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“Ask a Priest: Why Did God Delay Sending a Redeemer?”
Q: I am a former evangelical Christian who is looking into RCIA. For me the historicity of the Church has played a decent role in urging me toward the truth of the Catholic faith. Presupposing a view of creation whereupon humanity has existed (as homo sapiens) for about 200,000 years (predominantly as hunter-gatherers), I find it jarring to consider that formal Christianity has only existed for about 2,000 years, and archaeological evidence of formal Judaism only exists to maybe 3000 B.C. It bothers me to consider that the vast majority of human history, in this view, goes largely unrecorded and undocumented, because records from those earliest time periods have not been preserved. My question, primarily, is what am I to make of this? On the nature of God, how am I to understand his intervention into history as predominantly occurring in the past few thousand years? If we accept an Old Earth, how can we fit the biblical narrative (assuming that we treat it as somewhat historical, and not fully allegory) into a timeline without requiring huge gaps of divine silence — or, if we accept silent periods (such as the period of time between Old and New Testaments), what are we to take from that? Should we expect to see or be looking for evidence of a Judeo-Christian God manifesting himself among the archaeological records of early hunter-gatherer societies? Thank you for considering this question. – D.M.
Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC
A: It is great to hear that you feel drawn to the Catholic faith. I wish you well as you look into the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults.
You raise intriguing questions. A full answer could easily fill a book. Perhaps a few brief ideas might help.
First, it’s important to recognize that we are limited in our understanding of the world and salvation history.
It’s good to distinguish between what human reason can discover regarding God (what philosophy might call “natural theology”) and what God chooses to reveal about himself and which can be meditated on and accepted in faith, aided by grace (which theology seeks to understand).
God has left “fingerprints” in his creation, discoverable with the use of reason, and that is why even before the rise of Judaism and Christianity cultures had belief systems to articulate their religious experiences.
The point here is that God was already subtly interacting with mankind for many generations before the coming of Judaism. The Holy Spirit would have enlightened the consciences of people day to day about good and evil. This kind of thing won’t always appear explicitly in the archaeological record.
These early expressions of religion were rough and far from perfect, of course. Due to original sin, man in his rational and moral faculties has been wounded, and this has clouded his ability to perceive God and resulted in religious expressions that the Almighty would later reveal to be erroneous and immoral (human sacrifice, for example).
The divinely propelled rise of Judaism was a preparation for the coming of the Son of God that would culminate in his incarnation in the Jewish people and the establishment of Christianity, which would then go beyond the confines of Judaism to the world of mankind.
The Old Testament, even in the Book of Genesis, shows God at certain points making promises that would be fulfilled in Christ. The Old Testament ends with prophecies regarding the Messiah that only a few centuries later would be fulfilled with the incarnation and saving work of Christ.
There is a part of this process that escapes our rational investigation because God works from eternity and at times “reveals” things to us for our salvation that we would have never discovered on our own (for example, that he is one God in Three Persons, the Most Holy Trinity).
In case it might seem that most of humanity has lost out on a chance at heaven, it is good to recall that Christ came for the redemption of everyone, even those who died before his death on Calvary. That is why Jesus speaks of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob as being at the banquet in the Kingdom (Matthew 8:11).
This means that Jesus’ redemptive suffering can work retroactively and thus would cover the souls in prehistory. In this sense, God need not be in a rush to send a redeemer into the world.
But could there have been another reason for the seemingly long wait for a redeemer?
St. Thomas Aquinas pointed out that God could have sent Christ into the world immediately after the Fall. But he didn’t. Why?
Aquinas compares the redemption of Christ as a medicine that is applied to the illness of sin. And sometimes an illness has to run its course before medicine can be applied and bear fruit.
In this case, mankind needed to feel the effects of its sins and thus come to recognize its need for a redeemer. Even then, many people didn’t appreciate the coming of Christ. Many still don’t. (Aquinas’ take on the subject can be found in Part III, Question 1, Article 5 of his Summa Theologiae.)
Thus, we could say that the illness of sin had to run a very long course — maybe hundreds of thousands of years — before the medicine of Christ was applied.
For further reading, see Part I, Section I of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
I hope that some of this is helpful.
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