This brings us to a hard question that’s different from the questions that were asked in the first post, but which helps explain the answers. Earlier in Romans, Paul says,
(Rom 3:23-25 ESV) 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.
This parallels Paul’s sermon on Mars Hill —
(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.”
— as well as Paul’s earlier sermon at Lystra —
(Act 14:16 ESV) 16 In past generations he allowed all the nations to walk in their own ways.
When Jesus came, something changed regarding those without special revelation — and yet in Romans 5, Paul repeatedly tells us that those who sinned before the Torah was revealed “died” rather than receiving “the free gift,” which is “eternal life.” So they weren’t saved. Right?
(Rom 5:14 ESV) 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.
(Obviously, “death” in Romans 5 doesn’t refer merely to physical death, as we all suffer physical death — even Jesus. “Death” refers to dying without hope of eternal life.)
But their sins were “overlooked” and “passed over” — so they were saved. Right?
I worry about these things.
So here’s what I think is the solution — and it’s based on what Edward Fudge teaches about hell.
The saved die, are resurrected, and then spend eternity alive living with God in the New Heavens and New Earth.
Today, the damned die, face judgment, suffer torment that is just and, for many, truly horrible, and then are destroyed. That is, they experience a First Death, are judged, and then suffer an agonizing Second Death. They truly die.
(Luk 12:47-48 NIV) 47 “That servant who knows his master’s will and does not get ready or does not do what his master wants will be beaten with many blows. 48 But the one who does not know and does things deserving punishment will be beaten with few blows. From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.”
Notice how well Jesus’ teaching parallels Paul’s in Romans 5. The amount one suffers depends, in part, on how much of God’s will one knows. Ignorance will not buy you eternal life, but ignorance will affect God’s sense of what punishment is just.
(Rom 5:13b ESV) 13 … sin is not counted where there is no law.
And so, this would suggest that God would punish those who died before Moses with “fewer blows” than those who later learned God’s will and yet chose to disobey anyway.
(Mat 10:28 NIV) 28 Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell [gehenna].
The word translated “destroy” is defined by Thayer’s as “to destroy i. e. to put out of the way entirely, abolish, put an end to, ruin.” It’s also used by Matthew in —
(Mat 2:13 ESV) Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.”
Thus, the scriptures speak of “condemnation” as not only “death” (as in Romans 5) but also “destruction.” It’s not eternal life in agony. It’s a just punishment followed by eternal death, that is, a death that, unlike the first death, will never be reversed.
For those who died before Jesus came, Rom 3:23-25 says their sins are “passed over” and Acts 17:30-31 says they’re “overlooked.” Those passages suggest no blows at all.
But they don’t mean those who died without faith or relationship with God were saved into eternal bliss. Rather, they only say that they died, suffered no punishment in eternity, and were destroyed painlessly. Or perhaps that they died and stayed dead — with no resurrection of any kind.
Thus, Paul uses “death” in Romans 5 to refer, not to physical death, but to eternal death, that is, a death that will never be undone, just as he uses “life” to refer to eternal life — a life that will never be undone.
But now God will punish all men justly unless they receive the “free gift,” which is undeserved and reserved only for those with faith in Jesus. Thus, Hitler really will suffer great pain for a very long time. The Pharaoh of the Exodus will not. But neither is he going to enjoy eternal bliss with Jesus forever. He’s just dead and will stay dead.
Today, even those who never hear the gospel and have no scriptures will be punished, but only in proportion to their knowledge gleaned from the Creation and their own moral nature. They will be judged as they judge others — at the least. I expect they’ll be judged by the moral standards of their own culture as well. That is, if stealing is considered wrong in their culture, and they steal, they know at least that much of God’s law. But they will not be judged as though they’d been taught God’s will as well as most Americans are.
How much punishment they will suffer, if any, I really don’t know. But the scriptures plainly teach that ignorance of God’s will is taken into account in determining the level of punishment suffered. Our God is a just God.
Therefore, those ignorant of the gospel don’t receive eternal life. They receive a just reward — which is not eternal, conscious torment, and may be very little punishment at all. But it is not the free gift of eternal life.
But we should not delude ourselves into imagining that the worst of sinners will not suffer much at all. Some will not — children, the mentally challenged, anyone who is not morally accountable. But adults on the whole judge others very harshly and often wish horrible fates for others — even though they do the same things — and worse. (Think of David’s reaction to Nathan’s parable.)
Being judged as we judge others promises a fate less than Hitler’s, I’m sure, but it will be awful for most. Indeed, how many ordinary, “nice” people have wished for the extermination of an entire race or ethnicity at some point? Who wants to answer for that?! I think we’re likely all murderers in God’s eyes!
(Mat 5:22 ESV) “But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.”
Therefore, this understanding of God’s justice should not for a moment reduce our desire to save the lost. Justice will be a very unhappy fate for most people — a fate that we Christians also deserve.
The whole point of Paul’s discussion is that the “free gift” is a gift and not deserved.
And so, you see, Fudge’s approach, called “conditionalism,” makes excellent sense of these otherwise very, very difficult passages. They cease to be a mystery and become a declaration of God’s incomprehensible grace — which is exactly why Paul wrote them.
At this point, we should be shouting praise!
(Amazing alto in that group!)
PS — This understanding should also dramatically impact our understanding of civil law. You see, if we persuade our legislatures to forbid, say, fornication and put up billboards teaching the world that fornication violates God’s law, well, we’re doing a good job of imposing a much greater punishment on the lost. But are we helping anyone find the free gift of eternal life?
What’s the point of making the damned suffer more? The goal is to get them entirely out justice and into grace — and that doesn’t require a mere change in morals. It requires a change in kings — who will then change their morals. But changed morals will not help them find Jesus. Indeed, Romans 1 argues quite to the contrary. (We too readily accept the premise that Jesus can’t compete with sin on a level playing field.)
Of course, God’s justice and grace are not the only considerations in the making of laws. We should ban murder out of love for those who’d otherwise be murdered and so who’d be prevented from finding Jesus! Christians should indeed be concerned about civil law. But we just can’t reflexively impose God’s laws on the damned and pretend that we are somehow expanding God’s Kingdom that way. We aren’t.
We have to think about what we do much more carefully. God’s mission isn’t to force people to obey him on penalty of jail or fines. It’s to draw people to his sacrificial love so that they’ll delight in submitting to his rule.
Until we understand that, we really need to get out of politics and lobbying.