I love ancient Greece. I adore the stories they told about heroes and gods, and delight in how they displayed these stories in stone works and painted objects. My desktop background on my computer is an image of Zeus throwing a thunderbolt. Admittedly I am far more fascinated by ancient Greece than ancient Israel, my religious forebears.
I should point out that I’m using the phrase “ancient Greeks” rather loosely – to refer to everything from the Mycenaean empire to the classical Greece of the philosophers. What has happened to these people? Where are they now? For atheists the answer is simple: they have gone the way of all flesh; dead and decomposed, leaving only a selection of artworks and old ruins to testify that they ever existed. They have been, as we one day will be, gnawed away by the savage teeth of time.
However, for theists – and Christians in particular – the answer is not so simple. Christians traditionally believe that when we die our soul will (prior to the final resurrection) abide either in the presence of God – Heaven – or a place of punishment – Hell. Some might hold to a belief in some form of purgatory, and others might adhere to the notion of “soul sleep,” whereby the dead unconsciously rest awaiting the final resurrection and judgement at the end of time. Regardless, even if we can’t answer the question “heaven or hell?” now, most Christians would agree that the ultimate fate of every person is either heaven or hell – the presence of God, or His absence (sometimes thought to be annihilation, but more commonly conceived as conscious torment). And so the question remains: what of my beloved Greeks? The Greeks lived long before Christ, so knew nothing of the gospel. Moreover, they knew nothing of Yahweh or the Old Testament covenants. Their world was much smaller than ours. Greeks believed that most people went to Hades after death – a ghostly shadowy existence. If you were a particularly great hero you might make it to the Elysian Fields, or even get promoted to Olympian immortality, a la Heracles. But what should Christians think? Will the ancient Greeks go to heaven or hell?
I want to look briefly at four common Christian answers, (though please note this is far from an exhaustive list).
1. The Strict Calvinist Answer
God has preordained the lives of all people. Some are preordained to everlasting life, others to everlasting damnation. Since the ancient Greeks were not part of God’s elect or his chosen people, they are condemned to Hell. God has chosen, in his sovereignty, not to disclose Himself to them and save them. He has chosen to leave them in their wickedness, their fallen human state, a state we see clearly from the poverty of their religious ideas. This is not unjust, on the contrary God is right to punish them as sinners. I confess I have a difficult time with Calvinist explanations such as this one. That God creates millions of people without any hope of salvation and destined for eternal conscious torment is a rather disgusting doctrine that every fibre of my moral sense resists. Of course, it might turn out to be true, but given how the doctrine flies in the face of our sense of morality and justice I think we are justified in looking at other answers.
2. The Qualified Universalist Answer
This view holds that whilst everyone who hears the gospel and rejects it is hellbound, those who have never heard it – such as the ancient Greeks – get a free pass through the pearly gates by dint of ignorance. This view can be heard often enough at the popular level, but it isn’t one I’ve heard from any Christian theologian, since it suffers from one fatal problem: If it’s the case that ignorance of the gospel gives a free pass to heaven then there seems fairly strong moral case against evangelism. Preaching to those who have never heard the gospel puts them at serious risk. The way to populate heaven would be to keep the gospel to yourself, hide all the Bibles, close the churches, and suppress the gospel message as far as possible.
3. The Liberal Universalist Answer
On this view people such as the ancient Greeks will go to heaven because ultimately everyone does anyway. This obviously avoids the problem with qualified universalism by dispensing with the eternal punishments of Hell, but does it threaten the importance of preaching and mission? Many Christian theologians think it does, but I think that might be hasty. Admittedly, if all religions are equally good paths to God, then the importance of preaching and mission with a view to conversion is unnecessary. However, that idea is not essential to universalism. Perhaps a universalist could hold that whilst everyone ultimately goes to heaven, there are different ways of getting there and some are better than others. Perhaps Christianity is the pinnacle of God’s self-revelation to the world, and perhaps those who embrace it get further along on the journey. This, however, strikes me as speculative and with little basis in Christian tradition, despite the best efforts of excellent thinkers – such as John Hick – to give it a theological basis.
4. The Standard Answer
Here the notion is that those who have never received the gospel are simply judged by the light that they do have, and thus some of the ancient Greeks are bound for heaven, whilst others bound for hell. What is it to be judged by the light one has? Well, it means that each person is held to a standard suitable for their moral and spiritual knowledge and awareness. Has some given person done well with the knowledge he or she had available? Take some ancient Greek – perhaps a priest of Apollo. He believes in the gods, has a sense of right and wrong which he seeks to live by, desires to worship the gods in the way he sees as proper and fitting, and in particular wishes to see Apollo exalted and honoured and the people who come to worship him blessed. He does not know Yahweh, but he does have some religious or moral awareness which he seeks to follow as well as he can. Is it not plausible that such a man will be saved? I cannot of course say that he will or he won’t – humans are poorly placed indeed – morally and epistemologically – to make such judgments, but I don’t see that we can rule it out and it strikes me as a solution to the problem which should satisfy most believers.
Perhaps then one day I might just shoot the breeze with Plato or have a good laugh with Aristophanes.
Stephen J. Graham