Are the Gentiles before the time of Christ sent to hell by default?
It is a commonplace of internet debates that one particular theological school will claim that Gentiles in ancient times were universally consigned to hell. The exception amongst the ancient peoples were the Jews, who had a covenant with God providing for sacrifices for their atonement. But how did the ancient Jews understand the covenant sacrifices? The ancient Jews understood themselves to be offering sacrifices on behalf of all nations, not just Israel. During the Feast of Tabernacles, on 7 successive days a number of bulls were sacrificed (13 one day, 12 the next, and so on) until a total of 70 bulls were sacrificed (Numbers 29:12-34). According to Jewish tradition, these 70 bulls were sacrificed for the 70 nations listed in the table of nations (see Genesis 10). On the eighth day, one final bull was sacrificed, the only time during that feast that a single bull was sacrificed alone. According to tradition, this one bull sacrificed alone was for the unique nation of Israel.
Here are some comments from the Talmud:
R. Eleazar stated, To what do those seventy bullocks correspond? To the seventy nations. To what does the single bullock correspond? To the unique nation. (b. Sukkah 55b)In the same section R. Yohannan followed up by saying
Woe to the idolaters, for they had a loss and do not know what they have lost. When the Temple was in existence the altar atoned for them, but now who shall atone for them?The nation of Israel understood that their offerings atoned for the idolaters as part of their call as a priestly nation, part of the call that through Abraham's offspring all nations should be blessed.
This argument is suggestive but will remain inconclusive because it is based on the tradition of those offering the sacrifices, not directly in the command of the sacrifice itself. But it does give grounds to notice: the idea that all those pagans and idolaters were automatically lost was not the ancient understanding of God's people. The ancient Jewish understanding is very much in keeping with what Paul said to the Athenians about their idolatry: "In the past, God overlooked such ignorance" (Acts 17:30). As I've mentioned before, ignorance was never presented as some guaranteed ticked to heaven, but the Torah did record that sins committed in ignorance are easily forgiven, while sins of rebellion were only forgiven with both sacrifice and repentance.
Sacrifice offered without knowledge of the beneficiaries
There are also ancient records of sacrifices offered without the knowledge of those for whom they were offered. In the offerings mentioned in the Talmud, discussed in the previous section, the pagan nations were unaware of both the sins and the sacrifices on their behalf. The book of Job also records that Job offered sacrifices for his grown children just in case they had sinned (Job 1:5). The inter-testamental literature also records sacrifice being offered to atone for those already dead (2 Maccabees 13:38-46), not as a regular practice but as a noble thought.
Again, the endorsements here of sacrifice for those unaware are more suggestive than conclusive. No Christian is required to accept the Talmud as binding or authoritative, though it is a worthwhile insight into Old Testament thoughts and theology of sacrifice. Many Christians do not accept 2 Maccabees as an authority based on the witness of Jerome that the ancient church did not view it as suitable for establishing church dogma (see Jerome's prologue to the three books of Solomon where he comments on the church's valuation of various books). Even those who do not regard it as suitable for church dogma may still find it an interesting witness to the theology and spirituality of Jews in the Second Temple era. The book of Job is likewise not a plain endorsement since it records sacrifice under a non-established system of sacrifice in a context where no covenant is present, though here the practice is clearly recognized in an authoritative text.
These texts do not bind someone to agree that sacrifice for the unaware is effective. But it does show that someone who assumes that the ignorant are condemned, and further assumes that the ignorant cannot benefit from sacrifice on their behalf, is going against the ancient understanding.
Writing this post it was tempting to try to "decide on my own answer"; a reader might think something similar. But the topic is not mine to decide. The matter of someone's final judgment, of their atonement before God, is in Christ's hands. What is mine to do is to proclaim repentance and forgiveness in his name, and to trust him.