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?

  • I also asked this question on the BH site, but have not yet received any answers, so I thought I would post it here as well. Jun 5, 2016 at 14:28
  • 1
    The answer to this question is going to vary by tradition. BH is better suited for analysis of the meaning of the word overlooked here. We can answer this is you specify whose opinion you want. Jun 6, 2016 at 5:28

1 Answer 1


When we put several passages together to get a fuller picture, we can see in what sense "overlook" is being used. Consider the following two verses, which are similar in scope (from the NET translation):

Rom. 3:25

God publicly displayed him at his death as the mercy seat accessible through faith. This was to demonstrate his righteousness, because God in his forbearance had passed over the sins previously committed.

Acts 14:16

In past generations he allowed all the nations to go their own ways

I'll also add your passage for completeness:

Acts 17:30

Therefore, although God has overlooked such times of ignorance, he now commands all people everywhere to repent,

From these passages we see that overlook is being used in the sense of patience on God's part. See the words "forebearance" and "allowed." God still executed wrath on the nations; as we see in Rom. 1:18ff, God showed His wrath in times past by letting the nations do what they want ("God gave them over"), and allowing them to suffer the consequences of life without God. The nations are culpable because creation declares a Creator, and they willingly turned away from Him, and their consciences will judge them for they did (Rom. 2:14-15). Thus, the ignorant people won't get a free pass -- they do know what sin is.

So "overlook" is not being used in the sense of turning a blind eye to sin. The three passages taken together seem to indicate that God held back His fullest wrath and showed mercy and grace, anticipating the cross to come. Now with the cross demonstrating God dealing with sin, God commands all to repent. The people have creation to help detect a Creator, but now with the written Word of God and the cross, we can see Him as one who decisively deals with sin.

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