One of the teachings of Christianity is that Salvation requires the acceptance of Jesus Christ as Savior. This leads to a common argument, sometimes worded as a question: What if a person dies without accepting Christ because said person never had a reasonable opportunity to do so?
The above is vague and loaded, but the implication is basically that God is unjust for damning an individual for honest ignorance.
To address this argument is not simple but it is not that complicated either. As usual, the complications are a result of dismissing or neglecting data and making leaps in logic. For the sake of discussion, harsher forms of the argument will be adopted. Part I focuses on the conditions of Salvation and Part II is the analysis.
Condition 1: Belief
Christ said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No man cometh to the Father, but by me.” (John 14:6) And later, St Paul wrote, “For there is one God, and one mediator of God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as redemption for all, a testimony in due times.” (1 Timothy 2:5–6)
The above establishes, albeit without explanation, that Jesus is necessary and indispensable in Salvation. Therefore, the simplest condition for Salvation is to believe in Christ, who promised:
For God so loved the world, as to give his only begotten Son; that whosoever believeth in him, may not perish, but may have life everlasting. (John 3:16)
Similarly, as written by Paul to the Romans, probably making allusions to Matthew 10, Acts 2 and Joel 2, amongst others:
For if thou confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and believe in thy heart that God hath raised him up from the dead, thou shalt be saved. (Romans 10:9)
It should be clarified that “belief” is not mere intellectual acknowledgement since even the devils have belief in that sense (James 2:19) but rather an acceptance “in thy heart”. And it seems Christ also warned of superficial belief and/or those who apostatize later, “Not everyone that saith to me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven…” (Matthew 7:21–25)
This leads to the type of argument as already stated: What if a person dies without believing in Christ because said person never had a reasonable opportunity to do so? The implication is that said person is automatically damned and therefore God is unjust.
Condition 2: Repent/Do Penance
Accepting Christ dying for one’s sins is important but it is somewhat pointless if one does not repent or do penance. Referring to those who died when the tower fell in Siloe, Christ said, “…but except you do penance, you shall all likewise perish.” (Luke 13:5)
Some translations have “repent” instead of “do penance” and there is a distinction. In any case, it is expected that some effort is to be made and doing good can be generally considered as “penitential”.
This adds an extra element to the argument: What if a good person (or one who tries to be good) dies without coming to Christ because said person never had a reasonable opportunity to do so? The implication is the same as previous.
Condition 3: Born Again
Jesus said to Nicodemus, “…unless a man be born again of water and the Holy Ghost, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.” (John 3:5) This addresses the consequence of the Fall, where the consequence of sin is death (Genesis 2, Romans 6) and said consequence is passed to subsequent generations. (Romans 5, Psalm 50)
Although this is not explicitly stated in Genesis, we know in hindsight that “death” is spiritual (supernatural) death—the absence of the Holy Ghost in the soul—and physical (natural) death, the latter being a visible sign of the former.
Therefore, restoring supernatural life to those naturally alive requires the indwelling of the Holy Ghost. One could simplistically state that said indwelling of the Holy Ghost is the objective condition of being a member of the Church.
Whilst naturally alive, the indwelling of the Holy Ghost can be gained, then lost but also recoverable (1 John 5, John 20), but irrecoverable (if still lost) after death and Particular Judgement. It should also be noted that the indwelling of the Holy Ghost has generally not taken away the penalty of physical death as we know it.
The ordinary means to effect the indwelling of the Holy Ghost is Baptism with the use of water. Some argue that water is not necessary since John the Baptist said, “I have baptized you with water; but he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost.” However, this contradicts Christ’s own explicit statement and it is clear that John was merely referring to the effect of his baptism since, directly after this in the Gospel narrative, Jesus Himself submitted to Baptism as an example for us. (Mark 1, Matthew 3, Luke 3, John 1)
Christ gave the following instruction to the Apostles before His Ascension: “All power is given to me in heaven and in earth. Going therefore, teach ye all nations; baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and behold I am with you all days, even to the consummation of the world.” (Matthew 28, Mark 16)
This begs the question of the conditions of a valid Baptism since it depends on the correct use of the formula and being performed by those with legitimate authority (without denying there are exceptions).
This leads to a harsher form of the argument: What if a person dies with the intention of receiving Baptism but could not or unknowingly received one which was invalid? The implied argument is that God condemns said person based on a technicality.
Condition 4: Eats My Flesh and Drinks My Blood
Christ described Himself as the “bread of life” and said, “Except you eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, you shall not have life in you. He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath everlasting life: and I will raise him up in the last day.” (John 6:54–55)
At the Last Supper, Christ instituted Holy Communion. (Matthew 26, Mark 14, Luke 22, John 13) Like Baptism, its validity begs the question of formula and legitimate authority. Holy Communion is different from Baptism but the form of the argument can be considered fundamentally the same as previous.
Condition 5: Extra ecclesiam nulla salus
Since both Baptism and Holy Communion are necessary and their validity depends on legitimate authority, this begs the question of what that is. Or, to put it more broadly, “What is the Church?” since the Church or “Mystical Body of Christ” includes authority. (Matthew 16, 1 Corinthians 12)
This is another long discussion but, for the purposes of this argument, it is assumed that there is such a thing as “Church” and that it is necessary to be a part of it.
The phrase Extra ecclesiam nulla salus (“outside the Church there is no salvation”) in its various forms has been used since the Early Church. Below are merely a few examples.
From Against Heresies, Book III, Chapter 4 by St Irenaeus (b. ~130 – d. ~200):
For she is the entrance to life; all others are thieves and robbers. On this account are we bound to avoid them, but to make choice of the thing pertaining to the Church with the utmost diligence, and to lay hold of the tradition of the truth.
From “Epistle LXXII” by St Cyprian (b. ~200 – d. 14 September 258):
But if not even the baptism of a public confession and blood can profit a heretic to salvation, because there is no salvation out of the Church…
From Divine Institutes, Book IV, Chapter 30 by Lactantius (b. ~240 – d. ~320):
Therefore it is the Catholic Church alone which retains true worship. This is the fountain of truth, this is the abode of the faith, this is the temple of God; into which if any one shall not enter, or from which if any shall go out, he is estranged from the hope of life and eternal salvation.
From Summa Theologica, Third Part, Question 73 by St Thomas Aquinas (b. 15 March 1225 – d. 7 March 1274):
Now it was stated above (Article 1, Objection 2) that the reality of the sacrament is the unity of the mystical body, without which there can be no salvation; for there is no entering into salvation outside the Church, just as in the time of the deluge there was none outside the Ark, which denotes the Church, according to 1 Peter 3:20–21.
The above are admittedly not dogmatic definitions by the pope. The below are more strongly worded statements by the pope, the third quotation is dogmatic even if the first two are not.
From Lateran Council IV, Chapter 1, presided by Pope Innocent III, 1215, (H. Denzinger, The Sources of Catholic Dogma, 30th ed., Loreto Publications, USA, 2010, para. 430):
One indeed is the universal Church of the faithful, outside which no one at all is saved…
From papal bull “Unam sanctam” by Pope Boniface VIII, dated 18 November 1302:
Urged by faith, we are obliged to believe and to maintain that the Church is one, holy, catholic, and also apostolic. We believe in her firmly and we confess with simplicity that outside of her there is neither salvation nor the remission of sins…
From papal bull “Cantata domino” at the Council of Florence, presided by Pope Eugenius IV, dated 4 February 1442 (H. Denzinger, The Sources of Catholic Dogma, 30th ed., Loreto Publications, USA, 2010, para. 714):
It firmly believes, professes, and proclaims that those not living within the Catholic Church, not only pagans, but also Jews and heretics and schismatics cannot become participants in eternal life, but will depart “into everlasting fire which was prepared for the devil and his angels” [Matthew 25:41], unless before the end of life the same have been added to the flock…
Unless one wants to conveniently ignore centuries of tradition and theology, it can be seen that being part of the Church is necessary for Salvation. This can be confusing because in today’s world there are probably more churches than there are fast-food franchises.
This leads to the harshest form of the argument: What if a person who believes in Christ and is a member of some church dies outside the so-called True (Catholic) Church because they do not know which church is true? The implied argument is that God condemns said person based on a technicality.
It is easy to exclusively adopt one condition or assume that it overrides all other conditions. But that is just convenient snobbery. All conditions must somehow be true.
The short answer is that God can sort it all out, and no one ends up in the wrong place. Although that is true, it is intellectually and emotionally cheap and there is more information in Scripture which will be analyzed in Part II.
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