Everyone knows this verse by heart – “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life through Jesus”. Is the consequence of sin death? Is there no other remedy to sin other than a blood sacrifice? The lesson Paul is giving is not really death, but eternal life. This is the central message of the Christian NT – if you believe in Jesus you’ll have eternal life – if not you’ll be condemned to eternal torment. But, is this the message of the Hebrew Bible?
Many Scriptures in the Hebrew Bible dispute this, and Ezekiel 18 is probably the most problematic for Christians to explain. The entire chapter talks about what is required for righteousness that leads to life, and what happens when one turns from righteousness and that is death. Nowhere in this chapter, or anywhere else for that matter, is a belief system on a specific individual a requirement to escape death and inherit eternal life. The ONLY requirement to receive life is to TURN from wickedness and do what is right.
Behold, all souls are mine; the soul of the father as well as the soul of the son is mine: the soul who sins shall die. (Eze 18:4)
“But if a wicked person turns away from all his sins that he has committed and keeps all my statutes and does what is just and right, he shall surely live; he shall not die. None of the transgressions that he has committed shall be remembered against him; for the righteousness that he has done he shall live.
Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, declares the Lord GOD, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live? But when a righteous person turns away from his righteousness and does injustice and does the same abominations that the wicked person does, shall he live? None of the righteous deeds that he has done shall be remembered; for the treachery of which he is guilty and the sin he has committed, for them he shall die.
When a righteous person turns away from his righteousness and does injustice, he shall die for it; for the injustice that he has done he shall die. Again, when a wicked person turns away from the wickedness he has committed and does what is just and right, he shall save his life. Because he considered and turned away from all the transgressions that he had committed, he shall surely live; he shall not die.
For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Lord GOD; so turn, and live.”
There is no wiggle room here – it is crystal clear. The sinner is responsible for his own sins – if he sins it leads to death – if the sinner turns from his sin and does what is right he will live. What’s troubling for Christians is that Ezekiel is explicitly saying that one person cannot pay for the sin of another. How could that be possible? According to Paul, only those who believe in the payment of their sin by another will live because the sinner is hopelessly lost and condemned to death by the Law with no way out.
One lesson we learn in this chapter is that we don’t have to be perfect to have favor. It assumes man will sin, but man has the free will to choose sin or turn from it. Man has the ability on his own to choose life or death. By saying someone else has to pay for my sin because it’s impossible to NOT sin, or their righteousness pays for my wickedness, takes away my free will to choose. It not only makes me lazy but it takes the responsibility away from me and places it on another. What sense of accomplishment is there in saying “Oh, I’m just a wretched sinner with no hope – thank God He paid for my sins Himself, all I have to do now is just believe”. There is none.
Another lesson in this chapter is it keeps you on your toes. You can’t depend on the good things you did yesterday to save you from the bad things you do today. It makes one continually want to seek what is good everyday.
Some may say this chapter is an anomaly, or that’s not really what it’s saying. Consider the messages from Isaiah conveying the same thing:
“Seek the LORD while he may be found; call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the LORD, that he may have compassion on him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.
Declare and present your case; let them take counsel together! Who told this long ago? Who declared it of old? Was it not I, the LORD? And there is no other god besides me, a righteous God and a Savior; there is none besides me. “Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth! For I am God, and there is no other. By myself I have sworn; from my mouth has gone out in righteousness a word that shall not return: ‘To me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear allegiance.’
Lest you think this is only for the nation of Israel, consider Jeremiah 18 and the entire book of Jonah:
If at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, and if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will relent of the disaster that I intended to do to it.
The word reached the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. And he issued a proclamation and published through Nineveh, “By the decree of the king and his nobles: Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste anything. Let them not feed or drink water, but let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and let them call out mightily to God. Let everyone turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands. Who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish.”
When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it.
The idea that His creation failed so miserably that He had to pay for their sins Himself makes Him a failure. If there is no free will on the part of man that makes God the wizard behind the curtain controlling everything. Thus the conundrum in Christianity – free will is not done away with. No, you still have to choose life – but life now consists of a belief system on one individual’s payment for your sin, otherwise you die in your sins condemned to eternal torment.This is the complete opposite of Ezekiel 18 and others.
Joh 3:16 For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.
Is this what the Bible teaches? Really, does God love everyone? You know. love the sinner – hate the sin. If this is the case, why not send the Son before the flood to save humanity from perishing. The problem with John 3:16 is that nowhere in the Tanakh does God say he loves everyone. Quite the opposite, He shows steadfast love to those who love Him by keeping His commandments [Exo_20:6, Exo_34:7, Deu_5:10, 7:9, Dan_9:4].
It’s true that He takes no pleasure in the death of the anyone, His desire is for you to turn to Him and live [Eze 18:32], but he’s certainly not going to do it for you, or provide an alternative. I suppose if He wanted to create mindless robots He could have done so. But instead chose to create us with our own free will. It’s our active participation to choose one way or the other that decides whether we receive His steadfast love or not.
How interesting is it that when a Christian sins he still has to repent – e.g., ask for forgiveness and turn from sin. So what changed, did Jesus pay for sin or not? Some will say he only paid the death penalty on our behalf so we can have eternal life. However, God Himself tells us over and over what’s necessary to receive life. His opinion is the only opinion that should matter and He says “Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth! For I am God, and there is no other. To me [not Jesus or a Messiah] every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear allegiance.”