Paul to the Romans
Paul spends large parts of the first eleven chapters of the letter to Rome addressing the topic of the Jews, the Gentiles, and judgment first for the Jew and then for the Gentile. A little familiarity with the excesses of ancient pagan culture is enough to explain Paul's strong condemnations; the parts cited here focus particularly on idolatry. Paul begins on a none-too-friendly note:
The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness. For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities -- his eternal power and divine nature -- have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse. For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles. ... They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator -- who is forever praised. Amen. (from Romans 1:18-25In case that's not quite plain enough, Paul is at it again shortly:
Since they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, he gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done. They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they are senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless. (Romans 1:28-31)Would I even suggest that someone like that would be blessed with eternal life just for ignorance of their sins and a sacrifice of which they were ignorant? Of course not. Here are the things I would point out about the people described here deserving God's wrath:
- That this type of behavior is always evidence of a heart at enmity with God;
- That their guilt was made worse because they were not innocently ignorant, but knew and suppressed the truth (see Romans 1:18-20 at the beginning of the first quote above)
- That this went to the extent of the people being "God-haters" (v. 30)
Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them (Romans 2:14-15)Anyone who has read Paul through knows that he is not teaching earned righteousness. His topic here is the role of the law, but in passing he does mention that there are Gentiles who do not behave as enemies of God in the ways he has so vigorously and justly condemned.
Some ancient Gentiles in their own words
Remembering that Paul soundly condemned those who worshipped man-made images, those who were God-haters and suppressed the truth -- and examples of that are plentiful -- was that the whole of the ancient Gentile world? Here are a few examples thoughtfully culled out by the ancient Christian writer Justin Martyr (Hortatory Address to the Greeks). He first explained why the Greek poets and pantheons and philosphers could not save them, but then also showed that the truth was not entirely alien to their culture.
He quotes Orpheus:
Look to the one and universal King—
One, self-begotten, and the only One,
Of whom all things and we ourselves are sprung.
(Quoted in Chapter 15 of Justin's address)
And the Sibylline Oracles:
But we have strayed from the Immortal’s ways,
And worship with a dull and senseless mind
Idols, the workmanship of our own hands,
And images and figures of dead men.
And the Sibylline Oracles again:
Blessed shall be those men upon the earthNote that the part about loving God above all else and trusting God alone as their piety is in the same neighborhood as the core of Christian teaching.
Who shall love the great God before all else,
Blessing Him when they eat and when they drink;
Trusting it, this their piety alone.
Who shall abjure all shrines which they may see,
All altars and vain figures of dumb stones,
Worthless and stained with blood of animals,
And sacrifice of the four-fooled tribes,
Beholding the great glory of One God.
(Quoted in Chapter 16 of his address)
Justin Martyr also quotes Sophocles to the same effect:
There is one God, in truth there is but one,
Who made the heavens and the broad earth beneath,
The glancing waves of ocean and the winds
But many of us mortals err in heart,
And set up for a solace in our woes
Images of the gods in stone and wood,
Or figures carved in brass or ivory,
And, furnishing for these our handiworks,
Both sacrifice and rite magnificent,
We think that thus we do a pious work.
(Quoted in Chapter 18 of Justin's address)
These are only a small sampling of what Justin Martyr found and quoted. In turn, Justin Martyr likely did not exhaust his sources, and those sources were already limited to those familiar in the Greek culture in his day.
But let these suffice as examples that all of Gentile culture before Christ was not summed up in the condemnation of God-haters and idolaters who suppressed the truth.
The Letter to the Hebrews
The letter to the Hebrews covers plenty of topics, but a few in particular bear on the subject of the ancient Gentiles.
First, notice that Christ's sacrifice is "once, for all" -- we know that Christ's sacrifice is not limited by race, since it includes both Jews and Gentiles. As for whether the sacrifice was limited by time, we know that the author to the Hebrews considered that the ancient sacrifices had no power to remove sins (Hebrews 10:4, Hebrews 10:11). So we see that even under the old covenant people were ultimately justified not by the blood of goats and bulls, but by the blood of Christ. The blood of Christ, then, is not limited in time so as to only redeem those who live after his sacrifice, but also those who came before. The former things were shadows and copies of what was to come; they were fulfilled in Christ (see Hebrews 9:23-24, 10:1). But some might still ask, "If Christ's sacrifice was not limited by race to his own people, or limited by time to those who came after him, still aren't the ancient pagans cut off from all hope by their own ignorance of all holy things, their lack of hope, their lack of faith?" If that were the case, then what would we make of Melchizedek?
We know that Christ's priesthood is not of the old covenant and the old priesthood of Aaron, a priesthood which was given under the Law of Moses specifically to the nation of Israel. But Christ's priesthood is of the order of Melchizedek, who was not of the house of Israel. Melchizedek was a priest of God Most High among the heathen nations and a representative of those who served the one true God among them. Melchizedek was honored by Abraham, and he in turn blessed Abraham. So Melchizedek's priesthood, which Jesus fulfills in its fullness, is recognized by Abraham and blesses the house of Abraham, but includes those not of the blood of Abraham. Neither can we rightly suppose that Melchizedek was a priest alone, having no followers, since he was also King of Salem. Any king's people follow him, and if he is a priest and a king then it is only natural that he has others who worship the one true God under his leadership. And it is unthinkable that Melchizedek should be among the damned, for Christ would never be given a priesthood lesser than that of Aaron, but one greater. The material here is drawn both from Hebrews 7 and from Genesis 14.
The author of the letter to the Hebrews recognizes, as we have seen before, that sins of deliberate rebellion are regarded as weightier, and that having no knowledge is the hallmark of a sin that is not rebellious but ignorant.
If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God. (Hebrews 10:26-27)Finally, those who show contempt for Christ's sacrifice are condemned in strong, plain terms:
How much more severely do you think a man deserves to be punished who has trampled the Son of God under foot, who has treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified him, and who has insulted the Spirit of grace? (Hebrews 10:29)
In short, I do not find anything in the letters to the Romans or to the Hebrews that call us to assume a default condemnation of all Gentiles who lived before Christ. The efficacy of Christ's sacrifice for those who lived before him is clear in the case of the patriarchs and of Melchizedek. The existence of righteous Gentiles serving the one true God in ancient times is clear in the case of Melchizedek. One important aspect we have not yet discussed is that of knowledge of Christ. For next post ...