Agnosticism, Atheism, Bible Geography, Bible Study, Christianity, Faith, God, Morality, Religion, Salvation, Truth

“Times of Ignorance”

There’s a passage in the Bible that has long stood out to me. When I was a Christian, I found it comforting; now, I just find it perplexing. In Acts 17 (beginning in verse 16), Paul is visiting Athens. Since it was a hub of philosophy and culture, it had temples and altars to a multitude of different gods, including an altar “to the unknown god.” Paul uses this opportunity to preach to them about the Jewish god — the god that (according to Paul) created everything. Then, in verses 30-31, Paul says this:

The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.

When Paul talks about “the times of ignorance,” he’s obviously talking about all the time before that moment — a time when God “allowed” people to serve “false” gods. But what does he mean when he says that God overlooked that time? I’d be curious to know how other denominations view this passage. When I was a Christian, my view of it tied in with the first three chapters of Romans. Those chapters lay out a case for why both Jews and Gentiles needed Christ. Romans 2:12-16 says this:

For all who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified. For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.

The Old Law was given to the Jews. While the OT didn’t teach the concepts of Heaven and Hell, many Christians believe that keeping the Law is what let Jews go to Heaven, before Christ came. But what provision was there for Gentiles? Romans 2 seems to say that even though Gentiles didn’t have the law, those who lived righteously anyway were a “law to themselves,” which could “excuse them” on that day of judgement. This is still vague… did it mean that the Gentiles had to somehow anticipate the actual Mosaic laws? Or is this just talking about basic morality? I tend to think it’s the latter, since the former would be virtually impossible.

So let’s go back to Acts 17:30. When Paul says that God overlooked these “times of ignorance,” I took that to mean that he judged Gentiles merely on their morality. It seems like this would be a more forgiving scale, since it wouldn’t include any ritualistic precepts that only apply to specific doctrines. In other words, it seems to fit pretty well with Romans 2.

When I was a Christian, this gave me great comfort. After all, it meant that before the time of Christ, salvation was still awarded to many people, even if they weren’t Jewish. The alternative, that all Gentiles were automatically consigned to Hell, is just too horrible to contemplate.

But this also brings up some uncomfortable questions. First of all, Acts 17:30 goes on to say “but now he commands all people everywhere to repent.” This would indicate that Gentiles could no longer simply be judged on a general moral law. Instead, they would be required to become Christians. But how much sense does that make? If Paul really made this speech in Athens, most sources I’ve seen estimate it to have taken place around 50 CE. This is before any books of the New Testament had been written, which means Christianity was solely spreading by word of mouth. How could all Gentiles have been expected to respond to the gospel at this point in time? Even decades later, once some of the writings were circulating, there were also “non-canonical” writings in the mix. How could people have known which were accurate? For centuries, Christians simply didn’t have access to all the canonical books of the Bible, and even if they had, the majority couldn’t have read them. So they would have relied on the testimony of clergy. When disagreements arose surrounding doctrine, how could they have known what to believe? This doesn’t even deal with the very big problem that Christianity, for most of its history, barely spread outside of Europe, the Middle East, and northern Africa. Most of the world knew nothing of it.

If God no longer excused ignorance after Paul’s speech, then millions upon millions of people were consigned to Hell through no fault of their own. If God did still excuse people’s ignorance, then Paul’s speech doesn’t make a lot of sense here.

But there’s another problem as well. If God was able to save people simply based on their morality, then why did he ever do anything different? Let’s say God still overlooked ignorance even after Paul’s speech. If you had been a Gentile living at that time, you would have had a greater chance at salvation if you never heard the gospel. Because if you heard it, but rejected it, you would be accountable to it. If you never heard it, then simply living a moral life would be enough for salvation. This means that those who preached the gospel were actually doing a disservice. Ignorance truly would have been bliss. Why would God have implemented such a flawed and unfair plan?

When I was a Christian, I took it for granted that Christianity was true, so I when I read this passage, I really just focused on the comfort I got from thinking that Gentiles still had an avenue for salvation before Christ came. But I now see this as another red flag about the truth of Christianity. So I’m curious as to how other groups view this. Are there ways of looking at it that aren’t so problematic? Or is this a minor enough passage that most of you never paid much attention to it?

77 thoughts on ““Times of Ignorance””

  1. Hi Nate, I’ve thought about it quite a bit, and I have had questions just like you have, and mostly concluded the same as you have.

    1. The Bible is written for those who read it, not for those who don’t, so this question is mainly of academic interest so I’m not sure why we’d expect God to tell us the answer to it.

    2. Romans 2 says people are judged according to the light they have been given. I think that is logical and applies everywhere and for all times.

    3. Acts 17 says the light available to people has been increased with the coming of Jesus. What Paul says to the Athenians applies to them, but I don’t think all of it applies to people in Mongolia who he’s not talking to.

    4. Nevertheless, God wants everyone to repent, wherever they are, because we all have a conscience, all cultures have some ethics and therefore some light, no-one lives up to those ethics, so we all need to smarten up – in Athens, in Mongolia, in Australia, everywhere.

    5. In the end, I think it will be pretty clear who wants “in” and who wants “out”.

    I don’t see it as problematic, but I do think I don’t know all the answers, nor would I expect to. I’m not sure if my thoughts are the same as any other christians, I don’t know if I’ve discussed it much with others.

    Happy new financial year, happy July 4, happy July 14 if you have any French blood! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. The issue of judgement is a vexed one. Because so much of the Bible implies judgment based on what one does here on earth. But the Christian Gospel says that no matter what anyone does on earth all are guilty. Even 1,000 years of good works is not sufficient to atone for even one sin. When you think about it, it actually makes no sense.

    So the gospel message becomes, no Jesus then eternal damnation, no matter how good, but with Jesus eternal bliss no matter how bad. Then raises the question of what to do with the passages that imply works are judged. These are then seen (by some) as being judged for degree of reward. Some also argue that with non Christians there are degrees of punishment based on judgement.

    But in the end the gospel says either in or out, depending upon faith in Jesus. So UnkleE’s reference to severity of judgment only makes sense if it refers to degree of reward or degree of punishment, not very one goes upstairs or downstairs as that is not based on works.

    The Sheep and Goats passages in Matthews Gospel has caused some problem for theologians as it implies salvation is based on works (incidentally this story borrows heavily on the apocryphal work the Book of Enoch). So the Christian argument is that Christians are not saved through works, but saving faith will inevitably manifest itself in works. However I see this as a strained interpretation.

    But I have often wondered about those who had not heard the Gospel after the life of Jesus. There seem to be three options:
    1. They are all dammed (hardly seems fair);
    2. They are all saved (in which case better not to preach the gospel as some might be worse off);
    3. They are judged based on how they would have responded if given the opportunity (makes most sense to me).

    I just don’t think any scenario makes a lot of sense.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. The outcome of trying to apply a common sense rationale to christian theology whilst incorporating Jewish theology ( Mosaic Law, Old testament) is simple. It cannot be done.

    Thus, for the believer to reach any sort of harmonious conclusion a huge amount of Cherry Picking has to be done.

    UnkleE is the perfect example.

    So, presupposition takes precedent:
    1. It must be right, because it is God Breathed.
    2. I cannot understand it but this is my problem, not God’s.
    3. I have faith and therefore will not seriously question or worry.

    This way the believer can happily delude themself without having to exercise any degree of integrity whatsoever.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Hi Peter, I reckon we modern westerners, including theologians, try to make things too cut and dried. But in ethics and in relationships (two things we are familiar with that come closest to believing in Jesus, I think) things are rarely so black and white. So I think we have to take the “salvation by faith” statements and the “rewards for actions” statements (like the parable of the sheep & goats) equally seriously. This can be done in several ways.

    Perhaps people need both faith and good works – that might shock a few people! Perhaps we all need the mercy of God, and we can receive that mercy through either faith or good deeds.

    But perhaps there isn’t a formula, and all this worrying about exactly what we need to do to please God, as if we were looking to do the bare minimum, is entirely missing the point. In human love, a lover never asks what is the minimum needed to please their lover, but tries to do everything that would please him/her, and more besides.

    Sometimes we struggle with the answer because we ask the wrong question. Perhaps this is one such time.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. “But perhaps there isn’t a formula, and all this worrying about exactly what we need to do to please God, as if we were looking to do the bare minimum, is entirely missing the point. In human love, a lover never asks what is the minimum needed to please their lover, but tries to do everything that would please him/her, and more besides.”

    I am agreeing with unkleE. What ???? 🙂

    I’m glad he used “human love” as his example because this is all anyone can relate to. And when he says, “But perhaps there isn’t a formula” , I couldn’t agree more. That’s why there is no need for Christianity or any other religion.

    I try not to do the “minimum” to help my fellow man. Doing more is always a goal but not always achieved. But again, if there is a “God” and an afterlife as unkleE and others happen to believe, I’m not the least bit worried . If there isn’t, no regrets…I still lived my life the best I could.

    Liked by 3 people

  6. UnkleE, I like your point number 1, but then it would seem like the best thing to do is teach as few people about the bible as possible. expect that I guess… since we read the bible, then we’re expected to teach it…

    It doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense, which I guess was nate’s point, but to a believer, that’s beside the point: if God said to do something, then do it. If God said something works a certain way, then it does.

    I still just dont buy the claims the authors of the bible made about God.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. What still astonishes me is not that people would listen to Paul when he was alive, that makes perfect sense, but that people would still listen to Paul in that he contradicted Jesus time and time again … plus he never met the guy, plus …

    Liked by 3 people

  8. As I read the scripture you (Nate) quoted, it struck me how it seems so much like the same kind of stuff that religious people make up today. Sometimes stating as fact, sometimes saying, “well maybe…”, but always(?) adding assumption to undemonstrated premises, and generally leading to some illogical or contradictory conclusion.

    Liked by 4 people

  9. Easy, I don’t recall ever thinking much about it then. Now I see the bible as work of men trying to justify this or that situation. The only thing left to do is for the anthropologist and historian to tell us the conditions of life when these books were written to begin to understand the mindset behind them.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. I was reading some of D.L.Moody’s sermons recently. In his view if the Bible is not literally true, i.e. flood, Garden of Eden, Tower of Babel, then the whole Christian faith falls apart as it is based on a false foundation.

    I actually find such statements very helpful in my own search. As they help clarify matters in my confused mind. The theology of all having sinned in Adam, is central to Paul’s theology. Now if they was no actual Garden of Eden then it implies the theology of Paul is built on sand.

    But I suppose that ‘God’ could have put parables in the Bible to explain in simple ways deeper truths, but that seems like a cop out.


  11. From a LCMS perspective, Ephesians 2:8 trumps those verses. Salvation is acquired through the grace of Jesus’s death, and not through any works of adherence to morality. Of course, this conflicts with the teaching in Athens, but at the time Ephesians didn’t even exist yet.

    In a way, none of the disciples knew any of the “divinely inspired” words that would be attributed to them yet, as they hadn’t been written down. Isn’t it kind of weird that it took so long for someone to get the bright idea that maybe it should be written down?

    Then again, I suppose a counterargument is that Acts and Romans talk about pre-Jesus salvation, and Ephesians talks about post-Jesus salvation. That’s fine, I suppose, except it holds people accountable who were alive after Jesus took one for the team but still hadn’t heard the good news. It almost seems like this deity created lives that it really didn’t like after it sacrificed itself to itself for a system of punishment/salvation that it created in the first place.

    Liked by 5 people

  12. Prayer works, friends! Don’t let anyone tell you it doesn’t!

    Yesterday, I fervently prayed that Nate would post a new thread on this blog as he hadn’t posted a new thread for WEEKS and the latest thread, though still attracting one or two comments per day, had DIED a very slow death over a week ago.

    As each day came and went without a new thread on Nate’s blog, I descended deeper and deeper into a very dark depression, as without a good, stimulating daily conversation on Nate’s blog, my life is barely worth living.

    Then, I awoke this morning, to find a new and stimulating thread on Nate’s blog! I was overcome with joy! My prayer had been answered! It had been weeks since Nate last posted a new thread and the very next day, after having prayed for a new thread, a new thread appears on Nate’s blog! How can anyone say that this was a coincidence??

    Pray, friends. Pray fervently, and your prayers WILL be answered.

    Liked by 4 people

  13. Siriusbizinus,

    Are you an ex-LCMS Lutheran? I am. I would be curious to know your deconversion story. Do you have it online?



  14. Hey Gary,

    Yes, LCMS in this case stands for Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod. So yeah, I was a Lutheran.

    I have deconversion stories on my blog Amusing Nonsense, but I have failed to organize them in any fashion. Sorry I’m not much help.


  15. Give me the date of the particular post on your blog that discusses your deconversion story and I can google it.

    I deconverted from the LCMS last year…kicking and screaming. I fought very hard to keep my cherished Lutheran Christian faith but the strength of the evidence against Christianity was overwhelming. I took it really hard. I felt emotionally demolished…and angry at first, but now I feel liberated: Liberated from superstitious, fear-based nonsense.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Sirius,

    I did a google search but did not find anything with details of what triggered your deconversion or how the LCMS and your pastor reacted. Do you mind sharing a brief story here?


  17. Hey Nate,

    I just noticed that Paul wrote “my” gospel in Romans 2:16 – where’s Laurie when you need her! 😉

    I’m with KC – it’s more about how we treat our fellow humans who very clearly exist right before our eyes. Those relationships are real, and if there are any gods that care about morality then kindness toward others would be all that is important. Nobody would think it would be right for a god to hold us accountable for doubting the truth of astrology, so why do some think it’s right to hold people accountable for doubting their favorite metaphysical beliefs that were written down hundreds of years ago when superstition was rampant?

    Liked by 1 person

  18. UnkleE, thanks for offering your perspective. I wondered how you would see it, especially since you don’t believe in a literal Hell.

    Peter, when I was a Christian, I actually saw the faith vs works thing in a similar way to UnkleE. I felt like the Bible taught that the two went hand in hand.

    Ark, I agree woith your assessment too. I think that the only way to get around this passage is to not focus on it –just accept it a priori because “God said it.”


  19. I really enjoyed your thoughts on this topic, Nate. This is truly one of my favorite topics and I’m hoping to do a blog post soon. It will be titled something like “Theology for a pluralist society”.

    You pointed out the Gentile’s ignorance could be in domains of either morality or doctrinal belief. Then you consider the consequences of each. 1) If the Gentile’s ignorance is in the domain of morality, this seems fairer because it seems to give more people the opportunity for salvation. 2) If the Gentile’s ignorance is doctrinal belief, then as you put it, “millions upon millions of people were consigned to Hell through no fault of their own.” I agree.

    My thinking is the Gentile’s ignorance could be any combination of morality and/or doctrinal belief depending on the particular individual. It depends on what God is calling the particular individual to do or believe. It makes no sense for God to call Neanderthals to hold Jewish or Christian doctrinal belief. It does, however, make sense for God to call Neanderthals to respond to whatever grace he offered them. It also makes sense for God to call individual Athenians, through Paul, to repent and/or accept doctrinal belief. This is a principle of individualization. Consider the Parable of the Talents. The master is pleased by the servants’ efforts despite how many talents they were given at the start, so long as they do not hide their talents in wickedness. Also, “Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required, and from him whom they entrusted much, they will demand the more.” (Luke 12:48). This differentiates Neanderthals from Athenians from Aztecs from Chinese from Ethiopians, and differentiates those from Christian homes, broken homes, rich or poor homes, right down to our individual lives.

    God must be calling everyone throughout history to some capacity. For some, it is merely obeying their conscience. For others it is developing a love for others and altruism. For others it is doctrinal belief or refinement. Here’s the kicker. For the individuals called to accept doctrinal belief, not only is this calling a gift from God, but merely accepting it is a gift from God. Consider Paul’s letter to Corinth: “And I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God.” (1 Cor 2:4-5). If it is by nature a charitable gift, then God cannot expect anyone to obtain it with intellect, willpower, merit, works righteousness, altruism, sacrifice, piety, devotion, or any sort of effort.

    Not even the most convinced believer will be saved without a proper response to God’s call. All of this that I am describing has radical consequences for Christians. It means we should be extremely careful about judging. We don’t always know an individual’s background, how much external evils have permeated their life, or how specifically God is calling them. Another consequence is in the debate about God’s existence. Christians can never claim intellectual superiority over atheists for their belief if it was truly a gift. Nor can Christians claim moral superiority if the Spirit is a gracious gift. This ought to foster a radical humility and understanding while living in a society with so many conflicting worldviews.

    Liked by 1 person

  20. Brandon (anaivethinker),

    Thanks for weighing in. I’m really glad you offered your comment, because the first part of it is something I thought a lot about as a Christian, too. Based on the same passages you mentioned, it seemed to me that God’s expectations were very individualized. He basically expected everyone’s best, and that would vary just as people’s experiences and capabilities vary.

    But this also brought up other questions for me, and I wonder if you have any thoughts about them. For God to judge mankind in this way seemed to minimize the importance of the gospel, while simultaneously being a much fairer method of judgement. If faith in Jesus wasn’t required of everyone, why require it of anyone? Perhaps the sacrifice was still necessary to actually be the payment for sin, but why make some people believe in that sacrifice in order for it to take effect? To me, this is like the difference between those who give to the needy anonymously and those who do it for attention.

    If God can save people through all these different methods, why is preaching the gospel so important? And as I argued in my post, can it even be harmful?

    Here’s the kicker. For the individuals called to accept doctrinal belief, not only is this calling a gift from God, but merely accepting it is a gift from God.

    I’ve heard this argument before, but it’s never made much sense to me. I’m not even convinced the Bible teaches it, but for the moment, let’s assume it does. If the acceptance is also from God, then it seems like everyone would have accepted it. After all, the Bible claims that God is no respecter of persons and that he wants all people to be saved. So if the acceptance of salvation is something gifted by God, then we’re either all saved, or God doesn’t actually want everyone to be saved.

    If it is by nature a charitable gift, then God cannot expect anyone to obtain it with intellect, willpower, merit, works righteousness, altruism, sacrifice, piety, devotion, or any sort of effort.

    If that’s true, then the gospel seems completely meaningless to me. It almost seems to be an argument against free will.

    Am I missing something there?

    Liked by 1 person

  21. I think the problem is that there is more than one plan of salvation in the Bible.

    1. The OT says salvation is by keeping the Law.
    2. Jesus said salvation was by doing good, keeping the Law, and believing in him.
    3. Paul said that salvation was by faith in Christ alone.
    4. James said that salvation was by good works and faith.

    That’s why the Protestant plan of salvation is so confusing. Protestantism bases all doctrine on a printed book that contains four plans of salvation. No wonder there have been brutal wars and church split after church split over this issue.

    So the problem is THE BOOK. You aren’t missing anything, Nate.

    Liked by 2 people

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