I’ve written on this blog before about the purpose of God’s seemingly long pause between the fall and the incarnation and cross. If the cross is the remedy of man’s fallen state, then why, after the fall of Adam, does God wait thousands of years before the incarnation?
One answer is Israel: Israel is seen by Paul as God’s “training ground”. It is God “tutoring”, as Paul says, this covenant people, to understand certain key principles: sin, atonement, sacrifice, temple, holiness, et al. Once Israel understands these key principles, we find Christ coming not simply as Messiah, but as the “Lamb of God” (John 1:29). This term of course would have struck certain imagery into the Jewish person’s mind: Exodus, redemption, blood, sacrifice, atonement. God used this time to train Israel to receive their Messiah.
But what about the rest of the world? How did this long pause between the fall and the cross benefit, say, the Gentile pagan world?
Hans Urs von Balthasar has an interesting answer. He tries to explain that God’s intention for the pagan nations was to allow man to realize his own state as fallen and apart from Him.
Balthasar says this:
[My aim is] to show that man’s historical situation in this world is in a state of permanent tension: he is constantly on the lookout for a solution, a redemption, but can never anticipate or construct it from his own resources; nor does he have even an intimation of it. (Theo Drama 4, kindle, 981-983)
Since man can neither throw off his [desire for a higher power] …nor entrap [God]… within his own finitude by his own (magical) efforts, he becomes, right from the start, a figure of pathos on the world stage. To the best of his ability, he will attempt to make present, in finite terms, his orientation to [a God] that transcends him; thus arise the temples and kingdoms [of world religions]… (Kindle, 946-49)
[We cannot] play down the ultimately hopeless situation of finite existence in the face of a transcendence that does not automatically disclose itself (Kindle, 986-87)
Now, what Balthasar is meaning to say here, is that the pagan world was left, to a large extent, to its own devices after the fall. Yes, Israel was given revelation of the true God at this time. But the rest of the pagan nations were not. And so, they were left to their own creativity to “figure God out”; to understand their place in the universe. To know their own origins.
And because man is made in the image of God, and because he can observe God’s handiwork (creation), he is prone to search for him somehow. We find this in the differing world religions which manifested themselves after the fall. Man was expressing his desire to have God, to know him. Man was confessing his knowledge of his own falleness — he desires to be one with his Creator! Because of this innate, ingrained desire for God, we do find some rays of truth in world religions: Sin, god, atonement, sacrifice, laws, et al. But even with these hints of truth, without revelation, man can never understand or know God in his fullness.
Man’s finiteness hides the fullness of God from him (1 Cor 1:7). But even more than that, man’s falleness separates him from God. And his sin permeates his search for God in such a way, that religion without revelation becomes corrupt, evil, satanic even.
Frank Sheed adds interesting insight on how sin and separation from God affects man’s search for the true God:
[H]uman nature tends to build religion, so by the wounds [of sin] in it it tends to deform what it has built. Thus the human intellect would tend to see that there must be some sort of Supreme Being: but only a human intellect at full strength would by its own unsupported powers hold on to one God and that God spiritual, just as a human will at less than full strength would find one God too overwhelming, and a purely spiritual God too remote. Polytheism and idolatry came crowding in everywhere; pantheism was an escape in a different direction. Moral corruption naturally corrupted religion, too. Sexual rites could only grow monstrous: man’s fallen nature gets too much excitement out of sex to be trusted with sexual ritual. Nor did man’s fallen nature always keep blood rituals in control: animal sacrifice suggested human sacrifice, and human sacrifice could grow to hecatombs. And if this means aberration by excess there was the possibility of aberration by defect, religion falling to a mere ritual relation without love or holiness or sense of moral obligation, but only gods to be placated and a routine of placation. (Theology and Sanity, 193)
Religion without revelation, without God’s condescension, mixed with man’s falleness, spirals into a chaotic brutal worship. And this we find in the Old Testament. Pagan nations falling into brutal practices, just trying to find the God of creation. They knew he was there, and yet, their finitude and sin kept them from finding him truly.
This is precisely what God was meaning to teach the Gentile nations during this “pause”: one cannot know God fully without him making himself known. And the fallen man, plagued with sin, separated from God, cannot craft a religion which ascends to God. His religion, though it may have a hint of truth, will be mixed with error such that it spirals into idolatry.
Paul, in Acts 17, called this time period “the times of ignorance” (vs 30). “What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you” (vs 23), Paul preached. And “now [God] commands all people everywhere to repent” (vs 30). Paul explains that the pagan nations sought after an unknown God. This was all they knew. They were shut out from him.
God had allowed the nations to remain in ignorance, to feel their own lostness, to know their own finitude. To know that without him making himself know, they are lost. But now he has made himself known. And he commands all people to repent!