Grappling with the concept of time can be difficult. Since we are caught up in time and, by our nature, think in a temporal and chronological fashion, we often bring this linear approach in trying to make sense of theological or supernatural issues. Such missteps regarding the nature of time can create issues for believers. Take for instance the question of salvation. Not long ago, a believer asked a question about why Christ needed to come to earth to save people. Since it seems at least some people were saved before Christ appeared (as the Bible affirms), doesn’t that make Christ either unnecessary or superfluous?
When you tease out what is implied in the question, it is apparent that the person asking is treating Jesus as only a man who happened to be born at one point in history. As is true for all men, while it may be possible to have an impact during one’s life, and possible to influence people even after one’s death, it is not possible to have any impact before one is even born. So, if God found Abraham righteous, or allowed others into heaven before Christ’s death on the cross, just how did He do it?The answer, I submit, can be discovered in the first chapter of John’s gospel. There was indeed a “beginning” to this universe, a point at which time, as we know it, began to tick away. But Jesus was at the beginning. Struggling to make clear a rather difficult concept, John repeats the thought several different ways: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.” In a sense, Jesus is the being through whom the universe began, was populated and was filled with life and light. John goes on: “All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made.” A tortured construction, but one that leaves little room for ambiguity. “In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”
In other words, there is never a “before” time as it relates to Jesus. Not only was he present “with” God, but the “Word” was God. He is of the same “stuff” as God. He is an eternal being. Most significantly for us here, he is the “portal” through which this universe came into being. Anything that came into being came into being through Christ, and apart from Christ, nothing came into being. It is through Christ that this universe, and everything in it, exists. His time on earth in a human body may be limited, but He is not limited, nor is his creative or salvific power.Seen in this light, it is evident that those who lived before Jesus and who were saved found salvation through Jesus. How this was accomplished is not entirely clear to us, as we are temporal beings who move in one direction through time. But it need not be clear to us. Just as a newborn baby cannot make sense of a world that will not become fully accessible to him until he matures, so too must we conclude that our limited minds cannot adequately grapple with such metaphysical matters. But more importantly, it does not matter to us, as we are not living in a time before Christ. In the end, the Bible’s message is as clear as it is a source of consternation for so many: there is no salvation apart from Christ.
This inquiry usually leads to a related question – what happens, then, to those who have not heard of Christ? In his letter to the Romans, Paul teaches that we are all without excuse regarding our knowledge of God, and his existence and power, as this knowledge is “written on our hearts.” We simply can’t “not know” he is there. Since God embodies perfect fairness, it makes sense that every man is given an opportunity to come to know Christ, and to place his trust in Christ, before he dies. There are some things that I cannot presently know. How this computer translates the tapping of my fingers into a form of communication that can span the globe is, similarly, beyond my full understanding. It happens, nonetheless. How God combines perfect justice with perfect fairness and mercy is even further beyond our limited ability to grasp.
Scripture teaches that those who do not place their trust in Christ are “already lost.” (John 3) This may seem to suggest that they never had a chance. But bearing in mind that God is a being outside of time, this simply means that there are no surprises to him. Just as Christ exists always and infinitely, the ultimate destination of all the free will beings who ever came into being – before, during or after the life of Christ – is known to God in his “eternal present.”
I know intuitively that I exercise free will, even if that will is not completely free or unencumbered. A moment’s reflection would lead any honest person to the same conclusion. The important thing, then, is to use that freedom to place our trust where it properly belongs - in the One who created us and is even now beckoning us to turn toward home.