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.