Bible Question:

In Romans 5:13, Paul says that until the Law, sin was in the world; but sin is not imputed when there is no law. Does this mean all who sinned before the Law was given were not held accountable in regards to their sins? Before the Law, were people responsible for their sin? They all died due to Adam's sin, but where did they go when they died--- heaven or hell?

Bible Answer:

The meaning of Romans 5:13 can be confusing. It would appear the verse is teaching that before the law people were not accountable for their sins, but is that true? The keyword in the verse is “imputed.” Romans 5:13 says, 

For until the Law sin was in the world, but sin is not imputed when there is no law. Romans 5:13 (NASB)

So, did people go to heaven or hell after death before God gave Moses the law? Therefore, the question we want to answer is, “Before the Law, were people accountable for sin?

Before the Law Were People Accountable For Sin?

Sin Existed Before The Law

In order to answer the question, we must read the context. The context is the verses that come before and after Romans 5:13. Verse 12 helps us to understand verse 13. Romans 5:12 is an important verse since it explains that sin entered the world through one man, and consequently, every person sinned when this one man sinned.  Verse 12 says,

Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned . . . Romans 5:12 (NASB)

In the verse that follows verse 13, we are told the “one man” is Adam. Verse 14 says,

Nevertheless death reigned from Adam until Moses, even over those who had not sinned in the likeness of the offense of Adam, who is a type of Him who was to come. Romans 5:14 (NASB)

Verse 14 helps us understand the “one man” in verse 12 is Adam. The sin he committed was eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. God had warned Adam that if he ate of that tree, he would die (Genesis 2:17). When Adam ate of the tree he died, both spiritually and eventually, he died physically.

The message of verse 12 is that when Adam sinned, he caused the human race to become a race of sinners. Our sins demonstrate that we do sin (Romans 3:10), resulting in death. We sin because we are sinners. Adam’s sin is the reason for the pain and suffering in this life. So, every descendant inherited this nature to sin (Genesis 5:3; Romans 5:18) because all humanity sinned in his loins when Adam sinned. (See this principle in Hebrews 7:7-10). For Romans 5:19 states,

For as through the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners . . . Romans 5:19 (NASB)

Genesis 4:7 illustrates man’s slavery to sin. This condition exists within us at conception. Psalm 51:5 says that by nature every newborn baby will have a desire to sin. Every baby is born a sinner and will sin! This occurs because Adam was the first human and represented humanity. So, sin entered the world because of Adam.

Meaning of Imputed

In verse 13, Paul adds that sin existed in the world before the Law came into existence. That is true because sin began with Adam. Then we are told that sin is not imputed when there is no law. The word “imputed” in Romans 5:13  is a most confusing word.  The Greek word that is translated as imputed means “to lay to account.” In an ancient writing, this word was used in the statement, “earnest money to be reckoned in the price.” Imputed is translated here as “reckoned.” That is, imputed refers to monies counted in the price in this illustration.[1] That is, sin was not counted against the people who lived from Adam to Moses, before the Law. Why? Because they had not been given the Law, a list of sins or laws to obey. After the Law, they finally had names for specific sins to avoid. For example, in Romans 7:7, Paul illustrates his point. He says,

. . . I would not have come to know sin except through the Law; for I would not have known about coveting if the Law had not said, “YOU SHALL NOT COVET.” Romans 7:7 (NASB)

Romans 5:13 is not teaching that the people from Adam to Moses were not responsible for their sins. We must remember that Romans 2:14-16 tells us that God’s moral standard is written in our conscience. Our thoughts convict or defend our behavior. It also says that on the day of judgment, God will judge people according to their secret thoughts. That seems to imply that God will condemn people based on their conscience warning them to not commit sin. Thus, when they ignore their conscience and sin anyway, that will be used to demonstrate they deserve hell.

The message is that people did not know they committed sin because God did not given them an explicit list of sins to avoid. John MacArthur states,

In other words, how can you be guilty for breaking a rule if there’s no rule? Right? So if you have a period of time from Adam to Moses where there’s no law and death reigns and they’re not dying because they broke a law, then what is it about them that’s causing them to die? It isn’t an act of sin they commit, it is what? The sin nature.[2]

People Sinned Between Adam and Moses

When people between Adam and Moses sinned, they still died and were punished. For example, Genesis 4:7 tells us that God warned Cain to not sin. Genesis 4:9-16 reveals that because he sinned, he was punished. Genesis 18:20 says that the sin of the people in Sodom and Gomorrah was exceedingly grave. Then Genesis 19:23-29 teaches us that they were punished. Genesis 20:9-11 records that Abraham sinned and was rebuked. Sin is recorded five more times in Genesis (Genesis 20:9; 31:36; 39:9; 42:22; 50:17).

The message of the book of Genesis and Romans 5:12-14 is that people did sin and die. Why did they sin? Because Adam sinned, and consequently, all of his descendants became sinners, and sinners sin, incurring the punishment of death. Therefore, verse 14 says that death reigned from Adam until Moses, even though they did not violate an explicit command such as the one given to Adam to not eat (Genesis 2:17), and the Laws given to Moses.

Before the Law Did People Go To Hell or Heaven?

Now we have two questions to answer. First, what is the answer to the question, “Before the Law were people accountable for sin?”  The answer is, “Yes!” Here are four examples.

First, Romans 2:14-16 reveals that God’s law, His moral law, is written in our consciences. It convicts or defends our behavior. God will use those occasions when the conscience is violated to condemn the unbeliever on judgment day. They ignored their consciences that urged them to not sin.

Second, Scripture clearly teaches that some people from Adam to Moses went to heaven and others were sent to eternal condemnation. For example, Genesis 5:24 teaches that Enoch was a righteous man. Therefore, “God took him.” Hebrews 11:5-6 echoes the same truth. That occurred between the lifetimes of Adam and Moses.

Third, in Genesis 6:5-7, God told Noah that He would destroy the people of the world with a flood. Then 2 Peter 2:4-5 reveals that the ancient world was judged. The strong implication is that they were sent to hell.

Fourth, in Genesis 19 we are taught that God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah. Jude 7 and 2 Peter 2:6 reveal that Sodom and Gomorrah had indulged in gross sin. As a result, the people suffered the punishment of eternal fire. That would be the lake of fire, or hell.

Conclusion:

Therefore, what is the answer to “Before the Law did people go to hell or heaven? The answer is some people went to hell and some to heaven. God will use their moral sense of right and wrong that existed in their consciences on judgment day to sentence them to the law of fire. That reveals that even those who have not known about the Bible or Jesus Christ can be sentenced to an eternal condemnation if they refuse to seek God and never respond correctly to their conscience. But if they truly seek God, God will reveal Himself to them, just as He did to the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8:25-40. For God has promised in Jeremiah 29:12-14,

Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you, declares the LORD . . . Jeremiah 29:12-14 (NASB)

Even if you do not know the Bible, you can be rescued from hell. Visit Searching For God.

 

References:

1) James Hope Moulton and George Milligan, in The Vocabulary of the Greek Testament (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1930), 204.
2. John MacArthur. Adam and the Reign of Death. GTY. Oct 31, 1982. (www.gty.org/library/sermons-library/45-43/adam-and-the-reign-of-death)

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