One distinctive feature of Mormons is the belief that there were Christians before the incarnation of Christ - this is documented (in two different groups) in the Americas in the Book of Mormon.
These were Christians who knew by personal revelation and prophecy that a savour and redeemer, Christ, would come - and that his atonement would potentially cover everybody - before, during and after His incarnation - and who therefore practised a Christ-centred religion even before Jesus was born or resurrected.
I believe in the truth of the BoM; but even for a Christian who did not, there is a real possibility that what it describes specifically may have happened in one or more places.
How might Christians have existed before Christ?
My hunch is that a Saviour is something that would make sense only to those who were, in some sense, monotheists - those who believed in One God.
(Not necessarily a belief in a one-and-only God but a supreme, authoritative and ruling personal God who had a care for Men - individually and collectively.)
It is not that a Saviour is unnecessary in a polytheistic system, but rather that there is (apparently) a considerable muddle and imprecision about polytheism, such that its philosophical implications(including deficiencies) are unclear, and undiscussed.
How might Christians before Christ know about Christ? Here are three possible lines of evidence.
1. Revelation - personal revelations to individuals, and to acknowledged prophets, may have been made by God to communicate the need for a Saviour, and the promise of a Saviour.
(God might make such revelations open to all Men and all societies; but they may not be looked for, or may be ignored or rejected.)
2. Reason may have worked-out the need for a Saviour; individuals may have understood that pure monotheism was philosophically-inadequate (even in principle) to provide and account for the combination of factors which characterised the human condition in relation to the divine.
(This argument is based on the fact that Christianity offers, or promises, more than any other religion - as was recognized by Blaise Pascal; in other words, other religions have more gaps and deficiencies.)
3. Psychology - people may have felt the need for a Saviour; may have recognized that they could not save themselves, and that for them to be saved required some kind of mediator between God the Father and man.
And they may have felt that because they personally needed a Saviour, then a loving God of power would 'provide' a Saviour.
(This is another place where it seems that monotheism is required to understand the necessity of Christ - those who believe in a polytheistic pantheon do not regard them as responsive to human needs.)
So, it is possible that early men may, for a variety of reasons, have concluded that Man required a Saviour; and that what Man needed God would somehow give.
Also that because a Saviour is once-and-for-all, it did not much matter whether He had not yet come: life should still be lived with that awareness.
And so some early men may have practised de facto Christianity.
My favourite is the Neolithic inhabitants of England who built the Avebury, Silbury, Stonehenge and the other linked outdoor temples, stone monuments, pathways and spaces across southern England.
I like to speculate, to imagine, that these people were monotheists - with their supreme sky God-the-Father associated with the sun - and that they were awaiting some intermediary Saviour who was Son to the Father God.
This is compatible with what little is known of these societies; but there is no positive evidence that I know of - indeed I do not know what might count as positive evidence of a proto-Christian religion among the kind of things that survive to be noted by archaeologists.
Only if some kind of writing is found from this era, and is deciphered, could we perhaps really know. But if archaeologists aren't even looking for proto-Christianity or rule-it-out a priori (because, as typical secular modern people, the idea strikes them as absurd) then of course they never will find it.
Is there not an old tradition that Christ visited Cornwall?
@Leo - Well, yes, but that was not before Christ. The legend is best known in Blake's great poem Jerusalem - which in the setting by Parry is the unofficial national anthem for England (as contrasted with Britain's which is God Save The Queen). Before his ministry, Christ is thought to have gone on a voyage to visit the mines of Cornwall with Joseph of Arimathea - who returned to Somerset and set up the first Christian community. This is nowadays usually regarded as nonsense, but I believe it! - not least because of Blake's prophetic witness.
The other English idea is that the Druids were pre-Christian priests - and that Druids made a lineage from the Neolithic Megalithic era mentioned in the main posting, through to the Ancient Britons until their power was extinguished by the Romans in Angelsey AD 60 (although some have it that Merlin was the last Druid).
I'm surprised to see that you make no mention of the anima naturaliter Christiana, as Tertullian put it, which Christians have acknowledged in "virtuous pagans"—the likes of Cicero and Virgil. This acknowledgment of virtue would alone seem to suggest that there were indeed ancients who understood the implications of their "polytheism".
One must also wonder if you have ever read any Hellenic or Egyptian texts on religion—particularly mystery religion—as one finds in such literature nothing like the "considerable muddle and imprecision" you allege there to be. Or would you consider Apollonius of Tyana, Julian the Blessed, and Proclus to be monotheists?
@g- I would regard the virtuous pagan argument as quite different; that was about the salvation of people who certainly were not Christian in a brand of Christianity where damnation was the default, and the Catholic Church was regarded as holding the keys to salvation - Christianity was supposed to be restricted to that specific organization.
Platonists and Neoplatonists are monotheists - indeed perhaps the purest monotheists who ever lived. Socrates seems to have been a monotheist in the sense of talking of The God (Apollo) as supremein authority - at least in his own life.
The muddle and imprecision I refer to relates to the 'understanding' of the multi-god systems like Ancient Egypt, Greece, Rome, Hinduism, Norse religions. There is no systematic (theological) understanding in these religions. Indeed it seems that nobody is sure which gods, or how many gods these societies had; or what is their relationship, their powers, their aims etc.
It seems so imprecise and fluid that there would be no possibility of discovering theological deficiencies or limitations in the way that the Hebrews of the Old Testament were aware of the deficiencies of their 'pure' monotheism - their need for a Saviour.
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