As December 25th approaches and the western Churches call on us to celebrate the birth of the Saviour, spare a thought for all those who lived and died Before Christ and had no opportunity to be Saved by Jesus.
A lot of thoughts have been spared on that subject and all over Christendom articles and books and Ph D's discuss whether those born BC had a chance to be saved and, if so, how. Different churches have different answers, but in general nowadays they don't want to damn these unfortunates. It would seem illiberal. But they have to be careful how they formulate their positions. Give away too much and it sounds like a dangerous concession: Jesus is just one - er, historically recent - Way of getting Saved.
Worse, the birth of Christ creates a fresh problem. Ever since that first Christmas, there have been countless millions who have lived and died without ever having heard of Christ. For most of history, there was no Internet to spread the Good News. In truth, the Good News spread very slowly.
Liberalism also dictates that these unfortunates living in the wrong places should have a chance of salvation, though the suspicion sometimes sneaks in that maybe they are a bit to blame for their plight. Maybe they didn't listen out hard enough for the Good News.
It gets even more complicated. (Why did God make this so difficult?) The natives don't speak your language, so either you learn theirs or they learn yours. They can't actually know that they have an overwhelming reason to learn your language, since they haven't yet heard the Good News, so you learn theirs and preach to them in the local tongue and translate the Bible into their language. It's very time consuming and the Earth is a big place. There are lots of people out there who haven't heard of the Beatles, and maybe as many who haven't heard of Jesus.
There are further complications. (Theology is more fun than Sudoku, you know).
How long do the natives get to get the message? Suppose I am already old and feeble when I first get to hear the Good News. It's complicated and new-fangled and, frankly, I don't understand all of it. This three-in-one business, for example. Maybe these Christians are just another bunch of scammers. So I suspend judgment and die. Damned?
At this point, the Roman Catholic church could step forward and claim that the real problem is the underlying Protestantism of my assumptions. I've made it sound like it's all between the individual and Jesus: Jesus saves individuals.
Not at all, says the Vatican. There has to be, at the very least, an intermediary. Yes, you guessed, Us. "Outside the Church there is no salvation", says the Vatican - and sotto voce nowadays, Look what happened to the Jews.
So the Catholic focus is not on all these doubting jungle Thomases, caught up in their own heathen cultures. It's on the babies. Baptise them quick. That way they are In and they stand a chance. Put them into schools which indoctrinate them and they stand a bigger chance, so that the likelihood that they will be beaten and buggered on the way to salvation is a price well worth paying.