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What about those before Christ?

Updated: Jan 23

The following is a response to a questioner who is exercised by the justification for theism, and in particular problems with the doctrine of hell. He points to a potential contradiction within the Christian worldview, namely a long pre-history prior to Christ’s atoning work on the cross and God’s loving desire to provide humanity a solution for sin. I have cleaned the grammar of his questions retaining his voice and reproduced them bold. These questions are interspersed with my own comments and answers below them.

First he quotes me,

“….Also amazement at how loving and generous God is, for even though he desperately wants all people to know the truth and be connected to himself”

You drift in and out of proselytising mode so easily – I suspect without realising you’re doing it! Anyway – I want to break this assertion down for a moment.

1. I wondered what possible relevance has this to do with a ‘values conversation’ in schools?

Someone asked what the effect would be if, in the unlikely scenario, the doctrine of hell was to be taught to primary aged children in the context of a broader curriculum on Christian values. This quotation was part of my response. As it was a theological question I provided a theological answer. Those Christians who understand the how loving and generous God is will no doubt be moved to emulate that same love and generosity to others in their class. I do not say this to proselytise, but because it was relevant to the question asked of me on that forum.

Here is the full quotation.

“I don’t believe anyone teaches the doctrine of hell to primary school kids, but if they did, the children’s correct response should be a genuine compassion and loving concern for their atheist friends. Also amazement at how loving and generous God is, for even though he desperately wants all people to know the truth and be connected to himself, the source of love and life and freedom, he would still allow people their freedom to choose, even if that meant he was constantly rejected for eternity.”

2. You seem to be promoting a particular supernatural entity as real. What evidence do you have that this entity exists – outside of the book in which I can find the claim that it does?

I think evidence from a variety of areas of human experience can be found and used in philosophical arguments with conclusions that have theological implications.

These arguments include;

  • The Leibnizian Cosmological Argument (from the principle of sufficient reason)
  • The Kalam Cosmological Argument (from the beginning of the universe)
  • The Design Argument (from the fine-tuning of the universe)
  • The Moral Argument (from objective moral values and duties)
  • The Historical Argument (from the miracle of Jesus’ resurrection)
  • The Ontological Argument (from the idea of a necessary being)
  • The Reformed Epistemology argument (from the proper basicality of belief in God)

You may not be aware that there is an entire discipline called Natural Theology, whose task it is to show that there is a God without use of the Bible, indeed, any recourse to special revelation. You have a dim view of the Bible, but this need not diminish your view of God’s existence, or that this God has a nature consistent with many of the attributes of God described throughout the scripture.

Each of these arguments have premises that can be defended as true and more reasonable than their contradictories, and so, as valid syllogisms, their conclusions are logically necessary and rationally inescapable. For the sake of brevity, I have not unfolded any here, but simply listed them. The final argument in that list is not really an argument to show that God exists, but to show that belief in God is rational even without arguments. He has made any who have a properly functioning noetic structure aware of his existence in the same way that we are aware that the physical world exists without requiring arguments in order to rationally believe it is there.

3. Our species is at least 100k years old, and around 100 billion of us have been born to this planet. Understanding this, do you still claim that God “desperately wants all people to know the truth” knowing that he only started to communicate with us after 98k years?

This question points at a possible inconsistency: between the 98,000 years of human history without the knowledge of Christ and his salvation, and the idea that God desperately desires all people to be saved. A soteriological problem of evil: the old-earth edition, we might call it.

Now understanding that the inconsistency is only possible, one wonders what the problem is supposed to be? Unless made explicit with additional premises, it is only an apparent contradiction with no need to be resolved beyond that it is a curiosity. Solutions may evade us, and so we conclude that there is not enough information to draw hasty conclusions, but neither is enough information to draw the opposite conclusion – that some aspect of the Christian worldview is wrong. Both ideas can be held together as a paradox, awaiting more information that makes an explicit contradiction or resolves the tension.

Towards a solution

The amount of years doesn’t seem as significant as the amount of people.

As seen here, the amount of people prior to Christ, and especially prior to Abraham c. 2000 B.C. appears exceedingly small compared to the hosts of people who’ve come after. The amount of dead humans crossed the 1 billion threshold somewhere between 8000 BC and the year 0. Since 1 AD. around another 100 billion have lived. Christ arrives just before a population explosion, so the proportion of those who have potentially heard the gospel is far greater than what you’d initially think when hearing of the 98,000 years of human development when there was no Christian gospel to hear. Christoper Hitchens lobbed this argument to D’Souza in a 2008 debate,[1] in response D’Souza notes “Hitchens has his math precisely inverted. . . [of the number of people who have been born] about 2 percent were born before Christ came to earth.” [2]

One researcher in 2012 has estimated the amount of humans who have lived since their origin approximately 100,000 years ago is 108 billion.[3] That means that there are about 15 dead people for every person living. When Arthur C. Clark wrote 2001: A Space Odyssey it was 1968, he wrote “Behind every man now alive stand 30 ghosts, for that is the ratio by which the dead outnumber the living.” He wasn’t far wrong. Using the same model the amount of dead people per living person in 1968 was 29. In 50 years that number has been cut in half! A testimony of the extreme population growth together with a low infant mortality rate.

When the numbers are correctly understood, the force of this argument for inconsistency is severely undermined. Still, what about those 1 billion or so people before Christ?

A solution

Since the possible inconsistency assumes the God of Christianity, it is an internal critique in which we are free to pick up all the resources of a biblical and Christian worldview.

A world absent of Christ is not the same as a world absent any divine revelation. Indeed, the Christian tradition has always held that God had intimate fellowship with Adam and Eve, as well as communicated to various antediluvian individuals and groups. Abraham didn’t really have much information about God to go on, yet his salvation came about when he trusted the promise he had been given and God accredited that trust to him as righteousness (see Romans 4). The benefits of Christ’s atoning death were applied retroactively to those who trusted in Him to solve the problem of their rebellious hearts. Job and Melchizedek seemed to have relationships with God, yet were without the Bible as we have, nor the law as Israel had after Moses, nor the even the covenant promises given to Abraham, not being Jewish themselves.

Romans 1 speaks of a general revelation of God that everyone has through nature so that all men are without excuse, and Romans 2 says that though the gentiles had not been given the law, by living according to their consciences they showed that the requirements of the law were written on their hearts. This indicates if they responded favourably to the small light they had been given, they too could be saved through the grace of God extended to them in their ignorance. It’s possible then that God was moving among pre-history peoples of the world, just like he was among the gentiles of Paul’s day who had not yet encountered the gospel of Christ.

The point here is that none are lost as a result of information they did not have. Rather, those who are lost are condemned on the basis of what they did know.

This addresses the paradox of God’s love and the fact that there are those who’re lost for a lack of information quite adequately. In short, there are no such people. But given the effectiveness of the gospel of Christ in bringing people to a saving knowledge of himself, perhaps the problem could re-surface in a new form. Could the real problem be one of God’s justice; that God did not bring the gospel to those whom he knew would freely accept it if they heard it, but were lost in their sin solely because they never did?

I have written on this problem in more detail here, A Hell of a Problem? Part 2. In short, the proponent of this argument takes upon himself the burden of unprovable assumptions, and moreover, necessarily needing to defend a low view of the providence and sovereignty of God over human history that caused the problem to arise in the first place. Acts 17:26-28 tells us that God marked out everyone’s appointed time in history and the place where they’d be born so that they would be in a position to seek him. “The whole development of the human race is under the providence of God with a goal towards achieving the maximal knowledge of God,” says William Lane Craig.[4] So long as it is possible that God has created a world where those who never hear the gospel and are lost would not have believed it even if they heard it, then the problem sinks back down once again.

Our ancestors from pre-history may have been such people. Alternatively, they may have been like children before the so-called ‘age of accountability,’ unable to recognise right and wrong. Therefore, unable to be justly condemned, they inherit the kingdom just as infants do when they die. If they were not in either category, we must not forget the ministry of angels as messengers, who have always been integral to God’s plan in the salvation of humankind. God is too good to allow any person to be lost because of the (so-called) accident of the historical and geographic location of their birth. If they would have been saved had they the right information but are not in a good time and place to receive it, then God is able to get them the sufficient information.

4. I might add that dictating second hand a book over a 1200 year period also doesn’t sound like an entity, desperate to get the truth out there. In fact – your God chap is a fairly terrible marketeer…

The Bible is the worlds most printed and most popular book, so if you’re in the business of comparison, you’ve little to complain about.

Nevertheless, the story of the Bible is the story of how God has chosen to reveal himself through history. Testimonies of who God and is what he is like are what’s left after God’s encounters Israel, preparing them and the world for the advent of Christ. A brief period of 1200 years doesn’t seem too onerous to get the message across and the necessary preparations in so it’s able to be understood, not forgotten, and spread like wild fire. By the time Christ arrives there is a context to understand him, Israel is on the land bridge between three great continents (Europe, Asia and Africa), there is a Roman peace, Roman roads, Mediterranean trade, and a common Greek language prepared for the gospel to quickly be disseminated. From absurdly small beginnings to the entire globe in a mere 2000 years is quite an achievement. Latourette was a church historian at Yale University who said that the growth of Christianity in the world is literally without precedent: the largest, most successful movement that the world has ever seen.[4]

It also seems appropriate to note here that at about the time when humans develop the ability to record their history and testimonies, and be able to transmit them successfully through the ages, is about the time when God begins to leave his marks on human history. Christians believe in progressive revelation; that God has slowly explained Himself while unfolding his plan, for we could not understand it all at once. We were theologically immature, and so one slow piece at a time, bit by bit, he was a patient teacher. To carry this argument, it is the opponent of Christianity that takes upon himself the mammoth burden of proving that the world would be better should God have begun his interactions with humans prior to when he did, say 20,000 BC rather than 4000 BC. He just can’t know what the world could have been like.

5. Around 50 billion humans in our history didn’t make it to their 6th birthdays – and most of this number died either in child birth or soon after. Assuming you believe Yahweh created us and determined this fate for so many of our number, again by what argument do you claim God is ‘loving and generous’? (Remembering that a large majority of this 50 billion came and went before God even gave Abraham his fax number…..)

The moral and ontological argument I referenced above would show that God is morally perfect and all-loving, and the historical argument would go part of the way towards showing that God is generous.

The length of a persons earthly life doesn’t have much consequence to the argument that God is not ‘loving and generous’ if heaven is also placed on the scales of justice. I mentioned above that in the Christian tradition heaven awaits those who die before the so-called ‘age of accountability.’ This is when there is an individual makes an intentionally choice to sin and thereby rejection of God, and would apply equally to those ancient human ancestors’ children as it applies to our children today who tragically die during the ‘age of innocence.’ There is little biblically that can be used to substantiate this doctrine beyond 2 Sam 12:23 (see also Deut 1:39-40; Mat 19:1-15), where David expresses the conviction that he will be reunited with his newborn child again. Still, the doctrine can be inferred from Paul’s argument in Roman for moral accountability of gentiles, who had only their consciences to condemn or defend them. Without such a conscience, or the knowledge of good and bad, there would be nothing to condemn a newborn infant like David’s child, and therefore have nothing preventing them being recipient’s of God’s grace (See also see also Isa 7:16; Rom 5:17-21) . If that were not enough, God’s loving-kindness is the assurance of a time prior to an ‘age of accountability’ (see Ps. 23:6), though no one I am aware of is prepared to speculate of what age that might be.

Randal Rauser, the Professor of Historical Theology at Taylor Seminary speculates that the age of accountability should not so much be thought of a on/off switch, but a period of transition. We hold a five-year-old to a higher standard than a three-year-old, and a fifteen-year-old to a higher standard than a five-year-old, and adults to the highest standard of all. The greater the child’s knowledge, moral awareness and self-control, the greater their responsibility for their beliefs and actions. He concludes,

“The truth is that we simply don’t have a clear answer to this question. But let this not be a cause for despair. The fact is that we serve a God who is infinitely wiser, more loving, and more gracious than we could ever be. We may not know precisely how he will work redemption into the life of every individual. But what we do know is that in the light of eternity, all his actions will be a cause for wonder, delight, and worship. And so, while we may not know how God works to save people through innumerable shades of accountability, nonetheless we can always trust our children in the hands of our Heavenly Father.”[6]

It may be the case that human children in the first 98,000 years of their existence developed their moral conscience much later than the children of today. This would pluck at least a half billion or so eternal tragedies from the ammunition pile of the objector to the doctrine of hell. No longer can he hurl their loss at the Christian.

Forgive the impertinence of these questions – and I quite understand if you need a moment to respond. These are not easy questions to find answers for. But you made a claim – and seem to be unaware of some salient facts.

I would be delighted to forgive you. And thank you for the opportunity to answer to your questions.

I would also be interested in the arguments you use to support your atheistic conclusions. You seem to be of the opinion that Christian theism is less reasonable than what you believe, and am curious to see if they are as numerous and as powerful as the ones I have put forward for discussion in the future.

Footnotes:

  1. The God Debate: Hitchens vs. D’Souza, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9V85OykSDT8
  2. Calvin Freiburger, 11 July 2008, “D’Souza on “An Absentee God?”, Cited 22 Jan 2020, Online: https://conservativestandards.com/2008/07/11/dsouza-on-an-absentee-god/
  3. Wesley Stephenson, BBC News, “Do the dead outnumber the living?” 4 Jan 2012, Cited 22 Jan 2020, Online https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-16870579
  4. William Lane Craig, 31 October 2008, “Where was God?” Cited 22 Jan 2020, Online: https://www.reasonablefaith.org/media/reasonable-faith-podcast/where-was-god/
  5. Kenneth Scott Latourette, A History of the Expansion of Christianity, 7 Volumes, 1937-45. Cited by William Lane Craig, Ibid.
  6. Randal Rauser, 26 November 2018 “Do Bad Children go to Hell?” Cited 22 Jan 2020, Online https://www.christianpost.com/voice/do-bad-children-go-to-hell.html

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