot consider is that the soul is not innately immortal and that human existence ends at physical death unless God chooses to resurrect the deceased.

But as Edward Fudge as shown in The Fire that Consumes, humans (and their souls) are not innately immortal. Rather, the scriptures consistently say that immortality is a gift from God given only to the saved (Rom 2:7; 1 Cor 15:53-54; 1 Tim 6:16; 2 Tim 1:10). Hence, those not saved do not live forever and so are not tortured forever.

Although the damned are not immortal, they are raised to be judged, punished with God’s perfect justice, and then they die a Second Death, that is, they die and cease to exist for all eternity (Rev 2:11; 20:6, 14; 21:8).

This doctrine is called Conditionalism, and it’s gaining many adherents because it solves the obvious injustice of torturing a good person for all eternity. And because, as shown in countless previous posts, the Bible supports this view, and this view makes the OT and the NT fit together. They teach much the same thing under this theory. (Again: covered in many previous posts.)

One aspect of Conditionalism that has attracted little notice is that it creates the possibility that some people neither go to the New Heavens and New Earth nor gehenna. After all, if immortality is a gift from God only given to the saved, then those not saved are not immortal. And God could punish some and decline to punish others. Really.

The question arises in at least three cases:

  1. Today, what about people in a highly isolated land who’ve never heard of Jesus? Do they go to hell when they die to be tortured for all eternity? Or do they die, suffer a just punishment and cease to exist (die the Second Death, as Rev says)? Or do they just die and cease to exist without reward or punishment? All three cases are theoretical possibilities.
  2. What about the Gentiles who died before Pentecost? Paul says,

(Acts 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.”

It seems that Paul considered Gentiles who died pre-Pentecost to not be damned. What else could “overlooked” mean? But does that mean that murderers and rapists were saved to live a blessed life with God for all eternity? It seems unlikely and contrary to the character of God at its very core. Therefore, the only remaining possibility is that Gentiles in this circumstance lived and died and will not be resurrected — except for those few Gentiles who found God, such as Rahab and Ruth.

I am more than open to other suggestions. I’m not open to condescension, as in “How dare you suggest …” I dare suggest because no one has a right to live eternally. God does not owe us an afterlife. And if God chooses to grant some an afterlife, they won’t have deserved it, it won’t be fair, but it will be gracious.

And to follow Romans, we really need to wrap our heads around the concept that God is giving the saved something they flat do not deserve — and denying someone something he does not deserve is perfectly just and fair – and consistent with the character of God as revealed to us — especially in light of Paul’s arguments in Rom 1 and 2 showing that all are idolaters and so all sin in violation of the nature of God and the image he has impressed upon us.

Not a one of us deserves heaven, and so we can’t bleat in protest when someone doesn’t get heaven. Then again, no one deserves the hell taught by orthodox Christianity. Who really has sinned so badly that he deserves torture for all eternity? Seriously? Therefore, it makes all the sense in the world to suppose that the wicked will be punished finitely — so that God keeps his promise “Vengeance is mine!” and metes out justice to the wicked. And that God doesn’t treat good people who don’t know the gospel the same as Hitler. Indeed, in fairness, where no one had a chance to hear the gospel, God might just be gracious enough to exempt those ignorant of the gospel from the consequences of their decisions. Paul seems to think so — at least as to Gentiles pre-Pentecost.

3. The same question arises with respect to children who are too young to be accountable for their sins. I don’t plan to address this question because I don’t know the answer — but during the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants, children of Israelites were generally considered part of the covenant community and saved. What does that tell us about children outside the covenant community? The Arminian view is that they are saved, even though they have no faith and aren’t in covenant relationship with God because they are unaccountable. The Calvinist view is they are damned due to Original Sin inherited from Adam (depending on your brand of Calvinism). A third possibility is that they are neither — that God doesn’t punish the unaccountable but then neither does he save those outside the covenant. It’s a possibility to wrestle with, but I’m far from certain that it’s right.

But if it is right, then the children of the covenant are saved. They are Christians, just as infant Jews were Jews and saved by God’s covenants. They are merely unaccountable and so not punished. They are as protected by God’s covenant as Isaac was the day he was born.

So it’s an interesting theory that makes no sense under Scofield dispensational theories, but if we take the Kingdom to be the grafting of the Gentiles into faithful Israel, then it makes sense to think in these terms — although certainty is not easy to come by and I’ve not remotely covered all the relevant texts.

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About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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