Did Jesus die for our sins before the foundation of the world or in 30 AD?

Questions about God, the Bible and the Christian culture 

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Question: Did Jesus die for our sins before the foundation of the world or in 30 AD?

Answer: That’s a good question. “Everybody” knows that Jesus died on the cross about 2000 years ago. Hey — we use his birth-year as year zero on our Western calendar! But what do we do when the Bible says that Jesus [the Lamb] was slain before the foundation of the world — but all the while, it tells us how he was crucified after the world was made!

“And all the inhabitants of The Earth will worship it, those who are not written in The Book of Life of The Lamb slain before the foundation of the world.” (Revelation 13:8, Aramaic Bible in Plain English)

“Two other men, both criminals, were also led out with him to be executed. When they came to the place called the Skull, they crucified him there, along with the criminals—one on his right, the other on his left. Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” And they divided up his clothes by casting lots.” (Luke 23:32–34, NIV)

The key to unpacking this “contradiction” is understanding how God relates to time, and the first thing to know about this is that time didn’t always exist. So, we have to get rid of this idea that time coexisted with God, and when the time was right, God created the universe. He created time as part of the universe. So, when we look at time, there was no “before” creation. But when we look at cause, there was indeed a “before” creation. God, being the uncaused cause, caused the universe to exist. It’s just that the clock didn’t start ticking until after the universe was created.

So, how does God relate to time? In two ways: first, as its Creator, he transcends time. That is, he exists even in places where time is not. Second, as an omnipresent being, he is immanent in time — but he’s not just “in” it like we are in it. God exists in all places and at all times at the same time. So there is no place, in or out of time, where God does not exist, and there are no moments, in or out of physical reality, that God does not experience.

But note this well: although God can experience linear time as we do, his essential self — his ontological self — is in no way constrained by it. So, God is not “stuck” in time like we are. Note also that when he engages with time, being omnitemporal, he experiences all time at the same time — which used to be a mind-blowing concept! ... but it’s one we’re starting to get a handle on.

About a decade after Einstein published his theories on relativity, the public started to understand the fluidity of time. More than one person came up with the quip: “Time is what keeps everything from happening all at once.” But I’ve adapted that saying to fit today’s theological purposes, so my version reads “Time is God’s way of keeping everything from happening all at once in creation.”

Notice that I added the qualification “in creation” to that quip. This is because I want to emphasize that time affects us but not God. When he interfaces with time, he does so as an omnitemporal being — which has some amazing practical advantages! For example, he can experience any point in time — and he can do that at any time! But — and this is a huge but — he can do this because he experiences all time at the same time. What does this have to do with the differing accounts in the Bible?

God lives in the “eternal now.” As such, all of history occurs at the same moment for him. So, as God deals with time on his own terms, everything happens at once. This means that he purposed and experienced Jesus’ sacrifice before the foundation of the world.

The problem comes when he wants to communicate an eternal truth like that to time-bound creatures like us. He uses the Bible to do that... and Scripture is decidedly linear! So, from our perspective, the Bible seems to teach that Jesus’ death happened at two different times: once on the cross, 2000 years ago, and once before the foundations of the world.

It didn’t, though... not as God measures time. The difference is only one of perspective. Sometimes the Bible writes from God’s perspective, and sometimes from ours. I’ll admit that this can cause hermeneutical whiplash when we bounce between the two perspectives, but remember, the Bible is showing us temporal beings the workings of an eternal being... but it’s doing so through the earth-bound craft we call writing.

The following verses will bring all these thoughts together. They show God’s proactivity in saving us by sacrificing his Son before the foundation of the world, but they also show that his plan is to reveal things to us over time. The latter is such a foundational truth that we’ve coined the term “God’s progressive revelation” to make sure everyone knows that’s how God does things before they engage with Scripture.

“Fellow Israelites, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know. This man was handed over to you by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him.” (Acts 2:22–24, NIV, emphasis mine)

“No, we declare God’s wisdom, a mystery that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began.” (1 Corinthians 2:7, NIV)

“But when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship.” (Galatians 4:4–5, NIV)

“For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love” (Ephesians 1:4, NIV)

“He has saved us and called us to a holy life—not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace. This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time,” (2 Timothy 1:9, NIV, emphasis mine)

“He was chosen before the creation of the world, but was revealed in these last times for your sake.”
 (1 Peter 1:20, NIV)

These verses also speak to the doctrine of election. A being who experiences everything at the same time will — as a result of that activity — have knowledge of those events "before" we experience them. Now, most biblically conversant people understand that God is omniscient. But I’m talking about a special kind of knowledge here. An omnipresent and omnitemporal God will also know what all people will freely do as they live out their lives, and it is through this kind of knowledge (sometimes called God’s Middle Knowledge) that God knows who will freely choose to believe in Christ.

But here’s the best part: because God experiences all events at the same time, he doesn’t violate free will when he sees what people will freely choose to do, then actuates that life and calls them “the elect” ... even before the creation of the world (Ephesians 1:4).

As to your question, the answer is yes. Jesus died for our sins before the foundation of the world from God’s perspective — and yes — Jesus died on the cross about 2000 years ago from our perspective. But since God chose to report from both perspectives in his word, we need to continually sort out those frames of reference when we study.

I pray all this helped more than it hurt. God bless you.

(Mainsail Ministries articles often have a preamble where I discuss the thinking that went into them. These are called Monday Musings — and if you haven’t read the one associated with this article — consider doing so at the following link: 20200413 Did Jesus die for our sins before the foundation of the world?).

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