What About Those Who Lived Before Christ?

When the Good News of Jesus’ once-and-for-all atoning sacrifice for human sin hits the Roman Empire in the 1st century AD, it doesn’t take long for believers to think, “Great! But what about people who came before us? What about the Hebrew Bible saints? And what about all of the other nations who lived before Christ came along? What does the cross of Christ do for them?”

Paul tackles this question in Romans 3:25-26. After taking 2 chapters of this letter to make the case that both Gentiles and Jews are all sinners who need a Savior, in this chapter, Paul delivers the heart of the Good News: Christ Jesus is “the One whom God put forward as an atoning sacrifice,” a sacrifice to be received “through faith in his blood.”

The saving death of Christ, says Paul here, is “for a display of the righteousness of God, because of the passing by of sins previously committed.” The cross is where God shows that God has implemented a solution for all the sins that happened before anyone could believe in Christ. God didn’t just blow off all of those sins; to show that God is righteous, God paid the price for those sins himself. (Remember, Christ was God in the flesh, taking away all that sin.)

That’s the “forbearance of God” Paul speaks of in verse 26 where God “endures” (anochē, from anechō) the sins done before the sacrifice of Christ that would take them all away. By enduring sin until the day that sin can be permanently taken away, Paul says, God shows himself to be just, now that the Savior has finally come. Christ’s sacrifice covers those who now place their faith in him, but also those who came before Christ. In that way, Paul says that God does not leave previous sins unpaid for, which leaves God free to “justify” (literally “make righteous”) those who trust in Jesus, now that he has come.

So God pays the price for ancient peoples to be saved. But how does that work: by faith, or how? The answer may be in 1 Peter 3:19, where we are told that Jesus preaches to the “spirits in prison, to those who disobeyed back then when the patience of God was waiting.” Here, Peter is speaking of those who died in Noah’s flood, but in his next chapter (1 Peter 4:6), Peter speaks of the Gospel being preached to “the dead” in general. Such an interpretation of what Peter says is highly speculative, but is far from an offbeat point of view. If it is correct, here would be where ancient peoples are given a one-time chance to place their faith in what Christ has done for them.

So Paul provides a solution to Jews and non-Jews at Rome who wonder how the Good News of Christ can be Good News to those who lived before he came. His solution: “the forbearance of God” toward “sins previously committed.” But what about people today who haven’t heard? As we continue in Paul’s letter to Rome, Paul gives no indication that people today who haven’t heard are off the hook. In fact, he indicates in 10:14 that their need is urgent: “How shall they call upon one in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in one of whom they have not heard?”

Paul goes on in verses 17 and 18 to say that “faith comes by hearing.” But then he asks, “Did they not hear?” The fact that he uses a double negative (mē ouk) starting with mē means, “Don’t tell me they did not hear!” His very next word is menounge: “of course they did!” He then quotes Psalm 19:4: “Their voice has gone out into all the world, and their words to the ends of civilization.”

As I have argued in my post "How Can Jesus Be the Only Way?", God sends no one to hell for what they did not know, but as Paul argues here in Romans 10, we all “know too much” to plead ignorance with God. We can’t say we “haven’t heard.” In that post, I went on to observe from the book of Acts and from modern developments on the mission field that whenever a person responds to the light God has given them, God will move heaven and earth to give them all the light they need to believe.

That is all of the authoritative Scripture that God has given us to answer the question of those who have had no chance to place their faith in Christ. God can save those who were too young or have no mental capacity to believe, if God so chooses, based on all that I have said above. But we have no grounds on which to say more.

Will God give us a second chance after death? For my thoughts on that subject, go to my post "Reincarnation and the Bible: Are We Playing for Keeps?"

Our LDS friends have a whole system of temple ordinances and baptisms for the dead designed to save all of those who have died without hearing the LDS message, or at least offer them the chance to accept or reject that message. Their belief gives them an exciting hope, but I am convinced it is a false hope, unwarranted by what God has actually said in his word.

To claim that the LDS plan of salvation for the dead is a “plain and precious” truth that was removed from God’s word is another baseless claim, unsupported by evidence that such a system of salvation was ever taught or intended in the canonical Bible. Plus, even if it were true, there is no guarantee that the dead will accept the LDS message or be able to live by its requirements. People who are alive have enough of a “Mission Impossible” to live by all the requirements of the LDS gospel.

God has provided for the salvation of those who lived before Christ came. God has provided enough light for everyone else to know that we are sinners who need a Savior. The rest is in the hands of a God who is loving and just. If we needed to know more, God would have told us.