Friday, November 22, 2019

Paul’s Gospel and the Death-Denying Doctrines that Contradict It


Truth matters to God. In fact, truth is so important to God that he has made faith in certain truths the criteria by which people are justified, become members of the body of Christ and are given an expectation of eonian life (not to be confused with so-called “eternal life”; see footnote 1).[1] But what are the truths which must be believed in order to qualify for membership in the body of Christ (and the spiritual blessings associated with it)? The answer is found in 1 Corinthians 15:3-4. There, the apostle Paul summarized his gospel (or “evangel”) with the following truths concerning Christ:

(1) Christ died for our sins;
(2) Christ was roused from among the dead on the third day.

So important are these two facts that Paul made sure to provide supporting evidence for them by first appealing to Scripture (“according to the scriptures”) and then by referring to empirically verifiable events that were connected with them (i.e., that Christ was entombed, and that – following his resurrection – he was seen by a number of witnesses).

Now, elsewhere on my blog, I’ve gone into more depth concerning what, exactly, it means for Christ to have died “for our sins.” For those interested in learning more about this important subject, the following links will take you to articles in which I express my thoughts on it:

In this article, however, I want to focus on the simple fact that Christ died. It is my belief that most professing Christians – sincere as they may be – hold to doctrinal positions they’ve been taught in the “institutional church” which complicate, distort and outright contradict this essential, fundamental fact of Paul’s evangel. Although long-established in Christian tradition and deeply entrenched in the hearts and minds of many who hold to them, such “death-denying doctrines” ultimately prevent people from being able to truly understand and intelligently embrace the simple truth that Christ died. 

Death-Denying Doctrine #1: The Immortality of the Soul

To die is to become lifeless, and to be dead is to be lifelessSince death is simply the absence of life, the fact that Christ died can be grasped by anyone who has even a basic understanding of life, and what it means to be alive. With this understanding in place, one can easily deduce the meaning of death by negation (“Death is the opposite of life, and since this is what it means to be alive, the opposite is what it means to be dead.”). Fortunately, it doesn't take any special insight or exceptional degree of intelligence to understand what it means to be alive, for this knowledge is immediately and intuitively available to every living, self-aware being. Every human being who knows himself or herself to be alive intuitively understands that consciousness and life always occur together. No one has ever experienced a single moment in which this has not proven to be the case. Thus, when we understand death to be the absence of life, it requires no special intellect or insight to arrive at the conclusion that those who are dead are not conscious or involved in any kind of conscious activity.

The Concordant Literal New Testament Keyword Concordance defines the term translated “life” (zoe) as “the activity of spirit, especially as manifested in the organic creation.” I think this is a pretty good definition of life. To be alive is to be that in which spirit is active and manifesting itself (hence we read in James 2:26 that “the body apart from spirit is dead”). Moreover, God is frequently referred to as “the living God.” Since God “is spirit” (John 4:24) and the only necessarily existent being, God is essentially alive (hence we’re told by Christ in John 5:26 that “the Father has life in Himself”). When we consider God as the absolute standard by which we can know what it means to be alive, we can conclude that consciousness – something which the living God necessarily has – is inseparable from being alive, and that anything with consciousness has it by virtue of having spirit and thus being alive. Thus, to die – i.e., to become lifeless – necessarily involves a loss of consciousness.

For beings whose existence is at least partly “organic” (i.e., mortal humans and other animals), having spirit means being able to move, grow and self-regulate internal conditions. For humans, having spirit means we have a capacity for self-awareness, rational thought, and volitional activity. In contrast, something that is dead – i.e., something that is without spirit – has completely ceased to be functionally active. It has lost the capacity for all functional activity, including consciousness. We know that syncope (a temporary loss of consciousness) results from a shortage of oxygen to the brain because of a temporary reduction of blood flow. But what happens when there is a permanent reduction of blood flow to the brain and all neurological activity ceases? Is there any observable indication that a person whose brain has stopped functioning completely is more functionally active or more conscious than a person who has simply experienced a temporary reduction of blood flow to their brain? Do not our own God-given senses indicate otherwise? Since, for beings such as ourselves, being alive entails having a capacity for consciousness and other functional activities, death necessarily entails a loss of this capacity. And Scripture confirms this view of what appears, from our perspective, to take place when death occurs: those who are dead are said to be unable to engage in the sort of conscious activities that the living are able to do – activities such as thinking, remembering and worshiping God (Eccl. 9:5-6, 10; Psalm 6:5; 30:9; 88:10-12; 115:17).  

In contrast to this common-sense and Scriptural understanding of what it means to be dead, the popular Christian doctrine of the “immortality of the soul” denies that human beings are the sort of things that actually die and lose their capacity for conscious activity. According to this belief, man is actually an immortal (i.e., undying) being that survives the death of his body and continues to consciously exist somewhere in a “disembodied state.” Since it denies that any human being truly dies (only the body is thought to die, according to this view), it consequently denies the reality of Christ’s death. And yet, Paul wrote that it was Christ himself – not merely some part of Christ (e.g., his body) – who “died for our sins.” While undergoing the torture of Roman crucifixion, it was “the man, Christ Jesus” – not merely his body – who committed his spirit to God and expired on the cross (Luke 23:46; John 19:30).

Like all mortal human beings (beginning with Adam), Christ’s existence as a living being with a capacity for sentience/consciousness (i.e., his being a “living soul”) was dependent on the union of (1) a body consisting of earthly elements (referred to in Genesis 2:7 as “soil” or “dust”) and (2) a spirit given by God (which is referred to in Genesis 2:7 as the “breath of life”). When Christ died, the union of body and spirit that made Christ a “living soul” was broken, and our Lord was introduced into a lifeless state – i.e., a state of complete functional inactivity and (thus) utter oblivion. As is the case for all human beings who die (i.e., become lifeless), Christ lost the capacity to sense, think, speak, breathe or do anything at all. 

Included in Paul’s summary of his evangel are the words, “He was entombed.” Just as the post-resurrection appearances of Christ mentioned by Paul in 1 Cor. 15:5-8 are included as proof that Christ was roused from among the dead by God, so Paul mentioned Christ’s entombment as evidence that Christ actually died. This part of Paul’s evangel summary is consistent with the fact that, throughout scripture, those who have died are consistently spoken of as being wherever their body is, or wherever the remains of their body may be (see, for example, Gen. 3:19; 23:19; 25:10; 1 Kings 2:10; 2 Chron. 9:31; Job 14:10-12; Ps. 146:3-4; Dan. 12:2; Isaiah 26:19; John 5:28; 11:17, 43; Acts 2:29; 8:2). Our bodies are where we are last present when we die and cease to be “living souls,” and they are where we will be present again when we are restored to a living, conscious existence. Being essentially bodily beings – i.e., beings dependent on a living body to be alive – we cannot be said to be somewhere that our body is not. Scripturally speaking, it cannot be said that a human being whose body is lying dead in a grave is, at the same time, experiencing the joys of heaven (see Acts 2:29, 34). The very idea is completely contrary to what scripture teaches about the nature of man and of death. 

But what about the spirit of man, which we’re told departs from him at death? Does this support the traditional Christian position that human beings survive their death as “immortal souls?” Let’s consider the request of the faithful Jewish believer, Stephen, shortly before he was martyred: “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit” (Acts 7:59). Did the Lord receive Stephen when he died, or did he receive Stephen’s spirit? We’re told by Luke that it was Stephen – the human being - who was “put to repose” (i.e., fell asleep) as he was being stoned to death. If “Stephen” is to be identified with Stephen’s spirit, then it would mean that it was Stephen’s spirit that cried out in a loud voice while kneeling, and Stephen’s spirit that fell asleep as it was being stoned to death. But that, of course, is absurd. It was not Stephen’s spirit that did these things, but Stephen himself – the human being. And it was not Stephen whom Christ received when Stephen died, but rather something which essentially belonged to Stephen, and which will have to be restored to him in order for him to enjoy any kind of “life after death.” But Stephen, by faith, knew his spirit would one day be returned to him; it was for this reason that he entrusted his spirit to Christ (for Stephen knew that it was Christ to whom God had given the authority to raise the dead on the “last day,” when all believing, faithful Israelites will be resurrected).

In Luke 23:46, we read, “And shouting with a loud voice, Jesus said, ‘Father, into Thy hands am I committing My spirit.’ Now, saying this, He expires.” The spirit that Christ committed into the hands of his God and Father is that which, we are told in Ecclesiastes 12:7, “returns to God who gave it.” But was this spirit which Christ committed into God’s hands Christ himself? Or was it something that belonged to Christ during his lifetime? Obviously, the spirit that Christ committed into his Father’s hands was something that belonged to Christ – hence, Christ's words, “…am I committing my spirit.” It was not, of course, Christ’s spirit that was speaking here, and referring to itself as “I.” Consequently, Christ’s spirit cannot, by itself, be identified with Christ himself.

From this fact it follows that Christ’s spirit – as essential to Christ’s conscious existence as I believe it was (and is) – cannot, by itself, be the conscious, human person we know as the Lord Jesus Christ. It is “the Man, Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 2:5), who was (and is) the conscious person to whom this spirit belongs, and who committed it to his Father for safe keeping just before he died. Notice that Christ entrusted to his God and Father what Stephen entrusted to Christ. Why the difference? Answer: Because Christ knew he was about to enter into a state in which he would be utterly helpless to restore himself to a living, conscious existence. When Christ died, his God and Father was the only One who had the power and authority to save him “out of death” (Hebrews 5:7). And – thanks to God (and God alone) – Christ was saved out of death.

The doctrine of the immortality of the soul denies that Christ was in any need of being saved by God out of death, since it denies that human beings really die; according to this view, it is only a person’s body (and not the person himself) which actually dies. As such, this doctrine – as popular as it is – contradicts Paul’s evangel.


Did Christ “rouse himself?”

We’re repeatedly told throughout the Greek Scriptures that God roused Christ from among the dead (see, for example, Acts 3:15; 4:10; 13:30, 34; 17:31; Rom. 4:24; 6:4, 9; 8:11; 10:9; 1 Cor. 15:15; Gal. 1:1; Eph. 1:20; Col. 2:12; 1 Thess. 1:10; Heb. 13:20; 1 Pet. 1:21). That is, it was God who restored Christ to a living, conscious existence after he died. Christ did not rouse himself from the lifeless condition into which he entered when he died on the cross. But given this fact, how are we to understand Christ’s words in John 2:18-22? In this passage we read the following:

The Jews, then, answered and said to Him, “What sign are you showing us, seeing that you are doing these things?” Jesus answered and said to them, “Raze this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews, then, said, “In forty and six years was this temple built, and you will be raising it up in three days!” Yet He said it concerning the temple of His body. When, then, He was roused from among the dead, His disciples are reminded that He said this, and they believe the scripture and the word which Jesus said.

I believe that a correct understanding of what Christ meant in v. 19 hinges on the difference between Christ’s body being “raised up” (after being dead) and Christ himself being “roused.” Notice what Christ didn’t say here. He didn’t say he would rouse himself; this was something which God alone accomplished (see v. 22 and compare with all of the verses referenced above). Rather, what Christ had in view as being raised by himself was his body. After Christ himself was roused by God – i.e., after he was restored to a living, conscious existence by God – our Lord then raised up his body from the stone slab on which it rested when he was entombed. This, I believe, is what Christ had in mind in John 2:19. Christ raised up his own body from where it lay, but only after he himself was roused by God.

Did Christ “leave his body” after he died?

In Matthew 12:40 we read that Christ predicted the following concerning himself: “For even as Jonah was in the bowel of the sea monster three days and three nights, thus will the Son of Mankind be in the heart of the earth three days and three nights.” Some see Christ’s words here as supporting the view that Christ “left his body” when he died and, while dead, went somewhere (which, based on the words “heart of the earth,” is thought to be located somewhere in or near the center of the earth). However, this view is based on a misunderstanding of the figure of speech Christ used. When used figuratively in Scripture, the “heart” refers to the center of a person’s volitional, reasoning and moral activity. The hiddenness and inaccessibility of the heart gave rise to its secondary figurative meaning of anything that is hidden or inaccessible. The “heart of the sea” thus refers to any relatively distant or remote part of the sea to which only a ship could travel (Prov. 30:19), or to its inaccessible depths (Ex. 15:8; Ps. 46:2; Jonah 2:3). Similarly, the “heart of the heavens” (Deut. 4:11) refers to their inaccessible, unreachable heights.

With this figure in mind, it is evident that the expression “the heart of the earth” need not be understood as denoting the “center of the earth” (or anywhere that’s near the center). It simply refers to any place within the earth that is hidden or in some sense inaccessible. And given that Christ was not only entombed (and thus hidden from sight) but that a “tremendously great” stone is said to have been placed over the entrance to the tomb (Matt. 27:60; Mark 16:4), the figure that Christ used in Matt. 12:40 is highly appropriate. Christ’s prediction in this verse is also consistent with those verses in which Christ is represented as having been where his dead body was during the three days and nights he was dead.

Another passage thought to reveal that Christ “left his body” after he died (and travelled somewhere in a “disembodied state”) is 1 Peter 3:18-20. In these verses we read that Christ was “put to death, indeed, in flesh, yet vivified in spirit, in which, being gone to the spirits in jail also, He heralds to those once stubborn, when the patience of God awaited in the days of Noah while the ark was being constructed…” Notice, however, that we’re not told that Christ heralded to the “spirits in jail” while he was dead and entombed. Rather, it was after he was “vivified in spirit” – i.e., after he was made alive – that he went to these “spirits in jail” and heralded to them. Moreover, the imprisoned “spirits” to whom we’re told Christ heralded are not to be understood as deceased humans. Rather, these spirits are non-human, angelic beings. Peter referred to these imprisoned spirits again in his second letter (2 Pet. 2:4-5). See also Jude 6, where a similar reference to these “sinning messengers” who “left their own habitation” can be found.

Death-Denying Doctrine #2: The Deity of Christ  

Like the doctrine of the immortality of the soul, the doctrine of the “deity of Christ” is also inconsistent with the truth that Christ actually died, and thus contradicts an essential element of Paul’s evangel. Ironically, this doctrine is considered an essential doctrine of orthodox, mainstream Christianity. In its most popular (and so-called “orthodox”) form, the doctrine of Christ’s deity affirms that Christ is one of three distinct members of a “tri-personal” (or “triune”) “Godhead.” It should be noted, however, that one doesn’t have to hold to the doctrine of the Trinity in order to affirm the doctrine of the deity of Christ; for example, this view is shared by those who hold to the so-called “modalist” (or “oneness”) as well as “binitarian” (or “two-person”) views of God. Regardless of their differences, however, what each of these positions have in common is their shared commitment to the idea that Jesus Christ possesses the same divine status and nature as the Father, and is thus to be understood as “God” in the same sense that the Father is God (without any qualification).

In a separate study (see the end of this article for links), I defend a number of scriptural arguments that demonstrate the fact that the Father – and the Father alone – is the uncreated divine being whom Christ referred to as “the only true God” (i.e., the God whose oneness is affirmed in the “Shema,” and before whom Israel was commanded to have no other gods). That is, I argued for the view that the “Most High God” – i.e., Yahweh – is a single divine person or self (rather than two or more persons/selves).

 Here are a few arguments for this view that I defended in this study:

1. The God whom Christ referred to as “my God and your God” when speaking to Mary Magdalene (John 20:17) is the God before whom Israel was commanded to have no other gods, and is the only true God.
2. The God whom Christ referred to as “my God and your God” in John 20:17 is the Father alone.
3. The Father alone (and not his Son, Jesus Christ) is the God before whom Israel was commanded to have no other gods, and is the only true God.

1. The “Lord our God” whose oneness Christ affirmed in Mark 12:30 is the God of both Christ and the scribe to whom Christ spoke, and is the God whom every Israelite (Christ included) was obligated to love with all of their heart, soul, mind and strength.
2. The Father alone is the God of both Christ and the scribe to whom Christ spoke, and the God whom every Israelite (Christ included) was obligated to love with all of their heart, soul, mind and strength.
3. The Father alone (and not his Son, Jesus Christ) is the “Lord our God” whose oneness Christ affirmed in Mark 12:30.

1. If the Father alone isn’t “the only true God” referred to by Christ in John 17:3, then the only true God is a different god than Jesus’ God.
2. But Jesus’ God is the only true God.
3. Therefore, the Father alone (and not his Son, Jesus Christ) is the only true God.

1. No one can be the “Most High” and the only true God without being greater than all and thus worthy of the worship of all.
2. The Father alone is greater than all and thus worthy of the worship of all (John 10:29; 14:28; cf. John 4:21-24).
3. The Father alone (and not his Son, Jesus Christ) is the “Most High” and the only true God.

1. According to 1 Cor. 8:6, the one God besides whom there is no other God is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
2. If the one God besides whom there is no other God is the God and Father of Jesus Christ, then the one God is not Jesus Christ.
3. Jesus Christ is not the one God besides whom there is no other God.

Rather than being the only true God, Scripture teaches that Christ is a created being who was uniquely and supernaturally begotten by God himself. Being made fully human, Christ lived a perfectly obedient (and thus sinless) life, died for the sins of all, was roused from among the dead by God, and now sits exalted at God’s right hand as Lord over all. Christ is the “image of the invisible God,” and perfectly revealed to the world the heart and character of God through his life and death. He is also the first human to have ever been vivified (i.e., made immortal), and was given power and authority from God that no other created being – whether terrestrial or celestial – has ever possessed.   

In contrast with the simple doctrinal position summarized above, the doctrine of the “deity of Christ” results in a perplexing (and, I believe, insurmountable) problem for those who affirm it. For if Christ died – and if Christ is also God – then it would mean that God died. But anyone who has even the slightest understanding of who and what God is knows that this can’t be right. God – the uncreated Creator whose years have no end (Psalm 102:27) – cannot, by virtue of his divine nature, die. The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is the “living God.” He is (and always has been) immortal and incorruptible. Paul explicitly affirmed the immortal and incorruptible nature of God elsewhere (Rom. 1:22-23; 1 Tim 1:17; 6:13, 16). Since God has always been (and always will be) inherently and necessarily immortal, this can mean only one of two things concerning Christ: either (1) Christ did not really die, or (2) Christ is not actually God (at least, not in the same absolute, unqualified sense that Jesus’ God and Father is God)Since Christ did die, the second option is clearly the correct one. Christ is not the same uncreated, eternally-existent being as his God and Father. Rather, Christ is the Son of this uncreated, eternally-existent being.

Many Christian apologists think they have a way out of this dilemma. Consider the following excerpt from the website of Christian philosopher William Lane Craig, in which he tackles the question of how Christ could die while at the same time being God (emphasis mine):

“It is helpful to speak of what Christ does or how he is relative to one of his two natures. For example, Christ is omnipotent relative to his divine nature but he is limited in power relative to his human nature. He is omniscient with respect to his divine nature but ignorant of various facts with respect to his human nature. He is immortal with regard to his divine nature, but mortal with regard to his human nature…Christ could not die with respect to his divine nature but he could die with respect to his human nature.[2] 

In Craig’s response, he relies on the orthodox Christian view that Christ has two distinct “natures” – one that is fully human, and another that is fully divine. This philosophical position is thought by Craig to solve the dilemma of how it can be said that Jesus, while being “fully God,” was yet able to die. But this response is entirely inadequate. To see why, all we need to do is understand what, exactly, a “nature” is, and what it means to say that Christ has two of them. Once we clarify this issue, Craig’s argument crumbles. 

So, what exactly does Craig mean he says that Christ has “two natures?” What is a “nature?” Well, a “nature” is simply the essential properties, attributes or qualities that belong to something, and without which it would be something other than what it is. Christian apologist Matt Slick (of the Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry) explains the meaning of the term as follows:

“In philosophy, [nature] can refer to the essence of something. Likewise, theologically, the nature of something is that which makes something what it is. It is the most basic essence of something. We would say that the nature of God is good, holy, just, immutable, etc. If we were to take any one of these properties away from God in describing his nature, he would cease to be what he is. The nature of something deals with the essential properties that make something what it is.” [3]

So according to Slick, the “nature” of something refers to its “essence” - i.e., the essential properties (or “qualities”) that it has, and which make it what it is.[4] According to this understanding of what a “nature” is, what makes a dog a dog (rather than, say, a cat) are the distinctively canine properties, attributes or qualities that it has. A dog’s distinctively canine properties, attributes or qualities make up its canine “nature” or “essence.” So if a dog’s distinctively canine properties were changed to those of a cat, it would cease to be a dog. It would be a cat. Regardless of what one may want to call it, an animal that possesses all the essential properties of a cat simply cannot be a dog. It would be impossible for any animal to possess all of the essential properties of both a cat and a dog, and if there existed an animal that shared an equal percent of some (but not all) of the properties or qualities of both a cat and a dog, the animal would be neither a cat nor a dog, but a different animal entirely. 

Now, to say (as Craig does) that Christ “is immortal with regard to his divine nature” is simply to say that Christ is immortal with regard to his divine properties, attributes or qualities. In other words, it is to say that Christ has the divine property, attribute or quality of immortality (meaning that Christ is immortal rather than mortal). And to say that Christ is “mortal with regard to his human nature” is simply to say that Christ is mortal with regard to his human properties, attributes or qualities. In other words, it is to say that Christ has the human property, attribute or quality of mortality (meaning that Christ is mortal rather than immortal). Thus, after clarifying what is meant by the term “nature,” we discover that what Christian philosophers such as Craig are actually saying (that is, once their words are stripped of all ambiguity) is that Christ was both mortal and immortal - that he both died and didn’t die. But this is nothing more than contradictory nonsense. 

Thus, it turns out that the entire argument is a subterfuge. It’s a contradiction cloaked in the robe of mystery and ambiguous language. While some Christians may believe there to be something “paradoxical” or “mysterious” about the position that Christ was both immortal and mortal at the same time, that he was both omniscient and “ignorant of various facts,” and that he both died and didn’t die, the fact is that these are just contradictions. Claiming that Christ was, before his death, “immortal with regard to his divine nature and mortal with regard to his human nature” is no different than asserting that a single shape is both circular in regard to its circular nature and triangular in regard to its triangular nature. In neither case is one really making a meaningful claim. Upon closer analysis, both claims will be found to involve a contradiction.

Moreover, not only is this contradictory position regarding Christ mistaken, but holding to it makes it difficult – if not impossible  to affirm the essential truths of Paul’s evangel. For if Christ is God  and thus has the divine property or attribute of immortality – then Christ didn't really die. He just appeared to die. In the same way, if Christ is God, then he was not really roused from among the dead, since God (being immortal) has never had any need of being restored to life. But if (as Paul heralded) Christ actually died for our sins, was entombed, and was roused from among the dead by his God and Father, then it follows that Christ wasn’t – and isn’t – God.


Most Christians profess to believe  and may sincerely think they believe  that Christ died on the cross and was raised from the dead three days later. But if you ask them whether they think Jesus Christ was, during the time of his death, just as lifeless as the dead body which lay in the tomb for three days, it will quickly become clear that, contrary to what they think they believe or profess to believe, they do not, in fact, actually believe that Christ truly died. Instead, they believe that it was only Christbody that died and laid in a tomb for three days, while Christ himself – the conscious, self-aware person – was actually introduced into a different form of life. Contrary to the truth of Scripture, most Christians believe (and would likely brand as heretics those who deny) that Christ survived the death of his body, and continued to consciously exist somewhere other than where his body was. But if this is the case, then Christ didnt really die. Only his mortal body died. And what happened three days after the death of his body wasnt the resurrection of the man, Christ Jesus, himself. No, it was merely the restoration of an immortal being to an embodied existence.

Note: For those interested in reading more on this important subject, the following are some articles on my blog in which the doctrine of the “immortality of the soul” is refuted:

And here is a study refuting the doctrine of the Trinity/Deity of Christ: 

One God and Father of All: How the scriptural revelation of the one true God contradicts the doctrine of the Trinity 

[1] ”Eonian life” (which is a more accurate translation of the expression rendered “eternal life” in less literal Bible translations) refers to the gift of life that believers will enjoy during the coming eons, or ages, of Christ’s future reign (a reign which we’re told will be, literally, “for the eons of the eons”). Although eonian life will be an amazing blessing for those chosen by God to enjoy it, it does not refer to anyone’s final, eternal destiny. Those who do not receive eonian life – and who thus remain unsaved for the eons of Christ’s reign – will not be “lost” for “all eternity.” Rather, they’ll simply remain unsaved until they’re saved and reconciled to God at the end of Christ’s reign (when, according to Paul in 1 Cor. 15:22-28, Christ abolishes death, subjects all to himself, and God becomes “All in all”). For more on this subject, see my blog series “Eternal or Eonian?” See also my articles on the use of the expression “forever and ever” (LINK) and the meaning of the Greek term “aion” (LINK).

[4] Consider the following definitions from Merriam-Webster:

“Nature: the inherent character or basic constitution of a person or thing : ESSENCE.”
“Character: a set of qualities that make a place or thing different from other places or things.”
“Essence: the basic nature of a thing : the quality or qualities that make a thing what it is.”

Monday, November 4, 2019

For Him to be Just: A Study on Romans 3:21-26 (Part Two)

God’s righteousness and the passing over of sins

Paul went on to write that the purpose for which God “purposed” Christ as “a Propitiatory shelter” was ”for a display of His righteousness because of the passing over of the penalties of sins which occurred before in the forbearance of God.” Before we consider what Paul was referring to by God’s “righteousness” here (and how Christ’s death displayed or “showed forth” this righteousness), let’s consider why God thought it necessary to “display his righteousness” in the first place. The first reason is provided by Paul in the rest of v. 25: ”…because of the passing over of the penalties of sins which occurred before in the forbearance of God…”

Young’s Literal Translation renders this part of v. 25 as follows: “…because of the passing over of the bygone sins in the forbearance of God…”

The Dabhar translation reads as follows: “…because of the remission of the failures having become before…”

The term that is translated “penalties of sins,” “sins” and “failures” is the Greek noun ἁμαρτημάτων (hamartēmatōn). This term occurs only three more times in the Greek Scriptures ( But which translation is more accurate? Is it better translated “sins” or “failures” (which are virtually synonymous in meaning), or “penalties of sins?” Despite its attempt at a more literal translation of hamartēmatōn, I’m inclined to think the CLNT may actually be less accurate here. Although it’s true that the elements of the word hamartēmatōn are, literally, “UN-MARK-EFFECT,” it is not, I don’t think, the penalties of sins that are in view here. Rather, what I believe Paul had in mind are the sinful actions to which sin leads, and which are the “effect” of sin (by implication, the term hamartēmatōn could also be understood as referring to the sins in which the actions result).

In support of this view, consider Christ’s words in Mark 3:28-29. The CLNT translates Christ’s words in these verses as follows:

“Verily, I am saying to you that all shall be pardoned the sons of mankind, the penalties of the sins (ἁμαρτήματα) and the blasphemies, whatsoever they should be blaspheming, yet whoever should be blaspheming against the holy spirit is having no pardon for the eon, but is liable to the eonian penalty for the sin (ἁμαρτήματος).”

The Dabhar, on the other hand, translates these verses as follows:

“Amen, I say to you: All will be remitted to the sons of men, yea, all the failures (ἁμαρτήματα) and the blasphemies, as it were, as many as they blaspheme, but the one who blasphemes toward the Holy Spirit, as it were, not has he remission till into the eon, but he will be liable of eonian failure (ἁμαρτήματος).”

Understanding the term hamartēmatōn as referring to sins/failures (or perhaps “sinful actions”) seems preferable in light of the fact that the term is coupled with the term translated “blasphemies.” Moreover, in Matthew’s account of Jesus’ words here (see Matt. 12:31-32), the term hamartia (“sin”) is used instead of hamartēmatōn. Thus, given the fact that hamartēmatōn is used elsewhere in Scripture as if it were equivalent in meaning to the term for “sins,” I believe it would be preferable to understand hamartēmatōn in Romans 3:25 to mean either “sins” or “sinful actions” (rather than “penalties of sins”).

In any case, it’s clear from what we read in Mark 3:28-29 that the term hamartēmatōn denotes something that could be “forgiven” or “remitted” by God (and in the case of those who were guilty of “blasphemy against the holy spirit” – which involved attributing Jesus’ power to that of an “unclean spirit” rather than to the holy spirit of God – they will be having no forgiveness or remission “for the eon”). Thus, we can understand the term hamartēmatōn in Rom. 3:25 as also referring to that which could be forgiven, or remitted, by God (whether it be understood as referring to “sins” or “penalties of sins”).

Let’s now consider the words, because of the passing over of the penalties of sins which occurred before in the forbearance of God” (or, “because of the passing over of the bygone sins in the forbearance of God.”). Concerning the term translated “passing over,” A.T. Robertson remarked as follows: “Late word from pariēmi, to let go, to relax. In Dionysius Hal., Xenophon, papyri (Deissmann, Bible Studies, p. 266) for remission of punishment, especially for debt, as distinct from aphesis (remission).” Similarly, Albert Barnes commented, “The word used here πάρεσιν paresinoccurs nowhere else in the New Testament, nor in the Septuagint. It means “passing by,” as not noticing, and hence, forgiving.”

Understood as a reference to forgiveness, God’s “passing over” sins refers to his mercifully setting aside the penalty of which those who’d committed the sins had become deserving. I think it’s also significant that, in the Hebrew Scriptures, the forgiveness of sins is depicted as a “propitiatory shelter” being made “over” those whose sins were forgiven by God (see, for example, Lev. 4:20, 26 in the CVOT). With this shelter “covering” them, God consequently “passed over” their sins, so that they would not have to suffer the penalty that would’ve otherwise followed. In view of these considerations, I think it’s reasonable to conclude that the ”passing over of the bygone sins in the forbearance of God” refers to the fact that, for centuries, God had been doing what we find affirmed by David in Psalm 103:10: ”He does not deal with us according to our sins or requite us according to our iniquities.”

God’s forgiveness of David’s sins is a good example of what I believe Paul had in view in Rom. 3:25. In 2 Samuel 12 we read that David was confronted by the prophet Nathan for committing adultery with Bathsheba and then having her husband killed. In 2 Sam. 12:9-10 we read that Nathan rebuked David for having “despised the word of the Lord.” What’s more, it’s evident that God considered David as having despised him by his sin (hence God’s rhetorical question, “Why have you despised me?”). Although it wasn’t his conscious intention to despise God when he sinned, David nevertheless treated God with contempt by sinning. His sin communicated the false idea that God was not deserving of faithful obedience. After acknowledging his sin against God (v. 13), Nathan responded, “The Lord also has put away your sin; you shall not die.” In other words, God “passed over” David’s sins, despite the fact that – according to God – David had “despised” God by his sins, and was deserving of death.

How Christ’s death displayed God’s righteousness

That which Paul referred to as “[God’s] righteousness” in Romans 3:25-26 – and which was “displayed” or “shown forth” by Christ’s death – is, I believe, God’s own righteous status or character (which I believe is evident from the expression “for Him to be just” in v. 26). This righteousness of God was referred to earlier, in Rom. 3:3-8:

For what if some disbelieve? Will not their unbelief nullify the faithfulness of God? May it not be coming to that! Now let God be true, yet every man a liar, even as it is written: “That so Thou shouldst be justified in Thy sayings, And shalt be conquering when Thou art being judged.” Now if our injustice is commending God's righteousness, what shall we declare? Not that God Who is bringing on indignation is unjust! (As a man am I saying it.) May it not be coming to that! Else how shall God be judging the world? Yet if the truth of God superabounds in my lie, for His glory, why am I also still being judged as a sinner, and why not say, according as we are calumniated and according as some are averring that we are saying, that "We should be doing evil that good may be coming"? -- whose judgment is fair.

The unbelief of “some” Jews (which was actually the majority of Israelites in Paul’s day, and remains so today) cannot make God’s faithfulness of no effect. As Paul went on to argue in greater depth in chapters 9-11 of this letter, God will, in fact, fulfill his promises to the believers among his covenant people. However, God will also bring his threatened indignation upon the unbelievers among them (and it is this second point that Paul is emphasizing in this passage). Paul quotes Psalm 51:4 to support his claim that God is not unfaithful even if some Jews are unbelieving. David himself affirmed the fact that God had the right to judge him because of his sins. David did not, in other words, attempt to take refuge in his status as a member of God’s covenant people (as if his covenant status alone made him exempt from God’s righteous judgment).

Notice how Paul considered God’s righteousness as something inseparably tied to God’s “bringing on indignation” and “judging the world” for unbelief and unrighteousness (or “injustice”). It is this divine act of “bringing on indignation” and “judging the world” (in response to the world’s unbelief/injustice) which, according to Paul, is “commending God’s righteousness,” and which is “for [God’s] glory.” In other words, God’s righteousness is displayed through his judgment of, and bringing indignation upon, sinners (cf. Rom. 1:18ff.). By giving God the opportunity to display his righteousness through the judgment of sinners, the injustice of unbelieving Jews serves to commend, or magnify, God’s righteousness.

In light of this fact, Paul anticipates the following objection from someone opposed to what he’s saying concerning God’s righteous judgment of unbelieving Israelites: If God condemns people for the very thing that commends his righteousness (and thus glorifies him), wouldn’t this make God unrighteous for condemning those who are unrighteous (for God’s being glorified is, of course, a good thing)? But of course, God is not unrighteous for bringing indignation on the unrighteous. For – as those whom Paul is representing as bringing this objection would’ve agreed – God is going to judge the world (i.e., the Gentile inhabitants of the earth). But God couldn’t judge the world if the objection to which Paul was responding had any merit (which, again, is that God couldn’t justly condemn people if their condemnation commended his righteousness, and thus brought him glory). Thus, on the basis of the fact that God is going to be judging the world (and will be righteous in doing so), the objection to which Paul was responding fails.

Now, we know that God is absolutely responsible for everything that occurs in his universe. It is for this reason that Paul described God as “the one who is operating all in accord with the counsel of his will” (Eph. 1:11). The “all” that God is operating in accord with the counsel of his will necessarily includes the committing of sin by his creatures (which necessarily includes the very first sin that ever occurred). Rather than passively allowing his creatures to sin, God himself is actively bringing about the circumstances that necessarily result in people sinning (whether those sinning are human or celestial beings). In light of the fact that God is, absolutely speaking, the reason why sin occurs, some may wonder why God can’t “just forgive sins,” or why God couldn’t have “just saved us” apart from Christ’s having had to die. Why did God need Christ to die for our sins if our sins are a necessary part of God’s “purpose of the eon?”

The fact that sin is necessary to God’s plan (and that it would not exist if God didn’t intend for it to exist) does not mean that God doesn’t take sin seriously, or that God delights in, and is directly pleased by, its occurrence. Nothing could be further from the truth. As is evident from God’s rebuke of David, God takes sin very seriously. In fact, God takes sin so seriously (and so utterly disapproves of it) that he considers sinners to be justly deserving of death. This is not only implied by what we read in 2 Sam. 12:8-10 (where it’s implied that David would’ve died had God not chosen to mercifully “pass over” his sin), but it’s explicit affirmed by Paul in Romans 1:32 (where we read of the “just statute of God” that those committing sin are “deserving of death”).

But what makes the “just statute” referred to by Paul a “just statute?” It is evident that God – as the Supreme Being and the uncreated Creator of all that exists – is deserving of faithful obedience from all of his intelligent creatures. It is, I believe, for this reason that the “foremost precept” is, ”You shall be loving the Lord God out of your whole heart, and out of your whole soul, and out of your whole comprehension, and out of your whole strength.” Obedience to this greatest of precepts, then, is what every intelligent being owes God, and is what we fail to give God whenever we sin.

Some may be uncomfortable with the idea of God’s creatures “owing” God anything (even if it’s love). However, in Rom. 13:8-10 we read that Paul considered love to be that which we “owe” our associate (or “neighbor”). If, in accord with the precept, “You shall be loving your associate as yourself,” we can be said to “owe” love to our associate, how much more do we owe love to God? For, according to Christ, the “foremost precept” of the law is, “You shall be loving the Lord your God out of your whole heart, and out of your whole soul, and out of your whole comprehension, and out of your whole strength” (Mark 12:30). It is for this reason that I believe Christ understood sin to be a “debt” (or something very much like a debt). In Matthew 6:12 we read that Christ taught his disciples to pray, “And remit to us our debts, as we also remit those of our debtors. In Luke’s account, we read, “And pardon us our sins, for we ourselves also are pardoning everyone who is owing us (Luke 11:4; cf. Matt. 18:21-35).

A popular belief among Protestant and “evangelical” Christians is that the “debt” that sinners owe God is punishment. However, since sin involves a failure to give to God the obedience he deserves, it would be more accurate to understand the debt we owe God as being the obedience that we fail to give him whenever we sin. The penalty for sin (i.e., death) is simply the just consequence of our debt; it is not itself the debt. And the obedience that we owe God is a debt that we cannot pay. No subsequent obedience that we give to God can make up for the obedience that we failed to give him. This “debt” of obedience can only be forgiven. Thus, when God forgives sins and justifies sinners, it necessarily involves his mercifully forgiving the “debt” we owe him, and thus setting aside the just penalty that he himself considers all sinners to be justly deserving of (in accord with his “just statute”). But the very fact that this statute is “just” raises the following question: How can it be just (or righteous) of God to forgive sins and justify sinners when this necessarily involves the setting aside of a penalty that is in accord with what God considers to be a “just statute?”

If it’s righteous of God to condemn sinners (and it is) – and sinners justly deserve to die (and they do) – how can God’s decision to extend mercy to sinners and bestow grace upon them (by forgiving their sins and justifying them) be consistent with his righteousness? It is this problem – the apparent unrighteousness of God’s decision to forgive sins and justify sinners (rather than dealing with them in accord with his “just statute”) – that required a “showing forth” or “display” of God’s righteousness through the death of Christ. Concerning this important point, Martin Zender remarked as follows in his commentary on Romans 3:24-26:

“We rarely think about God’s righteousness or His reputation. It’s usually all about us. We want to make sure that we are justified, that God loves us, and that we will be with Him forever. There comes a time, however, when a spiritually mature person will ask: “What is in this for God? What does the cross of Christ do for His reputation? Does He come out smelling like lilies of the field? What are people going to think of Him after all this?”

In the current era, not too many people think highly of God. They either hate Him and don’t believe in Him (worldly people), or they so miscalculate His purpose and character (speaking now of religious people) that they perform moralistic feats (such as going to church or refusing to smoke cigars), hoping to avoid hell.

In Romans 3:26, Paul tells us that the deliverance from sin and death won by Jesus Christ on the cross was a display of God’s righteousness in the current era. This is one of the secrets of the cross of Christ, that the cross was a display of God’s righteousness. Hardly anyone sees it as that.”

Again, the deserved death of sinners is in accord with (and a reflection of) the fact that God is deserving of obedience from all of his intelligent creatures. It is because sin results in God’s failing to receive what he, as God, deserves that sinners are justly deserving of death. Moreover, we know that God can’t lie and is necessarily committed to the truth. Thus, we can understand God’s need for Christ’s death for our sins as simply reflecting his uncompromising commitment to the unchanging truth of his infinite worth (which is what makes him worthy of perfect, faithful obedience - as well as continuous praise - from his creatures). If God were to forgive sins and justify sinners apart from, and without regard for, Christ’s sacrificial death on our behalf, then God would be acting contrary to the truth of who and what he is. God would, in other words, be acting contrary to the truth of his own infinite worth as God. And God can no more act contrary to what is true than he can act contrary to his own nature. However, because of Christ’s death, God is able to be merciful and gracious toward sinners without compromising his righteousness. But how can this be? How did Christ’s death justify God’s decision to extend mercy and grace to sinners (by forgiving their sins and justifying them), and thus reconcile God’s mercy and grace with his righteousness? How is it that, in the words of A.E. Knoch, Christ’s blood “settles for sins, past present and future,” and “vindicates God’s justice and makes it possible for Him to be the Justifier of all who are of the faith of Jesus”?

Among the views that can actually be said to be attempts to explain how Christ’s death justifies God’s decision to be merciful toward sinners, one of the most common among Protestant Christians involves the idea that, when Christ died, he was paying the penalty for our sins. For example, in the booklet “The Outcome of Infinite Grace,” Loyal Hurley (who, I must add, was a believer) affirmed this view when he wrote, “Jesus is the Savior because He bore the just penalty for sin…Paul insists that God dealt fully and righteously with human sin in all its aspects. Accordingly, whatever debt, or price, or judgment or penalty should have been met (call it by any word you choose), He exacted in full from His own Beloved Son” (p. 12). Similarly, we read the following from Joseph E. Kirk on page 63 of the same booklet: “In the death of Christ on the cross, we see God dealing righteously with sin. What a dreadful thing sin is to call forth such a severe penalty! What great sinners we are that we should justly deserve all that Jesus Christ endured!” Kirk went on to write, “Whatever the penalty of sin is, Jesus Christ endured it to the full in order to become our Saviour.”

In contrast with the view expressed by these two fellow members of the body of Christ, I don’t believe Christ’s death involved his suffering the penalty of sin. But if Christ didn’t “pay the penalty” for sin when he died, then what, exactly, occurred when he died that made it possible for God to be merciful to sinners while remaining righteous? As these believers would’ve whole-heartedly agreed (Kirk even makes this very point in the context from which I quoted him), Christ committed no sin whatsoever during his life on earth, and was completely innocent when he died. Not only did Christ not deserve to die, but his death was an act of self-sacrifice to God. Rather than being a passive victim, Christ’s death was a voluntary act of perfect obedience to God. In John 10:17-18, Christ declared,

Therefore the Father is loving Me, seeing that I am laying down My soul that I may be getting it again. No one is taking it away from Me, but I am laying it down of Myself. I have the right to lay it down, and I have the right to get it again. This precept I got from My Father.

Everything that occurred to Christ during this time (as well as prior to it) involved his obedience to God’s will. This included the time from his betrayal and arrest in Gethsemane to the moment he committed his spirit to God and breathed his last on the cross. Everything that Christ allowed to happen to him during this dark time fulfilled prophecy and was done in humble obedience to God. Christ had to die in the exact way and in the exact circumstances he did in order to remain obedient to God, as well as to fulfill all that was written concerning him. Consider Christ’s tearful and heartfelt yielding to God’s will while praying in Gethsemane (which cannot be understood as anything other than a voluntary act of obedience to God, apart from which the prophecies concerning him would not have been fulfilled):

Then Jesus is coming with them into the freehold termed Gethsemane, and He is saying to His disciples, “Be seated, till I come away and should be praying there.” And taking along Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, He begins to be sorrowful and depressed. Then He is saying to them, “Sorrow-stricken is My soul to death. Remain here and watch with Me…” And coming forward a little, He falls on His face, praying and saying, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass by from Me. However, not as I will, but as Thou!” Again, coming away a second time, He prays, saying, “My Father, if this cannot pass by from Me if I should not drink it, let Thy will be done!” And, coming again, He found them drowsing, for their eyes were heavy. And, leaving them, again coming away, He prays a third time, saying the same word (Matthew 26:36-44).

In Luke’s account Christ explicitly acknowledged that what he was about to do would fulfill prophecy (Luke 22:37), which means that Christ was very much aware of the fact that his actions were completely necessary for the fulfilling of prophecy (and apart from which prophecy wouldn’t have been fulfilled). We’re also told in this same account that, while praying to God to let the “cup” pass by from him, our Lord came “to be in a struggle,” and that “His sweat became as if clots of blood descending on the earth” (:44). Evidently, Christ’s struggle involved the decision to exercise his God-given right to “lay down His soul” and thus be “obedient unto death, even the death of the cross” (Philippians 2:8), rather than avoiding the cross (which, in Matt. 26:52-54, Christ acknowledged he had the authority to do).

Keeping in mind the fact that Christ’s death was an act of perfect, faithful obedience to God, how did his death vindicate God’s justice and make it possible for God to justly show mercy and grace to sinners? Simply put, when Christ died on the cross in faithful obedience to God, he gave to God a gift of obedience that is of greater worth and value than the obedience that every sinner owes God (the fact that God considered Christ’s obedience unto death to be of greater value than the obedience of any other created being - including the ongoing, perpetual obedience of holy celestial beings such as Gabriel or Michael - is evident from the fact that, following his death, Christ was exalted by God far above all terrestrial and celestial beings). Understood in this way, it wasn’t a debt of punishment that Christ “paid” to God when he died. Rather, it was a “debt of obedience” that Christ “paid” to God when he was “obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.” And because Christ, by his sacrificial death, gave to God a gift of obedience that is far greater in value than the obedience that we fail to give God when we sin, God is able to justly set aside the penalty of which our sins make us deserving.

This understanding of how Christ’s death made it possible for God to forgive sins and justify sinners finds support from Israel’s divinely-instituted sacrificial system. According to this system, Israelites had to offer sacrifices to God – via a representative priesthood – in order to receive the forgiveness of certain sins. It was in response to their offering to God something that was of (relatively) great value – i.e., an unblemished animal (the blood of which was considered precious to God, the Creator of the animal) – that God mercifully forgave the sins of those for whom the animal was offered. The people of Israel were, essentially, giving something valuable/precious to God in order to eliminate the “debt” they’d incurred by their sins (and it should be noted that the idea of giving to God something of value was present even when the sacrifices were made as an expression of thanksgiving to God, rather than as compensation for sins/guilt).

In addition to referring to Christ’s death using words and imagery derived from the sin offering (Rom. 3:24-25; 8:3; Eph. 5:1-2), Paul explicitly stated that Christ was made a sin offering for our sakes. In 2 Corinthians 5:21, we read, “For the One not knowing sin, [God] makes to be a sin offering for our sakes that we may be becoming God’s righteousness in Him.” Instead of “sin offering,” many translations have, “sin.” However, even if the Greek word hamartia is translated “sin” here, Paul cannot be understood to mean that Christ literally became sin for our sakes. There is simply no meaningful sense in which this could literally be true. Nor can these words be understood to mean that Christ became a sinner (or sinful) for our sakes. As already noted, Christ never sinned during his lifetime, and remained sinless when he died on the cross (which was itself an act of ultimate obedience to God). On the other hand, translating “sin” as “sin offering” in this verse not only makes good sense, but it is consistent with the usage of the word sin in the Greek Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Scriptures (where it is frequently used to mean “sin offering”), as well as with what is said elsewhere in the Greek Scriptures concerning the nature of Christ’s sacrifice (e.g., Heb. 7:27; 10:12).[1] And insofar as a sin offering is a sacrifice offered to God that has, as its intended purpose, the elimination of the sins for which the sacrifice is offered (i.e., it results in God’s ceasing to reckon the sins of those for whom the sacrifice is offered against them), it follows that the sins of everyone for whose sake Christ died as a sin offering shall be eliminated, and all sinners shall ultimately be reconciled to God.

I’ll close this study with the following from A.E. Knoch:

God is jealous lest you think He is not just. “But I thought that when He saves anyone He overlooks his sins.” Not at all. If that were true Christ need not have died. The blood of Christ is a continual reminder of the fact that God must do right even if He is Love. Did you ever think that Christ's death, first of all, was for God, and to display Him to us? Not that God needed to be made just, but He needed to be justified in the eyes of His creatures, and this means everything to Him. Before Christ's death He passed by sin. He tolerated it for the time being; but one of the main benefits of Christ's sacrifice was the vindication of His merciful acts of old. But how much more, then, shall it vindicate His grace now! For Christ has died, He has risen, God is just, even when He justifies all who are of Jesus' faith.

[1] Concerning his preference for the translation “sin-offering” (rather than “sin”) in this verse, Adam Clarke remarked as following in his commentary: “[The Greek word translated ‘sin’ in the KJV] answers to the chattaah and chattath of the Hebrew text; which signifies both sin and sin-offering in a great variety of places in the Pentateuch. The Septuagint translates the Hebrew word by ἁμαρτια in ninety-four places in Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers, where a sin-offering is meant; and where our version translates the word not sin, but an offering for sin.” Clarke went on to reference more than one hundred verses from the Septuagint in which the Greek word for “sin” (hamartia) is used to denote a sin-offering.