And Before Christ?
One question about Christianity haunts me more than any other: what happened to the souls of the people who died before they had a chance to be saved through Christ?
Let us assess the situation as succinctly as possible. We must assume here that the events as depicted in the New Testament did occur and that they occurred roughly two thousand years ago.
That is that.
And so following the history of the rise of Christianity, we can say that it took a couple of centuries for the religion, still lacking unity, to be a relevant force in the eastern Mediterranean area. About three hundred years would pass before it became sewn into the social fabric of the crumbling Roman Empire; another five hundred years or so would pass before the countless ethnic tribes of Europe accepted the faith into their lives; another millennia would pass before peoples in the Americas, in Africa, in the Pacific Islands, and in Southeast Asia encountered the faith.
That is substantial.
Yet it seems hardly a blink when compared to the amount of time homo sapiens have gazed upon this world. We can use the general scientific consensus that homo sapiens have existed for about two hundred thousand years; we can also use the young earth creationist estimate of six thousand years. It all comes down to the same end: for at least four thousand years all of humanity was denied by time the possibility of Christ; and for many centuries to follow, the vast majority of humanity would be denied by space the self-same possibility.
Many questions occur to me at this moment, but I’ll have to address them at a later time. What concerns me most today is what we do with the souls of those who passed before they would have had any plausible opportunity to be saved through Christ: not only the many miscarriages and stillbirths and children who passed away during early infancy, but also the men and women who lived well into adulthood. In a sense it means little whether they were good people or evil, for they all would have committed the same fundamental sin: not knowing of Christ, they would have had no faith in Him and what He can do. And this, Paul notes, is the only sin that can’t be forgiven.
So do we damn all of these many billions of people who committed this sin in ignorance?
Do we do as Dante suggests and place these souls in Limbo where they will be separated from Paradise and the true Inferno alike?
Or do we either give them a pass or at the very least a means by which these people can redeem themselves in the eyes of God?
Nothing seems palatable.
Indeed, the first two options seem radically unfair to these people, these unworthy damned, if I may call them that. You could say, of course, that the second option is at least a compromise, for as these people have no conception of the Kingdom of Heaven, they would thus have no idea that, in their separation from it, they are being punished. And that’s a practical enough solution, though it does leave a sour taste in my mouth: after all, it deprives the soul the option of making the ultimate decision for itself, the decision that is the crux of Christianity, the choice to accept or deny Christ as He is presented in the Gospel.
Conversely, yet following the same logic, the third option would be unfair to anyone ever had the opportunity to know Christ, regardless of whether they accepted Him or not. A core principle of Christianity is that this decision must be made while one is alive. It must be a decision made not by a confirmed truth but rather by a mercurial faith. It is walking around a dark room and saying something is there, even though you have yet to bump into anything. Once the lights have been turned on, one’s verdict becomes meaningless.
So ultimately, if we accept the Gospel as true, then we must conclude that the unworthy damned are as deserving of the Kingdom of Heaven as non believers, which is to say not at all. And this is why this question haunts me so much. It suggests to me that people who call themselves Christians, if they’ve ever given the matter much thought, are able to overlook the fate of the unworthy damned. They might find the situation reprehensible, but in order to receive their own salvation, they must come to terms with it.
But I can’t fault these people overmuch. After all, one must overlook the suffering of others when one does so much as put on a shirt.
The main thrust of this musing is aimed more at God, at least if the events described in New Testament are true. Why wait so long to unveil true salvation, and why spread the word in such an inefficient manner? That aspect of the story has never made sense to me, though I suppose that is one reason I’m not a Christian.
Of course I expect that some of you are trying to think of a way to circle the square right now. Perhaps God has forgiven those who, divided from Christianity by time and space, followed a different faith, so long as they lived their lives in a way that He could deem as good. But would that redemption, I wonder, extend to societies that carried out human sacrifices and ritualistic cannibalism, to the people in these societies who thought they were doing the right thing? That’s something to chew on.
As is the idea that God’s late reveal of Christ somehow fits into His plan, as in this: none of the unworthy damned would have believed in God anyway. But what a thing to say! Then again I’m one of those people who refuses to believe that, apart from Lot and his daughters (or lovers), no one in Sodom or Gomorrah was ‘good,’ or likewise, that apart from Noah and his family, no one else on earth deserved to be spared from the enormity of the flood. Those notions seem more far-fetched to me than the catastrophes themselves.
Above all, I expect someone to tell me that no living man has the right to apply his concept of fairness to the actions of God. Everything God does comes from the nature of God, and this is the nature of all things good. So how could God be unfair if he is always just?
I suppose it all comes down to a matter of choice: do we accept this state of events as right, or do we wonder if something is wrong–damn the consequences!
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This is a blog for challenging assumptions, building faith, and developing a stronger community. The two channels of this blog – Faith and Narrative – push us to know ourselves and the world around us more intimately. Want to learn more about us?