Was Adam immortal on earth before the Fall? After death, in light of the sacrifice?

Q. I have a couple of questions to ask, if I may. (1) If, pre-Fall, Adam had say fallen from a tree he was climbing, would he have bounced, or might he have been killed or badly injured? After all, gravity and the earth’s hardness then were presumably as now. (2) Does Genesis 3 (in the original Hebrew) in any way indicate that post-mortem eternal life is being offered to Adam and Eve through the institution of sacrifice to cover sins? Thank you for any light on this.

(1) In response to you first question, let me refer you to a post on one of my other blogs in which I take up the very thing that you are wondering about: “Do we suppose that if Adam, when innocent, had fallen forty feet out of tree and broken his neck, he would not have died?” This is the post:

44 Was there death before the fall of humanity? (Part 1)

However, I would caution you, and ask you to respect the fact, that as you can see, not only is this post the first half of a two-part discussion, both parts will also only make sense within the context of this entire blog, Paradigms on Pilgrimage: Creationism, Paleontology, and Biblical Interpretation, of which they are posts 44 and 45 of a total of 53. So you may also wish to read the introduction to the blog, at least, which will explain the background to the entire blog and help you see where I’m coming from as I offer the observations in this post.

(2) In response to your second question, I can assure you that there is nothing latent in the original Hebrew that does not come out in the typical English translation of the account of the fall in Genesis. The statements that might point to a substitutionary sacrificial atonement are straightforward in Hebrew, and they come out that way in English. Perhaps most relevantly, “The Lord God made garments of skins for the man and his wife and clothed them,” and then also, spoken to the serpent, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he will bruise your head, and you will bruise his heel.”

The first statement indicates only by implication that animals at least died, and more likely were sacrificed, to provide the “garments of skins” with which God “clothed” the man and woman. I would personally say that we can only appreciate the implications of this action by situating it in light of the Scriptures as a whole, where we learn about the function of animal sacrifices in God’s redemptive purposes and the notion of “clothing” someone, giving them garments or new garments, as a metaphor for salvation. (For example, “I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my soul shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness.”)

Similarly it is only in the context of the Scriptures as a whole that we can appreciate the meaning of the statement “he will bruise your head,” that is, the seed of the woman will bruise the head of the serpent. If Keith Green could sing in his song “The Victor,” “See Him bruise the serpent’s head,
the prisoners of hell he’s redeeming, all the power of death is dead,” this is only because centuries of Scriptural development, interpretation, and understanding have enabled us to connect this promise with the work of Christ on the cross.

Nevertheless, I would commend you for wanting to go deeper into the biblical text to get the answer to your questions. In this case, it is just a matter of going broader rather than deeper, of catching the sweep of the whole story of Scripture, rather than understanding a specific Hebrew expression. So … read on!

How can heaven be perfect if my loved ones aren’t there?

Q. I keep worrying that I committed the unpardonable sin of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit because one time I was mad and said that I didn’t want to go to heaven if my family wasn’t there. I didn’t really mean it. Of course I want salvation and to go to heaven. Is this the unpardonable sin? Also how do I reconcile the fact that heaven is supposed to be perfect if my loved ones who aren’t saved won’t be there?

Thank you for your thoughtful questions. Regarding your first one, I would invite you to read this post:

Have I committed the unpardonable sin?

The bottom line in that post is basically that if you are concerned that you have committed the unpardonable sin, you haven’t, because you are still under conviction of sin and thus under the recognizable influence of the Holy Spirit. That means you are not beyond salvation. If you actually had committed the unpardonable sin, you would be indifferent to the Spirit’s influence, and so you wouldn’t be concerned about whether you had committed it.

Regarding your second question, I would say first, on the authority of the word of God, that God is “not willing for anyone to perish, but wants everyone to come to repentance.” So if anyone is not in heaven, that will not be because God did not want them there. Rather, it will be because God gave them a choice and is respecting their choice.

I firmly believe that God will not keep anyone out of heaven simply because they didn’t get the chance to make a choice, or because they didn’t understand the kind of choice they needed to make. Please see this post for some further thoughts about that:

Will there be anyone in hell who doesn’t want to be there?

But in that post I also describe the kind of attitude a person might take that would lead them to consciously and deliberately choose their own way rather than God’s way, even if that meant not being in heaven (since heaven, by definition, is the place where God’s will is done joyfully and without resistance).

In other words, there actually are people who will want to be in hell if that means they can maintain self-determination rather than obeying God.  They will take the same attitude as Satan in Milton’s Paradise Lost, “Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven.”  To give another example, in James Joyce’s novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, the main character, Stephen Dedalus, after explaining that he has “lost the faith,” continues:

“I will not serve that in which I no longer believe, whether it call itself my home, my fatherland, or my church: and I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using for my defense the only arms I allow myself to use — silence, exile, and cunning.  … I am not afraid to make a mistake, even a great mistake, a lifelong mistake, and perhaps as long as eternity too.”

William Ernest Henley wrote similarly at the end of his poem Invictus, using biblical imagery to show that he was referring to a choice of hell as a way of maintaining self-determination:

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

So there are some people who will chose self-determination above God’s gracious offer of salvation, because they want to run their own lives, no matter where that leads. (These are all examples from literature, but they capture an attitude that can be found in life as well.) And because God has given human beings genuine freedom to choose for or against him—which is the only basis on which we can truly love him—God will respect those choices.

But I hope and pray that those people do not include your family members. I hope that instead your concern for them—which certainly reflects God’s concern for them—will lead you to pray for them and demonstrate your faith to them in loving ways, and that those influences, among others, will one day lead them to choose to love and serve God as you have.

Once saved, always saved?

Q. About salvation, I have always believed, “once saved, always saved.” In other words, we cannot lose our salvation. What do you think about this?

This question is generally considered to be one about which Christians of good will, with equal commitments to the inspiration and authority of the Scriptures, can legitimately differ. However, individual churches and denominations may consider the issue important enough to their doctrine and practice to say that only one thing may be taught about it under their auspices, and that seems reasonable to me.

As for me personally, let me say that this is an issue that we often feel most strongly in the context of experience. We know someone who seems to make a heartfelt commitment to follow Jesus, but then at some point down the road they seem to abandon that commitment. What happened? Did they lose their salvation?

I would observe, based on the teachings of Jesus, that there are two further possibilities, two alternatives to that. The person may still be in fellowship with the Lord, just not living that out in a way that allows anyone to recognize it. Or, they may never really have made a commitment in the first place.

Consider, for example, the parable of the sower. Jesus talks about four kinds of soil that seed may fall into. Jesus explains that “the seed is the word of God,” so these soils represent four different responses that a person can make to the gospel message.

One response is for a person not to receive it because their heart is not open to it. That is like the hard-packed soil on the path. A person who responds that way is not saved, and they never appear to be saved.

The opposite response, corresponding to the “good soil,” is to hear the word with “a noble and good heart,” to “retain it, and by persevering produce a crop.” A person who responds that way is saved, and they appear to be, right from the start and all along.

But the responses represented by the other two kinds of soil correspond to people who appear to be saved but who then seem to lose their salvation. Jesus also speaks of people whom he compares to shallow soil, who “hear the word and at once receive it with joy,” but who “quickly fall away when trouble or persecution comes.” Jesus says that they do this “because they have no root.” I take this to mean that these people were not really saved, although they appeared to be.

The fourth kind of soil, the thorny soil, represents those who “hear the word, but the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth, and the desires for other things come in and choke the word, making it unfruitful.” I take this to mean that these people really are saved, but after a point this is no longer evident, because other things are taking precedence.

So, without saying that the belief that a person can lose their salvation is an unbiblical idea, I would want to say that there are these two other alternatives. A person might have appeared to be saved, but they actually were not, or a person might appear no longer to be saved, but they actually are. But whether these two alternatives account for all situations where a person appears to lose their salvation is, as I said at the beginning, a matter on which Christians of good will can legitimately differ.

What does it mean to “love God for his own sake”?

Q. I recently watched a video on hell where a Christian philosopher asks “Why are [people] being good?” Then he goes on to say that people who preach about hell and incite fear in people are not creating a heart that will love God. He calls this “being good for your own sake.” I know the Bible says, “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.” Yet, Jesus warns in Revelation that the church in Ephesus needs to “Consider how far you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place.” Jesus is using fear as a motivator here.

I do not see how you can love God for His own sake and not your own. You have to be thankful for something He does for you. What is genuinely best for you is to serve and love other people. Yet it is still all for your own sake because when you do something for another’s sake, you decide that sacrificing something “for their sake” is actually what is best for your sake! So we always should seek to do what is best for us, yet many people, like the aforementioned philosopher, view external motivators as impure. In light of this, what does it mean to be selfish from a biblical point of view? And, what on earth does it mean to love God “for His own sake?”

Actually, I understand what this philosopher is saying. Perhaps a helpful analogy might be to ask why we love our parents or our spouses. Is it only for what we get from them? Or is there something noble and excellent that we recognize in them that makes us love them independently of anything they might do for us? (With Valentine’s Day coming up, let me warn all of my readers: Don’t give that special someone in your life a card that says, “I love you because of everything I get from you”!)

I wrote my doctoral dissertation on Jonathan Edwards, and in his work on The Nature of True Virtue, he defined it as a “disinterested general benevolence” that does “not properly arise from self-love.” Disinterested means without being in it for what we can get out of it ourselves, and benevolence means acting in goodness in the best interests of others. I think the philosopher on the video you saw was arguing in this same tradition.

I don’t believe that Jesus actually is using fear as a motivator when in Revelation he warns the church in Ephesus that if it doesn’t recapture its first love, he will have to take away its lampstand (that is, its very existence). Letting someone know the consequences of the course they’re on is indeed a vital warning, but it’s not designed to motivate them by fear. That would not be a lasting motivation; emotions always wear off. Rather, the person is supposed to be motivated by recognizing the difference between where they are heading and where they could and should be heading. The difference may represent a loss to themselves, but it is also a loss to others, and ultimately it is a failure to be a good steward of all the gifts and opportunities that God has so richly provided us so that we can fulfill our purpose. In that sense it is a failure to love God.

As for what it means to “love God for his own sake,” in his Treatiste Concering Religious Affections, Jonathan Edwards wrote, “The first objective ground of gracious affections [i.e. those that arise from the saving work of God in our lives], is the transcendently excellent and amiable nature of divine things as they are themselves; and not any conceived relation they bear to self, or self-interest.” In other words, just as I suggested that we should be able to recognize something noble about our parents or spouses that would lead us to love them apart from anything we might receive from them, in an even greater sense, we should recognize that God is “transcendently excellent and amiable” [i.e. to be loved], and love God for that inherent excellence.

If these ideas are all new to you, and you’re puzzling over them, I would simply say that you have some great discoveries ahead of you. God did not create the world to be a place where everyone was inherently motivated by self-interest. Instead, it’s supposed to be a place where free giving out of love can flourish, creating more of itself until people delight to be a blessing to others far more than they desire to have things for themselves. So I guess I’d say … keep in listening to videos by that same philosopher!

Are people dropping out of church because they were never saved?

Q. Why are so many people, even settled adults, dropping out of church? I recall a passage from 1 John which implies that those who remained are part of those who are saved, but those who depart were never really part of the kingdom. What is your take on this issue?

An excellent principle of biblical interpretation is that we first need to understand what a Scriptural passage was saying to “them then” before we can appreciate what it means to “us now.” (This principle is articulated in the book How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart.)

I believe this is the passage you are referring to in 1 John: “They went out from us, but they did not really belong to us. For if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us; but their going showed that none of them belonged to us.”

When we investigate the meaning of this statement in light of the original context of 1 John—its historical setting and the reason why it was written—we discover that those who “went out” are people who left the Christian community that John was addressing because they chose to follow a false teaching: that Jesus hadn’t come to earth in a real human body. This teaching arose under the influence of the Greek idea that matter is evil and only spirit is good. The implications were that people could live in any way they wanted, since what happened in the body wasn’t important, and that there was no need to help others who lacked practical things such as food, clothing, and shelter, since those things only affected their bodies.

So what John says in this letter is that the Christians who have remained in the community, who have continued to have faith that Jesus became a real human being in order to become our Savior, shouldn’t be disturbed or shaken by the departure of many former members. Their immoral lives, lack of compassion, and denial of Christ show that they are indeed following a false teaching, and suggest that they may never have been saved in the first place.

To me this seems to be a very different case from people in Western countries (the church is actually growing vigorously in other parts of the world) not staying in church once they become adults, or never choosing  to attend church in the first place. The Pew Research Center has been tracking church attendance in the U.S. for decades, and it has found that attendance has been dropping steadily with each generation. I don’t think this is due to large numbers of younger Americans leaving the church to follow false teachings. Rather, I think it reflects the cultural shift from modernity to post-modernity and the fact that the church (which tends to change its own culture more slowly) has been scrambling to catch up with that shift. I think the church needs to find a way to “speak the language” of younger generations and to express how the gospel of Jesus Christ is good news for them.

I must add that I know many younger Americans who are strong and vibrant followers of Jesus Christ. It isn’t automatic that a person in a younger generation will not find church participation meaningful or not be able to relate to the gospel as good news for them. But I do believe that the church needs to re-think itself culturally and learn to speak the new language of post-modernity if it wants to attract younger people in Western countries into the community of Jesus’ followers. This is a significant challenge, and your question points to it.

Why did Jesus have to die in such a torturous manner?

Q. One month before my 90-year-old aunt passed away, she asked me a question, “Why did Jesus have to die in such a torturous manner? The harshest way to die during his time was crucifixion. This has bothered me since I was a young girl.” I have the same question myself. Please share your thoughts, thank you.

I can understand your aunt’s concern and yours. Crucifixion was not just the harshest way to die during the time of Jesus; it was one of the cruelest and most protracted and painful forms of execution ever invented. It was first introduced by the Persians and then developed in other cultures. The Romans had turned it into a process that could involve days of unspeakable suffering before death finally came.

I don’t feel that I can answer your question in terms of purpose, that is, why God would have wanted Jesus to die that way. I can’t imagine that this was something that God wanted, intended, or made happen, even though God did send Jesus into the world at a time when crucifixion was practiced, knowing that he would be “delivered into the hands of men.” From such questions I think we can only step back in mystery.

But I believe there is an answer to your question in terms of result. After Jesus had suffered some of the worst things human beings have ever conceived of doing to one another, he still said, “Father, forgive them.” Such a statement would certainly have been meaningful if he had said it just before being executed in a way that, while nevertheless horrible, did not involve protracted torture, such as by a firing squad. But it is deeply meaningful in the context of crucifixion. There can be no doubt about the love of God that came to earth in Christ Jesus if, after suffering on the cross to the point of death, Jesus still forgave and asked the Father to forgive. So while we may always wonder why Jesus had to die that way, we can worship and adore him as the Savior who endured such things and still never ceased to love the people of this world who had done those things to him.

Meditating on the sufferings of Jesus is a time-honored spiritual practice. Reflecting on all that he suffered for us, and the love that this demonstrated, increases our devotion to him and helps us forsake the sins for which he died. It ultimately enables us to rejoice, even as we empathize tearfully with his sufferings, at the greatness of our salvation and of our Savior.

The great hymn writers give us exemplary models of this practice. An unknown German writer offered us this reflection, which has been translated into English as “O Sacred Head Now Wounded”:

What thou, my Lord, has suffered was all for sinners’ gain;
mine, mine was the transgression, but thine the deadly pain.
Lo, here I fall, my Savior! ‘Tis I deserve thy place;
look on me with thy favor, vouchsafe to me thy grace.

Another hymn by an unknown writer, translated into English as “The Strife is O’er, the Battle Done,” shares a similar reflection:

The powers of death have done their worst,
but Christ their legions has dispersed.
Let shouts of holy joy outburst.
Alleluia!

I believe your aunt was meditating on the sufferings of Jesus in the last days of her life. While she may not have gotten an answer to her specific question, it seems she certainly got a deeper and deeper appreciation for all that Jesus had done for her on the cross. And not long after she shared her question with you, she met him face to face, risen from the dead and alive forever, and she saw in his eyes the same love for her that he had demonstrated in his death on earth.

How can I have a soft heart, not a hardened one?

Q. I want to be a Christian, but I hardened my heart and then God hardened it. I don’t want a heard heart, I don’t want God to harden my heart. How can I get my heart softened by God? I want to be safe and not frightened and scared.

I have good news for you. If you are grieved by the way you’ve hardened your heart in the past, then that in itself means that your heart is actually soft once again now. When you say that God hardened your heart, I take that to mean that you gave God no option other than to leave you in the hardness of your heart—until that brought you to the place where you are now, grieved by your resistance to Him and wanting to come back. So I see no reason why God would continue to harden your heart, either, now that this purpose has been accomplished.

I would say go to God in the softness of your heart and say to Him everything that you’ve just said here: You want to be a Christian, you don’t want to have a hard heart, you want God to soften your heart, and you want to be safe (saved) and unafraid. You can pray to God in those terms and be confident of Jesus’ promise, “I will never turn away anyone who comes to Me.”

I encourage you to approach Christian friends or relatives, or a nearby church, and share your past struggles and future hopes. I trust you will find a warm welcome in to the community of those who are following Jesus and walking with God. May God be with you and bless you.

How can I know for certain that I will go to heaven?

Q. How can I know for certain that I will go to heaven? I have of course recognized my sin and asked the Lord into my life to take control of all of it.

What you’re asking about is sometimes known as “assurance of salvation.” It’s one of the main themes of the biblical book of First John, so I’ll answer your question from that book. What we find there is that there isn’t one single means by which we get assurance; rather, it comes through a combination of things.

One thing that John writes in this letter is, “We know that we have come to know him if we keep his commands.” He adds, “Whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did.” This is sometimes put this way: “Progress in sanctification is necessary for assurance of salvation.” That is, as we find ourselves, as a result of the Holy Spirit’s work in our hearts and lives, living more and more in the way God intends, this assures us that we truly  do belong to Him.

Right after this, John says, “Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates a brother or sister is still in the darkness, but anyone who loves their brother and sister lives in the light.” So another sign that God has saved us is that our relationships are transformed. We become more and more able to love others; we live out this love by helping and serving and forgiving them.

A bit later John speaks of those who “went out from us, but did not really belong to us, for if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us.” In other words, remaining within the community of Jesus’ followers,  persevering in the faith, is another sign of genuine belief. “Continue in him,” John says, “so that when he appears we may be confident and unashamed before him at his coming.” God wants us to receive this confidence, this assurance, through the way we see our faith persevere over time and despite difficulties.

Further on John says, “This is how we know that he lives in us: We know it by the Spirit he gave us.” So our awareness of the Holy Spirit’s presence and work in our lives is something that gives us further assurance of salvation.

John does also say, near the end of his letter, “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God.” So there is indeed an aspect of putting our faith and trust in Jesus as our Savior, as you describe. But the practical themes of living as God commands, loving others, persevering in the faith, and cooperating with the Holy Spirit’s work are woven through the entire letter, like the different themes of a musical composition. So we see that this belief is meant to be manifested in practical ways, and this is what really gives us assurance.

John concludes, “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life.” So assurance of salvation is clearly something that God wants each believer to have. But it comes from reflecting on our own lives, from recognizing the progress we are making under the influence of God’s Spirit. Confessing our sin and turning our lives over to God is a necessary start. But it’s what God does with our lives from there that gives us the confidence that we truly do belong to Him.

So how about you? Are you finding that, by God’s grace and with His help, you’re more and more able to live as He wishes? Do you have greater love for others, expressed in greater patience, forgiveness, and practical compassion in dealing with them? Are you persevering in your commitment to Jesus, “no turning back, no turning back”? Are you discovering that the Holy Spirit is very much living inside you and bringing about transformation? Then all of these things, building on your initial confession of Jesus as Lord and Savior, should indeed give you confidence that you have “eternal life.”

And that phrase actually means more than going to heaven when you die. It’s not just a quantitative term (life of infinite duration), it’s a qualitative one—it means life that is better and greater because it’s lived in relationship and fellowship with God. And we are meant to enjoy that even in this life.

Why will there still be sacrifices in the future millennial kingdom?

Q. When Jesus died on the cross God split the veil of the temple giving access to himself thru Christ. Making that system no longer valid. Why then does it talk about in the future millennial kingdom that the sacrifices will continue?

I believe you are referring to the way the restored temple in Ezekiel’s vision still has facilities for preparing and offering “burnt offerings, sin offerings, and guilt offerings.” Interpreters who understand this vision to depict the future millennial kingdom of Christ explain that these sacrifices will be offered in honor and memory of what Jesus did on the cross. The sacrifices under the old covenant looked forward to the death of Jesus; these future sacrifices will look back upon the death of Jesus, just as every time we take the Lord’s Supper or Eucharist, we “proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes,” “in remembrance of him.”

Was Rahab really a prostitute?

Q. Was Rahab really a prostitute?

There’s no question, from the vocabulary and rhetoric of the Bible, that Rahab actually was a prostitute. In the Old Testament narrative about her in the book of Joshua, she’s described with the Hebrew term zonah, which unambiguously means “prostitute.” Rahab is also mentioned in the New Testament books of Hebrews and James, and in each case she’s described with the Greek term pornē, which correspondingly means “prostitute.” James, in fact, actually seems to stress this status when he emphasizes, in support of his argument that “faith without works is dead,” that “even Rahab the prostitute” was considered righteous because sheltered and protected the spies. The book of Hebrews also calls her “Rahab the prostitute” but it notes similarly that she protected the spies “by faith” and so “was not killed with those who were disobedient.”

I think that all of this leads us to an even more important question: Why was Rahab a prostitute? It seems quite likely from the Joshua narrative that she turned to prostitution out of desperate circumstances. Rahab acknowledges to the spies that “the Lord your God is God in heaven above and on the earth below,” and so she promises to shelter and protect them. But then she asks them, “Please swear to me by the Lord that you will show kindness to my family, because I have shown kindness to you. Give me a sure sign that you will spare the lives of my father and mother, my brothers and sisters, and all who belong to them and that you will save us from death.”

Who isn’t mentioned here? There’s no mention of Rahab having a husband or children. It’s quite possible (though this does involve reading between the lines a bit) that Rahab had been married, but that she was then widowed before she had children. Alternatively, she may have been a young woman from a large family that was poor and couldn’t afford a dowry for all of its daughters, nor could it afford to continue supporting them after they became adults. Either way, she would have been without financial support in this culture.

One further indication we have of poverty is the comment that Rahab’s house was “built into the city wall.” One excavation of Jericho found an area where houses had been built into the wall. One website suggests that this was likely a poor section of the city, “since the houses were positioned on the embankment between the upper and lower city walls. Not the best place to live in time of war! This area was no doubt the overflow from the upper city and the poor part of town, perhaps even a slum district.”

So Rahab was most likely a woman who forced into prostitution out of financial desperation. Poverty and human trafficking are almost always responsible for prostitution. The Bible seems to recognize this and not condemn Rahab, but rather praise her for her faith in the true God and her courageous service to him.

Indeed, the Bible ultimately tells a very hopeful story about Rahab, though it needs to be unambiguous about her circumstances in order to do so. According to the gospel of Matthew, Rahab later married an Israelite man and had a son named Boaz, who himself became the husband of Ruth, another foreign woman who married into the covenant community. As Matthew makes clear, Rahab and Ruth both became ancestors of Jesus himself.

So the story of Rahab in the Bible shows us that when God came into our world as a human being, He chose to come into a family line that included a woman who had once been trapped in prostitution, but who was rescued from it and began a new life. I hope this encourages us all to recognize that there is indeed great hope for those who are rescued from human trafficking and prostitution due to desperate circumstances. Perhaps the ultimate response to your question is that we should all support, through prayer, giving, and advocacy, the work of those who are continuing to fight in our world today against human trafficking and prostitution.

A drawing of Rahab protecting the spies, from an 1881 illustrated Bible. (Image courtesy Wikipedia.)