Karl Rahner suggested the idea of "anonymous Christians" - folks who respond to God's love through the mediation of Christ, but without awareness of the Gospel story of Jesus.
Years ago, a lifetime ago, I was asked to write an article on Open Theism for the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. You can find it here. You’ll see that while it lists my AMF email, it still lists the last place I did any adjunct teaching a decade ago, Oglethorpe University (also my alma mater), as my institution. As I recall, the editors wanted to keep a veneer of academic respectability about the article, and didn’t think listing a church would count. They also wanted me to keep the article updated periodically to reflect scholarship more recent than when I wrote the piece, but that has not happened. Perhaps eventually they’ll have someone else do that.
In the meantime, I periodically get emails from people who have found the article and have additional questions (or critiques). I received an email last week from a person asking about how people who lived before Jesus could attain salvation. Since I just finished responding to him, I thought I’d share my thoughts with you here as well.
Anyone who has ever heard me preach (and was listening) knows that I think Christian faith is really very simple, as well as having the capacity to be as complex as we care to make it. God loves us, and wants us to reciprocate that love. Loving God includes loving one another as God’s children. That’s about it - the rest is less important detail.
Karl Rahner suggested the idea of "anonymous Christians" - folks who respond to God's love through the mediation of Christ, but without awareness of the Gospel story of Jesus. Or they might even be aware of that story, but reject it because of upbringing or other factors; yet through lives of love and compassion, they show that they return God's love, even without naming what they're doing in this way. It's one answer to how it can be true that we can only come to God through the mediation of Jesus Christ, and true that people who don't know or reject Jesus as the Way may nonetheless enter into God's grace through Christ. The ontological condition must be there, but not the epistemic one.
If that's so, then presumably just as people might be anonymous Christians today, people might have been so long before the Word became flesh and lived and taught among us. Christ's mediation was still (has always been) operative, but was unknown to humanity.
This suggests that the cosmic Christ has always been interactive within creation (Colossians 1, Richard Rohr's writings). In Christ, all things hold together - human relationships with God have always involved Christ as well as the Holy Spirit in some way. And it suggests of the atonement that the cross is not a moment in time at which some transaction takes place, after which we have access to God in a substantively different way than before. Rather, Jesus's life, death, and resurrection are important in demonstrating to us what God's love invites us toward, the selfless love that Jesus modeled. Epistemically, we couldn't grasp this well before Jesus showed us; we still don't get it well, but we now have a human model pointing us there, and the Spirit is available to all of us to help us. But God has always extended love to us, and asked us to do nothing more than to accept and live out of that love. Anyone who does so, at whatever point in time and regardless of their epistemic acceptance of Jesus as savior, attains salvation. Denny Weaver's Nonviolent Atonement or more recent and more popularly written God without Violence outline a view mostly along these lines.
Finally, those who advocate for universal salvation (I've not made up my mind on this), often suggest that this one lifetime of ours is a relatively short time, and subject to varied conditions, in which to determine how we respond to God. And thus they posit that there may be further chances given to us after this life in some manner. That kind of suggestion would obviously help with those who couldn't have known the historic Jesus because they lived thousands of years prior.
By the way, universal salvation makes the most sense to me if God continues to extend chances to us to respond to God in love, and that whenever we do, those choices "stick," while choices against God continue to get more chances. In my prior life as a philosopher, I read an article (which I won't be able to recall the name or author of now) that used the image of flipping a coin. If heads is the right choice, the tails side sticks to what it lands to, so that the coin isn't flipped further. But every time a coin comes up tails, it doesn't stick, and so we flip again. Eventually....
So there are some quick thoughts on atonement and the possibility of universal salvation, brought about by a question about how people might attain salvation prior to Jesus’s life among us. Heady stuff. Just remember, that while some of us enjoy reflecting on such questions as an expression of our wonder for God, the Gospel is a lot simpler. Love God, love neighbor. Amen.