The Ineffective Dissemination of Monotheism

I’ve put this in GQ because I’m pretty sure it must have a commonly accepted theological answer of which I’m unaware.

My question is: Why, assuming at least of our monotheistic religions is actually true, did God wait so long before revealing it to the masses? No-one knows for sure just how long humanity has been around in its current form but the general consensus seems to be that homo-sapiens preceded all the prophets by a great many thousands of years. What was God doing in that time? This question was put best by Christopher Hitchens and I quote him here verbatim:

Why did God watch so many people suffering, dying in childbirth, dying of toothache, with a life expectancy of about 20 years, swept with plague, and famine, dying in Brazil, China, Australia, countries not known to the writers of these testaments, and then decide only a few thousand years ago that it was time to intervene? And have his son torn to shreds in a remote part of bronze age Palestine, and then wait a few thousand years for the Chinese to find out.

What, in other words, happens to all those souls who, through no fault of their own, died before the word of God could be made available to them? Are they in Heaven? Hell? Limbo? Were they all redeemed by the crucifixion and then judged independently? What is the Jewish/Christian/Muslim answer to this question?

Jewish perspective:

God did have a relationship with humans all along, beginning with Adam and Eve, and continuing with other prophets such as Shem, Noah, Abraham, et al. He revealed Himself to them in varied ways and to varied degrees. For example, the early generations (Cain and Abel, for example) got only the most basic ethical laws, while Moses’ generation got a whole lot more.

Regarding those who, for whatever reason did not have the opportunity to find out about God, He certainly takes that into account and gives them an appropriate amount of slack. A person who is good despite not knowing about God will be judged differently than a person who was evil under the same circumstances.

As Keeve touches on, God was principally a Jewish deity, and principally only looking out for his chosen people. So he was in touch with them from at least giving them the 10 commandments and probably earlier, if less direct.

The Bible isn’t terribly clear on how it came to be that God created mankind, but only the Jewish people were directly related to him. I suspect that there’s several non-biblical, non-cannonical stories which explain this, but probably they’re something along the line that everyone else was part of an arm that broke off (e.g. Ishmael leading to the Arabic people) or, earlier, Lilith or some other not-quite human being breed with the human population and created the rest of humanity. Either way, the rest of humanity, God just didn’t care much about up until after Christianity was popularized. Reading Jesus’ words and various things like “God’s chosen people” in Revelations, seems to indicate fairly strongly that Jesus and the apostles and probably for a few decades afterwards were more intent on bringing the new word to the Jews, not creating a religion for the whole of mankind.

Sage Rat, I’m wondering how you define “Jewish” in this context. Would you consider Adam and Noah as Jewish or non-Jewish? It seems undeniable that God did care about them, and that’s pretty important in our context.


Let’s get this over to Great Debates.



i think that fundamentalist Christians would say that no part of human existence is unaccounted for in the Bible, and God pretty much revealed Himself on day 6, when he created humans.

But the question remains, why didn’t God reveal himself to the natives of the Americas until 1492 or later, and to the natives of Australia and New Zealand until even more recently? And are all the Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist, Shinto, etc., deities, etc., imperfect revelations of the single divinity, or humanly created irrelevancies?

Adam and Noah appear to be he forefathers of the Jewish people, so they would indeed by Jews. Essentially, if God cares about them and what they’re up to, my take would be that they’re within the Jewish tribes.

I think you’re assuming an exclusivity that doesn’t really exist. Speaking Biblically, Abraham founded Judaism. The other people living on earth then were descended from Adam (and Noah) but were not Jewish. I’m sure there could be (and have been) nice Talmudic debates on whether Noah was Jewish, but he was not under the covenant.

If you’re a literalist, the answer to the OP would be that people knew of God but turned their back on him. Noah lived not that long after Adam died, so I’d think pretty much everyone would know the story of creation.

I’m more interested in hearing the answer to the OP’s question from non-literalists. If you buy the generally accepted history of mankind, why does all evidence point to the slow evolution of gods, until we get to true monotheism at about 700-800 BCE, and not evidence of monotheism very early? Forget about damnation and salvation - if god cares about us, why didn’t he care enough about our ancestors to show himself?

And as a side note, does anyone know why God waited until Abram was born to contact us for a covenant?

The Jewish perspective on that is that G-d did not “wait” - as Keeve said, such folks as Adam and Noah and Malkitzedek (who Jewish tradition identifies with Shem, the son of Noah) were aware of G-d even before Abraham - but they did not go around seeking adherents, but merely taught those who came to them seeking knowledge. Abram was the first to actively dissemintate belief in the one G-d at a time when idol-worship was near-universal. Because he was dedicated to perpetuating the belief, it was Abram whom G-d felt was likely to perpetuate it to his own children, and therefore, the worthy partner for a generations-forward covenant.

I don’t know of any group, tribe, or nationality of people, including the earliest cavemen that didn’t know they were created by a Higher Intelligence. To the native Americans it was the Great Spirit, they saw the spiritual element in all living things. As Jesus said the Kingdom of God is within you. Early man, IMHO, understood and was connected to the inner light of his being. So it is not so much that God wasn’t known by early, and widespread civilizations as it is that some individuals and groups of individuals have gotten out of touch with God. One doesn’t need the Bible to find God, nor any other sacred text. God is as close as your breath. Look for your own inner light, and you will find it. Ask and you will receive, knock and the door will be opened.

Like I said, it is clear that those pre-Abrahamic knew of G-d. I don’t think Abraham sought adherents either. IIRC, some of his servants accepted circumcision, but I don’t recall him proselytizing.

Perhaps G-d knew that Abram was the right person for the job. My first Hebrew School class had a story about the young Abram putting flour on the floor of the room where grain was given to idols to discover that people took it away, and that the idols didn’t really eat it. (I assume this comes from an extra-Biblical source.) However, Genesis 12 has G-d speaking to Abram, and nothing about Abram deducing the existence of G-d. He might well have learned from his family, but no more than anyone else alive at the time.


This is the traditional Jewish understanding of the phrase in Genesis 12:5, “and the people they had acquired in Haran.” I realize that in English, it could be taken as referring to slaves, but the Hebrew word for “the people” in that phrase actually means “the souls,” which generally does not connote slaves in Biblical Hebrew, but independent individuals.

This and numerous other “young Abram” stories are from the Midrash, which is oral tradition that occasionally has some (frequently flimsy) textual allusion (more so than the phrase I cited above, that one’s considered explicit by these standards).

I always got the impression that this was freely chosen by the workers, and was in no way imposed on them by Abraham, very much in keeping with the attitude towards conversion elsewhere.

Thanks. I didn’t know from which of many sources this came from. I remember it, nearly 50 years later, since this is one of the few times religious education encouraged a healthy skepticism. Randi would be proud. It’s a lesson I perhaps learned too well.


It was freely chosen. I’m just saying that the verse is taken to refer to people whom Abram had convinced to convert, not that he had forced them into it.

Sure, I don’t see anything wrong with calling the people before the rift of mankind into Jew and non-Jew as something else. It’s a question of how you choose to call things. You could say that everyone was Jewish, but only the people who stayed with God were able to retain that special status, or you could say that the Jews were created when God chose them of all the various tribes on the planet and gave them a special status.

As it happens, I’ve been thinking about this question a lot in the past few months and I think that the answer is quite logical, when you think about it. Imagine that you’re God and you’ve decided to send the Word to Earth by means of your son. All that you need to decide is when, where, and how to do it.

The first question is, how many Sons? Your first impulse might be to send hundreds or thousands, perhaps even one for every single tribe and village. On careful consideration, however, this can’t work. First, sending multiple Sons would undermine the important notion that all of creation is intended as a single unity. Second, given human nature, followers of different Sons would inevitably fight with each other. Thus, you have to limit yourself to just one Son.

Now, when and where should that one son appear? If you choose to send him to a primitive, prehistorical tribe, there won’t be anyone around to record His teachings, and the Word will never spread. You might consider sending Him to an early civilization, such as ancient Egypt. However, the early cradles of civilization had limited cultural interaction with each other, so the spread of the Word would still be limited. So the first good opportunity to send your Son would be when there arose a civilization that spanned a sizable portion of the Earth. The first such civilization was the Roman Empire.

Within our universe, time proceeds in a straight line so a cause cannot precede an effect. But since God lies outside the arch of time, the death and resurrection of Jesus could and did redeem all of Creation at all times and places. C. S. Lewis wrote a chapter on this topic in Mere Christianity.

(This is just one belief, of course. Dante, for instance, thought that the "virtuous Pagans still went to Hell. On the plus side, they got the uppermost level, where there was no actual torment and they got to wander around discussing philosophy for all eternity.)

The trouble is, you don’t get into heaven by giving alms to some nebulous “Higher Intelligence”. Obviously, religion predates monotheism, but this thread assumes that a specific monotheistic religion is genuinely true (doesn’t matter which). If so, why did the God of Abraham wait so long to get in touch with everyone?

What do you base this on?

Well, since the followers of the one son fought also, this shouldn’t be that much of a problem. Think how effective it would be if the village over the hill had the same god! We won’t go into the lack of necessity of sending any son at all, when direct revelation would work just fine.

There was plenty of other interaction before that. If Jesus came to the Greeks, maybe the church would have had its beliefs sorted out by the time Rome conquered them, and took over their gods. They could have spread it practically to India through Alexander, who, being a pagan heathen, thought it best not to impose his religion on others, though he himself was devout. (How primitive!) Anyhow, think how much aggravation would have been saved if god sent a son to the Arabian peninsula in time.

Anyhow, as Judas sang, Israel in 4 BC had no mass communications. Perhaps if God had waited a bit it would have been more efficient, and believable, since a record of the miracles would exist.

This is a somewhat tongue-in-cheek answer, but I’ll just mention that according to the Church of Latter Day Saints, there were gold tablets with the word of God on them in the new lands, which purportedly had once belonged to the Native Americans. So if you are willing to accept the LDS as having received further word from God, then there is evidence that he was in contact with this area of the world previous to the European invasion.