Thursday, January 20, 2011

Salvation and Damnation: What Do Catholics Believe?

First, a little shout-out to all of my new readers and ‘followers’ (both public and private) – I am so happy to have you joining me here for Coffee Talk with Leslie! Also, a little note to assure you that not all of my blog entries will involve long theological excurses and citations from the Catechism of the Catholic Church – in fact, I intend to write very soon about “Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure,” so you can count on an interesting mix! In the meantime, here’s an interesting question about the Catholic-Christian view on salvation and damnation. So grab a cup of coffee, and enjoy!

Dear Leslie,

My uncle, who has many doubts and concerns regarding the Bible and Christian philosophy, was reading John chapter 3 and Mark 16:16. He claims that there is evidence that Christians -- and therefore Catholics -- believe that people who do not accept Jesus are damned. I argued that the Bible is not meant to be read literally and must be examined in context. And that the Catholic Church does not maintain that non-Christians are damned to hell. Help me, he doesn't believe me.


Hi, Tina,

First, to support what you've said, the most common example that I've heard given to support the salvation of non-Christians goes something like this: "What if there is a person in some remote region of the world who has literally never heard of Jesus, but has lived a good life according to what they knew. Would God say that such a person is to be damned because, through no fault of his own, he never accepted Jesus?" These days, we don't even have to stretch our imaginations to some remote region of the world - we probably know many people personally who may have heard the name of Jesus, but know absolutely nothing of the Gospel or salvation. Still, many of these people live very good, loving, and morally upright lives according to what they know. I think that most honest Christians would not believe that a person in this situation would be damned, but sometimes we don't know how to reconcile the feeling that such a person might be saved with what the Bible says about salvation. You are right to say that Catholics do not hold a fundamentalist 'Sola Scriptura' view of the Scriptures (especially since even the Bible itself does not support such a view!), but we do believe that the Scriptures are the inspired Word of God. So how can we believe both what the Bible seems to say about salvation being through Jesus, and the deep sense that others can indeed be saved?

Here's what the Catechism of the Catholic Church  (CCC) has to say on the matter. First, in support of the Scripture verses your uncle mentioned:

CCC 161 - Believing in Jesus Christ and in the One who sent him for our salvation is necessary for obtaining that salvation. "Since "without faith it is impossible to please [God]" and to attain to the fellowship of his sons, therefore without faith no one has ever attained justification, nor will anyone obtain eternal life 'But he who endures to the end.'

And now, the CCC in support of what you've said, Tina:

CCC 846 - "Outside the Church there is no salvation"

How are we to understand this affirmation, often repeated by the Church Fathers? Re-formulated positively, it means that all salvation comes from Christ the Head through the Church which is his Body:

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.

847 This affirmation is not aimed at those who, through no fault of their own, do not know Christ and his Church:

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.

848 "Although in ways known to himself God can lead those who, through no fault of their own, are ignorant of the Gospel, to that faith without which it is impossible to please him, the Church still has the obligation and also the sacred right to evangelize all men."

A related question that often comes up in these type of discussions surrounds the necessity of baptism – namely, if baptism is necessary for salvation, can un-baptized people be saved? And if so, how? Again, we turn to the Catechism to see what the Catholic Church teaches on the matter.


1257 The Lord himself affirms that Baptism is necessary for salvation. He also commands his disciples to proclaim the Gospel to all nations and to baptize them. Baptism is necessary for salvation for those to whom the Gospel has been proclaimed and who have had the possibility of asking for this sacrament. The Church does not know of any means other than Baptism that assures entry into eternal beatitude; this is why she takes care not to neglect the mission she has received from the Lord to see that all who can be baptized are "reborn of water and the Spirit." God has bound salvation to the sacrament of Baptism, but he himself is not bound by his sacraments.

1258 The Church has always held the firm conviction that those who suffer death for the sake of the faith without having received Baptism are baptized by their death for and with Christ. This Baptism of blood, like the desire for Baptism, brings about the fruits of Baptism without being a sacrament.

1259 For catechumens who die before their Baptism, their explicit desire to receive it, together with repentance for their sins, and charity, assures them the salvation that they were not able to receive through the sacrament.

1260 "Since Christ died for all, and since all men are in fact called to one and the same destiny, which is divine, we must hold that the Holy Spirit offers to all the possibility of being made partakers, in a way known to God, of the Paschal mystery.” Every man who is ignorant of the Gospel of Christ and of his Church, but seeks the truth and does the will of God in accordance with his understanding of it, can be saved. It may be supposed that such persons would have desired Baptism explicitly if they had known its necessity.

1261 As regards children who have died without Baptism, the Church can only entrust them to the mercy of God, as she does in her funeral rites for them. Indeed, the great mercy of God who desires that all men should be saved, and Jesus' tenderness toward children which caused him to say: "Let the children come to me, do not hinder them," allow us to hope that there is a way of salvation for children who have died without Baptism. All the more urgent is the Church's call not to prevent little children coming to Christ through the gift of holy Baptism.

In terms of Christian philosophy, I think that one of the most important concepts to understand is a sound philosophy of the human person, namely that every person is created by God with an immortal soul. St. Thomas Aquinas even goes so far as to delineate 3 types of souls:

1) Vegetative Soul: the life force within all living things that is the animating element that we call life.

2) Sensitive Soul: that faculty that gives consciousness the living being to sense its environment and its surroundings and to respond to that environment through the five senses of the body.

3) Rational Soul: this is the soul made in the image of God that is individually created by God and placed into a human being at the moment of conception. This soul is that which allows us to have the Godly attributes of rational thought, creativity, awareness of who we are, awareness of our own mortality, ability to love, to know God, etc.

It is our rational, immortal soul that sets human beings apart from all of the rest of creation, and since God has created us with this eternal soul, he has also given us a way to reach eternal life.

The Church has many canonized saints, but there is not, and never will be, a list of those who are in hell. We simply don't know. And in the words of one modern theologian, Hans Urs von Balthasar, "Dare we hope that all men might be saved?"

Soon-to-be-Blessed Pope John Paul II affirms the reality of hell, but also the hope of salvation for all men. Here’s an excerpt from Avery Cardinal Dulles (seen in full at, who explains John Paul II's position well:

"Pope John Paul II in his Crossing the Threshold of Hope mentions the theory of Balthasar. After putting the question whether a loving God can allow any human being to be condemned to eternal torment, he replies: “And yet the words of Christ are unequivocal. In Matthew’s Gospel he speaks clearly of those who will go to eternal punishment (cf. Matthew 25:46).” As justification for this assessment the Pope puts the rhetorical question: Can God, who is ultimate justice, tolerate terrible crimes and let them go unpunished? Final punishment would seem to be necessary to reestablish the moral equilibrium in the complex history of humanity.

In a General Audience talk of July 28, 1999, the Pope seems to have shifted his position, adopting in effect that of Balthasar. According to the English version of the text he said:

Christian faith teaches that in taking the risk of saying “yes” or “no,” which marks the (human) creature’s freedom, some have already said no. They are the spiritual creatures that rebelled against God’s love and are called demons (cf. Fourth Lateran Council). What happened to them is a warning to us: it is a continuous call to avoid the tragedy which leads to sin and to conform our life to that of Jesus who lived his life with a “yes” to God.

Eternal damnation remains a possibility, but we are not granted, without special divine revelation, the knowledge of whether or which human beings are effectively involved in it. The thought of hell-and even less the improper use of biblical images-must not create anxiety or despair, but is a necessary and healthy reminder of freedom within the proclamation that the risen Jesus has conquered Satan, giving us the Spirit of God who makes us cry “Abba, Father!” (Romans 8:15; Galatians 4:6)"

Hope this is helpful to you and your uncle, Tina. Thanks so much for your question, and may you and your family be blessed.

Peace and all good,


  1. So...just from personal experience the reality of Hell is really what caused my conversion. Not only the idea of eternal punishment, but the idea of being completely seperated from God.

    I do believe in Hope. Hope for all. But...when jesus talks about the man who was in hell that couldn't even go to his family to tell them he was in Hell, or when he talks about striving to enter the "narrow gate" it makes me think about the reality of hell and the possibility of losing your salvation.
    And I know you aren't completely dismissing hell But I do feel a lot of people lolly about thinking their salvation is secure.
    So we need somehow to find a middle ground between hope in salvation and fear of damnation.

  2. Thanks for sharing your experience and for bringing up a good point, Shane. I think that what Balthasar and John Paul II were emphasizing here was the love by which God became man and gave his life for the salvation of all men -- and that through the grace outpoured by that salvific act, we can truly hope that all men might be saved.

    But this is very different from the modern view that so many hold which denies sin altogether, and holds that all people are assured eternal life simply because there is no real possibility of hell. On the contrary, John Paul II affirmed the reality of hell on many occasions, and Balthasar is well known for his reflections (inspired by the experiences of Adrienne von Speyr) of the Mystery of Holy Saturday -- namely, Jesus' descent into the depths of hell.

    Catholics don't hold the 'once saved, always saved' view of many Protestants - we believe that we must "work out [our] salvation with fear and trembling" (Philippians 2:12). But we should not do so with heavy hearts and complaining mouths; rather, we are called to "sanctify Christ as Lord in [our] hearts[,] always... ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks...a reason for [our] hope" (1 Peter 3:15).

    And while we're on the topic, let me throw one more thought out there -- for anyone who has ever wondered why Catholics seem to believe that we are saved only by works while Protestants seem to believe that we are saved only by faith, I'd like to clarify that neither case is true. We are saved by GRACE, the unmerited and free gift of God given to us in a manner far surpassing all of our deepest longings and greatest expectations.

  3. I think it would be a great idea for a future post on Salvation and the Catholic Standpoint of "Merit" and "Grace".

  4. I will add that topic to my list, Shane -- thanks for your input!