Sense and Nonsense: Salvation

Recently, Newt Gingrich predicted that God would be legally driven out of public life in the United States. James Hitchcock’s The Supreme Court and Religion in American Life recalls the various “conscientious objection” cases in which the “Supreme Being,” in which one had sincerely to believe for exemption, was expanded to mean “belief in and devotion to goodness and truth for their own sake,” or “belief in religion in an ethical sense.” Just what it was one believes becomes ever fuzzier.

People often attest that they neither have nor need “belief.” They just lead “good lives.” The self-delusions of belief and good lives are legendary. Modern ecumenical and liberal modes hesitate to condemn anyone for anything. The belief that everyone is saved is much more prevalent than the view that some are lost. Logically, if few or many are lost, then not everyone is saved.

In an All Souls’ Day sermon delightfully titled “Because Non-Smokers Die Too,” George Cardinal Pell remarked, “If the belief flourishes that everything is forgiven—that everyone goes to heaven—even without repentance, this soon translates to being uncertain whether anyone goes to heaven, or whether there is any Godly forgiveness beyond the human forgiveness of the victims.”

John Paul II repeatedly stressed the need for evangelization. Yet this is a time when, because of civil disabilities against any proselytism in many countries and because of doubt about whether it is needed, the zeal to evangelize seems wanting.

Salvation means that we accept Jesus Christ as the Lord. It means living a life worthy of our calling. It means repenting our sins. Yet we read in Lumen Gentium, “God’s plan of salvation embraces those also who acknowledge the Creator.” Evidently this is to distinguish them from those who also acknowledge the Redeemer. “Among these [acknowledging the Creator] are especially the Mohammedans; they profess their faith as the faith of Abraham, and with us they worship the one, merciful God who will judge men on the last day.” This is a benign view of Islam, which positively rejects the notion of the Trinity and Incarnation as contrary to Allah.

The document recalls St. Paul in Athens: “God himself is not far from those who seek the unknown God in darkness and shadows, for it is he who gives to all men life and inspiration and all things, and who as Savior desires all men to be saved.” Obviously, this group would include those who seek goodness and truth, whatever they mean. It appears that honorable seeking is enough.

Further, “Eternal salvation is open to those who, through no fault of their own, do not know Christ and his Church but seek God with a sincere heart, and under the inspiration of grace try in their lives to do his will, made known to them by the dictates of their conscience.” Grace is seen working outside the visible confines of the Church, but not apart from the Spirit’s being sent into the world. Like the court, the Church here insists that the person holding these positions must be sincere and in a position of unavoidable ignorance about the truth of revelation. Suicide bombers usually meet this criterion.

Finally, Divine Providence does not “deny aids necessary for salvation to those who, without blame on their part, have not yet reached an explicit belief in God, but strive to lead a good life, under the influence of God’s grace.” By such criteria, one wonders who, other than a few unrepentant believers, are not saved? If the vast majority will be saved with these beliefs, why disturb them?

One wonders whether there are more erroneous consciences than we are led to believe, or whether the objective order is not more demanding than we suspect.

  • Fr. James V. Schall

    The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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