Was the Crucifixion Retroactive?
The crucifixion of a human being in the ancient world entailed suffering on the most extreme level possible. The pages of history thoroughly document this brutal and bloody form of capital punishment. Plenty of historical information is available regarding this pure savagery in detail. This practice of antiquity began with the Assyrians and Babylonians and was also practiced systematically by the Persians in the sixth century B.C. Grecia adopted the practice when Alexander the Great invaded Persia during his quest for total domination of nations. He brought it to the eastern Mediterranean countries in the fourth century B.C. The Roman military implemented the first widespread use of crucifixion during the first century A.D. to punish insubordinate soldiers and enemy combatants. The practice became increasingly prevalent under the reign of Emperor Augustus Caesar, who used crucifixion to punish criminals and political nonconformists.
The torture rack was responsible for the physical destruction of countless lives. It is impossible to estimate how many thousands of people died this way, but none is more identifiable than the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Some view His death as a historical fact, while others cherish it as a solemn sacrifice that became the means to a personal relationship with God. This belief introduces questions concerning the extent to which the crucifixion of Christ was effective. Did His death profit only those who lived after His crucifixion, or did people predating Christ also benefit?
Romans 3:23-26 provides essential insight regarding the scope of the sacrifice Jesus made by saying, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed, to demonstrate at present His righteousness, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” Christ’s sacrifice is unquestionably needed for every person of accountable age and mind who has lived on the Earth.
Understanding the effectiveness of Christ’s sacrifice requires drawing insight from the Old Testament. According to the Law of Moses, those subject to that legal structure performed explicitly prescribed sacrifices as acts of atonement. Through revelation and obedience, the worshippers understood that God absolved them of their sin and guilt. Leviticus chapters 4 and 5 make the statement “he will be forgiven” on some eight occasions. The psalmist summarized the proper spiritual attitude of the faithful and obedient Israelite: “For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is His mercy toward those who fear Him; As far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us” (Psalm 103:11-12).
Although forgiveness is not a predominant theme in the patriarchal age, which is the period between Adam and Moses, it is implied. This accomplishment came through the sacrifices of blood regularly presented during that opening era of human history (cf. Genesis 8:20; 12:7-8). Abel offered a more excellent sacrifice which “had witness borne to him that he was righteous” (Hebrews 11:4). Certainly, this was not personal righteousness but uprightness imputed through his obedient faith. Job presented burnt offerings for his children should they have sinned (Job 1:5). Forgiveness was required even in the conflicts among men (Genesis 50:17), which suggests that pardon is necessary if one was to stand before the holy God (cf. Habakuk 1:13).
The Bible greatly expanded on the concept of forgiveness under the Mosaic administration. The Book of Leviticus elaborated on specific aspects of sacrifice, requiring applicable knowledge. God articulated the theme of atonement, propitiation, and forgiveness recurrently through the balance of the Old Testament.
The chronology of God producing forgiveness requires learning additional information from the New Testament. While the Lord offered forgiveness of sin under the former covenant, the New Testament explains that the blood of Christ, in a procedural sense, was essential for pardon to happen. This introduces the primary question of how forgiveness could occur before the death of Jesus on the Roman cross. The answer is found only in an understanding of the nature of God.
Revelation 13:8 makes a statement that is incomprehensible to the natural mind. It declares Jesus as “the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world.” This statement reveals that God planned the means of humanity’s salvation before the creation of Earth. This fact coincides with the recognition of God in Scripture as infinite and eternal. This means He is not affected by time. Moreover, God created time and, by His nature, exists outside of time. He could appraise individuals preceding the cross as justified if they demonstrated “obedient faith” (Romans 1:5; 16:26). The manifestation of saving faith is the common feature for all people throughout human history concerning the qualification to salvation. Those who displayed that specific type of faith were considered by God as reconciled to Him based on the blood of His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. This justification occurred chronologically before the cross, but Jesus still had to accomplish the ultimate work of redemption.
If the redemption of those living under the law of Moses had been achieved before the Savior’s death in the total sense of the term, why was the death of Jesus even necessary? Many Bible readers consider the Scriptures to struggle with this consistently. Specific biblical texts indicate forgiveness before Christ’s death, while another set suggests there was no pardon until after the Lord’s death. It is reasonable to ask if there is a contradiction. Which answer represents the truth?
In logic, there exists a principle known as the law of non-contradiction. It says this: A thing cannot both be, and not be, for the same person, place, or thing, at the same time, or in the same sense. The last phrase is crucial to understanding this principle. There can be forgiveness and not-forgiveness so long as the senses differ. The question is then left: in what way are the senses different?
Without the historical incarnation and eventual death of the Son of God, there could have been no forgiveness obtained for sinful people. Romans 6:23 teaches that the paycheck for sin is death. The shedding of blood was therefore required for pardon from sin (Hebrew 9:22). Evidently, the blood of animals could only function symbolically but was insufficient to provide actual atonement for sin (Hebrews 10:4). The millions of animal sacrifices under the former testament were pictorial representations of the “Lamb of God” who was to come and provide an eternally successful sacrificial offering for humanity (John 1:29). Had Jesus not ultimately died at the cross of Calvary, those previous offerings would have been useless.
The two different senses can be summarized this way. In the Old Testament, forgiveness was contingently received based on the future death of Jesus. It granted a portion of atonement and remission for sins but could not provide eternal redemption. In the New Testament, the cross accomplished whole forgiveness.