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 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?].
So … In Conclusion [JFG]
Okay. I admit it. I’ve gone pretty far afield from Wright’s book. But not from his comments on Rom 2:4 and 3:25 and Acts 17:22-31. To his credit, Wright doesn’t avoid hard topics, and he admits that Paul says sins committed by both Jews and Gentiles pre-Pentecost were forborn and so unpunished. To me, this surely means that there was no gehenna for the damned. They just died never to be resurrected — which is why the OT is silent on gehenna and eternal punishment but does speak of the blessed afterlife for faithful Israel.
Not all commentators believe that references to being “gathered to his fathers” refers to a belief in the afterlife — partly due to an assumption that the Israelites were too primitive to be concerned with such things and partly because, if you think in Platonic (Greek or pagan) terms, you assume that a blessed eternity must imply hell — and the OT knows nothing of hell.
So this is all a thought experiment. I mean, let’s just think through the possibilities and see how well they fit the text, and so far, the theory seems to fit pretty well. After all, Jesus himself said that the Patriarchs enjoyed resurrection to eternal life.
(Matt. 22:29-32 ESV) 29 But Jesus answered them, “You are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God. 30 For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven. 31 And as for the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was said to you by God: 32 ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not God of the dead, but of the living.”
But he doesn’t say that everyone born died to live with God in the resurrection — and yet, according to Paul in Romans, everyone was left no worse than unpunished due to God’s forbearance.
If this speculation is true, then the coming of “forgiveness of sin,” the Spirit, the Messiah, and the Kingdom also brought punishment for the damned in the afterlife: gehenna.
Now, I prefer gehenna to “hell” because gehenna is a garbage dump, whereas in the popular imagination, hell is a place of perpetual conscious torment, and the Greek says gehenna. And as we’ve covered, I agree with Edward Fudge that punishment post-Pentecost is finite. The damned suffer a perfectly just punishment in the afterlife and then cease to exist — never to be resurrected. No second chance. No one repents. They are destroyed.
(Matt. 7:13-14 ESV) 13 “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. 14 For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.”
(1 Thess. 5:3 ESV) 3 While people are saying, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and they will not escape.
(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 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?
Available Light, Part III [JFG]
So if this is all true, and it’s likely not. I mean, I surely got something wrong in there. But if it’s even close to right, this study sheds considerable light on the Available Light theory. According to many Bible scholars — some of whom I hold in the highest esteem — people who’ve never heard the gospel are saved — provided they’re good people. And I disagree. But I think there’s another possibility.
The question is when is “now” in Acts 17:30 —
(Acts 17:30-31 NET) 30 “Therefore, although God has overlooked such times of ignorance, he now commands all people everywhere to repent, 31 because he has set a day on which he is going to judge the world in righteousness, by a man whom he designated, having provided proof to everyone by raising him from the dead.”
Does “now” mean “now that Jesus has been resurrected”? Or “now that Pentecost has come”? Or does “now” mean “now that I’m preaching the gospel to you”? Or does it mean “this date in history worldwide, even though I’m only preaching to a handful of Greek philosophers in Athens”?
If “now” refers to the coming of the Kingdom, then between Pentecost and Cornelius, there were several years — perhaps a decade — when God’s forbearance for the Gentiles had expired and yet, as a practical matter, they’d had no opportunity to repent. I guess they could have found God in the Creation, but in Acts, “repent” typically (not always) means “repent of your unbelief” — and how can they believe unless they are preached to? — as Paul writes in Rom 10.
If God was forbearing to punish in hopes of the Gentiles repenting, he really needed to forbear until they heard the gospel. Only then could they truly repent by believing in Jesus.
Rejection of the gospel [JFG]
Consider these passages:
(Lk. 10:16 ESV) 16 “The one who hears you hears me, and the one who rejects you rejects me, and the one who rejects me rejects him who sent me.”
(Jn. 12:48 ESV) 48 The one who rejects me and does not receive my words has a judge; the word that I have spoken will judge him on the last day.
(Jn. 3:16-18 ESV) 16 “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.
(Heb. 12:25 ESV) 25 See that you do not refuse him who is speaking. For if they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, much less will we escape if we reject him who warns from heaven.
It’s not an overwhelming body of evidence, but one could argue that condemnation (meaning punishment) is reserved for those who reject the gospel and so refuse to believe in Jesus.
That would mean that those who’ve never heard the gospel are not destined for punishment in the afterlife. They just die and are annihilated. This is, in a sense, punishment and, in a sense, not punishment. After all, plenty of people outside of Jesus fear death, even though they believe it means annihilation. First, they’re not so sure that it doesn’t mean hell, and second, we humans have a very powerful survival instinct. It takes very real faith to not fear death. It’s built into us.
But death followed by the wrath of God, separation from God, and punishment that’s perfectly just, well, that’s terrifying. Well, it should be.
So does that mean that when we preach the gospel to a new land that we subject our listeners to the risk of hell? Well, only if we define “hell” as finite, perfectly just punishment. And if it’s perfectly just, then this is a good thing — in the same sense that putting rapists and murderers in jail is a good thing. Justice is, by definition, good and holy. It’s part of God’s good nature. When we see justice as cruel and unfair, we’re revealing our unhealthy understanding of the nature of God.
So, then, from what did the apostles “save” their converts when they preached the gospel in Acts? Well, remember that their favorite proof text is Joel 2:32a, “Everyone who calls on the name of the LORD will be saved.” Joel and the other OT writers had no concept of hell or gehenna. Salvation was not understood as being salvation from eternal torment. Rather, Joel’s original readers would have understood him to be speaking of salvation (or rescue) from the curses of Leviticus and Deuteronomy for disobedience. He was speaking in terms of the end of Exile.
But, of course, as we’ve seen, the end of Exile means a return to the inheritance God promised his people, but in the NT this is the entire earth, purified and transformed by God to be the New Heavens and New Earth (NHNE). And this means the receipt of the Spirit and the reign of God’s Messiah. So it all fits. The NHNE is not a change in the promises of God to end Exile but an expansion and fresh understanding in light of Jesus — but not nearly as different as we imagine. Both speak to a transformed world in which God dwells with man.
More difficult is what “saved” meant for Gentiles — and it means the same thing. They would be grafted into Israel (Rom 11) and so enjoy the covenant promises of Israel. But the Gentiles were not under the curse of the Law. They were, however, under the curse of Creation of Gen 3 — and so in Rom 8, Paul explains how the Creation itself is to be redeemed when God’s people are redeemed. After all, one cannot enter into Jesus and receive the Spirit unless the uncleanness of the curse of Gen 3 is removed by restoring the convert to the image of God — through the Spirit.
Last point for today — this all only works if it fits Rom 5. And I’m seriously tempted to go straight to there, but we’ve not even finished Rom 3, much less 4. So remember all this and in a few days we’ll return to it. And if Rom 5 proves me wrong, I’ll delete all these posts before y0u get to see them. I could be wrong …