They were disobedient to God. There is a thread running through the pre-Mosaic law period, making it apparent that God’s laws and ways were known to at least some of the ancients. Consider some of the examples:
- Adam and Eve knew right from wrong after they ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. They felt guilty. People instinctively feel guilty to some degree, when they do wrong – unless they are sociopathic or totally hardened in sin.
- God must have given instructions to Adam and Eve, because we see Cain and Abel bringing offerings to the Lord. God did not accept Cain’s offering – there must have been a basis for God to reject this offering.
We know God regarded evil acts as sins pre-Mosaic law. God said to Cain, Genesis 4:7:
If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it
The fact that sin was recognised as sin, shows that right and wrong were known, implying some sort of instruction or law. Gen 4:7 makes it clear that there was still interaction between God’s angels and man after the exile from the garden. It is likely that the angels gave mankind instructions in God’s way.
- We see that 7 generations after Adam, the prophet Enoch is condemning the ungodly. Here we have a preacher from God warning the wicked. Jude 1:14-15:
It was also about these that Enoch, the seventh from Adam, prophesied, saying, “Behold, the Lord comes with ten thousands of his holy ones, to execute judgment on all and to convict all the ungodly of all their deeds of ungodliness that they have committed in such an ungodly way, and of all the harsh things that ungodly sinners have spoken against him
- Civilization in Noah’s day was violent and evil in God’s sight. Genesis 6:5:
The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.
Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence.
God decided to destroy the ungodly. Noah was the exception. Scripture says that Noah walked with God and was blameless. This contrasts him with the other people of the day who were not blameless. Not only was there the witness of creation for these early people, but there was knowledge of God’s laws and ways too, as Noah’s situation shows. Genesis 6:8-9:
But Noah found favor in the eyes of the LORD. These are the generations of Noah. Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation. Noah walked with God.
Those who didn’t walk with God, who ignored the witness of Noah all those long years as he built the ark, suffered for their disobedience to God. 2 Peter 2:5 :
if he did not spare the ancient world, but preserved Noah, a herald of righteousness, with seven others, when he brought a flood upon the world of the ungodly;
The world “herald” is the same word translated preacher in 2 Timothy 1:11:
for which I was appointed a preacher and apostle and teacher,
While Noah was building the ark, he was doubtless preaching God’s righteousness to the ungodly. They had the chance to listen to God’s preacher but chose to ignore God’s warnings.
Paul tells us plainly that sin was in the world before the Mosaic law. Romans 5:12-14:
Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned– for sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law. Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come.
Although there was no Mosaic law, there was knowledge of God and accountability to God. In addition to the evidence above of God’s ways being known by the ancients, there is the witness of the creation. God regards creation as sufficient witness to His existence for men to be able to honour Him and seek after Him. Romans 1:18-21:
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.
For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made.
So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.
Notice in the passage above, Paul says these people, since the creation of the world, knew God but ignored Him and their hearts were darkened. So they must have had some light or knowledge of God previously, for their hearts to become dark.
However, where more is given, more is expected. Those with more knowledge of God, will be held more accountable. Those who are ignorant of God, will not be judged under God’s law. They will die and not be resurrected. Isaiah 26:14:
They are dead, they will not live; they are shades, they will not arise; to that end you have visited them with destruction and wiped out all remembrance of them.
In contrast, those who have known God’s law will be resurrected and receive the reward for their faithfulness or lack of faithfulness. 2 Corinthians 5:10:
For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.