I guess I’m just curious what happened to people in death before Christianity became heard of. I feel that people, no matter what era of living, should be able to reach heaven. I don’t understand how any religion can be started on any random date with people before it not knowing about the religion. To me, this discredits any idea of a definitive afterlife.
A very good question - and one that Christian theologians have been mulling over since the beginning. The first thing to do is to clarify a few things. There was a time when “Christianity” did not exist, defined as the human social construct based on the person, story and words of Jesus of Nazareth. But according to orthodox Christian theology, there has never been a time at which Christ has not been present. (I’m intentionally not using the word “exist” because that sets up a whole other set of metaphorical issues.) Christ being defined as the second part of the holy and undivided Trinty has been present eternally. Christ became incarnate somewhere around 0 CE in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, and remains incarnate in his ressurection body. For more about the time in-between the crucifixion and the ressurection, see AskThePriest.org: Jesus’ Harrowing Experience.
This continual presence of the second part of the Trinity is where room for speculation lies about what happened to people who died before the incarnation. Many of the early church fathers and later writers did so. Justin Martyr from the 100s writes,
Apology, Chapter XLVI. — The Word in the World Before Christ.
But lest some should, without reason, and for the perversion of what we teach, maintain that we say that Christ was born one hundred and fifty years ago under Cyrenius, and subsequently, in the time of Pontius Pilate, taught what we say He taught; and should cry out against us as though all men who were born before Him were irresponsible-let us anticipate and solve the difficulty. We have been taught that Christ is the first-born of God, and we have declared above that He is the Word of whom every race of men were partakers; and those who lived reasonably are Christians, even though they have been thought atheists; as, among the Greeks, Socrates and Heraclitus, and men like them; and among the barbarians, Abraham, and Ananias, and Azarias, and Misael, and Elias, and many others whose actions and names we now decline to recount, because we know it would be tedious. So that even they who lived before Christ, and lived without reason, were wicked and hostile to Christ, and slew those who lived reasonably. But who, through the power of the Word, according to the will of God the Father and Lord of all, He was born of a virgin as a man, and was named Jesus, and was crucified, and died, and rose again, and ascended into heaven, an intelligent man will be able to comprehend from what has been already so largely said. And we, since the proof of this subject is less needful now, will pass for the present to the proof of those things which are urgent.
Augustine of Hippo also writes on this theme in the 3rd Century:
That which is known as the Christian religion existed among the ancients, and never did not exist; from the beginning of the human race until the time when Christ came in the flesh, at which time the true religion, which already existed began to be called Christianity. (Retractt. I, xiii, cited by Dr. Alvin Boyd Kuhn in his Shadow of The Third Century, Elizabeth N.J.: Academy Press, 1949, p.3.)
There are many more musings on this theme among theologians throughout the ages. So might it be possible that there were people in the world who “Knew Christ” as the eternal Word without knowing the human incarnation of the Word in Jesus? Opinons vary in different parts of Christianity. Most of Christianity, including Roman Catholicism, parts of Eastern Orthodoxy and much of Protestantism maintain that salvation is a possibility outside the church (See John 10:16).
The most important thing to note about this conversation is its secondary nature. As Justin says, the “proof is less needful now.” Christianity is a “positive” religion, meaning we speak of what we know, and testify to what is seen. The Gospels don’t speak on this issue, so while it is certainly part of the theological discussion, it is not central. We maintain that salvation (and what that means is another discussion) can be found through the church, but that God alone is in ultimate charge.