N. T. Wright’s The Day the Revolution Began, Romans Reconsidered, Part 24 (Passing over sins previously committed, Part 3)


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 accomplish our salvation.

Rom 3:24-25

(Rom. 3:24-25 NET)  24 But they are justified [declared faithful to God’s covenants with the Jews] freely by his grace through the redemption [freedom from slavery] that is in Christ [King/Messiah] Jesus.  25 God publicly displayed him at his death as the mercy seat [place of forgiveness in the Holy of Holies, God’s throne on earth] accessible through faith [faithfulness/trust]. This was to demonstrate his righteousness [faithfulness to the covenant], because God in his forbearance [tolerant patience] had passed over the sins previously committed [by whom?]. 

Do the Scriptures ever speak of death without an afterlife? [JFG]

The Greeks, based on the speculations of Plato, largely believed that humans had a soul that survived death and was innately immortal. The Jewish view in both testaments is that immortality is a gift from God, as covered in the last post. In Rom 2:7, Paul states that immortality is reserved for those “who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality.” That is, evil people do not receive immortality.

The various passages in Paul’s speeches and writings that say that previous sins will not be punished therefore suggest that the unforgiven will neither suffer punishment nor gain a reward in the afterlife. Rather, they will go the way of all innately mortal beings, they will die and not be resurrected. 

This idea is extremely foreign to modern Christian thought because we have always assumed Plato to have been right, since the Christian church absorbed Platonic thought beginning in the Third Century AD or so (technically, Neo-Platonism, but the distinction isn’t important for this discussion). Neo-Platonic thought had become part of the Greco-Roman worldview and so its assumptions were simply not questioned — and the church subtly reinterpreted the text to fit their preconceptions — just as we today have no problem reading nationalism into our Bibles.

But the OT especially seems to support the idea of the unsaved being mortal and not being part of the afterlife. I ran across this essay in Milgrom’s commentary on Leviticus:

B. Karet: Excision and Deprival of Afterlife

There are eighteen cases of karet [usually translated “cut off” as in “cut off from among his people”] in the Torah, all in Priestly texts. They can be subsumed under the following categories: sacred time, sacred substance, purification rituals, illicit worship, and illicit sex.

A. Sacred time

1. Neglecting the Passover sacrifice (Num 9:13*)
2. Eating leaven during the Unleavened Bread Festival (Exod 12:15*, 19*)
3. Working on the Sabbath (Exod 31:14*)
4. Working or not fasting on Yom Kippur (Lev 23:29*, 30*)

B. Sacred substance

5. Imbibing blood (Lev 7:27*; 17:10*, 14*)
6. Eating sacrificial suet (Lev 7:25*)
7. Duplicating or misusing sanctuary incense (Exod 30:38*)
8. Duplicating or misusing sanctuary anointing oil (Exod 30:33*)
9. Eating a sacrifice beyond the permitted period (Lev 7:18*; 19:8*)
10. Eating a sacrifice in a state of impurity (Lev 7:20–21*)
11. Blaspheming (flauntingly violating a prohibitive commandment, Num 15:30–31*; cf. Lev 24:15*)

C. Purification rituals

12. Neglecting circumcision (Gen 17:14*; the purification is figurative, Josh 5:9*)
13. Neglecting purification after contact with the dead (Num 19:13*, 20*)

D. Illicit worship

14. Molek and other forms of idolatry (Lev 20:2–5*; Ezek 14:8*)
15. Consulting the dead (Lev 20:6*)
16. Slaughtering animals outside the authorized sanctuary (Lev 17:4*)
17. Sacrificing animals outside the authorized sanctuary (Lev 17:9*)

E. Illicit sex

18. Effecting forbidden consanguineous and affinal marriages (Lev 18:27–29*)

As for the exact nature of karet, two opinions command attention. The first is that karet means extirpation, meaning that the offender’s line is terminated. He may live a full life or an aborted one. His death need not be immediate, as would be the case if his execution were the responsibility of a human court, because divine power is ensuring that, no matter how long he lives, he will leave no offspring on this earth.

The other possible meaning of karet is that the punishment is indeed executed upon the sinner but only after his death; he is not permitted to rejoin his ancestors in the afterlife. This meaning for karet is supported by the idiom that is its antonym: “be gathered to one’s [kin, fathers]” (e.g., Num 20:24*, 27:13*; 31:2*; Gen 15:15*; 47:30*; Judg 2:10*).

Particularly in regard to the patriarchs, the language of the Bible presumes three stages concerning their death: they die, they are gathered to their kin, and they are buried (cf. Gen 25:8*; 35:29*; 49:33*). “It [the term ‘gathered’] designates something that succeeds death and precedes sepulture [burial], the kind of thing that may hardly be considered as other than reunion with the ancestors in Sheol.”

… The implication is that we retain our own individual identity in the next world. We are not engulfed by God, in whom we would have shed ourselves. To shed one’s identity after death is not immortality. Only if there is some continuity of identity after death is there meaningful immortality. … It also makes the punishment karet that much more frightening. It is not some impersonal, neutral soul that is cut off, but my very being, my identity, and for eternity. …

It is difficult to determine which of these meanings is correct. Because they are not mutually exclusive, it is possible that karet implies both of them; in other words, there are no descendants in this world and no life in the next.

Jacob Milgrom, A Continental Commentary: Leviticus: A Book of Ritual and Ethics, (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2004), 65–67.

Milgrom’s view has been adopted by other commentators —

The sinner with a high hand feels no guilt; therefore the offense is not sacrificially expiable.” The one who sins defiantly may not feel the guilt of his violation, but he is nonetheless guilty before God and man.

Such a defiant person must suffer the ultimate of judgment, the karet. Such a form of judgment, by which God would eradicate an offender’s line of descendants or deny a person’s life in the hereafter, was reserved for the most heinous or sacrilegious offenses.

R. Dennis Cole, Numbers, The New American Commentary, (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2000), 3B:253.

What then would “cut off from” Israel/the congregation/his people actually mean? The answer appears to be cut off from God’s benefits to Israel in the near future and cut off from eternal life with them in the ultimate future. It is somewhat a question of self-selection. The person who defies God’s regulations shows that he has no interest in keeping covenant with him and therefore will eventually suffer the consequences of not obeying God. Refusing to keep the Passover regulation of unleavened bread for seven days (something that is not very hard to keep, after all) would show God that a person was not with him in faith because faith is demonstrated by faithfulness. Lack of faithfulness in trying to obey God’s commands shows lack of saving faith in God. The proof of faith is a faithful life.

Douglas K. Stuart, Exodus, The New American Commentary, (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2006), 2:284.

The benefit of this interpretation is that it fits well with the NT view of the afterlife. The rebellious sinner does not enjoy an afterlife with God and Jesus. Heb 10:26 ff. And given how much Hebrews relies on the Torah and other OT texts, it makes sense that they should have consistent views of the afterlife.

But the punishment meted out by God himself for the most severe and rebellious of Torah violations is the absence of an afterlife, not punishment in the sense of suffering or torment. That is, despite God’s covenants with Israel, those who sin severely enough are not punished in the NT sense of “punish” but simply are denied immortality with their families.

On other other hand, those who live a righteous life are “gathered to their fathers.” For example,

(Jdg. 2:8-12 ESV) 8 And Joshua the son of Nun, the servant of the LORD, died at the age of 110 years.  9 And they buried him within the boundaries of his inheritance in Timnath-heres, in the hill country of Ephraim, north of the mountain of Gaash.  10 And all that generation also were gathered to their fathers. And there arose another generation after them who did not know the LORD or the work that he had done for Israel.  11 And the people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the LORD and served the Baals.  12 And they abandoned the LORD, the God of their fathers, who had brought them out of the land of Egypt. They went after other gods, from among the gods of the peoples who were around them, and bowed down to them. And they provoked the LORD to anger. 

In context, “gathered to their fathers” surely sounds like a reward in the afterlife.

Huldah the prophetess said to the king’s emissaries —

(2 Ki. 22:15-23:1 ESV)  15 And she said to them, “Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: ‘Tell the man who sent you to me,  16 Thus says the LORD, Behold, I will bring disaster upon this place and upon its inhabitants, all the words of the book that the king of Judah has read.  17 Because they have forsaken me and have made offerings to other gods, that they might provoke me to anger with all the work of their hands, therefore my wrath will be kindled against this place, and it will not be quenched.  18 But to the king of Judah, who sent you to inquire of the LORD, thus shall you say to him, Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: Regarding the words that you have heard,  19 because your heart was penitent, and you humbled yourself before the LORD, when you heard how I spoke against this place and against its inhabitants, that they should become a desolation and a curse, and you have torn your clothes and wept before me, I also have heard you, declares the LORD.  20 Therefore, behold, I will gather you to your fathers, and you shall be gathered to your grave in peace, and your eyes shall not see all the disaster that I will bring upon this place.'” And they brought back word to the king.  

Again, in context, “I will gather you to your fathers” doesn’t sound like “you will die never to rise again.” It sounds like a blessed afterlife with fellow penitent Israelites.

There are “hell” passages in the OT, but they speak of the next age. Famously, Isaiah concludes,

(Isa. 66:22-1:1 ESV)  22 “For as the new heavens and the new earth that I make shall remain before me, says the LORD, so shall your offspring and your name remain.  23 From new moon to new moon, and from Sabbath to Sabbath, all flesh shall come to worship before me, declares the LORD.  

24 “And they shall go out and look on the dead bodies of the men who have rebelled against me. For their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh.”  

Jesus frequently used language from this passage when speaking of gehenna, but this passage does not speak of perpetual conscious torment. Rather, the enemies of God become “dead bodies” (v. 24) that will never be resurrected to enjoy the new heavens and new earth.

Now, I am NOT saying that there is no punishment in the afterlife for evil people. Rather, I’m saying that Paul says plainly in Acts 17 and nearly as plainly twice in Romans that God did not previously punish the damned. Rather, they died and stayed dead, denied an afterlife of bliss. And with very few exceptions (Melchizedek, Naaman, Rahab, Ruth, etc.) Gentiles were not given the opportunity to repent to receive “forgiveness of sins.” Rather, that blessing was reserved solely for the Jews until Cornelius.

Again: As Paul announced on Mars Hill in Acts 17, God changed the punishment suffered by the damned in NT times. Sins that were previously unpunished became subject to punishment — but not perpetual conscious torment. Gehenna is quite real. But something changed.

And all this raises a host of other questions …

[to be continued]

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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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