Eternity for Skeptics and Unbelievers is a longer read than most Sky View posts, but it is my hope that you can read a few paragraphs nevertheless. Whatever you decide to read, perhaps the points that are raised can help you understand a little better the mystery of salvation as it relates to your non-Catholic friends and relatives. And just as important, it may even help you to communicate your faith to them. Fulton Sheen gives some very helpful advice down towards the bottom of the post.
Here are eight essential points about what the Catholic Church teaches with regard to the salvation of skeptics and unbelievers:
I. According to Romans 2, Gentiles or unevangelized people are a law unto themselves; that is, they will be judged by their own conscience on Judgment Day.
II. God speaks to us in two ways: Through our conscience and/or through the prophetic voice of the Catholic Church.
III. Non-Christians and skeptics rely, to an extent, on their inner-voice of conscience. Jesus can still save souls even without them knowing it. As we will see, it is not absolutely necessary to know the Source of our salvation in order to be saved.
IV. To be guilty of sin is to know the right and know the wrong- and then do the wrong. This is how St. James defines sin. Christ is the way, not one way among many, by which souls are saved from sin.
V. Christ is inseparably united to his Church. Through this union the Church is mystically present in all that is good in the world; even outside of her walls.
VI. Even though non-Catholics and even non-Christians can be saved, there is, nevertheless, a distinct disadvantage of not being Catholic.
VII. Advice on how to reach non-Catholics by Fulton Sheen (see below).
VIII. The mystery of God's justice and mercy in a nutshell.
“All who sin outside the law will also perish without reference to it, and all who sin under the law will be judged in accordance with it. For it is not those who hear the law who are just in the sight of God; rather, those who observe the law will be justified. For when the Gentiles who do not have the law by nature observe the prescriptions of the law, they are a law for themselves even though they do not have the law. They show that the demands of the law are written in their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even defend them on the day when, according to my gospel, God will judge people's hidden works through Christ Jesus.”
I. A Law unto Themselves:
Have you ever wondered about where your unbelieving relative passed on to when he or she died? I mean did you ever speculate as to what awaiting them in eternity? What about the neighbor who just couldn’t bring himself to Catholic Faith just before he passed away? What about him? Is he going to hell? Finally, what happens to people who never had a chance to accept or reject the Gospel such a miscarried or an aborted child or even those people in distant lands? Perhaps you watched a documentary on the History Channel about the Native American Indians of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Did they have an opportunity to be saved before the European explorers reached their shores with the preaching of the Gospel? After all, Christianity makes it clear that salvation is through Jesus Christ. He is the Way, the Truth and the Life.
St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans chapter 2 is an excellent place to begin with all the abovementioned questions. In the passage from Romans 2, St. Paul is making a distinction between those who know God’s law, such as the Jews and the early Christians, and those who do not. As for those who do not, he calls them as “Gentiles.” Notice that there is an unmistakable suggestion that a person can be saved or perish without knowing God’s law. St. Paul says, “All who sin outside the law will also perish without reference to it.” This is to say that a person can go to hell if even if he was never exposed to or learned of God’s law.
But in all fairness, how can that be? Answer: Those who have never benefited from hearing the Gospel or hearing an undistorted version of it will be judged in accordance to the dictates of their conscience. This also means that a person can be saved without reference to the law of God as well. Again, the Apostle said that their conscience, or their conflicting thoughts, will accuse or even defend them when God will judge all people. Yes, for those people of good will who never heard of the Gospel nor had the chance to accept Christ as their savior, their conscience will defend them. Why is that? Because they followed the law of God that was written on their hearts.
II. Conscience and Church:
Just as God can reveal himself either indirectly through the design and beauty of his creation or directly by personally revealing himself, let’s say, in a vision or apparition, he can likewise make his law known through the human conscience or through the prophetic and infallible voice of the Catholic Church.
Our conscience is that inner-voice from God (however faint) or that interior sense of right and wrong. It gives us peace when we do right and guilt when we do wrong. But it has one advantage and one disadvantage: The advantage is that it is immediate; it is always ready to be used. When we are forced to make a moral decision in the moment, obviously we don’t always have time to consult the Catholic Catechism. We must, therefore, in times of uncertainty, use the lights of our conscience. The disadvantage is that our conscience is fallible. It is prone to error because it can be diminished or deadened through sin, emotions or personal bias.
As stated, the prophetic voice of the Catholic Church is infallible. We can always rely on it to be the truth coming from God. Jesus said to his Apostles, the first bishops, that those who hear you hear me and whatever you shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven etc. But the disadvantage is, as mentioned, that access to the truth of Divine Revelation as taught by the Church is not always immediately available. If a Catholic simply does not know what the Church teaches when faced with a moral dilemma or if a person was never told that premarital sex, cohabitation, contraception or homosexuality was a sin, then he would have to rely on his conscience, however uninformed it might be. But being in the state of ignorance he would be less guilty when he comes to meet God face-to-face. After all, St. James says, “So for one who knows the right thing to do and does not do it, it is a sin.” (James 4:17) To repeat, being guilty of sin presupposes that you know what the right thing to do is and you know what the wrong thing to do is- and then you do the wrong.
Non-Christians and Skeptics:
Take, for instance, the American Native Indians who never knew Christ. Did they have an opportunity at salvation? St. Paul, as we've seen, would answer in the affirmative. That is, if such an Indian followed his conscience and was a person of good will there was certainly an opportunity for salvation at the moment of death. Taking what St. Paul said in Romans 2 a little deeper, each human being is given a conscience because each human being, when created at the moment of conception, had some contact with God. Pope Benedict calls this the "memory of God." At this defining moment of creation, the Lord impresses his image and likeness upon the soul. Hence, contact is made between God and the soul but unfortunately this impression or memory of God (however direct or indirect it is) fades without the light of the Gospel and sacramental grace. As for the Gentiles or those Indians as a people- they who never knew Christ -may, if not most, filled that spiritual longing for the One True God with false gods. This is how paganism developed over the centuries.
In any case, the way in which Christians truly recover the memory of God’s goodness is through being born-again through the waters of baptism, having faith in Christ and fulfilling his law of love.
Even for those people who, like the recently deceased Christopher Hitchens, were rabidly anti-religious, it possible they may have never known an undiluted version of the Faith or have benefited from (for a long enough period of time) an authentic Christian witness. Perhaps Jesus Christ, as we know Him, was never known to a person like Hitchens (but then again maybe he was). Catholic historian Christopher Dawson, in his book, Religion and the Modern State, puts it this way:
“If the light is hidden, we cannot blame the world outside of ignoring it. It is, of course, possible that men may know Christianity and still reject it, but in the great majority of cases the men who follow the new Secularist ideals of life and regard Christianity as discredited are men who have never known it as a living reality, but have been acquainted with it only at secondhand or in distorted forms.”
So the relative who never went to Church or the neighbor who just couldn’t bring himself to embrace the fullness of the Faith may have been exposed to false and distorted versions of Christianity. Perhaps they had a hard time shaking off an act of transgression committed against them by a Catholic priest or lay person.
Again, to reiterate for the sake of clarity: When St. Paul says that the “Gentiles who do not have the law by nature observe the prescriptions of the law, they are a law for themselves even though they do not have the law,” what he means by this is that their conscience can defend them on Judgment Day. Here is where a lot of Christians get confused. Yes, a person can be saved even though they do not know the Source of their salvation. Just as a miscarried or an aborted baby can be saved without the knowledge of and the faith in Jesus Christ, so too can they be saved who never heard the Gospel or who are ignorant of its truth.
IV. Christ: The Only Way
The Catholic doctrine on the salvation of the unbeliever or skeptic is, in my opinion, the most reasonable of all the Christian explanations. Other Christians might tell you that a person- such as Native American Indians before the Gospel was preached on their lands -will go to hell simply because they did not have faith in Christ...even if some were men and women of good will. However, if God created them knowing that they would never have the opportunity to hear the Gospel and as such, never have the chance to put their faith in Christ, then can this really be counted as justice? I don’t think so. It is like a father making a rule for his child, a rule that was never communicated, only to punish the child for not observing it. If those who have never heard the Gospel automatically go to hell, like some Christian fundamentalists believe, then it seems to me that St. Paul could not say the following: God “wills everyone to be saved and to come to knowledge of the truth.” (I Timothy 2:4) If God wills everyone to be saved then he must at least provide an opportunity of salvation for every single person he created.
Given this, it is important to remember that all good things- supernatural or natural -come to us in this world through Jesus Christ. But because all good things come from him, they are also destined to return to him as well. Just as rivers flow into the sea, so too does all goodness flow back to him. God the Father even made this promise to his only begotten Son: “You are my son; today I have begotten you. Ask it of me, and I will give you the nations as your inheritance, and, as your possession, the ends of the earth." (Psalm 2:7-8)
It can therefore be said that just as every soul longs for its fulfillment in Christ, the whole history of mankind will find its completion in him as well. As then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger wrote in the year 2000, “The Lord is the goal of human history, the focal point of the desires of history and civilization, the centre of mankind, the joy of all hearts, and the fulfilment of all aspirations” (Dominus Iesus, 2000).
Even though the non-Catholic can be saved, even though they who have never known Christ can be saved, and even though God’s grace is mysteriously at work outside the parameters of the Catholic Church, still, this saving and active grace comes from Jesus Christ and his Body, the Church. As St. Paul wrote to St. Timothy: “For there is one God. There is also one mediator between God and the human race, Christ Jesus…” (I Timothy 2:5)
Outside the Church Walls: Grace at Work
You may have heard about the Catholic doctrine which holds that "no one can be saved outside the Catholic Church." Over the years this has been understood and communicated in various ways. To be sure, just as scientist comes to know the laws of nature with more depth over the years, so too does the Church absorb the truth of God’s revelation little by little over the centuries. With that said, this doctrine is still an article of Faith that cannot be changed. It remains binding on the Catholic conscience. But as stated, the understanding of this mystery- while the truth of it remains the same -have developed over the years.
The Church, in union with Christ, is present wherever God's grace is at work. Please keep in mind that the Church does not possess a human soul but a Divine Spirit as her soul. Whereas the soul of any human being is confined within his or her body, the Holy Spirit, as the soul and animating principle of the Church, is present everywhere (i.e. omnipresent). As such, just as the Lord can be present and active outside the visible walls of the Church (i.e. Sacraments, Church Hierarchy, the sanctuary etc.), so too is her soul, by virtue of the Holy Spirit, can be active outsider of her visible body. Why is this important? Because no one is saved, no good is accomplished, and no grace is given- no matter how far they are from being a member of the Church as an institution -without it being in some way connected to the Church.
This is why the Church teaches that “outside of her structure, many elements can be found of sanctification and truth...For the spirit of Christ has not refrained from using them as means of salvation which derive their efficacy from the very fullness of grace and truth entrusted to the Catholic Church”(Dominus Iesus, 2000). This same document goes even further: “Church of Christ is present and operative also in these Churches, even though they lack full communion with the Catholic Church.” Therefore, it is not just our Lord but the Church too who is mystically present and active wherever good is found outside her visible structure. This is why the Catholic Church recognizes baptisms in Protestant churches or the real presence of the Eucharist in Orthodox churches or the spoken Word (from the Old Testament) in Jewish synagogues. Indeed, all of these elements of goodness and holiness come from (or through) this Christ-Church relationship. And, if we can use the river analogy again, these graces are oriented or programmed, if you will, towards the fullness of Christ which is to be found in the Catholic Church.
Cardinal Charles Journet gave a good example of how Christ touches souls who are near (within the Church) and those who are far (outside the Church). He said, “It thus appears that in the days of His mortal life Jesus acted in two ways: He scattered His graces far and wide, and that is action from a distance; and He communicated them in a more intimate manner to those whom He could touch, and that is action by contact.” For instance, there were times when Jesus touched the person he healed, such as the deaf man, and there were times when he healed people from afar, such as the Centurion's servant. In any event, the two ways in which he healed people during his public ministry signify how he touches souls today. In the Gospels, his "healing touch by contact" foretold the way people would be saved within his Church. On the other hand, when he healed people from afar he foretold, ever so indirectly, how people would be saved outside of his Church. This example given by Cardinal Journet is instructive.
VI. The Disadvantage:
With all that has been said, however, I would be remiss if I gave the impression that all is well and good with unbaptized, unevangelized, or uncatechized souls. Such people are saved only with difficulty. “If it is true that the followers of other religions can receive divine grace, it is also certain that objectively speaking they are in a gravely deficient situation in comparison with those who, in the Church, have the fullness of the means of salvation.” ( Dominus Iesus, 2000). It is important to remember that Christ came into this world not only to be known in heaven but also to be known on earth.
A lot of Christians ask, “Well, if you can be saved without faith, then why bother preaching the Gospel at all?” It is a good question but it misses the point. Our Lord did not die on the Cross just so that he could hand out tickets for heaven. For sure, eternal happiness is the most import fruit of his coming. Nevertheless, he desires that fellowship with him be had by people while living in this world. In the absence of the faith, grace, Scripture, the Sacraments and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, life is less happy, less stable and life's demands are much less conducive to one’s salvation. So there is an incentive to reach out to non-Christians even though they still have an opportunity to be saved in their ignorance.
What to do? In other words, how are we to approach an unbelieving relative or skeptical neighbor or a friend who happens to belong to another religion with the Good News? Bishop Fulton Sheen provides a short and concise suggestion. I believe this will be helpful in your quest to win over your loved one to Christ. In his book, Lift Up Your Heart, he said the following:
“First, we should realize that all religions, all sects, all ethical systems have a small or large arc of the circle of truth…Those who know the full truth and reject it are in a special category; we do not discuss the intellectual aspects of truth with them, for that is not where their difficulties lies. But those who are ignorant of the truth or misinformed about it may well be shown how the whole truth completes the portion of it they already have and love. We can always accept the known good as a starting point for the completion of the circle. It is not meet [i.e. advisable] to prove that members of the sects are wrong- for they are partly right –but rather to suggest that they find the truth in its fullness. When a man is hungry, we need not prove to him that he is better off without poisons; we need only give him bread, and he will relish it and gain strength from it. When souls are starving, too, it is unnecessary to discuss wrong notions of Divinity; we need only, by kindness and mercy, bring them the Bread of Truth. Divine Grace will do the rest.”
With that said, we can never be dishonest about error or the differences we might have with people of other persuasions or religions. After all, unity is based on truth. What Bishop Sheen was recommending was precisely the method of evangelization that the Second Vatican Council taught. Evangelization does not have to begin with where Catholics disagree with others. It is probably most effective when we can add to the truths other people hold. As the Church document, Dominus Iesus, says: "Those who obey the promptings of the Spirit of truth are already on the way of salvation. But the Church, to whom this truth has been entrusted, must go out to meet their desire, so as to bring them the truth. Because she believes in God's universal plan of salvation, the Church must be missionary”.
The problem or the snag over these last fifty years has been that many Catholics, in their attempts to reach out to others, have left those difficult Gospel truths behind or failed to mention them. As a result, many who were in search of God or in search of his Church did not benefit from the fullness of Christ that the Church contains within her. This incomplete witness, therefore, has less powerful and less appealing than it could be.
Pope Benedict reminds us that we have to bring Christ and all that he commanded to the table. We cannot wince even from those doctrines which our culture finds offensive. Indeed, if our Lord Jesus was a "Sign of Contradiction," we must be that too if the circumstances require it. Even still, we must go out into the world and "meet their desire, so as to bring them the truth." And as the great evangelist Fulton Sheen pointed out, we can start with those morsels of truth that are in their possession.
VIII. The Mystery in a Nutshell:
The mystery of salvation and how it applies to the skeptic or unbeliever can be summed up as follows: Both God’s justice and his mercy are far beyond what we can comprehend. What we consider to be minor offenses against God may in fact be much greater in reality. After all, our Lord Jesus did say we will have to account for every idle word and pay back every last penny. St. Francis de Sales adds to this by saying, "If we presume his mercy, will provoke his justice."
But it is equally true to say that the slightest spark of repentance from a person who lived a life of evil is enough to make one a candidate for Divine Mercy. We are never to believe- even under the worst conditions -that our sins are greater than God's infinte mercy.
1. Dominus Iesus. Translation: On the Unicity and Salvific Universality of Jesus Christ and the Church, by the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith 2000