Last week, Justin, one of my best friends, shared his concern that Christianity necessarily means that those who lived before Christ are eternally damned. This post is a direct response to Justin, so you may find it helpful to read his original post.
The concerns you raise, Justin, are rooted in the idea of Christ’s life and death as the means of achieving heaven or being damned to hell. Though your piece refers repeatedly to the afterlife, I think the foundation of your question is, more specifically, about the method of reconciliation between God and humanity. This very question has been one of the hot topics within theological circles since Christ himself ascended into heaven.
Brilliant Christian minds have wrestled with concepts of atonement and have presented various models to try to explain what happened on the cross on the day of Christ’s crucifixion. Books have been written and debated; entire systems of theological thought have been constructed. There is absolutely no chance that my words here can capture even the minutest breadth of the thought and scholarship that has gone into this discussion, but I hope that I am able to at least provide a sense of the way some Christians would answer your questions.
There’s an old description of atonement that defines it as being made at one ("at-one-ment") with God, reconciled to God through the sacrifice of Christ upon the cross.
Within the evangelical subculture, the dominant model of atonement is one known as “penal substitution.” This is the straightforward idea that each individual has sinned; sin incurs a penalty (eternal death) that, due to God’s demand for justice, must be paid; but Christ bore that penalty upon the cross for anyone who would accept his lordship over their lives. In this model, Christ’s death was the substitution for the penalty each individual human should have born.
Penal substitutionary atonement is basically transactional: it is as if we were standing in a checkout line at the grocery store without enough money, but someone comes along and pays for the merchandise we couldn’t afford on our own. I believe, Justin, this is the model upon which the specifics of your concerns are founded. (I’ll attempt to answer your questions as well as I’m able within the framework of this model, but then I’ll propose another view of atonement that, I think, completely reframes your concerns and, I hope, provides an alternative view of the work of Christ on the cross.)
What happened to those who died before Christ?
Before Christ, the Jews believed they were reconciled to God through animal sacrifice. As many of them understood it, they had to continually perform these sacrifices in order to maintain their right relationship with God. The author of Hebrews, though, contrasts that idea with the sacrifice of Christ. Hebrews 9:26 and 10:10 says,
But as it is, [Christ] has appeared once for all at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself. …it is by God’s will that we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.
Christ’s sacrifice, according to the author of Hebrews, finished what animal sacrifices could never accomplish. Thus, even for Christians who hold to a view of atonement dominated by the penal substitutionary model, it is clear that those faithful Jews who died before Christ had full access to Christ’s redemption. Though pre-Christ Jews were unaware of the meaning, the animal sacrifices they performed were shadows of the sacrifice of Christ, drawing their eyes to him.
For more reading on this, take a look at Hebrews 9-10 and Acts 17.
Are those who have never heard the name of Christ eternally damned?
Within the conservative Baptist tradition within which I was raised, the response to this question would be that, even absent the direct revelation of Scripture or the rituals of Jewish Law, humanity is witness to the wonder of creation (as an identifier of God as creator) and has an inner understanding of right and wrong (as a moral compass guiding people to live by God’s commands). As evidence, they would point to Romans 1:18-21:
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. So they are without excuse; for though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened.
So they would say that those who rebel against the law of God written on their hearts have sinned against their Creator as definitely as those who willfully break the laws of God written on stone tablets in the Israelites wandering through the desert. (I have serious misgivings about this interpretation of Romans 1, but that’s a topic for another time.)
Other Christian traditions - those on the other end of the theological spectrum - would argue for universalism, reading such texts as 2 Corinthians 5:19 (“in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us”) as an indication that Christ’s sacrifice was an atoning act for all the earth without exception.
And between these poles, there is an entire gamut of thought regarding how humanity bears personal responsibility for our own sins.
There is a fascinating episode of The Phil Vischer Podcast that features Dr. John Walton discussing Old Testament Jewish conceptions of heaven and hell that addresses this conversation somewhat tangentially (hat tip to Sarah Eggers for pointing me to this one).
A Broader View of Atonement
But now I would like to shift gears a bit. To this point, I’ve mostly been discussing your concerns as they relate to penal substitution (although certainly many of the ideas apply to other models), but I personally place minimal value in this model. Although there is inarguably scriptural truth in it, I maintain that, when it dominates the theological conversation, it causes more damage than it does healing.
Penal substitutionary atonement is a model that deals exclusively with the individual responsibility of each person and dismisses entirely the communal nature of the Kingdom of God. It flourishes within Westernized society for that very reason: it feeds into our prideful instinct that the world must revolve around us. It takes the penultimate moment of Christian history - God’s victory over death - and tries to make it once again about us. It’s self-centric and self-aggrandizing. And I cannot help but think that it’s short-sighted.
The entire arc of Scripture, from the creation account in Genesis 1 to the reign of glory described in Revelation 22, paints the picture of God establishing the earth as God’s temple. Scripture reinforces over and over again that God plans to take up residence - to set up the Kingdom of God - here on earth. Although now it is ravaged by brokenness and evil, God will restore it once again to wholeness and harmony. And God wants humanity’s participation even now in bringing that Kingdom to pass.
Throughout human history, God has been trying to shape us (as individuals and as a greater society) into reflections of God’s own image. The Israelites, God’s chosen people pre-Christ, had chance after chance to be the catalyst for this Kingdom, but they continually missed the message that God was trying to send. They thought God was their God and their God alone. They sought their God as a deliverer from trouble, like a genie they could summon when they needed it.
Thus, when they lived in political and social oppression as they did under the Roman occupation, they hoped that God would send them a political or militaristic champion to deliver them as David had done for their ancestors. When Christ came, preaching meekness, humility, and patience in the face of suffering, they balked. This wasn’t their Messiah - the Savior - that had been promised! So when Christ died, many presumed that the man had been just another false prophet.
But God had planned for this from the foundations of the earth (see 1 Peter 1:18-20). Christ had not come as a Messiah just for the Jews (as they had supposed); he had come as a Messiah for the entire world. Christ was born, lived, died, and was resurrected not simply as a means of personal redemption for individuals - not simply as a means for a person to live eternally in heaven - but as God’s definitive proclamation that evil would find no victory in God’s temple.
Within this model of atonement, usually called Christus Victor, the Christian life is about much more than what happens to us after we die. Instead of focusing on our own (im)mortality, we are called to be advocates for justice and peace throughout the earth, to care for the broken and hurting around us, and to tend the planet we were given to steward. This model is one of self-sacrifice and humility. It is one of hope. And, though it is, by itself, an incomplete picture of the work of God through Christ, I believe it is a strong foundation for your exploration of Christian thought and life.
I love the opportunity to have these kinds of conversations with you, Justin. Your heart and your quest for understanding continue to challenge and inspire me, and I am sure that my response has not answered all of your questions (in fact, it’s probably stirred new ones!). I pray that you continue seeking, probing, and asking.