Saturday, December 13, 2014

Salvation Outside of the Church

"Extra Ecclesiam nulla salus."

This Latin phrase translates to, "Outside of the Church there is no salvation." It's original use comes from Saint Cyprian of Carthage, who was a 3rd century bishop and one of the Fathers of the Church. Does it sound harsh? Extreme? Archaic? Exclusive? Judgmental? All of the above? You may be surprised or even (but hopefully not) scandalized to hear that the Catholic Church maintains the truth of this statement to this day. The problem is, most non-Catholics today, and unfortunately many Catholics, don't understand what is meant by the word "Church." When most people hear the word "Church," they are probably thinking of: 1) the building where people gather to worship, 2) the hierarchical or institutional structure of the Church, or 3) the collective group of people who make up the Church, the Body of Christ. The correct definition of the Church is: all of the above––and more. In Lumen Gentium, the Second Vatican Council said the following of the Church:
Basing itself on Scripture and Tradition, the Council teaches that the Church, a pilgrim now on earth, is necessary for salvation: the one Christ is the mediator and the way of salvation; he is present to us in his body which is the Church. He himself explicitly asserted the necessity of faith and Baptism, and thereby affirmed at the same time the necessity of the Church which men enter through Baptism as through a door. Hence they could not be saved who, knowing that the Catholic Church was founded as necessary by God through Christ, would refuse either to enter it or to remain in it (LG 14).
Salvation Comes Through Christ Alone

Jesus Christ said, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no man comes to the Father, but by me"(Jn 14:6). Saint Peter later testified to this truth of Christ being the only source of salvation: "And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved"(Acts 4:12). Rightly then, the Catholic Church has always upheld and taught the truth that salvation for each individual person is only possible because of the merits of Jesus Christ, namely, because of his Passion, Death, and Resurrection. That being said, what are we to make of the billions of people who have lived and died without having any explicit belief in or even knowledge of the person of Jesus Christ? Are they simply "out of luck" as it were? Did God will that some people would be born in non-Christian or even anti-Christian environments, and expect them to, against all odds and in spite of all psychological, social, and cultural obstacles, come to believe in Jesus Christ and be received into the Catholic Church? What happens to Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and all other non-Christian or even non-religious people when they die? Given the fact that Christians only comprise approximately one-third of the world's population, these questions are extremely relevant, unless we are content to write off two-thirds of humanity to damnation. It is important that we try to understand God's plan of salvation for humanity and the Church's role in bringing that plan to fruition.

God Wills That All Be Saved

First, let's review our data about God's plan for humanity. In Saint Paul's first letter to Timothy, he writes that God "...wills that all men be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth"(2:4). What is Saint Paul saying here? Is he endorsing "universal salvation," the theory that everyone will eventually be saved and that there effectively is no hell or eternal damnation? Absolutely not! When God created human beings with free will, He necessarily gave up the possibility that His will would always be done, which is why we pray during the Our Father, "Thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven" - if it were already being done, there would be no need to pray for it! What Saint Paul is saying here is that God has made it possible for every person to be saved. If God wills the salvation of everyone, and He is omnipotent (all-powerful) and omniscient (all-knowing), then salvation must be at least possible for everyone. In other words, if someone isn't saved, it can only be their fault, not God's. So, where does Jesus fit into all of this? Well, if a person did not know Jesus during their lifetime, because they never heard the Gospel or at least never heard it presented in an intelligible way, then when they die, while they might not be saved, they will not be condemned on the basis of their lack of belief in Jesus Christ.

Objective Fact vs Subjective Knowledge

This brings up an essential distinction about salvation and Christ. The distinction is between the objective fact that Jesus Christ is the only possible source of salvation and the subjective knowledge that each individual must possess in order to secure that salvation. The Catholic Church teaches that it is possible for persons who have no subjective knowledge of Christ to be saved:
Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience––those too may achieve eternal salvation (LG 16).
Let's be clear, acknowledging the possibility of salvation for non-Christians does not change the fact that, if such persons are saved, they are saved only by the merits of Jesus Christ. For example, if a Hindu is saved, he or she is not saved by Hinduism, but by Christ. If a Muslim dies and is received by God into Heaven, he or she is not "bypassing" the need for Christ as a savior, they simply must have accepted Christ implicitly by the way they lived their life, seeking to do God's will and admitting their need for forgiveness. Some people reject this idea entirely, and instead argue that a person cannot be saved unless they explicitly profess belief in Jesus Christ, (and in some traditions, pray the "Sinner's Prayer"). The problem with this idea is multi-faceted. First, there is the problem of the retroactive application of the salvific grace of Christ's sacrifice. In other words, what about the people who lived before the time of Christ, such as Abraham, Moses, Elijah, the prophets, and the rest of God's chosen people? Obviously, none of them believed in Jesus in any explicit way, because he wasn't even born yet! But wait, didn't Moses and Elijah appear with Jesus during his Transfiguration on Mount Tabor? Yes, they did, and so apparently they had been saved. Clearly then, there must be more to salvation than just believing in Jesus and reciting the Sinner's Prayer.

If Knowledge, How Much?

There is another problem with the idea that subjective knowledge of Christ is necessary for salvation. If a person must have personal knowledge of Christ in order to be saved, the question immediately arises, "How much knowledge?" Do you simply need to believe that Jesus was a great moral teacher or guru and try to imitate him, or do you have to believe that he was Divine and the Son of God? Can you believe that Jesus was half God and half man, or do you have to believe that he was fully God and fully man? Do you have to believe in his literal, bodily Resurrection, or can you believe that he "spiritually rose" in the hearts of his disciples? Can you believe that the Eucharist is only a symbol of Jesus' body and blood, or do you have to believe the Catholic doctrine that the Eucharist substantially becomes Jesus' body, blood, soul, and divinity? In other words, where do you draw the line? If a certain amount of knowledge is necessary for salvation, that would imply that when you die, God effectively gives you a theology exam; if you pass, you go to heaven; if you fail, you go to hell. Somehow, this just doesn't seem right! Is God judging our souls or only our minds? Is a self-righteous and heartless rich man who believes in Jesus and goes to Mass on Sundays closer to being saved than a homeless and desperate addict, who steals food to survive because he doesn't know what else to do, but is trying to seek help? As usual, our friend Saint Paul is here to help us answer these difficult questions. In his letter to the Romans, he explains the expectations of those who do not believe in Jesus or know about his teaching:
When Gentiles who have not the law do by nature what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or perhaps excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus (Rm 2:14-17).
Saint Paul said that "what the law requires is written on their hearts." This means that they can know what is essential to living a moral life by their own conscience and human reasoning. He then says that the conflicting thoughts of men who do not believe in Christ can "accuse or perhaps excuse them" when they are judged by Christ. This means that those who did not know Christ during their earthly lives will not be surprised or dissatisfied with the way they are judged, because their own conscience has already condemned them, and they unfortunately refused to listen.

The Two Natures of Christ

There is one last element that is crucial to understanding God's plan of salvation for mankind, and that is the nature of Jesus Christ. Who is Jesus Christ? Was he the 33-year-old Jewish carpenter who was condemned to death for blasphemy and executed almost 2000 years ago? Yes, but he is so much more than that! Jesus Christ is fully human, but also fully divine. He is the Son of God and the Second Person of the Holy Trinity. While he became incarnate as a human infant at a specific time in history, he always was, is now, and always will be, God. He was not only a historical figure, but the Eternal Word of the Father, by whom and through whom everything that exists was created. Saint John explains this beautifully in the prologue of his gospel:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made (Jn 1:1-3).
What does all of this mean? A lot, actually. If Jesus is the source of everything that exists, then it makes sense that there would be numerous ways of knowing him. In other words, a person can know Christ in ways besides knowing him as the 33 year-old Jewish carpenter, even if that is an important part of the complete truth about who Jesus is. Saint John wrote that Christ can be known in some way by all people, regardless of their education, culture, and when or where they lived:
In [Christ] was life, and the life was the light of men...The true light that enlightens every man was coming into the world (Jn 1:4,9).
The Logos and the Tao

Saint John wrote that Christ is the light that enlightens all men, not just a select lucky few who happened to live in the towns where he preached, taught, and worked miracles. How can this be true? It's true because Christ is the Eternal Logos (Word), and therefore is not bound by the space, time, and material limitations that he willingly embraced during his time on earth. In many Asian countries, there is a belief in the "Tao" (pronounced "dow"), which is the "way" or "path" that creates and orders everything in the universe. The Tao is considered to be the source of everything in reality, and those who follow the Tao strive to live in a way that conforms to it's way or pattern. Such conformity consists of doing things in accordance with their nature, which creates "effortless action." Living by the Tao is supposed to bring the person peace and render morality, in the sense of rules, laws, and government, obsolete. There is an interesting parallel between the Taoist concept of the Tao and the Christian concept of the Logos. In Saint John's gospel, when he writes that Christ is the "Word," the Greek word that he actually used was "Logos." Logos can be translated many ways, including: word, thought, speech, way, and path. When Christianity spread to China, and the Chinese people came to understand who Jesus Christ was, they translated "Logos" as "Tao" (e.g., "And the Tao became flesh, and dwelt among us.") This marriage of Asian philosophy and religion with the very heart of Christianity is very significant, and beautifully so, because it reveals a universality in the human search for God. If we are made from love, by love, and for love, then how could any honest person's search for the truth lead him to anything other than Love himself in the flesh, Jesus Christ? Later in John's gospel, Jesus speaks about how he wants to reach out to all people, even those normally excluded by the Jewish mindset:
I am the good shepherd; I know my own and my own know me, as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. And I have other sheep, that are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they will heed my voice. So there shall be one flock, one shepherd (Jn 10:14-16).
Don't Limit God!

As we can see, God's plans are bigger and better than ours! We tend to limit God, to put Him in a box made of our preconceptions and narrow-mindedness. If a sentence starts with: "God wouldn't...", "God can't...", or "God doesn't care about..." then it's probably wrong. Much of our spiritual growth is the continual process of shedding off our old ideas about God, adopting new ones, finding them insufficient, shedding those off...and repeating the cycle. This should come as no surprise, since we are finite beings and God is infinite, we can never have a complete understanding of Him. This includes God's means of bringing about salvation, and how His universal love for all of mankind is made manifest in our world of spatial, temporal, and material limitations. Hopefully, through prayer, study, and life experience, we can eventually learn to "let God be God," and instead of asking with the apostles, "Lord, will those who are saved be few?"(Lk 13:23) we will instead get out into the vineyard, where "the harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few"(Mt 9:37).

The Church is All-Inclusive

When we say that there is no salvation outside of the Catholic Church, let us realize that this is not an exclusive statement that condemns the lost sheep or those who are "of another flock," but rather, an inclusive statement, one that signifies just how universal the reach, responsibility, and mission of the Catholic Church is in the world. There is no need for us to fully understand how and if a non-Christian will be saved before we can witness the truth of Christianity to him or her, so what are we waiting for? Jesus gave us no reason to delay!
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and behold, I am with you always, to the close of the age (Mt 28:19-20).

† Under the Mercy,
Chris Trummer


Catholic Biblical Association (Great Britain). The Holy Bible: Revised Standard Version, Catholic Edition. New York: National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA, 1994. Print.

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