How Does Forgiveness Work Before and After Christ?
Jesus died on the Cross so that people could be forgiven their sins.
But if he died in A.D. 33, what about all the people who lived and died before that time? Were their sins forgiven?
And if their sins were forgiven, does that mean Jesus’ sacrifice applies to all of history?
If so, does that mean that we’ve been forgiven for all of our sins—past, present, and future—so that we don’t need to go to confession?
How does this all work?
Here’s the story . . .
The Bottom Line
It may seem unusual to put the bottom line at the top of a post, but I generally find it better to state things in a straightforward, literal manner and only then (if necessary) use analogies to help clarify them.
So here’s are the literal facts:
1) Jesus’ death on the Cross made it possible for all human beings to be forgiven of their sins, regardless of whether they lived before, during, or after his time.
2) In order to appropriate that forgiveness, people have to repent and turn to God. When they do so, God forgives them, regardless of when in history they lived.
3) During this life, people have free will, so if they un-repent (backslide, fall from grace, commit mortal sin) then they have committed new sins that are not (at that moment) forgiven.
4) In order to be forgiven of these new sins, they need to once more repent and turn to God. Then they will be forgiven of the new sins they committed.
Suppose there is a person living in 800 B.C. Let’s call him King Bob.
In 800 B.C., King Bob realizes that he has sinned gravely against God and needs forgiveness.
He repents of his sin (let’s suppose it’s idolatry), and turns to God. If King Bob is a Jew then, at this time, his turning to God would ordinarily take the form of offering a sin offering at the Temple in Jerusalem.
Bob does this, and at that moment, he is forgiven on the basis of what Jesus will do in the future, in A.D. 33.
If King Bob were to die at this moment, in 800 B.C. he would go to the place of the blessed, which Jesus describes as “Abraham’s bosom” and, once Jesus opened the gates of heaven, he would go to heaven.
(He also might need to spend time in purgatory before that, but we’re keeping this simple.)
Now, suppose that King Bob follows God for give years but then, in 795 B.C., he backslides into idolatry.
At this point, King Bob has committed a new mortal sin that has not been forgiven.
If he were to die at this moment, in 795 B.C., he would not go to the place of the blessed and would not end up in heaven, for he would have finished his life in mortal sin.
Let’s suppose that, after spending another five years in idolatry, King Bob realizes his error, repents again, and turns back to God. This would happen in 790 B.C.
At this point, King Bob returns to a state of forgiveness and would end up in heaven if he died at this point.
Everybody loves a happy ending, so let’s suppose that King Bob dies five years later, in 785 B.C., without having backslidden into idolatry or any other mortal sin. He thus goes to the place of the blessed and ends up in heaven, once Jesus opens the gates of heaven. Yay!
Now let’s flash forward three thousand years to A.D. 2800 and meet a man who we’ll call King Obadiah.
In 2800, King Obadiah realizes that he’s a sinner and need to be forgiven. Let us suppose that his sin is unleashing an incurable plague on the innocent population of the planet Varoom-Thresh 1.
They all die.
So after this heinous act, King Obadiah repents and turns back to God, which in the Christian age ordinarily involves going to confession.
At this moment, what Jesus did back in A.D. 33 makes it possible for King Obadiah to be forgiven in A.D. 2800, now that he has repented and turned to God.
If he were to die at this moment, in A.D. 2800, he would go to heaven. (He might need to be cleaned up in purgatory first, but we’re keeping this simple.)
Suppose that King Obadiah stays in God’s good graces for five years but then, in A.D. 2805, he released a plague that wipes out the innocent population of Varoom-Thresh 2, the next planet out in the Varoom-Thresh system.
That’s a mortal sin.
So now, in A.D. 2805, King Obadiah has a new mortal sin that has not been forgiven. If he were to die at this point in time then he would go to the Bad Place.
But then suppose that, in A.D. 2810, he wises up, repents, and turns back to God.
His second act of genocide is now forgiven, and, if he were to die at this point, he would end up in the Good Place.
The Bottom Line Redux
As both of these illustrations indicate:
1) We are not forgiven (i.e., not in a state of forgiveness) whenever we have mortal sins from which we have not repented and turned back to God.
2) We are forgiven (i.e., we enter a state of forgiveness) whenever we repent of our mortal sins and turn back to God.
3) Due to free will, we can switch back and forth between these two states, gaining, losing, and re-gaining forgiveness at different moments of our lives, depending on our will at that moment (i.e., are we aligning our will with God or not?).
4) If we die in a state of forgiveness, we will end up in heaven. Otherwise, not.
5) All of our forgiveness, regardless of when it occurs in history, is empowered by Jesus’ death on the Cross.
In this piece, I’ve explained how forgiveness works, in basic terms, both before and after Christ.
This still leaves two question unanswered:
1) How can we show that this is the way forgiveness works (e.g., from the Bible)?
2) Are there any metaphors that might help make understanding this easier? (As fanciful as the two illustrations were, they aren’t metaphors—just illustrations.)
We’ll look at both of these questions soon.
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