Someday I think I might actually write a paper around this issue. At the moment, however, it’s just a thought… a thought that I want to consider and hold on to. C.S. Lewis argued that God stands outside of time, that he is beyond time and thus that he is capable of experiencing all times simultaneously. It’s a difficult concept to wrap your head around, but this idea has a lot of implications. For one, it explains how God could have knowledge of the future. I was going to say that it explains how God could be all-knowing, but it really doesn’t. I’m not actually sure that is explainable. However, if God experiences all times simultaneously, then to him the future is the same as the present and the past. This also explains the concept that for God a day is as a thousand years and a thousand years is as a day. God is not bound by time in the way that we understand it.
That being said, Isaiah 6 is the record of Isaiah’s vision calling him to speak for God to the people of Judah and Israel. In this vision, Isaiah is brought before the throne of heaven and he realizes his utter impurity (a man of unclean lips among a people of unclean lips), and that because of this he is not only unworthy to stand in the presence of God, but also unworthy to speak for God. In Isaiah 6:6-7 one of the Seraphim that worship in God’s presence takes a coal (Gary Smith argues that this is best understood as one of the coals from under the throne of heaven from Ezekiel 10) and presses it to Isaiah’s lips. The Seraph then announces that this action has ‘removed’ Isaiah’s guilt and that his sin ‘has been atoned for’.
This, of course, begs the question of who atoned for Isaiah’s guilt. Obviously this happened long before the life, death, and resurrection of the Christ, and so from a purely human perspective God seems to simply be casting away Isaiah’s sin and guilt into some void of nothingness. This then leads to the question of why he can’t do the same for all believers. If God can simply cast sin aside without sacrifice, then why did Christ die? Why does Hebrews tell us that without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sins? The most direct answer is that God cannot simply cast sin aside, a concept that the use of the word ‘te-kuppar’, which carries with it the meaning of forgiveness or atonement, reinforces. Isaiah’s sin was not simply cast aside, it was ‘we-sar’ (taken away from him) and ‘te-kuppar’ (atoned for).
The most obvious solution to this conundrum is, it seems to me, to remember that (as Lewis posited) God is the lord over time, not simply space. While the death of Christ would not happen for several hundred years from Isaiah’s perspective, it was happening and had already happened from God’s perspective. The atonement of Christ had already been completed when God cleansed Isaiah of his sin, and this helps our understanding of how he could simply take the sins of Isaiah and cleanse them. Of course, this then raises anew the question of who Christ preached to when he traversed the spiritual cosmos and entered hell (1 Peter 3:18-20). Traditionally this has been seen as Christ bringing the believing Jews from ages past out of prison and into atonement. However, if God has temporal authority and can apply the atonement of Christ backwards through time (at least from a human perspective) then why wouldn’t he have done this for other believing Jews? Was Isaiah a special case or is there perhaps another answer to the question of who Christ preached to in hell? These are questions to which I do not yet have an answer. Maybe someday I’ll figure it out.