Recently a reader of this site reached out asking for my thoughts about this question:
If Jesus came to save sinners, then why didn’t he come before the flood in the time of Noah?
It’s an interesting question. If God so loved the world that he sent Jesus to save sinners, then why did he wait so long? Could more people have been saved if God had sent Jesus sooner – and if so, then why did He wait as along as He did to send Jesus?
The Nature of Justice and Mercy
First of all, it is important to remember the nature of justice and mercy. Justice means giving someone exactly what they deserve: no more, no less. Mercy, on the other hand, means not giving someone the judgment they deserve for the wrong things they’ve done.
In his book, The Cross of Christ, John Stott explains that God not only must do justice because He is God and is obligated to do justice, but that God desires to do justice because it brings Him satisfaction to act justly, and that acting justly is part of His glory, goodness, and righteousness.
However, God also desires to show mercy. The difference between justice and mercy, however, is that mercy is not owed to anyone.
Showing mercy to those to whom He chooses to show mercy is God’s prerogative (Romans 9:15, Exodus 33:19). He is not obligated to give it to anyone. If God were to give us what we deserve, the result would be judgment.
God Did Not Leave Himself Without Witness
In the time of Noah, though many people perished in the flood, it is important to remember that those people had a chance to repent and be saved from the flood.
2 Peter 2:5 tells us that Noah was a preacher of righteousness, and 1 Peter 3 tells us that Jesus preached through Noah to those who were disobedient in his time. As Noah built the ark, which took a very long time, he was apparently preaching a message of righteousness and repentance. However, it would seem that no one heeded his warning.
In other words, the people who died in the time of Noah did not perish for lack of opportunity to be saved from the flood, but because they were in knowing rebellion against God, and they refused to accept the offer of salvation which was extended to them via repentance and heeding the warnings of Noah.
It is helpful to be reminded of a biblical view of anthropology here: contrary to the modern assumption that people began as animists (worshipers of nature), who over time then began worshiping a pantheon of abstract deities, and eventually “evolved” into monotheism – the biblical view of anthropology is different. According to the Bible, people didn’t discover God, rather: from the beginning people knew God and walked with God, until they knowingly turned away from God.
The Bible begins with a description of the first humans as monotheists, who knew God. Polytheism and animism then came about as a result of the devolution of sin. As Paul explains in his letter to the Romans:
For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.Romans 1:21-23
Here’s what’s really interesting: Genesis 5 tells us that there were people alive at the time of Noah who had lived at the same time as Adam! Namely: Jared and Methuselah, if you run the numbers, were alive when Adam was still alive. Because of the length of the lives of early people, the people at the time of Noah’s flood were either contemporaries of Adam, or were only removed from him by one or two generations. This means that they could have heard first-hand accounts from him.
Could People Go to Heaven Prior to Jesus’ Death and Resurrection?
I have answered this question in more detail in this post: Did People Go to Heaven Before Jesus’ Death and Resurrection?
Simply put, prior to Jesus’ death and resurrection, those who died in faith went to a place called Abraham’s bosom: a place of comfort for those who died in faith while they awaited the fulfillment of their redemption by the Messiah. The way to receive this salvation and redemption was to humble oneself before God, cast yourself on His mercy, and put your faith in His promise to bring salvation through the promised Savior (as opposed to saving yourself by your good works).
Paul tells us in Galatians 4:4 that “in the fullness of time, God sent His Son.” That phrase “in the fullness of time” implies that it happened “at just the right time.”
Those who lived in the time of Noah did not perish for lack of information, nor for lack of opportunity, but because they “suppressed the truth in unrighteousness,” “loved darkness more than light,” and rejected God’s calls to them (through Noah) to repent and be saved. Perhaps it is for this very reason that the people in the time of Noah are mentioned several times in the New Testament, so that modern people would be warned not to follow in their footsteps.
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