Agnosticism, Atheism, Bible Study, Christianity, Faith, God, Religion

The Light Given

Sometimes, skeptics of Christianity will criticize its approach to justice by asking what happened to the souls of all the people who died before Jesus’s ministry, assuming that since they couldn’t have had faith in him, they were consigned to Hell. But many Christians believe they can address this issue easily by pointing to Romans 2 and saying that all people will be judged “by the light they’ve been given.”

Incidentally, I can’t find the origin of that particular phrase. It certainly doesn’t come from Romans 2 — at least not any translation I’m familiar with. Perhaps some evangelist came up with the phrase years ago, and it’s made its way through Christian circles since. I don’t know.

Anyway, the idea is that people who have never heard of Jesus, whether it’s because they lived before his time, or because they were never exposed to Christianity, are simply judged by other means. Romans 2 deals with the issue in this way:

There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. For God shows no partiality.
— Romans 2:9-11

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.
— Romans 2:14-16

Paul’s statements here get a little wordy, but he seems to be saying that people who are unaware of God’s law are not really held accountable to the law. Instead, they are saved by the “law written on their hearts” — in other words, their conscience. That appears to be a nice, tidy solution, and it shows that skeptics who try to malign Christianity along these grounds are doing so out of ignorance. Christianity actually has a decent answer to this problem.

However, when we peel back the layers even further, it turns out that things aren’t quite so simple. While it’s true that Christianity has a good answer for what happened to people’s souls before faith in Jesus was a requirement, I think Christians are pulling a bit more from it than is warranted. And I believe they’re misusing Romans 2 in the process.

What Is Paul’s Point in Romans?

Romans is an interesting book with a lot of complex themes, so to fully understand what Paul is trying to say in chapter 2, we should consider the fuller context. He states the book’s main thesis in verses 16-17:

For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.”

The gospel is the means of salvation for Jews and Gentiles alike. That’s the point he’s trying to make throughout the book. To that end, the rest of chapter 1 is dedicated to laying out why Gentiles were in such need of Jesus. Paul’s rhetoric here is rather inventive, as he finds a way to acknowledge that the Gentiles had no direct knowledge of God, yet still should have known that idolatry would be wrong. It’s a little long, but it’s worth reading:

For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.

Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.

It’s pretty impressive, when you think about it. Paul knows that Gentiles never received a direct revelation from God, since the Jews were God’s chosen people. Yet, he argues that they should have known there was a God simply from looking at nature — and to be fair, most people throughout history have done that very thing. But for some reason, he thinks that they shouldn’t have strayed into paganism and idolatry.

In verses 26-32, he explains how their idolatry caused God to somehow withdraw from them even further, which led to homosexuality and all kinds of terrible things. It’s another fascinating bit of brainstorming, but digging any further into those verses would take us off topic.

Then, in chapter 2, Paul does write the bit that I started this post with: that Gentiles are simply judged by what they do, whether they knew the law or not. Good, moral Gentiles may be excused on the Day of Judgment (though it’s hard to say if any could pass Paul’s no idols policy).

But here’s where it gets more complicated: in chapter 2, Paul is talking about the law — i.e., the Law of Moses.

Yes, in chapter 2, Paul is giving some cover to Gentiles who had not been covered by the law and didn’t know Jesus. Salvation was not completely lost to them, because God would judge them in a different manner. Jews, on the other hand, were judged according to the law.

But Paul doesn’t leave it there, and that’s why it’s dangerous for Christians to point to this passage as though God will still judge people according to some non-specific moral law. Paul begins to argue at the end of chapter 2 that the law was not sufficient for the Jews either, because they couldn’t keep it perfectly. He sums up the argument in 3:9 and verses 19-25:

What then? Are we Jews any better off? No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin

Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.

But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.

Paul believed that without God, most Gentiles were reprobates, while Jews were burdened with a law they could never live up to. In his mind, Christ made the perfect solution to both problems.

The next few chapters explore this theme in more detail, but I think we’ve covered enough to make my point.

It helps when you realize that Paul is not writing about two distinct groups of people in this book, he’s writing about three: Gentiles, Jews, and Christians. Chapter 2 is not talking about a dichotomy between “God’s people” and Gentiles who are ignorant of God — it’s simply the midpoint of an argument that states why Gentiles needed Jesus, why Jews needed Jesus, and how both groups can be saved as Christians. So really, chapter 2 doesn’t answer the question of how God will judge those who don’t know about Jesus now that Christianity is not some brand new religion.

Can Non-Christians Still Be Saved?

It’s already clear from the New Testament that perfection is not a requirement for salvation. All of Paul’s letters make that case, and we also have the Parable of the Talents (Matt 25:14-30; Luke 19:12-27), which clearly shows that God prizes effort over ability. But that’s how God deals with Christians. How does he deal with non-believers?

It happens that there are some very clear passages about this:

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life… Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil.
— John 3:16,18-19

Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.
— John 3:36

These passages are rather plain, but to be fair, can we be sure that they apply to people who’ve never even heard of Jesus? Couldn’t these verses be talking about those who have heard about Jesus, but rejected the teachings? Let’s check out a couple of other passages:

And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.
— Hebrews 11:6

For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all
— 1 Tim 2:5-6

Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
— John 14:6

To me, these passages sound like hard and fast rules. Perhaps there’s some exception buried in there, but it’s hard to see room for one. What we really need is a passage that discusses the policy that was in place before Christianity came on the scene (as talked about in Romans 2), but also explains whether or not that policy changed with the introduction of Christianity. Turns out, we have a pretty good candidate:

“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.”
— Acts 17:30-31

The author of Acts claims that this statement was made by Paul when he was addressing a group of pagans in Athens. While walking among them, he was studying the various temples and altars to the Greek Pantheon, when he came upon an altar to “the unknown God.” Never one to miss an opening, he began to speak to a crowd and explained that this “unknown God” is actually the only God — the Judeo-Christian god who created the Universe and sent his son to die as an avenue for salvation. This particular verse is the culmination of his argument — that God had left the Gentiles to their own devices in the past (as Romans 1 and 2 state), but now “commands all men everywhere to to repent.”

Paul creates a dichotomy here. He acknowledges how things were done in the past, which is the system he described in Romans 2, and he contrasts it with how things are supposed to work moving forward. Is there room for this notion that all people will be judged “according to the light they’ve been given”? I think it’s hard to make a scriptural case for it.

Why Should We Care?

As an atheist, I prefer moderate Christianity to the fundamentalist variety, but that doesn’t mean I think moderate Christianity is some great thing. I think it gives cover to the fundamentalists, and I think it prevents many people from being able to think clearly about certain topics (we can get into those later). Most moderate Christians know plenty of people who aren’t Christians at all, and they can see that non-Christians aren’t bad people. And if they learn more about why these non-believing friends of theirs are skeptics, they can usually concede that we have some decent reasons, even if they disagree with them. This makes them question why good people can’t be saved, just because they aren’t Christians. Enter the “enough light” argument.

Hey, it’s a great notion. If there really is a god out there who would bother to judge humans on anything, I tend to think he/she would judge us on the kinds of people we are, not which superstitions we happen to hold to. So this comforting idea eases the burden that moderate Christians feel. They don’t have to experience all that cognitive dissonance about how a good God could punish good people; therefore, Christianity evolves and hangs on even longer. So even though this is not an obnoxious or offensive doctrine, I think it’s important for us to see that there’s no real basis for it in Christianity. In fact, the way the Bible deals with it throws even more doubt onto Christianity. Why would God pick the first century as the time to stop overlooking people’s ignorance, especially if he planned for his new religion’s authority to come primarily from written texts that weren’t yet written, were centuries away from being compiled, and were millennia away from being accessible and readable by the majority of the population?

Sometimes cognitive dissonance is good, because it can expose bad ideas and help us find better ones. Hopefully, pointing out the flaw in this doctrine will help sow a little dissonance.


64 thoughts on “The Light Given”

  1. I’m impressed at the level of patience you still have for this level of…hermeneutics?

    I think it’s worth noting that you approached the Bible here like a believer, taking it to be a cohesive (or at least reconcilable) whole. By contrast, as a skeptic, I am (and I think we are) of the opinion that the apparently contradictory or incongruent passages often are exactly that.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Nate thanks for another thoughtful post. I have listened to many of the sermons of Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones on Romans and Ephesians (he preached 588 sermons just on these two books). Dr Lloyd-Jones was a brilliant expositor of the Bible and he concluded that the only answer to the question of what happens to those who have not heard the Gospel is that it is ‘mystery of God’.

    In essence Dr Lloyd-Jones admits that whatever answer one comes up with contradicts either a direct statement in the Bible or goes against basic logic, I know this because that is what he implies in his sermons, without ever explicitly saying as much, as he is in the Bible is inerrant camp.

    As to the letters of Paul, my own conclusion now two years on from Christianity is that Paul is too clever by half. His Hagar/Sarah analogy in Galatians is one of the poorest pieces of exposition in the New Testament and if it had been handed in by a theological student in modern times would have received a failing grade.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. Paul, the First Apologist! This is why Christianity is such a mess. Its proponents were constantly trying to “spin” difficulties encountered when people were honestly trying to assess the validity and consequences of adopting said religion. In other words, they made shit up right and left. No wonder there is so much contradiction and nonsense. How many of these early apologists, when engaged in such interactions, would willingly say “I do not know. I will think about it (or consult others more wise, or …) and get back to you.” I think the number of times this would happen could be counted on one or two fingers. (Paul did do this as a delaying tactic when clearly stumped, but had a vision (aka consultation with Jesus) every night it happened which made things clear.)

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thanks for the comments! It’s nice to talk to all of you again — I’ve been missing the comment threads 🙂

    Yeah, Paul is really interesting. In some ways, I kind of admire him, because he seems to truly be struggling with how to find a way for all people to be saved. He’s almost like moderate Christians today — Paul knew a lot of Gentiles that he loved and admired, and I think his passion for Christianity stemmed from a desire to see non-Jews have a path toward salvation. But the downside is that his capacity to fool himself knew no bounds. He had no trouble making up stuff, as Steve noted. Too bad he never thought to question the whole starting premise.

    I’m impressed at the level of patience you still have for this level of…hermeneutics?

    Thanks! For some reason, I still really enjoy digging into passages like this.


  5. @nate
    It looks like you still have a soft spot for the truth of God’s word. That’s good.

    @ steveruis

    The ‘contradiction and nonsense’ belongs entirely to you.


    Your observation of Hagar/Sarah, and you sitting in judgment of the esteemed mind of Paul reveals more of your ignorance, and is enough proof that you are clueless as to what the apostle put forth. And no, don’t ask me to do your homework. Eat your own food, for if you are spoon fed, you will not appreciate it.

    And to all: if you do not give God the courtesy of existing, is it any wonder that His jewels in scripture are as rusted hardware to you?


  6. CS, if you could expound on scripture the way Nate does … and provide rational reasoning why you believe what you do about your God, you might engender an audience. Instead, you just continue to spout your usual jabs and stabs and “poetic” nonsense and expect everyone to be persuaded to your POV. It may work on your blog, but I doubt very much it’s going to happen on Nate’s blog.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Nate, good to read your wisdom. You have an appreciative audience.
    Unfortunately, the soft spot CS sees goes by another name for skeptics – flawed doctrine. Or did the point of post sail right over your head, CS? (And why would I be surprised about that?)


  8. Tkx nan, but don’t make me laugh.

    ‘Expounding scripture’ to people who do not believe one word of it?

    I consider who I am talking to, and tailor a response accordingly. But this escapes you.


  9. To be fair, CS, most of us were very dedicated Christians, once upon a time. I think you’d find most of us to be very receptive to talking in detail about scripture.


  10. Perhaps not “persuade” in the usual use of the term, but he does indeed offer his tidbits to invoke readers to his side of the fence. What believer doesn’t?

    Liked by 1 person

  11. “IDK about CS in particular, but do you think sometimes it’s more for themselves? “Defending the faith”?”

    Exactly ! I think you hit the nail right on the head.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Perhaps. But CS is rather unique in the way he “defends the faith.” Rarely does he offer scripture or other elements of proof. Mostly, his comments lean towards the “poetic” side and afford little substance.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. After following CS’ passionate defense of a flat earth on his own blog, I consider to be called clueless by such a ‘thinker’ to be a badge of honour.

    If CS passionately supports a concept that is blatantly false, such as a flat earth, then he hardly deserves to be taken seriously on any other topic.

    Liked by 2 people

  14. Passionate defense pete? Hardly. But why clog up this blog post with something irrelevant to the issue at hand? Many bright minds have argued for a stationary earth, and for thousands of years mind you. May be you have been spoon fed, as opposed to honest facing of facts and logic.

    At least I give God the courtesy of existing, where you do not, thus this fact alone clouds your judgment, and leaves you exposed to your own bias and inability to understand God’s word.

    As to your assessment that I ‘do not use scripture,’ what are you blind? Of course I do not cite chapter and verse, as I find that distracting to follow, but rest assured, there is scriptural content in everything I post.

    I think some of the folks here who have studied scripture would even agree.


  15. CS I think you may have conflated my comment with that of Nan’s. I would never accuse you of failing to use Scripture to support your arguments.

    My position is that the Bible is a human not a divine book and thus its statements do not represent divine wisdom.


  16. Hi Nate, I’m impressed by your willingness to analyse this sort of thing at some depth, but it won’t surprise you to know that I think I disagree with almost every point except your starting point – i.e. I believe in “the light given”, though I didn’t know other people used the term so much. Because I disagree with so much, I wrote a blog post on it rather than make a long comment, as the above pingback shows.

    But I have a question and a challenge.

    My question is this. Can you explain a little more what you mean by “I think it gives cover to the fundamentalists”? I have heard the concept before, but never saw it explained , what principles it is based on and how it works. Would you say that you, a moderate atheist, provide “cover” for fundamentalist or immoderate atheists?

    My challenge is this (should you choose to accept it!). As I say in my own blog post, I think arguments like this based on a possible difference in understanding about God, have very little weight, especially as I think there are much more fundamental arguments that atheism is unable to answer. So why don’t you do a series of posts on the difficult questions for atheism ….

    Do we have free will? If so, how? If not how can any choice be based on evidence rather than brain processes?
    How did something arise out of nothing? (Or how can a series of events have no start?)
    Is the “fine-tuning” of the universe caused by design, chance or necessity?
    How can you say miracles don’t happen when there are so many millions of reports?
    Is the universal declaration of human rights true?

    Thanks for this post, it was an interesting exercise to consider it. Best wishes.


  17. @pete

    Line 1, fair enough.
    Line 2, yes, I remember you saying that.

    As far as scripture not being ‘divine,’ you may want to consider HOW stone age men knew there would be a cashless society, with the implemented system of computers/id chips, tattoos, and tracking………………

    …..long before Bill Gates or Zuckerberg were in diapers


  18. Hi unkleE,

    Thanks for the comment! I haven’t read your post yet, but I will very soon. And I appreciate the questions you’ve asked me to weigh in on. I’ve been looking for some good blogging topics, so I’ll take you up on trying to answer those.

    In this comment, I’ll just focus on this point:

    My question is this. Can you explain a little more what you mean by “I think it gives cover to the fundamentalists”? I have heard the concept before, but never saw it explained , what principles it is based on and how it works. Would you say that you, a moderate atheist, provide “cover” for fundamentalist or immoderate atheists?

    Before I address this particular issue, let me say that the larger problem I have with moderate Christianity is that I think it can lead to other bad decisions. Someone’s looking for a job, but instead of just making the decision based on physical realities — his salary and scheduling needs — he’s also praying to an entity that might not be there, thinking about rules that this deity has supposedly prescribed, like which days he can work, whether or not a woman can have authority over him, and what kinds of work he can engage in.

    Where I live, a lot of moderate Christians didn’t particularly like Trump, but they vote for Republican candidates out of principle, primarily because of gay rights and abortion. That’s a very real consequence of moderate Christianity, and it’s why my state voted for Trump 2-1. It’s why we consistently put Roy Moore in positions of power within this state.

    But to the particular statement you’re asking about, I don’t mean it in the sense that they’re somehow responsible for fundamentalists. If we think about it in the reverse, I think my point might be clearer: if all moderate Christians weren’t Christians at all, then the fundamentalists would be more marginalized and exposed. They’d have far less political capital.

    Right now, the Alt Right is trying to create a “kinder, gentler” version of racism — and it’s apparently paying off in some circles, as their rise in America and Europe have shown. Guys like Richard Spencer try to come across as reasonable and affable, and they argue for their position in round about ways that try to soften the reality of what they’re proposing, which is really just good, old-fashioned racism. They aren’t as obviously offensive as guys like George Wallace were and as the KKK has always been. But their “more reasonable” approach brings guys like David Duke out of the woodwork.

    I’m not trying to say that Christianity is as bad as racism, though I realize this analogy might be a little offensive. It’s just the best example I can think of for how I see this. Almost no one is ashamed to identify as a Christian, because it’s a very well-established thing to be. But a significant number of Christians are inerrantists and young earth creationists. Perhaps the majority of Christianity wouldn’t fit those labels, but since moderates and fundamentalists are all called the same thing, it’s easy for the hardliners to hide and not pay the social costs that such positions should bring.

    Would you say that you, a moderate atheist, provide “cover” for fundamentalist or immoderate atheists?

    I don’t know. It’s a reasonable question. I see Christianity as a false religion, so it’s easy for me to think that moderates would be better off just shedding Christianity altogether. However, if Christianity were true, then moderates would have no choice. Whichever version happened to be correct would just have to work to stand out from the rest and try to convince the others that they’re doing it wrong. And I realize that’s probably almost exactly how you see it, since you believe Christianity is true.

    So with atheism, since I view it as the correct position, I can’t simply drop the label “atheist,” even if I disagree with how other atheists present themselves.

    I didn’t mean my statement as an accusation that moderate Christians are responsible for fixing. I just meant it as an explanation for why I argue against any version of Christianity, even the ones that seem fairly benign.

    Sorry I couldn’t seem to say all this more concisely, but I hope it helps explain my position.

    Liked by 1 person

  19. Hi Nate, I really appreciate your grappling with the idea of “cover”.

    I can understand some things easily. You think christianity is wrong and sometimes leads to bad decisions, including how people vote, so you think it would be better if people weren’t christians. So it is quite clear “why I argue against any version of Christianity, even the ones that seem fairly benign”. But that seems a long way from “cover”.

    “it’s easy for the hardliners to hide and not pay the social costs that such positions should bring”
    “if all moderate Christians weren’t Christians at all, then the fundamentalists would be more marginalized and exposed. They’d have far less political capital”

    I can’t see how the argument follows. I just can’t see that hardliners are hiding, and I can’t see how they are somehow not noticed when moderate christians are around and so don’t pay social costs that they would otherwise pay. I think rather that moderate christians expose and fight against the extremes. One of the biggest scandals in christianity, I think, is how divisive christians can be with each other, but it does mean that extreme views are argued against, sometimes quite fiercely. Conservative christians are not likely to listen to criticism all that much, but slightly less conservative christians are more likely to get a hearing than atheists are!

    Imagine if I said: “if all loving husbands weren’t husbands at all, then the abusive husbands would be more marginalized and exposed. They’d have far less social capital” and then argued that we would be better off without loving husbands. Or if I suggested that kind and thoughtful atheists like you provided cover for intolerant atheists like some we both have heard of. I can’t think anyone would take those arguments seriously.

    So I think you’d be better sticking with the more straightforward criticism of why you think christianity is unhelpful than using a strange concept like cover. But there is a problem for you, because scientific studies show that in general, and in varying degrees, religious people actually do better on a number of personal and social measures than do non-believers, as I have mentioned before, so the pragmatic argument against christianity really doesn’t work so well. So I think perhaps it is better to stick with truth as the criterion. Which of course is what your blog is about.

    Anyway, thanks for the explanation.


  20. @Unklee

    I think arguments like this based on a possible difference in understanding about God,…

    This sentence is nothing but presuppositional nonsense, and kills any argument from the god-botherers perspective dead in its tracks.

    You have had little credibility among most of those on this blog, right from the off, and it diminishes even more so when you come with your arrogant hyperbole.

    However, If you can explain your god and how it created the universe and especially how it transmogrified from a sky-god, Yahweh, to a human ( the narrative construct , Jesus of Nazareth,) and back again, then you might garner a modicum of respect. As both these characters, YHWH and Jesus, are works of human imagination I wish you the best of luck with such an attempt.
    Until that time … well, we all know Unklee, right?



  21. Hi UnkleE,

    I just can’t see that hardliners are hiding, and I can’t see how they are somehow not noticed when moderate christians are around and so don’t pay social costs that they would otherwise pay.

    When someone identifies as a Christian, that’s not a strange thing, and it’s not very specific. I’m just saying if the only Christians were fundamentalists, then it would be much clearer what someone means by “Christian”.

    Also, when a hard-right young earth creationist sees that he’s surrounded by so many other “Christians,” he’s not as marginalized as he would otherwise be. And while moderates might argue why he’s wrong, he can find plenty of justification for his position in his Bible. And he will likely think he’s more of a “real” Christian than those moderates, since they don’t always seem that concerned with what “God’s word” has to say.

    Again, I’m not saying that moderate Christians are to blame for this in some way. I just think it’s unfortunate that they can see the problems with fundamentalist forms of religion, but don’t see how those same problems disrupt the foundations of their own beliefs.

    But there is a problem for you, because scientific studies show that in general, and in varying degrees, religious people actually do better on a number of personal and social measures than do non-believers, as I have mentioned before, so the pragmatic argument against christianity really doesn’t work so well.

    Perhaps children who believe in Santa behave better, but I think we’d agree that continued belief in Santa would likely be harmful over time. And it’s also clear that religious people are less engaged with science and can be pulled into making bad decisions because of their religious convictions. So at best, I’d say the benefits are a wash.

    Liked by 1 person

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