Dallas, TX. The Catholic Church teaches that salvation is possible even for those who do not believe in Christ explicitly (See 2nd Vatican Council’s “Lumen Gentium,” sec. 16). Since God desires all men to be saved (1 Tim 2:4), and Christ died for all (2 Cor 5:15), it seems that God provides a way for each person to achieve salvation (cf. Jn 12:32, Rom 5:18). Indeed, even while teaching the necessity of baptism and faith in Jesus Christ (Mk 16:15-16), the Bible teaches also a final judgement based on deeds and conscience (Rom 2:6-16), speaks of sin not being counted without knowledge of the moral law (Rom 5:13), degrees of punishment for sin based on one’s knowledge of God’s will (Lk 12:47-48), and divine visitations of faithful, righteous people outside of the covenant (Lk 4:25-27, Lk 7:9). Furthermore, the New Testament teaches that the heroes of the Old Testament were pleasing to God because of their faith, and did good deeds through that faith, and that God planned to make them perfect through the Church (Heb 11:39-40). This leads us naturally to wonder if this could apply also to others whom, through no fault of their own, do not know Christ.
The Catholic Church teaches that it does. Those who by grace live on earth as sojourners, though not having known the promised Christ, might see the promise and “greet it from afar,” and like the OT figures, be saved through the Church (Cf. Heb 11). In all times and places, the “righteous live by faith” (Heb 10:38). Indeed, “God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him” (Acts 10:34-35), for “He made from one every nation of men to live on all the face of the earth … that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel after him and find him. Yet he is not far from each one of us” (Acts 17:26-27).
During a recent SPSE outing in Dallas, Texas, evangelist Gene had the opportunity to share this Catholic teaching with fellow Christians – a married couple, formerly Catholic. Team leader, Paul, reports:
Gene spoke to a couple who were raised Catholic but are now Baptist. One of the reasons they gave for no longer being Catholic, is that, according to them, the bible teaches that baptism is only symbolic – evidence that a person has salvation – while the Catholic Church teaches that baptism is necessary for salvation. Gene asked them, “Where does scripture say that baptism is only evidence of salvation?” They couldn’t come up with any scriptures. Gene pointed out that in Mark 16:16, Jesus says, “He who is believes AND is baptized will be saved.” And even more clearly, 1 Peter 3:21 says, “Baptism now saves you.”
They quickly said “We are saved by grace and not by water baptism.” This got them into a discussion about the meaning of grace.
At one point the man blurted out that Mohammed Ali, who had just died, was in hell. Gene asked him how he knew this. The man said because when he became Muslim he denied Jesus, and if you deny Jesus you will go to hell. But that idea doesn’t represent
the whole picture – we cannot make a judgment about someone with such certainty. So Gene said “That’s not exactly the Catholic or biblical position. … Perhaps, through no fault of his own, he never really understood the Gospel.”
Gene pointed out John 15:22, where Jesus said speaking to some of the Jews: “If I had not come and spoken to them, they have no sin; but now they have no excuse for their sin.” Also, Gene pointed out, in Romans 2:14-16, it says that God will judge men by the law written on their heart and on conscience. God has given all men a basic capacity to know right from wrong, and that law is written on their heart; each person may be accused or excused on judgement day. If someone, through no fault of their own, has never heard of Christ it’s possible they may be saved if they have the grace of God in their soul.
These thoughts were new to them, and seemed to open up their hearts to the grace and mercy of God; they said they were grateful to talk to us. About thirty minutes later they came back and wanted to donate ten dollars. We told them we can’t accept donations but would like for them to take a couple of Dr. Anders’s CD’s on the Catholic faith. As they left we couldn’t help but feel that we had made a couple of new friends.
Praised be Jesus Christ! The above teaching of the Church ought not to be taken as making evangelization unnecessary. Just because someone can be saved, doesn’t mean they will be saved, or even that it will be likely. The point is that God is the judge, not us. We need to obey God’s command and bring the Gospel to all who will listen, for their salvation, and ours. Please join us in this mission! For a more in depth treatment of this topic of salvation, see the Catechism of the Catholic Church paragraphs 1987-2029.