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 5:12-13, Part 2
(Rom. 5:12-13 ESV) 12 Therefore, just as [Sin] came into the world through one man [Adam], and [eternal] death through [Sin], and so [eternal] death spread to all men because all sinned — 13 for [Sin] indeed was in the world before the [Torah] was given, but [Sin] is not counted where there is no [Torah].
Paul sees the early accounts of Adam and Eve as quite literal. And so to make sense of Abraham, he has to explain why God entered into covenant with him. And it’s ultimately because of Adam’s sin — which allowed in the Creation what Wright calls “Sin” — resulting in “death” and the corruption of not only men, but also the corruption of all Creation (which Paul will address in Rom 8).
But it is the language of justification, not so much of reconciliation, that dominates the summary (in 5:12–21) of where the argument has got to so far. The force of the Adam—Christ contrast grows directly out of the long argument concerning Abraham, since God’s purpose in calling Abraham, as we have seen, was to deal with the problem created through Adam. If God has now been true to the promises to Abraham, it must mean that the long entail of sin and death has been overcome, so that the way is clear to the rescue of human beings and, through them, the rescue of the whole of creation.
Tom Wright, Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision, (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2009), 199.
“Sin,” Part 2
Wright says regarding “Sin”,
In Romans 5 Paul moves quietly from talking about “sins,” plural, to “Sin,” singular. In 5:12 he talks of “sin” entering the world, bringing death in its train. “Sin” is being treated as an active power, more than simply the sum total of all human wrongdoing. This accords, of course, with the analysis I have given earlier of how “sin” is actually the result of idolatry, in which humans hand over their God-given powers to other “forces,” which then enslave them.
… Indeed, Romans 5:12 (“Sin came into the world through one human being, and death through sin, and in that way death spread to all humans, in that all sinned”) functions as a short summary of the whole section 1:18–2:16. But in Romans 5: 12–8:4 — the sequence stops rather abruptly at 8:4, for reasons we shall discover — Paul speaks of Sin, the enslaving power. And this will enable him to give his fullest and clearest statement of how “Sin” and therefore “sins” are ultimately dealt with, so that, with the “exile” of death itself being over, the “age to come” of resurrection life can at last begin.
Wright, N. T.. The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion (Kindle Locations 4501-4510). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
“Death,” Part 2
One potentially helpful way of understanding the entry of death into the world through the first human sin is to see “death” here as more than simply the natural decay and corruption of all the created order. The good creation was nevertheless transient: evening and morning, the decay and new life of autumn and spring, pointed on to a future, a purpose, which Genesis implies it was the job of the human race to bring about. All that lived in God’s original world would decay and perish, but “death” in that sense carried no sting.
The primal pair were, however, threatened with a different sort of thing altogether: a “death” that would result from sin, and involve expulsion from the garden (Gen 2:17). This death is a darker force, opposed to creation itself, unmaking that which was good, always threatening to drag the world back toward chaos. Thus, when humans turned away in sin from the creator as the one whose image they were called to bear, what might have been a natural sleep acquired a sense of shame and threat. The corruption of this darker “death” corresponded all too closely to, and seemed to be occasioned by, that turning away from the source of life, and that turning instead toward lifeless objects, which later generations would call idolatry.
N.T. Wright, “The Letter to the Romans,” in The Acts of the Apostles-The First Letter to the Corinthians, vol. 10 of NIB, Accordance electronic ed. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002), 526.
Now, if we view “death” as the power of death over the world, resulting from the Gen 3 curse on all creation, there is some convergence between physical death and eternal death. First, in the Garden of Eden, those likely were the same thing. That is, the loss of access to the Tree of Life, likely led both to inevitable physical death but also the loss immortality in God’s blessed presence — as the Garden was exactly that. Adam and Eve became mortal — meaning both that they would die physically but also that there was no path to immortality — otherwise loss of the Tree of Life would have been no real penalty for their sin.
Hence, to my way of thinking, the real question that the Curse of Gen 3 created, is how to regain immortality or, equivalently, right relationship with God? How does mankind return to Eden — not just to avoid the hard work and pain of day-to-day existence in a cursed world, but to be in God’s daily presence with access to immortality?
Rom 5:12-13, Yet Again [JFG]
(Rom. 5:12a ESV) 12 Therefore, just as [Sin] came into the world through one man [Adam], and [eternal] death through [Sin] … .
If we view this as Paul’s understanding of salvation history, then v. 12 is obviously speaking of the Fall of Man resulting in the Gen 3 curse on Creation. This resulted in Death (the unleashing of the power of Death on Creation, as well as the literal deaths of Adam and Eve). But they didn’t die to go to heaven and live in blessed immortality in heaven with God. Rather, the Tree of Life they were denied is the very same Tree of Life that will be in the NHNE — and so they are not immortal and their souls aren’t immortal. When Adam and Eve died, they went the way of all mortal beings — they just died with no afterlife. They died an eternal death. That is, they died to remain dead throughout eternity.
Now, if we take Paul’s sermon on Mars Hill seriously, and the likely meaning of Rom 3:25 regarding God leaving previously committed sins unpunished, well, the idea has to be that they were unpunished in the afterlife. After all, Adam and Eve were surely punished in this life! They suffered the loss of Eden, physical death, and the curses of Gen 3. That’s real punishment — not eternal punishment. They had no eternal existence at all.
(Rom 5:12b-13 ESV) and so [eternal] death spread to all men because all sinned — 13 for [Sin] indeed was in the world before the [Torah] was given, but [Sin] is not counted where there is no [Torah].
Now, the inability of mankind to refrain from sin proved to be inheritable. Not only were Adam and Eve unable to resist temptation, so were their descendants. “All sinned.” Because of actual sin committed by everyone, eternal death remained their fate. They were not punished in the next life because of God’s forbearance (Rom 3:25) but neither did they receive the gift of immortality.
Why were they not punished? Well, in a surprising turn, Paul says it’s because most of the world — the Gentiles — had not yet received the Torah. They had no direct revelation (“special revelation” is the technical term) from God regarding right and wrong, and they were not accountable for their sins. They were not punished in the afterlife. But neither did they have access to immortality via the Tree of Life — and so they died — their physical deaths became eternal deaths.
This is a little surprising because Paul spent a large part of Rom 1 and 2 arguing that the Gentiles may be held accountable for their sins — because God is revealed through the Creation and through mankind’s moral nature. But this is evidently only enough to justify denying them immortality. If Adam and Eve can lose immortality for their one sin, then any sin causes one to surely die. It does not, however, make them so accountable that God feels obliged to punish them in the afterlife with the fires of gehenna for their sins. That comes only later — with Jesus. And even then, the punishment is finite and just — not perpetual conscious torment.
Now, Paul is obviously preparing us for a different conclusion regarding the Jews. And he would be the first to admit that there were YHWH worshipers other than Abraham, such as Melchizedek, priest of the Most High God during Abraham’s day. He is speaking in generalities.
And, if we’re paying close attention, we’re seeing Paul paint God as being far more gracious and forgiving that we usually think. The God of the OT is YHWH. Jesus is called YHWH in the NT. And the God of the OT whom Paul is describing is compassionate beyond our imaginations.