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?