Was Christ’s Death Retroactive?

From Issue: R&R – July 2023


Was Christ’s death retroactive for those who were obedient and faithful to God and had passed before the crucifixion? Or was His sacrifice not needed on their part? 


Christ’s sacrifice was/is certainly needed for every person of accountable age and mind who have lived on the Earth. All have sinned and therefore have earned hell by their own actions (Romans 6:23). Only the blood of Jesus can make it possible for them to be forgiven and acceptable to God.

Romans 3 explains: “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 the present time His righteousness, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Romans 3:23-26). According to the Law of Moses, when those who were under that legal system performed the prescribed sacrifices as acts of atonement, they understood that they were forgiven. Read Leviticus chapters 4 and 5 where “he will be forgiven” is used 8 times. The psalmist summarized the appropriate attitude of the faithful, 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). Or as Jeremiah expressed: “Through the LORD’s mercies we are not consumed, because His compassions fail not. They are new every morning” (Lamentations 3:22-23).

But the New Testament explains that, in a technical sense, the blood of Christ was necessary for that forgiveness to occur. So how could they be forgiven before that blood was actually shed on a Roman cross in A.D. 30? Revelation 13:8 states that Jesus was “the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world.”1 Since God is an infinite, eternal Being who is not susceptible to time (in fact, He created time, and He exists outside of time), He could reckon people prior to the cross justified if they manifested “obedient faith” (Romans 1:5; 16:26). That is the commonality for all people throughout human history regarding the prerequisite to salvation—an obedient faith. Those who manifested that type of faith were counted by God to be justified based on the blood of Christ—even if prior to the cross.

Perhaps a useful illustration would be one I heard some years ago: Before all our instantaneous electronic capability, if a person paid his electric bill, he would write a check and mail it to the electric company. He would then consider his bill paid—if his wife asked, “Did you pay the electric bill?” he could truthfully say, “yes.” But, in actuality and technically, the check had to arrive at the electric company. They would open his envelope, remove the check and note in their records that he had sent the money. But, technically, the bill was still not actually paid. The electric company would send the man’s check to his bank. His bank would then cash the check and give that money to the electric company. At that point, the electric bill was actually and legally paid. 

In like fashion, God could forgive people throughout human history as long as they engaged in the acts of faith that enabled Him to do so. But actually and legally, atonement was made by Christ on a Roman cross in A.D. 30. Nevertheless, the death of Christ was formulated in the mind of Deity in eternity prior to the creation of the Universe.


1 English translations treat the underlying Greek as follows: (1) “from the foundation of the world”—BRG, JUB, KJV, MEV, MOUNCE, NKJV, YLT; (2) “from the beginning of the world”—DRA, NMB, RGT, WYC; (3) “from the creation of the world”—NIV; (4) “since the foundation of the world”—DLNT, ISV; (5) “before the world was founded”—CJB; (6) “before the world was made”—NLT; (7) “before the foundation of the world”—OJB; (8) “before the creation of the world”—GW, NOG. See Greek grammarian A.T. Robertson (1960), Word Pictures in the New Testament (Nashville, TN: Broadman), 6:402.


A copied sheet of paper

REPRODUCTION & DISCLAIMERS: We are happy to grant permission for this article to be reproduced in part or in its entirety, as long as our stipulations are observed.

Reproduction Stipulations→