Paul, after reasoning about idolatry in Athens, states:

Therefore, although God has overlooked such times of ignorance, he now commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has set a day on which he is going to judge the world in righteousness, by a man whom he designated, having provided proof to everyone by raising him from the dead.” (Acts 17:30,31 NET)

I think it is safe to say that God overlooking "such times of ignorance" means God overlooked the ignorance of the people of those times.

How did Paul understand God to have "overlooked" the ignorance of those people?

It does not seem that "overlooked" merely means that God did not call them to account while alive, sparing them certain temporal judgments. Rather, in light of verse 31, it seems to imply that they will somehow be found less culpable in the final judgment.

According to most orthodox Christian theology, these pagans who died without Christ are forever condemned and without hope. If that is the case, it doesn't sound like God "overlooked" their ignorance to me.

Question: What does it mean for those people who lived in times when ignorance was overlooked by God?

4 Answers 4


The King James Version says that God "winked at" their ignorance.

The word is unusual - ὑπεροράω. It appears only here in the New Testament, but is a little more common in the Septuagint, where it pretty much means what the English words "overlook", "ignore" or "disregard" do. It is sometimes translated in Brenton also as "despise" and "neglect". Examples:

Leviticus 20:4 LXX

And if the natives of the land should in anywise overlook that man in giving of his seed to Moloch, so as not to put him to death;

Isaiah 58:7 LXX

Break thy bread to the hungry, and lead the unsheltered poor to thy house: if thou seest one naked, clothe him, and thou shalt not disregard the relations of thine own seed.

Numbers 5:12 LXX

Speak to the children of Israel, and thou shalt say to them, Whosesoever wife shall transgress against him, and slight and despise him

Sirach 38:16 LXX

My son, let tears fall down over the dead, and begin to lament, as if thou hadst suffered great harm thyself; and then cover his body according to the custom, and neglect not his burial.

Psalm 77:62 LXX

And he gave his people to the sword; and disdained his inheritance.

That those ignorant of the Gospel will be called to less account is a firm teaching in Scripture. We have, for example:

Luke 12:48

But he that knew not, and did commit things worthy of stripes, shall be beaten with few stripes. For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required: and to whom men have committed much, of him they will ask the more.

The theme of this passage is discussed in the early Christian Epistle to Diognetus (Ch. IX):

As long then as the former time endured, He permitted us to be borne along by unruly impulses, being drawn away by the desire of pleasure and various lusts. This was not that He at all delighted in our sins, but that He simply endured them; nor that He approved the time of working iniquity which then was, but that He sought to form a mind conscious of righteousness, so that being convinced in that time of our unworthiness of attaining life through our own works, it should now, through the kindness of God, be vouchsafed to us; and having made it manifest that in ourselves we were unable to enter into the kingdom of God, we might through the power of God be made able.

This is a forum for exegesis and not theology (though the two frequently intersect), but I do not think your statement that "according to most orthodox Christian theology, these pagans who died without Christ are forever condemned and without hope" is correct. Such a believe would actually be contrary to Scripture and negate the meaning of Christ's death and resurrection, wherein He descended into Hades and preached unto the spirits in prison (1 Peter 3:18-19; also cf. 1 Peter 4:6, Ephesians 4:8-10).


Hosea 4:6 says "My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge:because thou hast rejected knowledge, I will also reject thee, that thou shalt be no priest to me:seeing thou hast forgotten the law of thy God, I will also forget thy children".

In other words, God's people are destroyed because of ignorance, so that statement, "...God has overlooked such times of ignorance, he now commands all people everywhere to repent...", so that means people are no longer destroyed instantly because of ignorance because God has set a day on which he is going to judge the world in righteousness.

For those people who lived in times when ignorance was overlooked by God, it meant that God only watched the people of then and now. So whenever anyone commits sin, they are no longer killed but either they eventually receive Jesus Christ and get saved or resist Him and await destruction on the day set by God for their destruction


The argument is explained in detail in Romans 1:18-32, about how God "gave them up" or abandoned them to their lusts. To say "God overlooked" does not mean he gave them concession in divine judgment that many evildoers are forgiven and escape punishment. It means God tolerated the sinful world for a long time in the sense giving them no revelation or Gospel of Grace. The Gospel is now given at moment in history where God is finally intervening into the sinful world, asking them to repent. It does not mean the evildoers outside of the knowledge of Gospel do not get punished and thrown into hell; however it is true that those sinners who reject or resist the truth and light of God deserve severe punishment than those who were not called and were given up to their lusts (Matt 10:15; 11:21; 2 Peter 2:21-22) God has given his general revelation to all in through natural world and in conscience (Rom 2:12-15).

God judges them according to standards of general revelation vastly lower than those which are applied to persons who have been recipients of his special revelation.

God in this sense has overlooked the sinful world for millions of years since man evolved; and when he began intervening, he associated himself with Israel exclusively for a few thousands of years.

(Amos 3:1-2)1 Hear this word that the LORD has spoken against you, O people of Israel, against the whole family that I brought up out of the land of Egypt: 2 “You only have I known of all the families of the earth; therefore I will punish you for all your iniquities.

Quoting Charles Ellicott commentary on Rom 1:24

(24-32) Hence they fell into a still lower depth; for, in anger at their perversion of the truth, God refrained from checking their downward course. He left them to follow their own evil bent. Their idolatry developed into shameless immorality and unnatural crimes. At last the extreme limit was reached. As they voluntarily forsook God, so He forsook them. They ran through the whole catalogue of sins, and the cup of their iniquity was full. In the passage taken as a whole, three steps or stages are indicated: (1) Rom. 1:18-23, idolatry; (2) Rom. 1:24-27, unnatural sins allowed by God as the punishment for this idolatry; (3) Rom. 1:28-32, a still more complete and radical depravity also regarded as penally inflicted. The first step is taken by the free choice of man, but as the breach gradually widens, the wrath of God is more and more revealed. He interferes less and less to save a sinful world from its fate. It is to be noted that the Apostle speaks in general terms, and the precise proportions of human depravity and of divine judicial impulse are not to be clearly determined.

The orthodox Christian theology or tradition of both Roman Catholics and Protestants assumes an absolute standard where everyone who dies without faith or baptism go to hell, even infants. That is however another discussion.


It might be helpful to look at what the Catholic Catechism has to say.

In his human soul united to his divine person, the dead Christ went down to the realm of the dead. He opened heaven's gates for the just who had gone before him. (CCC 637)

The Catechism cites 1 Peter 4:6:

For this is the reason the gospel was preached even to those who are now dead, so that they might be judged according to human standards in regard to the body, but live according to God in regard to the spirit. (NIV)

I take away from this that, according to the Catholic Church, people who lived before Christ could still be saved by Jesus. This includes the idolaters you mention, in Athens and elsewhere.

Regarding the phrase, "God has overlooked such times of ignorance," I think it helps to think of the Golden Calf. The idolatry of the Jews on Mount Sinai was not overlooked by God, because they were not ignorant of God as the Athenians are. But Paul is saying that the idolatry of the Athenians was overlooked in times of ignorance. There's a clear distinction here between whether God punished the idolaters (Jews or Athenians) during their lifetimes, and how Jesus will judge them. The two are not the same.

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