In the Western world, theology remains to this day dominated by Augustine. By and large the church still teaches that God created a perfect world to be ruled by perfect human beings, Adam and Eve. This assumption, which is based on a misunderstanding of the word ‘good’ in Genesis 1 (*1 As writers on the OT frequently acknowledge nowadays, e.g. Collins, p.69, the word ‘good’, as Gen. 2:9 and 3:6 imply, means ideally suited to its purpose, cf. Ps. 119:91; Eccl. 3:11 NRSV) and the idea that a perfect God can only create perfection, is clearly contrary to the plain teaching of Scripture where the Creator is sharply distinguished from his creation (Ps. 103:14-18; Isa. 40:6-8; Rom. 1:23,25; Heb. 1:10-12, etc.). Even Jesus as flesh was part of creation and had to be perfected both physically (Luke 2:40-52) and spiritually (Heb. 2:10; 5:9; 7:28). Furthermore, this notion raises immediate and insoluble problems. For if Adam and Eve were by nature perfect and hence immortal, as Augustine taught, how could they possibly fall into sin and die? If they could, then the inference must be that God himself could also! The thought is blasphemous. (*2 Apart from Collins, the most recent author I have read stressing original holiness, righteousness and “Fall” is M. Horton in his “God of Promise”. His book epitomizes the dangers of a false covenant theology.) So what is the true, the biblical, view?
According to the very first verse of the Bible creation had a beginning. This implies that it must also have an end (e.g. Mt. 28:20; 2 Pet. 3:7,10-12; Rev. 21:1,4). And since this is so, it stands in direct contrast with its Creator who has neither beginning nor end (Isa. 57:1; 66:15, cf. Heb. 7:3). Far from being temporal, he is eternal (Mt. 24:35; Heb. 1:11; Rev. 4:11).
It is against this background that Adam, a creature of God who derives like the animals from the temporal earth (2:7) and is hence naturally mortal, is, as one who is also created in the image of the immortal God, promised (eternal) life if he keeps the commandment (Gen. 2:17, cf. Lev. 18:5, etc.). This conditional promise thus implies that in order to escape or overcome his natural mortality and corruptibility he must avoid all taint of moral corruption. Failure at this point means that he inevitably returns to the earth from which he was physically taken. So, since in the event Adam breaks the commandment, which promised life (cf. Rom. 7:10), and fails the test (Eccl. 3:18), he earns the wages of sin (Rom. 6:23, cf. 5:12) and returns inexorably to the dust (Gen. 3:19). To express the issue alternatively, both Adam and Eve yield to their fleshly desire (Gen. 3) and suffer inevitable death and corruption (cf. Eph. 4:22; 2 Pet. 1:4). In this they are of course like the animals for which as mere flesh escape is impossible. As part of the temporal and hence corruptible creation, they unavoidably succumb to the law of the created universe (e.g. Eccl. 3:19f.; Ps. 49:12,20). (3* Ladd, a premillennialist whose views have proved highly influential, denies escape from the physical world, pp.59f. His reference to Greek dualism, as opposed to cosmological and anthropological dualism as set forth in the Bible, is beside the point since the temporality and corruptibility of creation is inherent and has nothing to do with sin, Rom. 8:18-25; Heb. 1:10-12. See further below.)
The Big Question
But if this is true, how is man to achieve eternal life? How can he escape inevitable death and corruption if he cannot keep the commandments? While we are not told that Adam as an individual escaped from his natural mortality, hope for him and his posterity (e.g. Enoch) was at least hinted at in the promise of Genesis 3:15.
First, though threatening universal curse and destruction by means of the flood, God in his mercy and grace, rescues sinful Noah (Gen. 8:21), who is righteous by faith (Gen. 6:9; 7:1; Heb. 11:7), by means of the ark and establishes a covenant with him. He promises him fruitfulness and fertility so long as the earth remains (8:22), and, in a fashion reminiscent of his original command to (but definitely not covenant with) Adam (Gen. 1:26,28), calls on Noah to be fruitful, multiply and to fill the earth (Gen. 9:1). In contrast with Adam, Noah and his posterity at least have a covenantal guarantee that their efforts will not be in vain till God’s purposes are fulfilled. There will be no more curse on the ground until they are (Luke 17:30; 2 Thes. 1:8; 2 Pet. 3:7,10-12; Rev. 20:11; 21:1,4, etc.).
It is important to stress at this point that Noah’s escape from the flood was achieved through faith (Heb. 11:7). His sinfulness is plain for all to see who read the rest of the story, for there it is clearly established (Gen. 9:20f.). But, as Peter is to affirm at a much later date, Noah escapes from the consequences of his sin in a way similar or analogous to Christians who escape from theirs – by faith and baptism into Christ (1 Pet. 3:21). While for Noah in mankind’s infancy the water served to wash off dirt, for Christians it is used for baptism which symbolises confession of faith in Christ and cleansing from heathen (1 Cor. 6:9-11) or even Jewish uncleanness (Acts 22:16, cf. Heb. 10:22; James 1:21).
However, if Noah was justified by faith, he fell well short of the perfection or maturity which was basic to his calling. While he had retained the image of God (Gen. 9:6), he had certainly not attained to his perfect likeness (cf. Mt. 5:48) or glory (Rom. 3:23). Nonetheless his justification was vital for his ultimate escape and his inheritance of life in the presence of God (Heb. 11:7, cf. Prov. 10:2,16,28; 11:4,19,21; 12:13,28, etc.).
Abraham, the friend of God, owed his escape from heathendom entirely to divine initiative. Though it was Terah who took him from his home in Ur of the Chaldees (Gen. 11:31) where he worshipped idols (Jos. 24:2), he was but a human instrument serving the divine plan (Gen. 24:7; Jos. 24:3). Once again we must beware of thinking that Abraham was especially righteous or holy. On the contrary, Paul goes so far as to call him ungodly and wholly devoid of grounds for boasting before his Maker (Rom. 4:1-5). From time to time God had to rescue Abraham from danger as when Abimelech took Sarah his wife (Gen. 20). But by faith and trust in the promises of God Abraham overcame many obstacles, even the sacrifice of his son Isaac. Believing that his God could even raise the dead (Rom. 4:17), his faith was reckoned to him as righteousness (Rom. 4:22; Gen. 15:6). Thus, refusing to return to his place of origin, he made his escape convinced that a better country, that is, a heavenly one lay ahead of him (Heb. 11:16). While apparently thwarted in this world, he and his spiritual descendants were well attested by their faith and sure of being made perfect together (Heb. 11:40, cf. Mt. 8:11).
Jacob and Joseph
Jacob and his sons escaped famine and presumable death when God sent Joseph ahead (Gen. 45:5-7; 50:20) into Egypt. There they were nurtured into nationhood in what was in effect a temporary promised land (cf. Ex. 16:3; Num. 11:4-6; 16:13). This eventually gave rise to the need of a further escape not simply from slavery there but so that the ancient promises God had made to Abraham might be fulfilled. These were very much on Joseph’s mind at the time of his death (Gen. 50:24).
Moses and the Wilderness
After many a long year, God eventually took the initiative (cf. Ex. 2:24) and engineered flight from the house of bondage under the leadership of Moses. Moses himself had fled Egypt many years before, but his return involved judgement on the heathen gods, freedom for his compatriots and the ruin of Egypt (Ex. 10:7; 12:33. Cf. the return of Jesus, Heb. 9:28). The journey through the wilderness with all its attendant problems and difficulties is seen in Scripture as typological of our own pilgrimage through this world, for we too are but sojourners and exiles (1 Pet. 2:11, cf. John 15:19). As the epitome of the law, which itself, like the flesh, implied bondage (Gal. 3:23, etc.) and which he himself broke, Moses was not permitted to enter the Promised Land. But the journey was finally completed under the leadership of obedient Joshua (1:6-9) who also aided the escape of aliens like Rahab (cf. Ruth). For all that, the rest it brought, like the covenant to which it related (2 Cor. 3:11; Heb. 8:13), clearly fell short of perfection (cf. Heb. 4:1,6,8-10). The people of God, even when they did not undergo exile, were frequently slaves in their own land (cf. Neh. 9:36; Jer. 2:14) not least under the domination of Rome. Something more radical and permanent was needed. Thus both a new covenant (Jer. 31:31-34) and a new leader or servant became a prime requisite (Rom. 15:8f.). The scene was set for the arrival of the Messiah.
Needless to say, the Israelites frequently held false views of their Messiah, for he was not concerned with gaining earthly political power (John 6:15; 18:36, cf. Mt. 4:8-10), which at best could only be a temporary half-measure. His aim was to liberate his people permanently from sin (Mt. 2:15) and bondage to the power of the devil and death (Heb. 2:14f.). Thus Jesus taught that his disciples would know the truth and that the truth would make them free (John 8:31ff.). But this again did not immediately bring complete freedom. For, according to Jesus himself, physical death still had to be endured (John 11:25). As Paul says in Romans 8:10, the body is (subject to) death because of sin. Why? Because death was the penalty God had imposed on Adam and all his posterity if they did not keep his commandments. None did (1 K. 8:46, etc.) until Jesus himself kept the whole law, gained his Father’s commendation and was acknowledged as his Son (Mt. 3:13-17). While Jesus proceeded to fulfil all righteousness (cf. Acts 10:38) by pioneering the regenerate life, he finally and gratuitously laid down his flesh to redeem those who put their trust in him (Eph. 1:7; 1 Pet. 3:18; Rev. 1:5). When he had done this, his work was complete (John 19:30, cf. 17:4f.). He rose from the grave because, as one who had himself never sinned, his life was not forfeit (cf. Gen. 2:17) and death had no hold over him (Acts 2:24).
But if he was never to die again (Rom. 6:9; Rev. 1:18), the question arises as to how he could live forever, least of all in the flesh, on a naturally impermanent earth? He could not. His intention from the moment he came from the Father was to return to him (John 3:13; 6:62; 17:5; Eph. 4:9f., etc.), ultimately with his (spiritual) siblings in train (Heb. 2:10). So, having once begun his exodus (Luke 9:31), he completed it at his ascension (Luke 9:51; 24:51; Acts 1:1-9; Rev. 12:5, cf. 2 Pet. 1:13-15). Like the children of Israel who were forbidden to return to Egypt (Dt. 17:16), he was never again to return to corruption (Acts 13:34, cf. Eph. 1:20f.; 4:9f.; Heb. 4:14, 7:26) even if, like Moses, he would return in the glory of God to rescue his own (1 Thes. 1:10; Heb. 9:28) as brands plucked from the burning (Jude 23; Amos 4:11). Though throughout his earthly life he had been constantly threatened by temptation, sin and death (cf. Heb. 5:7), in conspicuous contrast with the first Adam he had made his final escape a conqueror (Rev. 12:5; 3:21; 5:5; Rom. 8:3, etc.).
If this is true of Jesus, the Joshua of the new covenant, then it is true of all who put their trust in him. His own prayerful desire was that those who believe in him (John 17:20) should be with him to behold his glory (17:24, cf. Isa. 33:17,21f.; 66:18). But how can they do so if they have died and experienced corruption? While they cannot escape physical death and corruption (unless they are among those who are still alive at the end of the world, 1 Cor. 15:51; 1 Thes. 4:13-17), their spirits will be saved and their bodies redeemed, that is, transformed and replaced (cf. Rom. 8:23; 1 Cor. 15:35ff.). In other words, their escape from sin, wrath (Rom. 5:9; 1 Thes. 1:9f) and corruption is assured. As Paul affirms, since God raised Christ, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith (Heb. 12:2), he will also raise us (1 Cor. 6:14; 2 Cor. 4:14, etc.). And we will be forever with the Lord (John 14:2f.,19; Rom. 6:8; 1 Thes. 4:17).
The author of Hebrews in particular emphasizes the pilgrim nature of our earthly life and our need to escape from it if we are to live eternally in the presence of God as just men made spiritually perfect (Heb. 12:23). As true children of Abraham, we need to keep our eyes on the heavenly city ahead of us (Heb. 11:8-16; 12:22-24; 13:14) not least because all shakable, that is, all created, things will eventually be removed (12:27). Even rest in an earthly Promised Land provided by God himself is inadequate (Heb. 3-4). Paul teaches similarly. He warns us to seek the things that are above (Col. 3:1-5) for our hope and calling are heavenly (Eph. 1:18; 4:4; Phil. 3:14, cf. Heb. 3:1; 9:15) like our commonwealth (Phil. 3:20). And John warns us not to love the world which is passing away along with its earthly desires (1 John 2:17, cf. 1 Cor. 7:31).
Peter’s support can likewise be cited for he tells us that our inheritance is “imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven” (1 Pet. 1:4, NRSV, ESV). In his second letter he makes it plain that submission to sinful desire leads to the bondage of corruption that afflicted Adam when he sinned (cf. Gen. 3:19). But Peter goes on to state that escape is gained by our becoming partakers in the divine nature, which is the result of faith in the promises of God (2 Pet. 1:4, cf. 1 Pet. 4:6). He further asserts that a refusal to believe leads to the dehumanization of people who behave like animals or creatures of (fleshly) instinct whose destiny is unavoidable destruction, as we noted above (2:12, cf. Jude 10). Claiming to be free they are in fact the slaves of both the physical and moral corruption (cf. 2 Pet. 2:19; 1 Cor. 6:9f.; Eph. 5:5f., etc.) that characterizes this temporal world (2 Cor. 4:18; Heb. 1:11). Inevitably they will perish with it, for those who deliberately ignore the salvation offered escape is impossible (Heb. 2:3; 12:25).
The picture painted in the book of Revelation is in harmony with this. Along with 11:12 and 12:5 we need to note that in 14:3 the apostle refers to the redeemed from the earth, and in verses 14-20 to the reaping of the harvest alluded to in Matthew 3:12, 13:30,37-43 (cf. James 5:7). It should also be noted that in Matthew 13:38 the world is portrayed as a field which produces both good seed and weeds. The good is preserved, but not the weeds or chaff which perish like Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. 19:24-29, cf. Mt. 3:12; 13:30; Luke 17:28f.) in the general eschatological inferno (Heb. 6:7f.; 2 Pet. 3:7,10-12). While the physical/material will burn, the spiritual can exist in the very presence of him who is a consuming fire (Isa. 33:14-16, cf. Heb. 12:25-29).
Needless to say, this is precisely what Paul implied in Romans 8:18-25. This present world or age (cf. 1 Cor. 7:31; 1 John 2:17) in contrast with the glory of the age to come (v.18) is by nature subject to corruption. That is the way God made it long before the entrance of sin. But he had done so in hope so that when the creation (creature? KJV) is freed from universal material corruption by eventual destruction (Mt. 24:35; 2 Cor. 4:18; Heb. 1:10-12; 12:27; 2 Pet. 3:7,10-12, etc.), we who believe will escape like Jesus our pioneer and elder brother (Luke 9:31,51; Rom. 8:29; Eph. 1:21; Heb. 2:10-13; 4:14; 7:26) by attaining to the liberty of glory of the children of God (Rom. 8:21) and becoming his heirs (Rom.8:17). And this, says John, demonstrates God’s love like nothing else (1 John 3:1, cf. 4:10; John 3:16).
In the words of Paul, “ … those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified” (Rom. 8:30). Escape indeed! Well may we conclude that our God is a God of salvation and that to him belongs escape from death (Ps. 68:20, 49:7,15) and this present (evil) age (Gal. 1:4, cf. Mark 13:8).
In order to escape from earthly temporal corruption man was originally called to exercise dominion over the world and to keep God’s commandments. In the event, all the children of Adam failed and allowed creation to rule them to some degree. And so it is today. As a consequence, we all become its slaves (Rom. 6:16; 2 Pet. 2:19). Jesus, the second Adam, has proved to be the only exception. He alone has conquered (John 16:33; Heb. 2:9; Rev. 3:21; 5:5, etc.). Since God always intended to save his people himself (Isa. 45:22-25; Phil. 2:9-11), he justifies them by faith in Christ. Christ is thus absolutely indispensable; he is our only means of escape from corruption. Eternal life and glory can be gained through him alone (John 3:16; 1 John 5:11-13, etc.). There is salvation in no one else (Acts 4:12).
C.J.Collins, Genesis 1-4, Phillipsburg, 2006.
M.S.Horton, God of Promise, Grand Rapids, 2006.
G.E.Ladd, Jesus and the Kingdom, London, 1964.