How can Jesus’ death save people who died before his time?
BY Jimmy Akin
| Posted 6/17/13 at 8:37 PM
On the Cross, Jesus offered his life as a sacrifice to make it possible for us to be saved.
But what about the people who lived before he made that sacrifice?
How can they be saved? How did his death relate to them?
Let’s take a look at that . . .
An Outstanding Question
Recently, I blogged about the general question of how salvation works before and after the time of Christ, but we didn’t answer all the questions a person might have.
One outstanding question is how Jesus’ sacrifice could apply to people before it was even made.
Scripture gives us some interesting possibilities . . .
“From the Foundation of the World”?
One image that some have looked to is found in Revelation 13:8, where in some translations we read a description of Jesus as “the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world.”
If this is the way that the passage is to be understood, it would seem to teach that Jesus’ sacrifice is available to people no matter when they lived in history.
In other words, although Jesus was slain in A.D. 33, from God’s eternal perspective, that sacrifice has been available “from the foundation of the world” and thus able to save anyone in world history.
Is This the Right Interpretation?
Although it’s theologically true that Christ’s sacrifice can save anyone in world history, that doesn’t mean that this is what the passage intends to say.
There is another way to look at the passage.
I’m kind of disappointed by that, because I like the paradoxical image of a Lamb “slain from the foundation of the world,” but I have to acknowledge that there is another and more probable interpretation.
The Greek text is ambiguous here. Grammatically, the phrase “from the foundation of the world” can modify the verb “slain,” but it can also modify a different verb in the same verse: “written.”
That’s the way that the Revised Standard Version: Catholic Edition takes it:
and all who dwell on earth will worship it [the Beast], every one whose name has not been written before the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb that was slain [Rev. 13:8].
So which is it?
Was the Lamb slain before the foundation of the world or were his followers’ names written before the foundation of the world?
A Decisive Parallel
A parallel passage that seems decisive is found in Revelation 17:8, where we read:
The beast that you saw was, and is not, and is to ascend from the bottomless pit and go to perdition; and the dwellers on earth whose names have not been written in the book of life from the foundation of the world, will marvel to behold the beast, because it was and is not and is to come.
This passage seems to deliberately echo the first one.
In both cases we have a discussion of how everyone will worship the Beast except those whose names have been written in the book of life.
And here it is unmistakable that this writing took place before the foundation of the world.
It’s the exact same phrase in Greek.
And so, as much as I like the image of a Lamb slain from the foundation of the world, it doesn’t look like that’s what the passage is referring to.
Does Scripture give us another way to understand how Christ’s sacrifice might apply to those before the Cross?
Scripture uses several different images to convey the idea of sin.
Sin can be pictured as a weight, as a burden, as uncleanliness, impurity, betrayal, death, and . . . debt.
The idea of sin as a burden is prominent in the Old Testament, but the debt metaphor springs to prominence in the New.
Jesus uses it, for example, when he tells the parable of the unmerciful servant (Matt. 18:23-35), where a king forgives a huge amount that one of his servants owes him.
The debt metaphor for sin is bound up with the idea of forgiveness.
You can forgive a debt, and you can forgive a sin.
The same word gets used for both actions.
The Our Father
Although it is masked by the fact that, in the standard English version of the Our Father, where we say “Forgive us our trespasses,” the sin-as-debt metaphor is present in the original.
In Matthew’s version, we read:
And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors [Matt. 6:12].
While the sin-as-debt metaphor was familiar to speakers of Aramaic, it was not familiar to speakers of Greek, and so Luke renders the petition this way:
and forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive every one who is indebted to us [Luke 11:4].
Notice that Luke only eliminates the idea of debt in the first case, to help the Greek-speaking reader over the conceptual hurdle.
He retains the debt metaphor in the second case (“everyone who is indebted to us”).
Forgiveness and Credit
The sin-as-debt metaphor gives us a productive way to see how Jesus’ sacrifice on the Cross applies to the sins of those who lived before his time.
Using this understanding of sin, people who sinned before the time of Christ piled up debts toward God.
If they repented and sought God’s forgiveness, he would forgive them in anticipation of Christ’s sacrifice.
We might say that they were forgiven “on credit”—in anticipation of the payment that Christ would one day make on the Cross.
Forgiveness and Debit
Something similar happens with us.
When we sin, we create a debt toward God that needs to be forgiven.
Only since we are living after the sacrifice has been made, you might say that we are being forgiven “on debit.”
A Modern Parallel
Commerce worked differently in Jesus’ day, but they did have the concepts of debts, credit (loans), and deposits.
If it helps you to think of it this way, you might extend the New Testament’s sin-as-debt metaphor by using an image from modern life: the bank card.
We could compare forgiveness before the time of Christ to using a credit card—obtaining what is needed (forgiveness) in anticipation of a payment to be made in the future (by Christ).
You could then compare forgiveness today to using a debit card—obtaining the same forgiveness on the basis of a payment already made by Christ.
The Virgin Mary
A special case is the Virgin Mary, who the Catechism and Vatican II describe as “the most excellent fruit of redemption” (CCC 508; SC 103).
God did something much better in her case than forgive her sins. He preserved her from even having sins.
But that still happened because of the redemption Christ made possible on the Cross.
It was done on the same “credit” model—looking forward to the future payment to be made by Jesus—that also allowed the forgiveness of those who did sin before his time.
In the Old Testament, repenting and seeking God’s forgiveness for a serious sin ordinarily involved making an animal sacrifice.
Such sacrifices pointed forward to Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross, and so they are no longer to be done.
Today, repenting and seeking God’s forgiveness for a serious sin ordinarily involves going to the sacraments (especially baptism and confession), which are empowered by Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross.
Let’s strive to avoid incurring such “debts”—and let’s make sure that we deal with them swiftly and don’t leave them outstanding.
Otherwise there could be hell to pay.
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