Salvation for non-Christians: my reply to some objections

Objection 1: All salvation is through Jesus Christ, therefore non-Christians cannot be saved without converting.

{4:11} He is the stone, which was rejected by you, the builders, which has become the head of the corner.
{4:12} And there is no salvation in any other. For there is no other name under heaven given to men, by which it is necessary for us to be saved.”

Reply 1: Sacred Scripture also teaches that people can be saved by Jesus without knowing him by name, as in the example of the ancient Israelites.

[1 Corinthians]
{10:1} For I do not want you to be ignorant, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and they all went across the sea.
{10:2} And in Moses, they all were baptized, in the cloud and in the sea.
{10:3} And they all ate of the same spiritual food.
{10:4} And they all drank of the same spiritual drink. And so, they all were drinking of the spiritual rock seeking to obtain them; and that rock was Christ.

This passage refers to salvation by Christ through an implicit baptism of desire. For all that is truly good in the world is of Christ, and therefore many persons are able to know and love Christ implicitly, by knowing and loving the highest goods of this life.

And this possibility, to be saved by Christ without knowing and accepting Him explicitly, was taught by Christ himself. In the parable of the returning King, Jesus explains that many of those who are saved did not know that by loving their neighbor selflessly, they were implicitly loving Christ. And many of those who lose their salvation did not know that in rejecting the love of neighbor, they were implicitly rejecting Christ.

{25:37} Then the just will answer him, saying: ‘Lord, when have we see you hungry, and fed you; thirsty, and given you drink?
{25:38} And when have we seen you a stranger, and taken you in? Or naked, and covered you?
{25:39} Or when did we see you sick, or in prison, and visit to you?’
{25:40} And in response, the King shall say to them, ‘Amen I say to you, whenever you did this for one of these, the least of my brothers, you did it for me.’

In this way, many souls are saved, even though they do not realize that Jesus is the One who saves them.

Objection 2: If a non-Christian knows about Christ and His Church, he sins gravely by not converting, and so he loses his salvation due to mortal sin.

Reply 2: The Magisterium teaches a distinction between sins that are objectively gravely disordered (objective mortal sin) and actual mortal sin. Only actual mortal sin deprives the soul of the state of grace and deserves eternal punishment. So a person might commit the objective mortal sin of rejecting the Church, without the culpability of actual mortal sin. Such a person may still be saved then, despite the error of his conscience in rejecting the Church.

Pope John Paul II: “It is a mysterious relationship. It is mysterious for those who receive the grace, because they do not know the Church and sometimes even outwardly reject her. It is also mysterious in itself, because it is linked to the saving mystery of grace, which includes an essential reference to the Church the Savior founded.” [All Salvation Comes through Christ, General Audience, May 31, 1995.]

Pope John Paul II taught that persons who “outwardly reject” the Church, which includes non-Christians who know about Christianity, can still be saved by the Church and the Savior Jesus Christ. This is not a new idea in the faith. Pope Pius IX taught much the same teaching, with different wording:

Pope Pius IX: “Here, too, our beloved sons and venerable brothers, it is again necessary to mention and censure a very grave error entrapping some Catholics who believe that it is possible to arrive at eternal salvation although living in error and alienated from the true faith and Catholic unity. Such belief is certainly opposed to Catholic teaching. There are, of course, those who are struggling with invincible ignorance about our most holy religion. Sincerely observing the natural law and its precepts inscribed by God on all hearts and ready to obey God, they live honest lives and are able to attain eternal life by the efficacious virtue of divine light and grace. Because God knows, searches and clearly understands the minds, hearts, thoughts, and nature of all, his supreme kindness and clemency do not permit anyone at all who is not guilty of deliberate sin to suffer eternal punishments.” [Quanto Conficiamur Moerore, n. 7]

By deliberate sin, the holy Pontiff means actual mortal sin. For the Magisterium teaches that venial sins do not deserve eternal punishment:

Pope John Paul II: “venial sin does not deprive the sinner of sanctifying grace, friendship with God, charity and therefore eternal happiness, whereas just such a deprivation is precisely the consequence of mortal sin.” [Reconciliation and Penance, n. 17.]

Notice the two teachings of the Church in the above quote from Pope Pius IX. Rejecting the one true Catholic Faith is a grave error; it is objectively a mortal sin. But some persons are not culpable — at least not to the extent of an actual mortal sin — for their failure to believe in the Catholic Faith or in Christianity. They know about Christ and His Church, for they “are struggling with invincible ignorance” about that very subject, “our most holy religion”. But their failure to believe is not an actual mortal sin because they are invincibly ignorant that such a belief is required by the moral law. Therefore, they “are able to attain eternal life” despite this error. They can be saved, even if they do not convert.

Objection 3: Atheists, agnostics, and those believers who lack the concept of one personal God, who created the universe, cannot be in error through invincible ignorance because the light of natural law allows everyone with the use of reason to know that God exists.

{1:20} For unseen things about him have been made conspicuous, since the creation of the world, being understood by the things that were made; likewise his everlasting virtue and divinity, so much so that they have no excuse.

Reply 3: The Magisterium is the sole authoritative interpreter of Scripture. The Magisterium teaches that, while many truths — including the existence of God — can be known by the light of reason alone, that is, by natural law, the human person in the fallen state, living in a sinful world, often errs in the search for moral and religious truth, without culpability.

Catechism of the Catholic Church: “In the historical conditions in which he finds himself, however, man experiences many difficulties in coming to know God by the light of reason alone: Though human reason is, strictly speaking, truly capable by its own natural power and light of attaining to a true and certain knowledge of the one personal God, who watches over and controls the world by his providence, and of the natural law written in our hearts by the Creator; yet there are many obstacles which prevent reason from the effective and fruitful use of this inborn faculty. For the truths that concern the relations between God and man wholly transcend the visible order of things, and, if they are translated into human action and influence it, they call for self-surrender and abnegation. the human mind, in its turn, is hampered in the attaining of such truths, not only by the impact of the senses and the imagination, but also by disordered appetites which are the consequences of original sin. So it happens that men in such matters easily persuade themselves that what they would not like to be true is false or at least doubtful.” [Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 37.]

As a result of the above teaching, we must conclude that many persons have erred in attempting to discern religious and moral truth by the light of human reason alone. Therefore, a person might sincerely but mistakenly think that God does not exist, or that a particular objective mortal sin is venial or is not a sin at all. This type of sincere error of conscience does not result in the condemnation of that person to Hell.

Second Vatican Council: “Conscience frequently errs from invincible ignorance without losing its dignity.” [Gaudium et Spes, n. 16.]

If a man’s conscience has not lost its dignity, then he has not committed an actual mortal sin, even if some of his choices are objectively gravely immoral. For fallen human persons do not necessarily always perceive all those truths, which in themselves are accessible to reason, correctly and without error.

Catechism of the Catholic Church: “The precepts of natural law are not perceived by everyone clearly and immediately. In the present situation sinful man needs grace and revelation so moral and religious truths may be known ‘by everyone with facility, with firm certainty and with no admixture of error.’ ” [Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 1960.]

And that is why God has given us Divine Revelation. So that we would have a better understanding of religious and moral truths that can be known by reason alone, apart from Divine Revelation, and also so that we would know religious truths that can only be known by Divine Revelation (e.g. the mystery of the Trinity, the mystery of the Eucharist).

Much more on this topic in my book: Forgiveness and Salvation for Everyone.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and
translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

Forgiveness and Salvation for Everyone
available in print (paperback, 510 pp.) and in Kindle format.

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