Wednesday, July 20, 2011

On the fate of non-Israelites before Christ

One question that Christians debate is what happens to the people who died without knowing Jesus. There were entire nations and continents and eras of human history where nobody had ever heard the name Jesus. If salvation comes through Jesus, then how could they receive God's mercy? But if God is just, how can someone be cut off from the love of God because of where and when they were born?

Without going into all the layers of questions at once, I'd like to look at one closely-related subject: What, if anything, did the authors of the New Testament say about this topic? Did they talk as though they thought the people of other nations and earlier times were condemned?

I'm only aware of a few passages of the New Testament that specifically discuss this type of question about people who lived and died in the years before Christ. The first is Paul's sermon in Athens, addressing idol-worshipers:
From one man, God made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us. "For in him we live and move and have our being." As some of your own poets have said, "We are his offspring."

Therefore, since we are God's offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone -- an image made by man's design and skill. In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. And he has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead. (Acts 17:26-31, NIV, emphasis added on the parts that apply most directly).

Here Paul is speaking to idol-worshipers and talks about the whole sweep of human history up to his own day. Almost all of the people discussed are in groups that some people would assume are condemned; they lived before Christ's birth in lands that worshiped idols. But not once does Paul sound as if he thought they were automatically condemned. Paul could easily have said -- as some have said -- "God set some people to live in times and places before Christ's birth, because he knew he had not elected them to salvation, and there was no way they would reach out or find him." But Paul said nearly the opposite: that God did it so that people would seek him and perhaps reach out and find him, since he is not far from any of us. Paul might have said -- as some have said -- "They were guilty of idol-worship, a sin worthy of death, a sin against the law that is written on the human heart, so there is no injustice in condemning them even if they had never been given a law." But again, Paul said nothing of the sort; he said in the past God had overlooked such ignorance. We are accustomed to a system of laws where "ignorance is no excuse"; but according to Paul, God has a more merciful standard. Paul seems to assume that God overlooks sins caused by their ignorance.

Paul makes a point to say that God arranged history and nations so that people would seek him -- and Paul leaves open the possibility that they might find him. Paul said that no one was ever all that far from God.

There is one other passage in the New Testament that seems to talk about sin and salvation for people who lived in the times before Jesus' birth. Paul's letter to the Romans contains an extended section on the topic. This is a short excerpt:
Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned -- for before the law was given, sin was in the world. But sin is not taken into account when there is no law. Nevertheless, death reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses, even over those who did not sin by breaking a command, as did Adam, who was a pattern of the one to come. (Romans 5:12-14, though the surrounding material is also worth reviewing for a more in-depth discussion)

In Romans, much of the letter has something to say on the topic; this is just an example. In the earlier chapters Paul shows how thoroughly the whole world was caught up with sin and subject to death. Here we see again a group of people that was ignorant of the law, and ignorant of sin -- and still died. Paul again touches on the subject of ignorance: that sin is not taken into account when there is no law. But that did not stop death.

Paul does not end with talk of sin and death. His real point is about Christ:
Consequently, just as the result of the one trespass was condemnation for all men, so also the result of one act of righteousness was justification that brings life for all men. For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous. (Romans 5:18-19)

Paul spends some time discussing condemnation and salvation, discussing the people who lived before Christ; he never sounds as though he assumes they were lost. And -- strangely to our ears -- he never sounds as though he assumes Christ has nothing to do with them because of where and when they lived.

That leaves a lot of questions unanswered for the moment. Sometimes a question left unanswered may be better than a question answered incorrectly.

I'd be interested in other passages of the Bible that other people think about in connection with this topic.

I do have some more on this topic, but it comes from a completely different angle and will wait for another post.


Aron said...

How about 1 Peter 3:18-4:6? (The NIV mistranslates 4:6 by adding the word "now" which is not in the Greek.) Also relevant I think are Revelation 5:9 ("every tribe, language, people, and nation") and the Sheep and the Goats.

Weekend Fisher said...

I expect that the "preached to the dead" passage is relevant to people who lived before Jesus' death and resurrection. It could also set a precedent, showing us God's intentions towards those who die without having heard of him.

On Revelation, I was wondering how your line of thought went. Does it go "if every tribe (etc) is represented, and some pagan tribes died out before Jesus' birth, then Revelation argues for the salvation of at least some of their members"?

The Sheep and the Goats is a great passage to discuss with "atheists" who mostly think God is unfair. It discusses salvation, with Jesus as the judge, strictly in terms of God treating people the way they treated others. Many peoples' next question after reading it is, "All that forgiveness that Jesus and his disciples talk about -- where does that fit into the picture?" But if you go strictly by the sheep & the goats, there's no worry about injustice coming from God.

Are those the things you'd wanted to bring up about those passages? I'd be interested to hear your take on them.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

Aron said...

You've got my thought on Revelation exactly. But Revelation doesn't say how members of every tribe are saved.

I've heard of previously unevangelized people saying to missionaries "I know this Jesus: he appears to me in dreams", but that seems to be more of an exception than the rule!

It seems there are 2 possibilities for salvation: A) they accepted Christ, unknowingly, before their death, or B) they have a chance to accept Christ after their death.

The Sheep and the Goats is relevant to the former situation. While God's justice is of course presumed (and in the Bible it is always *real* fairness designed for fallen people, not the gotcha-on-a-techicality or the damned-for-not-being-perfect fairness that theologians tend to slouch into accepting) what is most striking to me is not only that it suggests people who don't know Jesus can be saved, but that the mechanism is still accepting Jesus. That's a good thing to say when discussing the parable with Protestants who are confused that the passage teaches works-righteousness. (By the way, before the word "agape", as used by the pagan Greeks, originally referred to hospitality relationships. That's why it was a good word for Christians to describe welcoming-in-of-others-for-the-sake-of-Christ. Even the pagans knew that hospitality was important because one might inadvertantly be hosting the gods.)

Regarding the preaching to the dead, traditionally this passage refers to the Harrowing of Hell in which Christ goes down to the underworld to save people. So far this looks applicable, but most of the theological relevance of this resuce operation is taken away by the also-traditional limitations that it was only for a) people who lived before Christ who b) already worshipped the true God (i.e. Jews and a few others).

However, I think these limitations are wrong. Firstly, it seems incredibly unlikely to me that God would treat people differently based on whether they lived before or after Jesus, if they've never heard of him at all. In other words, when Paul says that God "now commands all nations to repent", I think that "now" must refer to the preaching of the gospel.

Secondly, I don't think it is at all safe to assume that time works the same way for people who have died. As a physicist I know that time is part of the physical universe. Along with space, it both affects, and *is affected by* matter. For example, time runs a little slower near the earth than it does in space. A lot of Christian teaching on the "intermediate state" seems to be compromised by the unjustified assumption that linear time applies beyond the material universe.

That the descent was only for the righteous, is belied by the fact that Peter refers to those who "disobeyed long ago" (3:20) as the beneficiaries, and also says that although people might judge them according to what took place in the body, God can still make them alive according to the spirit (4:6). (As for most doctine in the epistles, an interesting question to ask is "How does he know this?" My guess: We know Jesus appeared to Peter individually after his resurrection, and "Where were you, Lord?" is exactly the sort of dumb question I can imagine Peter asking.)

To sum up, I think it's best to say that there aren't any people who aren't in a relationship with Jesus Christ (though some still reject him):

"Where can I go from Your Spirit?
Or where can I flee from Your presence?
If I ascend into heaven, You are there;
If I make my bed in hell, behold, You are there.
If I take the wings of the morning,
And dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
Even there Your hand shall lead me,
And Your right hand shall hold me."
(Psalm 139:7-10)

Aron said...

Maybe I should add that most of the standard proof texts for no opportunity for repentance after death are lame.

Hebrews 9:27 is often quoted to prove this, but when read in context with 9:28 the implication that judgement follows death immediately evaporates.

Reformed types like Romans 10:14-15 to prove the absolute necessity of missionaries for salvation, despite the fact that the verses are rhetorical questions, and the answer to these questions is NOT "They cannot," since Paul goes on to say that they must have heard the gospel, by quoting Psalm 19:4 which is about how the because the heavens declare the glory of God.

And of course there's nothing in the context of Ecclesiastes 11:3 to indicate that the author is talking about personal salvation.

There's lots of stuff in the gospels, especially parables, on the theme of "too late!" but it mostly seems to be about the Second Coming, not death. The exception is the Rich Man and Lazarus, which does seem to suggest immediate judgement after death, albeit in a parabolic context.

Aron Wall

Weekend Fisher said...

Hi Aron

Thank you for taking the time to explain your thoughts. I really appreciate that.

I think one thing that troubles me about the debate -- and debates in general, I suppose, once they get developed and polarized enough -- is that once people get invested in their positions, evidence starts being interpreted (reinterpreted?) to fit. So that the longer and louder the debates go on, the more we hear the debate and the less we hear what the original was trying to tell us.

The thing I'm most sure of in this debate is that, when I read the Bible, I don't hear Jesus claiming some of the things that people claim on his behalf. The New Testament doesn't sound like the authors shared quite all of our assumptions on those things.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

Howard said...

To take this discussion in a different direction, have you come across the book 'Eternity in their hearts'? It gives a fascinating insight into the times prior to Christ, and particularly into what was behind Paul's sermon at Mars Hill (events with Greek culture)... well worth a look.

Weekend Fisher said...

I haven't heard of that book before. I'll have to keep an eye open for it.

Hope you've been well.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

Howard said...

Proving to be a hard year, but keeping my head above water... I think!

Here's a link for the book I mentioned:

Weekend Fisher said...

I hope things get better for you.

The book looks like it's worthwhile. Just reading the reviews and co-recommendations on Amazon, it reminds me of the thoughts crossing my mind while reading Confucius, and Lao Tzu, and even Sun Tzu: there are some deep similarities here.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

Howard said...

It's an area that most Christians do not really discuss, but I've heard confirmed several times by those who have worked on the mission field. The Gospel message, I suspect is far older than we often acknowledge in our constrained theologies. God walked with us in the garden, and as Paul noted at Mars Hill, has been remarkably close to us ever since. Wisdom is often crying out in the market place, but seldom heard amidst our own noise and fury.

Martin LaBar said...

Thanks for your good thoughts on this topic!