Our gospel reading at church this morning was the parable of the Prodigal Son. I was meditating on the fact that Jesus is almost certainly representing the relationship between the Jews and the Gentiles and the salvation of the Gentiles in this parable, and the following thoughts occurred to me:
This parable should be reassuring, though not answering many specific questions, concerning God's attitude toward pagans who have never explicitly heard of Him. First, the prodigal son in the parable is considered morally culpable for his wrong acts. When the father, who represents God the Father, says, "This my son was dead and is alive again," there is no question about the spiritual overtones of "dead." And if this applies to the Gentiles generally, then inter alia it applies to those Gentiles who have never heard of Jesus Christ. They, too, are responsible for their sins. They don't just do them because they don't know any better. There is some sense in which the prodigal son knows that what he's doing is wrong. His "riotous living" is a form of rebellion.
The Gentiles didn't have the Law of Moses. But that didn't mean that the Gentiles were invincibly ignorant of the wrongness of "riotous living." Similarly, if a man is part of a tribe that commits murder and cannibalism, the mere fact that he has not been told the Gospel of Jesus Christ does not make him non-culpable for committing murder and cannibalism.
This should be comforting, in a sense, because it should remove a kind of cultural relativism that haunts the edges of our thinking about pagans who have never heard. Everyone commits sins, and they really are sins, even if one hasn't heard of Jesus. No, they aren't all on the level of murder and cannibalism, but even those who don't explicitly know God do some things that are wrong and are, in that sense, in rebellion against God. Hence, if they are punished for their sins, God isn't just arbitrarily punishing people who didn't know any better.
But there's much clearer good news in the parable. The father (who is the Father) reacts with overwhelming joy over the repentance and return of the prodigal. And he chides the jealous older brother who begrudges the feast. Surely this must say something positive, even if we don't know all the details, about God's love for those who have never heard or who have scarcely heard. God desires that they would return. God does not want them to continue to be dead in trespasses and sins. There will be rejoicing in heaven over one who repents.
One cannot imagine the Father portrayed by this parable as playing a gotcha game in which he sends a repentant prodigal off into outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. The Father in this parable is just waiting for the opportunity to welcome the wanderer home.
It's true that we don't in this parable see the Father going and searching for the lost one. The search is portrayed in the parable of the lost sheep. But after reading both of those parables I defy anyone to portray as biblical the picture of a Father who sits back and says, "Too bad, so sad. You're under my wrath because of original sin, and I had no responsibility to send you the gospel, so you're going to hell. Don't complain to me, man, complain to Adam."
I don't know the answer to the concrete question: What does happen to the virtuous (at least somewhat virtuous) pagan? Does God send more light in this world--a missionary, a dream, a book--if the person embraces the light as far as he has it and attempts to follow the Good? Does God give a blinding self-revelation and a moment of choice, a cross-roads, at the moment of death, to one who has not previously heard of the true God? I don't know. Nor do these musings on the prodigal son answer those questions.
What I think these musings do tell us is that, since the prodigal son represents the Gentiles, we can learn something there about God's attitude (for want of a better word) toward even the most far-removed, sinful, and clueless Gentiles. From there on, we should become the instrument of that love and forgiveness--God's hands and voice, bringing the Good News.
How beautiful are the feet of them that preach the gospel of peace. (Romans 10:15)