The Salvation Of Atheists

by Jimmy Akin

in Theology

A reader writes:

Can a sincere atheist get saved? I’m convinced he can, since God won’t punish somebody for not knowing something he genuinely never knew, but it seems to me that his salvation requires that his choice be made after his death, since presumably he never saw the choice while he was alive. I think anybody has to at least say, "God, whoever or whatever you are, forgive my sins and take me to be with you." This lets in Moslems and (I suppose) Hindus and what-have-you — Christ has a long reach —  but the real athesit wouldn’t ever have occasion to say that.

I keep thinking of the bit in 1 Peter 3, where Christ preaches to the "spirits in prison." Since they needed preaching-to, it seems that their consequential decision was not yet made, but there they were in some Purgatory-like situation.

I always agree with Protestants — mostly while discussing Purgatory — that a person is saved or damned at his death, with no second chances, but now I wonder if people who truly never had the occasion to choose God while alive get that choice after they die. I suppose they might each have got a clear sight of it during their lives, and rejected it, but a lot of atheists seem to be completely honest.

The idea that someone at least has to say something like, "God, whoever or whatever you are, forgive my sins and take me to be with you" is found in the book of Hebrews, where we read that

without faith it is impossible to please him. For whoever would draw
near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who
seek him [Heb. 11:6].

Based on this, many have conjectured that belief in God is an indispensible prerequisite for salvation and thus that atheists are damned.

There is a question, thoug, about whether the author of Hebrews means his statement to be an absolute statement about salvation that admits of no exceptions or whether it is meant in a looser sense that could allow some without an explicit belief in God to be saved.

This was a matter of discussion in Catholic theology prior to the Second Vatican Council, but Vatican II seemed to answer that, in addition to Jews and Muslims and others who believe in God, it was possible for people who do not believe in God to be saved:

Nor does Divine Providence deny the helps necessary for salvation to those who, without blame on their part, have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God and with His grace strive to live a good life [Lumen Gentium 16].

"Those who . . . have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God" would seem to include not only members of non-Abrahamic religions but also atheists.

The constitution Gaudium et Spes also stressed the universal possibility of salvation:

[S]ince Christ died for all men, and since the ultimate vocation of man is in fact one, and divine, we ought to believe that the Holy Spirit in a manner known only to God offers to every man the possibility of being associated with this paschal mystery [Gaudium et Spes 22].

The question is: In what way does God offer this possibility of salvation? Is it something that comes to people after this life if they never heard the gospel during it or is it something that comes in this life?

The passage that you refer to in 1 Peter is one that has often been taken as suggesting that there is a kind of second chance after death for at least some people, and it is easy to see why. The passage reads:

For Christ also died for sins once for all, the righteous for the
unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the
flesh but made alive in the spirit;  in which he went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of
Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight
persons, were saved through water [1 Peter 3:18-20].

If the preaching that Christ does in this passage is the preaching of the gospel so that they may be saved then it would seem that there is a second chance after death for at least some people (i.e., those who died in the Flood). On the other hand, this may not be what Peter is referring to. He might mean something else. Possibilities could include:

1) The preaching is that the time of release has come. In this case it might be that the spirits who disobeyed in the past–although saved–were held in a kind of purgatorial prison and that now that Christ has died their time of purification is over and they will be going to heaven.

2) The preaching is a bare declaration of Christ’s coming, with no offer of salvation. In this case it would seem to be a vindication of God’s justice and/or mercy in the face of those who refused it. In other words: "God would have saved you from your sins if you had turned to him, as he has now proven by sending his Son to die for the sins of the world. You refused to repent and turn to God, so your condemnation is just."

3) These aren’t human spirits at all and so aren’t subject to redemption. They might be the spirits that Jude refers to as "the angels that did not keep their own position but left their proper
dwelling [and] have been kept by him in eternal chains in the nether gloom
until the judgment of the great day" (Jude 6). Peter might then be linking the non-human spirits with the sins that brought on the Flood. In this case Christ might be preaching to them the fact that he has now come and redeemed mankind, despite their attempt to so corrupt mankind that it would be completely wiped out and destroyed.

In each of these cases, there would be no second chance after death.

Because of the ambiguity in the passage–as well as the general impression that Scripture gives that we have only this lifetime to make our peace with God–it has remained a perpetual conundrum for Bible interpreters.

For its part, the Catholic Church has seen death as the definitive moment at which each must choose for or against God. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states:

Death puts an end to human life as the time open to either accepting or
rejecting the divine grace manifested in Christ [CCC 1021].

I haven’t been able to verify an infallible definition of this point (though there may be one; something in my memory is saying that I’ve seen a claim that there is one, though I’d have to see the original source document to see if this particular point was defined). If there is no definition then it could be possible that there is a post-morten second chance for at least some, but the overall tenor of Catholic theology–with its focus on death as the definitive moment of life–is against it.

It strikes me that it would be easier to account for the salvation of atheists along the lines of an implicit openness to God.

In other words, if an atheist sincerely says to himself, "I want to do whatever is right–that is the controlling axiom of my life; whatever is ultimately true and good, that is what I intend to follow" then this atheist has fundamentally opened himself to God such that if he knew the truth of God’s existence he would believe in and follow God. Due to his circumstance, though, he is unaware that God is what is ultimately true and good.

Thus any atheist who could say, "I don’t think that God exists, but if I was shown convincing reasons to believe that he does then I would go and get baptized immediately and become one of his devout followers" then this person’s heart is such that God will not hold his ignorance against him and will allow him to be saved.

On the other hand, if an atheist says, "Even if there is a God, I’ll still refuse to believe in him and I’ll spit in his face when I die" then this person is toast.

Between the two would be atheists who display some openness to God but who also to one degree or another resist compelling reasons to believe that he exist when they encounter such reasons. These individuals would seem to be in an ambiguous condition. If their openness to believing in and following God is their more fundamental motive then they would be open to his grace and be saved. If their resistance to believing in or following God is their more fundamental motive then they would be closed to his grace and thus lost.

Or that’s how it seems to me.

It’s still a matter for debate.

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{ 74 comments }

Ryan C August 7, 2006 at 9:09 am

In terms of having a second chance, what about another biblical conundrum – Paul referring to the baptism of the dead in 1 Corinthians 15?
One thing to consider is that we don’t know exactly what that moment of death is like (no one’s returned from making that final decision for Heaven or for Hell). It could be that, as St. Faustina I think believed, Christ reveals himself somehow to the person before their death with the choice of following Him.

Augustine August 7, 2006 at 9:28 am

Of course, people are only saved through God by his Grace. That would seem to require at least belief in not just “a god,” but in “the God.” And those who reject Christ will not be saved because rejecting Christ means rejecting his gift of salvation.
But nevertheless, history is filled with lots of surprise conversions. And a genuine conversion at one’s very moment of death may not atone for the temporal punishment of one’s sins, but it does save them from Hell.
Something that I find interesting is that people who talk of near-death experiences often describe not only their life being replayed before their eyes, but also a period afterwards. It seems to me that even after a person appears to be dead, they may not be actually dead yet, and that Christ can use those few moments to extend his hand towards someone to see if they’ll respond favorably. Even an atheist might be drawn to faith in this way. Perhaps that atheist always wanted to believe, but his ego got in the way and now that doesn’t matter to him anymore, so the obstacle to his disbelief is removed. Who can really say?
That being said, I still do believe that the vast majority of people are destined for Hell. It is opinion, though, not fact. I just see a historical consistency, particularly throughout the Old Testament, where the great many fall to sin and die and only a small remnant is saved. This imagery is also echoed in the Apocalypse.

StubbleSpark August 7, 2006 at 10:42 am

The imagery is also echoed in Christ’s words where He describes Himself as being the “narrow gate” through which few enter.
It is also echoed in the words of Our Lady of Fatima, who said that the sight of souls falling into Hell because of sins of the flesh was like the falling of leaves in the autumn.
“Death puts an end to human life as the time open to either accepting or rejecting the divine grace manifested in Christ [CCC 1021].”
This is a good quote for demonstrating, among other things, that your is soul is more or less “done” when you die.
I think too many people have this Laverne and Shirley style image of Judgment being a time when you plea you case and talk your way into Heaven. But the idea is ridiculous. What can you tell an all-knowing God that He does not already know?
Judgment is going to be a horrific dressing down with eternal consequences but if we are lucky, that is all it is going to be — a dressing down.
I think many people unconcisously believe in a second chance after death (some misunderstand Purgatory in that respect) and deliberately put off fully accepting God thinking they will be able to somehow prove themselves in the end.
But that is an awful cavalier attitude, isn’t it? Your SAT scores have a more temporal significance yet people will still study like mad for those.
Why cram for Judgment? Today IS your second chance.

Mark Scott Abeln August 7, 2006 at 10:42 am

We don’t know who is saved, so that is why we must preach the Gospel.

Ryan C August 7, 2006 at 11:28 am

Augustine and Stubblespark,
There are also passages from Scripture and tradition that talk as if many or possibly all could be saved. To even go back to Fatima, we pray in the Rosary the Fatima prayer: “Lead all souls to Heaven, especially those most in need of thy mercy.” I side with Balthasar and Fr. Neuhaus who say that we do not know who is saved, or if all are saved, but we should hope and pray that all are saved. In any case, since God’s salvific will is universal, we know that every soul is given the chance of choosing Heaven or Hell, perhaps in a way that we cannot fully understand (as with the examples some have mentioned).

Jared Weber August 7, 2006 at 11:38 am

I think the important thing to be that, while we hope and pray that others are saved, we need to live our own lives as though there will be no last chance after what we would call death.
That aside, man, do I wish I knew what Peter had in mind with the “spirits in prison” reference.

chris-2-4 August 7, 2006 at 11:41 am

This is a good post, Jimmy. But it’s been rather serious lately while you deal with your secret projects. How about some Sci Fi content?

Ryan C August 7, 2006 at 11:42 am

Jared, I think you raise a very valid point. That being that we shouldn’t worry about how many are saved or damned, but rather we should focus on working out our own salvation in fear and trembling.
Or as Jesus said: “If I will that he tarry till I come what is that to thee? Follow me.”

michael hugo August 7, 2006 at 11:53 am

Too smart by half.
I only have this discussion with Catholics that love VII, so I always get the same answers, but I’ll try it again. (BTW, I accept VII, but only out of obedience, not because I think there aren’t SERIOUS problems with it.)
My problem with this is simply that REGARDLESS of the theology involved, the MESSAGE is one that necessarily results in the erosion of the Church’s authority, the significance of the Sacraments (killing vocations) and saps the energy to evangelize. Again, I am talking about the reality of how people react when they “misunderstand” the implications of the “salvation of ignorance” (or innocence).
Again, I won’t argue the theology, because the supporters of this idea have all the answers. What they can’t answer is why the Church in the West is in the process of collapse. Why vocations are at a standstill.
I can’t say I have THE answer, but my answer makes sense. It fits the reality (if not the theology). And that answer is that the Church has, by suggesting that it is not directly (meaning personally) necessary for salvation, implicitly suggested that people don’t need to be converted for them to be “saved”. If that is true, then all of the stuff the Church says must not be necessary for salvation.
To use a silly, but relevant example, if an atheist can be saved, why is missing mass a sin?
Again, I am NOT arguing with the theology. I’ve heard it. I just don’t see it having any relevance to the world in which people are happy as clams to hear (or mistakenly infer, if you will) that they can remain blissfully ignorant of God and his “rules” and still make it.
Another example: If the Sacraments are NOT necessary to enter the kingdom – “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. But whosoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life,” (John 6:53-54) – than why do we need priests? The clear answer (by inference) is that we DON’T need priests. Guess what? Other denominations don’t have them, but the Church now says they don’t need them.
Gee, does this sound anything like the “spirit of Vatican II”?
Yes it does. Coincidence? I don’t think so.
This has always been my frustration with blaming the “spirit of Vatican II”. Are the “dissenters” not simply taking the Church at its word: agreeing with what APPEARS to be the Church’s suicidal position on salvation (meaning the Church is going to save you, regardless of whether you are in the Church or not)?
How can we blame the dissenters if all they are doing is fulfilling what they THINK VII means? Who cares about authority if the Church doesn’t matter? Who cares about the Eucharist if Muslims can be saved? Who cares about celibacy if atheists are saved?
Again, I understand the Church’s arguments/apologetics on this issue. What I don’t understand is how, facing a virtual collapse of Christianity in the West, the Church can’t understand how the average person reacts to the implicit message of “no fault salvation”.
Don’t kill the messenger. I am just callin’ it like I see it.

A.M. August 7, 2006 at 11:55 am

I thought those passages from 1 Peter refer to the Harrowing of Hell, since they are cited to in Paragraphs 632-635 of the Catechism, which discuss Christs’s descent into hell after His death on the cross.

Matt McDonald August 7, 2006 at 12:52 pm

I think this discussion is missing the requirements of the exception to visible membership in the Church under “Extra Ecclesium Nulla Salas”.
To benefit from this exception one must follow the natural moral law and be invincibly ignorant of the revealed truth that the Catholic Church is the one founded by Christ.
It’s been clearly defined by pagan philosophers (Aristotle), Catholic philosophers (Aquinas) and is a doctrine of the Church that men can come to an essential knowledge of God by reason alone. The natural law is written on our hearts, if it is violated, say through excessive pride, then the exception to EENS is not met. An immoral man who dies unrepentant will not get to heaven, this applies to those are Catholic, Protestant, muslim, jew, pagan, or atheist. The advantage of being Catholic is that our religion teaches us the truth, and provides us with the sacraments which aid in maintaining the state of grace, and much more easily return to that state if we fall.

Josh August 7, 2006 at 1:05 pm

“I don’t think that God exists, but if I was shown convincing reasons to believe that he does then I would go and get baptized immediately and become one of his devout followers.”
Who wouldn’t? I don’t think an atheist making such a statement makes the cut. This isn’t even implicit faith, which a Muslim has in worshipping the Creator of the Universe – this is testing God, demanding signs. We know that Christ admonished the Pharisees who demanded signs. Christ demands faith – I cannot conceive that any human person, to whom God were to reveal Himself, could actually do anything but worship Him.
I agree with michael hugo almost completely. The problem with VII ecumenism is that it in a way distorts the Church’s traditional understanding of salvation outside the visible boundaries of the Church. The Church has always held that it is POSSIBLE that particular individuals might be saved outside the visible boundaries of the Church; after Vatican II it seems to be taken for granted that they will be. The fact is that in a world where even large numbers of Catholics deny infallible Truth and are contracepting themselves out of existence, the picture is probably quite bleak. The choice for Heaven or Hell isn’t a matter of “well, I’m basically a good person – I mean, I never killed anyone.” God, through His Church in the Sacraments, gives us graces which empower us to become holy – and that we have to do if we want to choose Heaven. If we choose not to make use of the gifts God has given, then we have chosen Hell.
God have mercy on us all.

Some Day August 7, 2006 at 1:09 pm

Here is the best example of a non-Catholic being saved. (pardon the length)
Some indian im the Amazon, never has seen even a white man, obviously never a Catholic, much less a Priest. He, sees his tribe eat other humans, an finds disgust in that. He seems them fight and take women as slaves. He finds a little thing at that back of his head, that makes him feel that there is something amiss with this. He doesn’t know, but we know that that is the 10 commandments engraved in the bronze of his soul, implicitly ofcourse. So he does not partake in those acts. He, still being an indian, takes 1 woman as his bride. Therefore living at peace with Natural Law. He cares for her, as he feels he somehow has duty to…
He sees people being sacrificed to gods, but feels that isn’t right. No idea why. But he feels that there is a higher being than him. This is in all humans. The existince of God, is implicitly, but definitely put into mans soul. So not knowing this God, he admires Him. He sees that all the beutiful nature around him is not something to be adored, but that it is a reflection of the Being, that is higher than him. He admires that Being for being higher than him, and he follows Natural Law. So is this man to be condemned to Hell?
No because, according to St. Thomas, he is already
baptized, because he loved something higher than himself for being higher. And he loved God in a supernatural way, by an act of faith, because he has no way of knowing a God exists or that anyone told him. Ergo, he is saved.
Now an atheist does just the opposite. He attacks the very instict or law but into his soul that God exists. That is implicit. Explicitly, he knows God exists because upon knowing, he generates a sophism and says “oh he doesn’t”.
And as for explicit knowledge, every Muslim, Jew, Protestant or whatever know about the Church, because they obviously hate us, therefore know us and him. And God gives EVERYBODY a way to salvation. The indian with the way I explained, and other in others. In the end, its its a choice.

Augustine August 7, 2006 at 1:18 pm

Lest anyone get the wrong idea, I wasn’t proposing that there is a second chance after death, but that Christ may reach out to a dying person in their last moment. Then, if the person denies him even then, he can’t say that he went to hell unjustly, when the gift of salvation was offered to him even then and it was refused. Of course, this is all speculation. I actually had in mind the emperor Constantine, who was a cruel tyrant and although he lifted the ban on Christianity, acted out of a mix of superstition and respect for his mother, St. Helen. He himself became a Christian on his deathbed. His confession of Christ must have been authentic because he is venerated as a saint, particularly in the East. So I extended this thought to someone who might be in the final moments of one’s life, unable to speak or even breathe, but might come to a knowledge of Christ even then. Strictly theoretical. Not at all downplaying the role of evangelism or participation in the Sacraments of the Church.
In any event, I have to say I am a little bothered by the idea that men can come to a saving knowledge of God by reason alone. Perhaps an intellectual assent of God’s existence, but I don’t think this could become saving knowledge of God without God’s intervention. Otherwise, it seems too much like Pelagius’ error.
And it is not that salvation outside of the visible body of the Church is an “exception” to “Extra Ecclesiam Nulla Salus,” but that it is actually through the Church that these are saved. That is, they are already members of the Church although they do not know it. The Ark of Noah not only had Noah’s family on it, who went in by choice, but also those of the animals who have far less understanding but nevertheless managed to get in because it was God’s will to have two (or seven) of each kind in the Ark.

Brother Cadfael August 7, 2006 at 1:26 pm

Michael Hugo,
What exactly is the question you’re wanting answered?
As for what dissenters think about Vatican II — the so-called “spirit of Vatican II” — that seems easily solved by actually reading the documents of Vatican II. There is nothing even remotely resembling “no-fault” salvation in there.
Makes me wonder if you’ve even bothered reading them.

Jared Weber August 7, 2006 at 1:38 pm

Brother Cadfael: I think that’s Hugo’s point. That those who spout the phrase “the spirit of Vatican II” don’t have a clue as to (or don’t care about) “the LETTER of Vatican II.” In other words, he’s (rightly, I think) concerned that people will only see the surface of these documents and think, “Oh, look, the Church finally came around to our way of thinking,” and not care about the fact that the Church’s fundamental teachings have never and CAN never change.

Matt McDonald August 7, 2006 at 1:56 pm

Augustine:
“In any event, I have to say I am a little bothered by the idea that men can come to a saving knowledge of God by reason alone. Perhaps an intellectual assent of God’s existence, but I don’t think this could become saving knowledge of God without God’s intervention. Otherwise, it seems too much like Pelagius’ error.”
That knowledge of God is available to men through reason alone is doctrine. Nobody here asserted that this knowledge is sufficient, it is not, God’s revelation in the Catholic Church is also necessary. However, if through no fault of his own, a man never recieves the revelation, and if he follows the natural law with the aid of God’s grace he may be saved.
“And it is not that salvation outside of the visible body of the Church is an “exception” to “Extra Ecclesiam Nulla Salus,” but that it is actually through the Church that these are saved. That is, they are already members of the Church although they do not know it. The Ark of Noah not only had Noah’s family on it, who went in by choice, but also those of the animals who have far less understanding but nevertheless managed to get in because it was God’s will to have two (or seven) of each kind in the Ark.”
That those who, through no fault of their own, do not find the true Church may be saved by the graces of Christ through His Church is true, but visible membership is undeniably the normal means of salvation. In the sense of it not being normal, it is an exception.
You’ll have to explain the animals on the ark analogy, I’ve no idea how it relates.
The Church has also taught that it is not lawful to speculate on how invincible invincible ignorance must be, that is the realm of God alone.

Maureen August 7, 2006 at 2:38 pm

Atheists often do not know God as something higher than themselves. In fact, I would say this is pretty much the reason why they are atheists.
Their picture of God is not of an awesome being of infinite love, knowledge, and power, but of a devilish tyrant (who usually resembles some justly hated and feared father figure in their lives, or the parents who broke up their childhood home, or their anger over a parent’s death). Another popular picture is that of a dream of fools (usually held by those who have a lot of stupid authority figures in their lives) or that of a big propaganda lie (held by those who’ve been lied to by authority figures they trusted). This is usually combined with bad catechesis that doesn’t satisfy the budding atheist’s intellectual and emotional needs, or is taught insincerely.
If I had the concept of God that an atheist has, and if I had been kicked around by life as the average atheist has, I would be fighting and disbelieving God, too.
Atheists are like kicked puppies. God and those who love them have to work pretty hard to get atheists to learn to trust and love humans enough to know God truly, and not some false picture.

Anonymous August 7, 2006 at 2:42 pm

So we are to give them hugs and smoke blunts and who cares, God loves even the devil.

Augustine August 7, 2006 at 2:43 pm

Some Day,
But then what about Muhammad? He saw the pagans worshipping idols and knew this to be bad. He saw them practicing infanticide and knew this to be bad. Perhaps it was not Muhammad’s fault that he could not distinguish these thoughts that come from natural knowledge of God’s law from thoughts that originated from his own imagination? He obviously had heard of Christ, but what if he could not bring himself to believe that God could possibly allow his Chosen One to die a horrible death out of purely good intentions? Doesn’t that make for “invincible ignorance?” (After all, I’ve heard it argued that the Jews could not have possibly expected a Messiah like Jesus, which is absolutely ridiculous because all of his disciples were Jews!) Does this mean that Muhammad was saved?
Matt,
The animals on the Ark would be those who have no capacity to understand the meaning of the salvation offered them, but nevertheless are inside the Ark of salvation. In other words, the animals could not have heard Noah’s invitation to go inside the Ark (simply because untrained animals do not have the capacity to understand human speech). They were “invincibly ignorant,” yet they still heard God’s call and were saved from destruction.
Anyway, I’d rather operate on the assumption that everyone is hellbound unless they are visibly members of Christ’s Church. That means that we need to reach out to as many people as possible and bring them in and to nourish the ones that are already in so that they don’t go astray. I often say that if it weren’t for my absolute certainty that the Catholic Church is the Church that Christ established and that the Bishop of Rome is vested with all authority on heaven and earth by virtue of Christ’s promise to Peter that there is no way in hell I would be a Catholic. The Church is an absolute mess. The Body of Christ looks like something that was tortured repeatedly, dismembered, and ravaged by savage beasts, yet it is not mortally wounded because it will never die. But sad to say, it’s almost an embarrassment to admit to being Catholic given the state of the Church today. A lot of that has to do with both the lack of meaningful evangelism and the lack of proper catechesis and seminary training.

Kevin Jones August 7, 2006 at 2:49 pm

Um, is obedience to the natural law salvific?

Brother Cadfael August 7, 2006 at 2:58 pm

“Anyway, I’d rather operate on the assumption that everyone is hellbound unless they are visibly members of Christ’s Church.”
Wow.
“A lot of that has to do with both the lack of meaningful evangelism and the lack of proper catechesis and seminary training.”
It is somewhat ironic that the same post contains both sentiments, as the former surely represents a lamentable catechesis.
And for what it is worth, von Balthasar was of the opinion that it is our Christian obligation — deriving from charity — to hope that all men, including Mohammed, are saved. (FWIW, he was reticent to publish anything on the subject for fear that it would be misconstrued as universalism, which he also rightly regarded as heretical.)

Another Steve August 7, 2006 at 3:09 pm

In 1938 St Edith Stein wrote, “God is truth. All who seek truth seek God, whether this is clear to them or not.”
From this I take it that a sincere Atheist seeking Truth is saved – a pleasant surprise indeed.

Josh August 7, 2006 at 4:54 pm

Brother Cadfael:
I would agree that we should hope that all men are saved, but I think it is a tragic mistake to operate on the assumption that they will be. If evangelization were not important, Christ would not have commanded the Apostles to evangelize and baptize the world.
Also, the Catholic faith obliges us, because of our faith in the normative necessity of explicit faith and the Sacraments for salvation, that those saved apart from the Church visible are exceptions – if we assume that everyone, or even just that most, are saved despite the lack of faith (implicit or explicit), then, since the majority of people alive and dead were not Catholic, they actually are the norm, and actually professing Catholicism and being baptized becomes the exception!
Also, though we should pray and hope for each person to accept God’s offer of forgiveness, we must also hold that God is perfectly just in condemning those who refuse it.

Augustine August 7, 2006 at 4:58 pm

Brother Cadfael,
Sts. Irenaeus, Basil the Great, Cyril of Jerusalem, John Chrysostomos, Augustine, and Thomas Aquinas all believed that the number of the damned far exceeds the number of the elect.
Am I wrong to side with the Doctors of the Church versus wishful thinking?
St. Augustine, “The City of God”, book XXI: not even all baptized Catholics that persevere in the Faith are saved.
St. Robert Bellarmine is another great theologian (and Doctor of the Church) who expressed the view that most of the human race is lost. Add to this St. Peter Canisius, another Doctor.
Why is it that only in the last century do you find theologians (and it is a shame sometimes to put our 20th and 21st century theologians in the same category as Augustine, Bellarmine, and Aquinas) that seem to think that most of the world will be saved? Find me one Doctor of the Church who does not believe that the majority of humanity is condemned for eternity! Just one!
I don’t know what they teach in the seminaries these days, but Catholic theology these days seems to be more about the fancy imaginings of ecumenist bishops of the last 100 years than the 1900 preceding years of outstanding Church scholarship and Apostolic Tradition.

Augustine August 7, 2006 at 4:59 pm

Brother Cadfael,
Sts. Irenaeus, Basil the Great, Cyril of Jerusalem, John Chrysostomos, Augustine, and Thomas Aquinas all believed that the number of the damned far exceeds the number of the elect.
Am I wrong to side with the Doctors of the Church versus wishful thinking?
St. Augustine, “The City of God”, book XXI: not even all baptized Catholics that persevere in the Faith are saved.
St. Robert Bellarmine is another great theologian (and Doctor of the Church) who expressed the view that most of the human race is lost. Add to this St. Peter Canisius, another Doctor.
Why is it that only in the last century do you find theologians (and it is a shame sometimes to put our 20th and 21st century theologians in the same category as Augustine, Bellarmine, and Aquinas) that seem to think that most of the world will be saved? Find me one Doctor of the Church who does not believe that the majority of humanity is condemned for eternity! Just one!
I don’t know what they teach in the seminaries these days, but Catholic theology these days seems to be more about the fancy imaginings of ecumenist bishops of the last 100 years than the 1900 preceding years of outstanding Church scholarship and Apostolic Tradition.

Augustine August 7, 2006 at 4:59 pm

Brother Cadfael,
Sts. Irenaeus, Basil the Great, Cyril of Jerusalem, John Chrysostomos, Augustine, and Thomas Aquinas all believed that the number of the damned far exceeds the number of the elect.
Am I wrong to side with the Doctors of the Church versus wishful thinking?
St. Augustine, “The City of God”, book XXI: not even all baptized Catholics that persevere in the Faith are saved.
St. Robert Bellarmine is another great theologian (and Doctor of the Church) who expressed the view that most of the human race is lost. Add to this St. Peter Canisius, another Doctor.
Why is it that only in the last century do you find theologians (and it is a shame sometimes to put our 20th and 21st century theologians in the same category as Augustine, Bellarmine, and Aquinas) that seem to think that most of the world will be saved? Find me one Doctor of the Church who does not believe that the majority of humanity is condemned for eternity! Just one!
I don’t know what they teach in the seminaries these days, but Catholic theology these days seems to be more about the fancy imaginings of ecumenist bishops of the last 100 years than the 1900 preceding years of outstanding Church scholarship and Apostolic Tradition.

Augustine August 7, 2006 at 5:00 pm

Sorry for the multiple posts. I was getting “site not found” errors after hitting the Post button and kept trying it again.

Brother Cadfael August 7, 2006 at 5:38 pm

Josh,
Of course it would be a mistake to operate on the assumption that all men are saved, if by that you mean that we should not evangelize. Neither I nor von Balthasar would argue that point. In fact, the same charity that obligates us to hope that each man, and every man, is saved obligates us to evangelize each man, and every man.
And I agree wholeheartedly with your conclusion!
Also, the Catholic faith obliges us, because of our faith in the normative necessity of explicit faith and the Sacraments for salvation, that those saved apart from the Church visible are exceptions – if we assume that everyone, or even just that most, are saved despite the lack of faith (implicit or explicit), then, since the majority of people alive and dead were not Catholic, they actually are the norm, and actually professing Catholicism and being baptized becomes the exception!
Also, though we should pray and hope for each person to accept God’s offer of forgiveness, we must also hold that God is perfectly just in condemning those who refuse it.

Ryan C August 7, 2006 at 6:23 pm

Augustine, if I may jump in:
They aren’t doctors, but Clement of Alexandria and St. Gregory of Nyssa were great Christian minds of their times, and they found the idea of apocatastasis that Origen got caught up in compelling. And I’m not sure if she’s addressed it in her writings, but if someone were to ask Therese of Liseux, a Doctor of the Church, whether most people who ever lived were in Hell I think she would demure.
One of the greatest Catholic minds of the past century, a man who understood and wrote about Aquinas in a way that made Etienne Gilson jealous, a Catholic who is not canonized yet but who I hope is someday, had this to say about the question:
“Again, the same is true of that difficult matter of the danger of the soul, which has unsettled so many just minds. To hope for all souls is imperative; and it is quite tenable that their salvation is inevitable. It is tenable, but it is not specially favourable to activity or progress. Our fighting and creative society ought rather to insist on the danger of everybody on the fact that every man is hanging by a thread or clinging to a precipice.”
– G. K. Chesterton
One more point: one would be hard pressed to find a definition of the Immaculate Conception in many of the doctors of the church that matches the one that Pope Pius promulgated – and indeed some of the greatest doctors, like Aquinas and Chrysostom, rejected the idea outright. So I don’t see how the fact that many Doctors believed in the massa damnata should soley determine our attitude towards the question. Chesterton, Balthasar, and Fr. Neuhaus seem to be quite Catholic and sensible in their theology of hope.

Brother Cadfael August 7, 2006 at 6:27 pm

Augustine,
You would not be wrong to side with the Doctors of the Church, but you might be wrong to claim that is what you are doing.
The point of yours with which I originally took issue was your stated decision to operate on the assumption that anyone not a visible member of Christ’s Church is hellbound. Now, if you simply mean by that statement — as Josh suggested — that everyone needs to be evangelized, I will leave well enough alone, as I agree with that aspect of your statement.
A couple points to be made about von Balthasar. He is not a Doctor of the Church (having died only recently, and not being canonized, that would not yet be possible), but to therefore cavalierly dismiss him would be a tragic mistake. There is no question that our two most recent popes — great theologians in their own right — view him as one of the greatest theologians of the 20th century. And to suggest that his work on the point in question was “wishful thinking” is to demonstrate your ignorance of his work. He spends several pages with Augustine and Aquinas, among others, and points out carefully how Aquinas and Church Tradition are quite consistent with him in hoping that all men are saved.

Mary August 7, 2006 at 6:45 pm

“If any man speaks a word against the Son of Man, it shall be forgiven him.”

Some Day August 7, 2006 at 10:09 pm

Mohhamed is a liar. He did not recieve any revelations except maybe orders from the devil.
So please don’t enter into what ifs about people like that. That guy must be sitting next to Luther. But whatever, I bet you think I am an ogre that wants him to be there so there is no use argueing.

Another Steve August 8, 2006 at 12:49 am

In The Divine Comedy, Dante bumped into Mohammed in the Inferno sitting among the heresiarchs. I expect you’re right Some Day. If Dante had lived another 300 years he would doubtless have amended his poem and seated Luther next to Mohammed along with King Henry VIII and his henchmen and a couple of Popes at least, such as Boniface VIII and Alexander VI. Sincere Atheists in moral terms are streets ahead of those guys.

Augustine August 8, 2006 at 4:01 am

Brother Cadfael,
I do not take anyone’s salvation for granted–not even that of Catholics, but it is a good place to start.
Another Steve mentioned Boniface VIII and Alexander VI. Alexander VI was denied a funeral mass by his successor, Pius III, because he said it is blasphemous to pray for the damned.
Really, I don’t care for any theologian, whether it be von Balthasar or Neuhaus or any of their ilk who selectively quote the fathers and use them out of context to justify any position they presuppose, just like the liberals do. And that they have any kind of endorsement from the last two popes does not impress me much. It has been a long time since we have had a decent Pope. I think people get way too caught up in the cult of personality surrounding JPII. He certainly skated on thin ice, though, concerning orthodoxy. This is a man who obsessed over Communism while the Church was drowning in moral and spiritual decay, liturgical abuses and assaults on the Church’s teachings were rampant, promoted charismatics and liberals in the hierarchy, praised Islam and kissed the Qur’an, prayed together with Jews on their terms, and altogether brought shame upon God’s Church. And now there is a movement to canonize him! If we were being honest in our evaluations of his papacy and not given over to emotionalism and his charismatic personality and oratory skills, we would find him to be no better than Boniface VIII. My response to “Santo subito!” is “Non santo giammai!”

Brother Cadfael August 8, 2006 at 4:36 am

Speculating on who is in hell is dangerous business, one that the Church rightly counsels us to avoid.
And Augustine, I wonder just who is selectively quoting Church Fathers out of context?

Ryan C August 8, 2006 at 4:52 am

Augustine,
Did Our Lady of Fatima obsess over communism?

Karen August 8, 2006 at 6:05 am

In 1 Peter 3:18-20, would the word “formerly” appear there (“who formerly did not obey”) in the original text, if the implication weren’t, that the spirits now obey?
At least in English, to see the “formerly” there seems to imply that they now do obey, and this would appear rule out damned/evil spirits. In Purgatory or Heaven, we won’t be able to sin, but demons and the damned continue to disobey, right?

Matt McDonald August 8, 2006 at 7:21 am

“”In 1938 St Edith Stein wrote, “God is truth. All who seek truth seek God, whether this is clear to them or not.”
From this I take it that a sincere Atheist seeking Truth is saved – a pleasant surprise indeed.””
The Church has clearly explained the requirements for salvation, and being “a sincere atheist seeking truth” is simply not sufficient. Furthermore, given the Church’s teaching that man can come to the existence of God by reason alone, it stands to reason that a sincere atheist seeking the truth DOES NOT EXIST. Atheism is not natural to man, it is a learned belief. Even a pagan is responding (in error) to man’s natural inclination to the existence of God. You need to read the catechism and the magisterial documents before making such a scandalous statement.

Brother Cadfael August 8, 2006 at 7:32 am

Matt,
I believe what he may have intended was that one who regards himself as an atheist, but who is nonetheless seeking the truth, may in fact be saved. In other words, such a person would not really be an atheist, although he might in some sense sincerely believe that he is one.
You are, of course, correct when you state that there is an inherent contradiction between atheism and truth seeking.

Ryan C August 8, 2006 at 7:54 am

Brother Cadfael brings up a good point. I remember hearing that St. Therese once said that God takes our labels less seriously than we do, since he sees directly into the heart.

Matt McDonald August 8, 2006 at 8:17 am

“I take it that a sincere Atheist seeking Truth is saved”
“I believe what he may have intended was that one who regards himself as an atheist, but who is nonetheless seeking the truth, may in fact be saved.”
I don’t know how you get your conclusion from what he said, but it is slightly more reasonable. What you describe seems more of an agnostic than an atheist.

Brother Cadfael August 8, 2006 at 8:24 am

I agree with you that what I have described may be more correctly regarded as an agnostic than an atheist. My point is simply that our self-given labels are not always entirely accurate.
Recall the parable of the father with two sons. One says no I won’t obey, but does. The other says I will, but doesn’t.

Brian John Schuettler August 8, 2006 at 8:50 am

With all due respect to everyone, it is the teaching of the Church that each individual will be personally judged at the moment of their death i.e. particular judgment. What does that mean? Why did God create me? God created me to know Him and to love Hime in this life. If an atheist dies willfully choosing to at that moment to NOT know and NOT love God then that atheist has chosen to be in Hell. It is that simple. As far as believing at the last moment in God’s existence…well, as Saint James says in his epistle, even the demons believes in God’s existence! Are they in Heaven? Much of the conversation I have read above does not, for some strange reason that I cannot fathom, address the profound importance of free will as being determinant in regard to one’s salvation. Yes, we can pray that all people of all time will be in Heaven and that is indeed part of the Divine Mercy message. However, we must be very careful as Catholics to not write in such a loose and ambiguous way that we promote heresy. The primacy of Grace and the exercise of free will in choosing to love God and wanting to be with God forever. This is the meat of the matter.

Mike August 8, 2006 at 9:02 am

I agree with you Augustine, JPII was too concerned with things like peace, interfaith dialogues, and respect. He was obsessed with ending communism and helping people suffering though out the world. I mean who cares about people underneath communist regimes and such things as government mandated abortions, suppression of religion, and people being falsely imprisoned. Good call Augustine.

Brother Cadfael August 8, 2006 at 9:05 am

Brian,
I do not read any of the above posts as disagreeing with your essential point — hell is a choice freely made by the exercise of our will. It was most likely not discussed above because that is assumed by all involved, and thus was not a point of controversy.

Douchka August 8, 2006 at 10:27 am

Just a personal opinion – not based on the writings of Fathers or Doctors of the Church etc. – if “the vast majority of people are destined for hell” would that not be an enormous failure on the part of the Creator?
Such a very negative idea sounds more Calvinist than Catholic to me.

Brian John Schuettler August 8, 2006 at 10:40 am

Brother Cadfael: “It was most likely not discussed above because that is assumed by all involved, and thus was not a point of controversy.”
With all due respect, Brother Cedfael, most the comments above could and would not have been made except for that the importance of free will is not assumed by all involved. The very discussion of whether atheists can be saved assumes otherwise.

StubbleSpark August 8, 2006 at 10:59 am

“if “the vast majority of people are destined for hell” would that not be an enormous failure on the part of the Creator?”
Nope. That is a failure of the vast majority of humans to properly exercise their free will. You can no more blame God for the fall of the vast majority of humanity as you could blame Him for the fall of a single person.
You are right, however, in saying that it is an exceedingly gloomy topic to dwell on and you are right in insinuating that the more Christian thing to do is wait in hope.
But hope is really meaningless unless it is cast as a light against the backdrop of real gloom. You can’t hope for a nice sunny day when it is already nice and sunny. Nor can you assume that because you hope things will automatically turn out the way you wanted.
In other words, you can hope that you will not get stepped on but the hope itself will not erase the real danger that Godzilla is terrorizing your town.

michael hugo August 8, 2006 at 11:56 am

56 He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood lives in me, and I in him.
57 As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father; so he who feeds on me, he will also live because of me.
58 This is the bread which came down out of heaven-not as our fathers ate the manna, and died. He who eats this bread will live forever.”
59 He said these things in the synagogue, as he taught in Capernaum.
60 Therefore many of his disciples, when they heard this, said, “This is a hard saying! Who can listen to it?”
61 But Jesus knowing in himself that his disciples murmured at this, said to them, “Does this cause you to stumble?
62 Then what if you would see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?
63 It is the spirit who gives life. The flesh profits nothing. The words that I speak to you are spirit, and are life.
64 But there are some of you who don’t believe.” For Jesus knew from the beginning who they were who didn’t believe, and who it was who would betray him.
——— Was He just kidding?
**This bears little resemblance to the theology of Universal Salvation. I am not a theologian, but either are most people. How do we get from Baptism of desire to JPII saying that “all of creation” will be reconciled to God?
“if “the vast majority of people are destined for hell” would that not be an enormous failure on the part of the Creator?
Such a very negative idea sounds more Calvinist than Catholic to me.”
It definitely sounds more scriptural to me, whether Calvinist or not. Let me ask your question a different way– If most people on this planet have not chosen to be a “christian” much less a Catholic, and their “invincible ignorance” is doubtful, how is it that they are going to enter the Kingdom?
And if salvation only requires “being a good person” why isn’t that the Gospel? Why in the world did God allow his son to suffer the way he did? Doesn’t that act sound like a desperate action? Something of the utmost urgency?
Again, I would just ask that we consider the practical, real world ramifications of this theology. I have read this many times and I can honestly say that I can’t see any reason for the Church if this theology is true.
Here is a perfect example of what I mean:
Augustine (above) suggests that most people might be going to hell.
Others object, implying that most WILL gain salvation(by some means)? At least 50%? That means that what we are seeing in the world, the choices people are making that are not in concert with the teachings of Christ and his Church do NOT correlate to people’s salvation. Right? I’m just talkin’ numbers here. I mean certainly most people are not Catholic or Christian or living according to the teachings of the Church. So, if they make it, it was by other means.
And what about Catholics? Recent studies show that 80% of Catholics don’t believe in the Real Presence. About the same number think artificial contraception is kosher. So they get in too? If not, then a larger percentage of non-Catholics will get in than Catholics that dissent on birth control?
Do you see the problem here?
The REAL WORLD implications of this are (regardless of a more correct understanding of the theology):
*The Church is not necessary for salvation
*The Sacraments are not necessary for salvation
*The Church’s teaching on issues of abortion and contraception are irrelevant to salvation
*The Priesthood is a quaint “Catholic thing” that isn’t really important, since the Sacraments are not necessary for salvation.
*Evangelize what? And why? Catholicism is just a nice place to spend our Sundays? That’s all that’s left if they don’t see a direct relationship between the Church and salvation.
Now, does this not seem to fit our current situation? Is that mere coincidence? I don’t think so. I think the Church’s “change of business plan” has completely emasculated any attempt to solve the problems facing the Church today.

Some Day August 8, 2006 at 11:58 am

I believe it was Pascal that said it is safer to believe in God, because if He does exist, you’re somewhat ok. And if He does not, than no problem .
Horrible outlook isn’t it.

michael hugo August 8, 2006 at 12:06 pm

StubbleSpark:
I totally agree. There is no Good News if there is no bad news. This used to be the purpose of the Church, no? To aid in saving people from the bad news?
As the Church has lost relevance (post enlightenment, and especially since VII) rather than seeing itself as MORE urgently needed to spread the Gospel and the Truth of the Catholic Faith (and the consequences of the alternatives), it has obsequiously conceded its minority status. We now have a theology that says that Jesus and the Church will save people, even if they aren’t aware of it.
Talk about irrelevant!

Some Day August 8, 2006 at 12:18 pm

Michael, quo dixit?

Brother Cadfael August 8, 2006 at 12:28 pm

Michael Hugo,
The premise of your comments seems to be that “others” have objected to Augustine’s suggestion that most people might be going to hell, thereby “implying that most WILL gain salvation(by some means).”
Inasmuch as your premise relates to me, it is inaccurate. I have neither stated nor implied that “most WILL gain salvation.” Succinctly put, my belief is that trying to ascertain how many are saved or lost is a dangerous business to be speculating in, but regardless of that number, we have the Christian obligation to hope for the salvation of all.
There is a reason why the Bread of Life discourse bears little resemblance to the doctrine of universal salvation. One is true and the other is utterly false.
As for how JPII can say “that ‘all of creation’ will be reconciled to God,” I’d bet he’s relying, at least in part, on St. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians, chapter 1, verse 10.

Brian John Schuettler August 8, 2006 at 12:30 pm

michael hugo:”This used to be the purpose of the Church, no? To aid in saving people from the bad news?”
Sorry, wrong. The Church does not exist to achieve a specific purpose, such as a physical building might have. Nor does It need to be relevant like some latest version of microsoft. The Church is the Mystical Body of Christ upon this earth. It exists to be the safekeeper of Divine Truth through the the inspiration and guidance of the Holy Spirit. The fact that certain human beings within the Church have failed in some way to do their sacred duty does not diminish the Church or the Sacraments It dispenses. The key to maintaining the theological virtue of Hope is prayer for perseverance.
We now have a theology that says that Jesus and the Church will save people, even if they aren’t aware of it.
Michael Hugo: “We now have a theology that says that Jesus and the Church will save people, even if they aren’t aware of it.”
Read your catechism. The theology of the Church hasn’t changed…you did.
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Mike August 8, 2006 at 12:38 pm

Pius IX in Quanto conficiamur moerore of August 10, 1863 (DS 2866) said: “God. . . in His supreme goodness and clemency, by no means allows anyone to be punished with eternal punishments who does not have the guilt of voluntary fault.”
I think it is possible but not likely that an atheist is invincibly ignorant. Of course only God can see into a person’s heart.
Remember God’s hands are not tied by the sacraments; it is certainly with in his power to save those who through no fault of there own have not arrived at knowledge of Him.
http://www.ewtn.com/library/THEOLOGY/AUGUSTIN.htm

Randy August 8, 2006 at 1:21 pm

Of course we should want all people to be saved. I do. I, also, want all people to be join the Catholic church and go to mass and confession regularly. At the same time I know that neither is likely to happen to everyone. The parable of the sower indicates we should not be shocked with many negative responses to God’s word.
We can never judge anyone’s heart and we should always hope their soul is going to heaven. So we should not get any joy from thinking Hitler or Mohamad is in hell. We should always sincerely hope they are not. Since we don’t know their hearts we cannot say for sure they are in hell.
Still I do see a real problem in people separating salvation from sacraments. God gave us the sacraments so we could be saved. If we don’t believe those who partake of them are more likely to be saved then those who don’t then we make a joke out of much of Catholic theology.
Could an athiest be saved? Yes. Is there even one example of such? I don’t know. If you read Romans 1 it seems like Paul accepts the idea that some people could be saved but then seems to say that none of them are. Maybe a few were but he seems pretty focused on those being condemned even though they have no excuse for not knowing God.

Augustine August 8, 2006 at 4:19 pm

OK. This gets very simple. (And don’t say “Oh that sounds so Calvinist.” The ideas are formulated by Augustine and borrowed by Calvin. They are, however, Catholic.)
If someone is of the elect, it will be obvious by his life. He will go to Church, he will participate in the Sacraments. He will love his neighbor. He will be a believer.
If someone is living a sinful life, is unrepentant, does not believe in God, and dies without repentance, he is not one of the elect.
The elect are saved. The rest are damned.
God offers the salvation to us and makes the grace available to us to act on it. If we choose to refuse, we lose!
Speculation on who gets saved outside the Faithful within the visible Church is an exercise in futility. You don’t know God’s mind. But I would imagine it to be a minuscule number based on the Bible and the teaching of the Fathers. All we know is that even those who appear to be saved within his Church may, in fact, not be. There have always been and will always be hypocrites. Judas wasn’t just an ordinary disciple–he was an Apostle! And yet he was a damned hypocrite.
Let’s work out our own salvation with fear and trembling! And make sure that we bring the Good News of Christ to as many people as we can. What is undeniable is that everyone’s chances for salvation are immeasurably improved by hearing and believing the Gospel of Christ!

Ryan C August 8, 2006 at 5:32 pm

Augustine, I can’t help but feel that when you appeal to the Fathers and the Bible you’re using limited data. There are verses in the Bible that seem to suggest that many are saved, as well as that those outside missionary outread can be saved. You also have St. Justin Martyr writing that Socrates was a Christian in the 2nd century. Augustine’s is not the only soteirology. Still, I must agree with your call in your final paragraph.

Jeb Protestant August 8, 2006 at 6:29 pm

It’s a common occurrence among evangelicals that when witnessing to Roman Catholics, Catholics tend to be shocked that anyone would claim that belief in Jesus is necessary for salvation.
The Roman Catholic message toward non-Christians is almsot entirely positive and that seems to have reached the average Roman Catholic.

Jeb Protestant August 8, 2006 at 6:37 pm

I don’t see how this argument deals with Romans 1 which describes unbelief as sin. The bible says the natural man knows that God exists, but supresses this truth in sinful unbelief.
I think it’s a mistake to claim that most unbelievers are joyfully searching for truth and will grasp it as soon as they find it. The last thing that most unbelievers want is the truth.

Brother Cadfael August 8, 2006 at 6:39 pm

Augustine,
I am generally in agreement with your last post, as far as it goes.
Jeb,
There is no doubt that faith in Christ — properly understood — is undervalued among so-called Christians of all denominations. I agree with your basic sentiment that it is particularly tragic when that occurs among members of the Church founded by Christ.

Brother Cadfael August 8, 2006 at 6:41 pm

Jeb,
“I think it’s a mistake to claim that most unbelievers are joyfully searching for truth…”
I don’t believe that anyone here has made that claim. Can you point me to someone who has?

Jeb Protestant August 8, 2006 at 6:47 pm

No one here. I was just emphasizing that I don’t get the impression that people realize how the bible describes unbelief as sin. For example, Jesus and Paul described the unbelief of Jews as sinful. Your average churchman (Catholic or Protestant) won’t say this.

michael hugo August 8, 2006 at 8:41 pm

Brian John, Brother Cadfael,
I do not disagree with your comments, much less Catholic teaching. But to say that what i was taught as a boy about Protestants and salvation vs. what you are saying here hasn’t changed is not accurate.
Yes, I agree that the Church has always said that there was salvation outside the Church.
I am ONLY saying that the message forty years ago (and I would argue for the 1900 years before that) was one of urgency. That our prayers for the converstion of communism, protestants, atheist was a matter of spiritual life and death. It was the stark contrast of salvation vs. the alternative that (in large part) motivated my desire to be a priest, and others to be missionaries.
I, for one, haven’t heard the word “hell” in a Catholic Church for forty years (until I started attending a Byzantine Liturgy). Again, you can snidely dismiss what I have personally experienced, but I would just ask you to entertain the idea that the Church’s interaction vis a vis the world seems to be significantly less urgent. It is my position that this lack of urgency undermines vocations, evangelization, etc. Could I be wrong? Sure. I just don’t think so, because if I was not a committed Catholic, I am objective enough to admit that the Church’s message is watered-down and luke-warm. You keep giving me historical/theological explanations. Fine. No argument. Maybe this is a marketing/PR issue. The bottom line is that the message coming from the Church today is NOT URGENT. And that is different from forty years ago.
It is really pretty simple:
If you were to create an analogy or metaphor to describe the proper level of urgency in getting people to accept Christ, become Catholic, etc., would you feel more comfortable with:
a) …the house is on fire, and I am going to run back inside to save the children in the upstairs bedroom.
or
b) …gosh, this is the best ocean liner heading to Hawaii. That other boat looks leaky, and they might not make it. I’ll pray for them…
Or something in the middle? But do you see how this attitude would inform your plan of action as a person or institution? Given that, which do you think is more evident in the Church today?

J.R. Stoodley August 8, 2006 at 11:41 pm

Another way to look at the matter is from the perspective of sin and repentance.
Original sin it seems never ultimatly damns a person. It seems it is always removed before death (baptism by water and perhaps by desire) at death (baptism by blood, perhaps by desire, and likely all personally innocent people today) or after death (those in Sheol (Hades) before the coming of Christ).
Personal sin may be venial or mortal. Venial sin, despite how distructive it is will never by itself the loss of charity between the soul and God. In other words it is not a fundamental choice against God.
Personal mortal sin is that total rejection of God. It may be forgiven with imperfect contrition through the sacrament of Reconsiliation or with perfect contrition at the moment you have that perfect contrition and a firm purpose of amendment (and for Catholics you must plan on going to confession asap).
Thus a lifelong athiest who goes through there entire life (ignoring the issues of early childhood) with the guilt of original sin but no personal mortal sin would be damned in a sense their whole life but at or after death would end up saved. The baptized athiest with no mortal sin would be saved, though since he or she recieved faith at baptism it is hard to see how they, having rejected that faith, would not have mortal sin. It is very hard to see how an athiest (baptized or otherwise) who has commited a mortal sin could have perfect contrition (being sorry for the sin primarily because it is an offense against God) so they’re “toast” if they persist that way until death (unless they get a chance after death which seems not to be the case)
On the other hand does God give the grace of faith to all people, and those who do not believe are actively rejecting this grace? In this case perhaps all athiests are in a state of mortal sin in which case they’ll have to shape up or ship out. St. Paul and the book of Wisdom could be interpreted in this way, but I think they more point to how we ought to percieve the existance of God by reason, even apart from supernatural faith, by what God has created. St. Anthony of the Desert (via St. Athanasius) and St. Augustine of Hippo called physical creation (nature) the “book of God,” yet if I remember right St. Augustine thought it was Original sin that caused people to be bad at reading that book, thus the athiest may not be sufficiantly personally responsible for their lack reasoning out/percieving from nature the existance of God.
That still then leaves open the idea of whether the gift of faith is given to everyone. Certainly it is given to all the baptized, but what about the rest? Since “God wills the death of no man” I think we can be confident that if he does not give this gift those who he does not give it to will still have a chance for salvation, thus some athiests may be fine. If he does give this gift to everyone (which I strongly suspect given St. Paul’s insistance on the salvific importence of faith) the question becomes, does the rejection of this faith always constitute a mortal sin. If the gift of this faith means that at least for an instant the person has faith, and then they knowingly, deliberately reject what they have faith in, then yes, I would propose it is always a mortal sin.
In writing this post (part of why I post on in this combox so much is because writing things down helps me organize my thoughts) I have come to the tentitive conclusion that all athiests are pretty much doomed unless they come to believe and repent, since they have apparently commited a mortal sin of unbelief and can not come to perfect contrition (or the Sacrament of Reconsiliation) without ceasing to be athiests.
I now fall on the private revelation to St. Faustina that Jesus calls out to the soul at the very moment of death, giving it a last chance. Therefore we can have hope for every human person that they took or will take advantage of this last burst of grace, except probably Judas Iscariot in light of what Jesus said about him.

Anonymous August 9, 2006 at 3:47 am

Michael Hugo,
I agree wholeheartedly with you that we have lost urgency somewhere along the way (although — and I suspect you would agree with me here — we cannot recapture urgency at the expense of the truth). I think people are generally and genuinely shocked when they realize how many times Jesus warns of hell just in the Sermon on the Mount.

Karen August 9, 2006 at 6:31 am

I get asked from time to time, “Do you think we’re going to Hell?” or something equivalent, by people who want to know where Catholics stand on this. What I do is state the teaching of the possibility, what invincible and vincible ignorance is, but I add a caution.
Truth is truth, and to not be guided in it, to not know it (even if it’s not due to one’s own fault), and to reject it are three different conditions which will simply and naturally have a way of putting someone at a gross disadvantage.
Without truth, one is more apt to form false conclusions and follow those instead of what is right, and the conscience won’t be formed to the extent it could or even should be.
Without knowing the right thing to do, it can be easy to simply choose something selfish and conclude that one did the best s/he could.
And this goes even for Catholics who remain ignorant by choice or by circumstance–me included. (This corroborates our admonition not to judge.)
It’s still very serious matter not to have the truth on one’s side, and the possibility of salvation outside of the Church is not something to take lightly and then go blithely about one’s way. It’s a reason to continuously pray for eyes that are open to the truth, even if one’s already fortunate enough to be in the true Church.
So I do my best to explain the teaching but not leave it at that and pretend that it doesn’t matter, because I think the merciful thing to do is let someone know what the stakes are when you don’t have truth on your side, and why–all the while expressing that I am in no position to judge individuals because 1.) We can’t and shouldn’t, and 2.) The same risks apply to me.

Matt McDonald August 9, 2006 at 7:16 am

“Thus a lifelong athiest who goes through there entire life (ignoring the issues of early childhood) with the guilt of original sin but no personal mortal sin would be damned in a sense their whole life but at or after death would end up saved.”
This is a problem. No matter what, the atheist is NOT FINE. He has a serious problem.
The atheist is committing a sin against the first commandment unless he is in the state of atheism due to no fault of his own. The Church teaches that he can come to a knowledge of God through reason and observation alone. With all of the evidence of God, it seems unlikely that there is such a thing as a sincere atheist, and more likely that he possesses a degree of pride – this will be his downfall.

StubbleSpark August 9, 2006 at 11:41 am

Augustine: “Judas … was a damned hypocrite.”
Hey! Watch your mouth! Just kidding (couldn’t resist that one…)
Michael Hugo hit the nail on the head. What is missing today is a sense of urgency in the need to get someone into the Church.
We would not be so cavalier about rescuing someone from imminent temporal danger (like an oncoming car or a sinking ship) so why act like we will all get a free pass through the pearly gates?
I mean, it is not like they get to try Hell for few years and see if the rent is to their liking. Eternity connotes more permanence than even the word “permanent” can.
If the sleeping giant of the 20th century was the American military machine, let us pray that the waking giant of the 21st century is the Church militant.
And while we are at it, please pray that *I* get to Heaven as well. ‘Cause I have serious doubts about my chances.

Brian John Schuettler August 9, 2006 at 1:49 pm

Mother Angelica was fond of saying that when someone said to her that they didn’t want to join the Catholic Church because it was full of hypocrites, she would say to them “Aw, come on in, there is always room for one more.”

Karen August 10, 2006 at 12:22 am

Hah! Thanks for that, Brian. Cute.

Karen August 24, 2006 at 7:45 am

About the spirits in prison, is this what is referred to in the CCC?

“Scripture calls the abode of the dead, to which the dead Christ went down, “hell”—Sheol in Hebrew or Hades in Greek—because those who are there are deprived of the vision of God. Such is the case for all the dead, whether evil or righteous, while they await the redeemer: which does not mean that their lot is identical, as Jesus shows through the parable of the poor man Lazarus who was received into “Abraham’s bosom”: “It is precisely these holy souls, who awaited their Savior in Abraham’s bosom, whom Christ the Lord delivered when he descended into hell.” Jesus did not descend into hell to deliver the damned, nor to destroy the hell of damnation, but to free the just who had gone before him (CCC 633; cf. Roman Catechism I, 6, 3).”

Some Day August 27, 2006 at 2:10 pm

See the existence of God is one of those things implicitly engraved in the soul. Not even the devil can deny the existence of God completely.
The atheist tries to sustain his lie that God does not exist, but it is impossible to deny it perfectly. In fact, you have to consider the existence in order to deny it.

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