Over brunch, a friend asked me if the Catholic Church believed if his mother, a die-hard Episcopalian, might possibly be saved. He was concerned, as he thought that Catholics believe that only Catholics can go to heaven.
"Who can and who can’t be saved" is a question most of us think about at some time or another. These days, according to the polls, most of us believe that we and just about everyone else will go to heaven. Hopefully these beliefs are an indication of trust in the love and goodness and mercy of God.
But then there’s St. Peter’s preaching in today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles. Filled with the Holy Spirit, Peter said quite clearly that it is only in the name of Jesus that one can be saved. No ifs, ands, or buts. No loopholes or exceptions to the rule were suggested.
So what does this mean? Does this mean that the four-fifths of the human race who aren’t Christian have no hope of salvation whatsoever? Does this mean our Jewish neighbors go to hell?
For many people today, St. Peter’s claim that salvation is possible only through Jesus doesn’t sit very well. They think it doesn’t sound very fair, and they have a hard time thinking that a loving, compassionate God would hold people to such a standard. In any event, from their perspective, it shouldn’t really matter what religion a person practices anyway, because they’re all basically different but equal paths to the same god. As they see it, it makes no difference if you’re a Buddhist or a Hindu or if you simply think of yourself as a "spiritual person" who likes to meditate and do yoga. They’re essentially all one and the same.
Except that they aren’t. If you look at different religions or spiritual practices, you’ll encounter radically different notions about God, the human person, the importance of creation, and life after death. On the surface, most religions do have a sense that people are rewarded for virtue and held responsible for vice. But on closer inspection, it’s like comparing apples and oranges.
Yet even though different religions may have very different fundamental beliefs, is it still true what St. Peter said, that only in Jesus’ name can one be saved? It sounds so "politically incorrect!" What about good non-Christian people like Gandhi or the Dalai Lama? Is all their goodness for nothing? And what about people who have never had a chance to hear about Jesus? Is it really fair to say they can’t be saved?
As Catholics, we can say clearly and firmly that people of other religions, and those of no religion, might indeed be saved. We can’t say if any particular individual will or won’t be saved. That’s God’s call, not ours. We trust in his love and mercy, which is great. But we can believe in the possibility that any person might be saved- no exceptions. Like us, they’ll be judged by God on how they lived their lives. Everyone has a conscience; everyone has a God-given sense of what’s fundamentally right and wrong. And other religions often have, from our perspective, at least a partial grasp of the truth.
Nevertheless, this is not to say that people of other religions are saved because of their religion. The salvation of any human being- regardless of their beliefs- is possible ONLY through the death and resurrection of the only Son of God, Jesus the Christ. The price Jesus paid for sin encompasses all of humanity: past, present, and future. This makes it possible for anyone to be saved. But only, as St. Peter insisted, "in the name of Jesus."
But…if people of other religions and no religion have the possibility of salvation, what’s so special about being a Christian? Many reason, but two in particular: Truth, and Grace. Truth, because Jesus revealed to us the fullness of truth- and truth matters, to put it bluntly. Other religions may have elements of the truth- thanks to God- but these elements are meant to be pointers to the entire truth of the gospel. And then there’s grace. Non-Christian people may indeed be good people and do good things, because whether they know it or not, God has been nudging them to be that way. But they aren’t children of God in the same way we are. "Beloved," began today’s reading from I John, "see what love the Father has bestowed on us that we may be called the children of God. Yet so we are."
Every person is made in God’s image and likeness. And everyone is deeply loved by God. God is love, and it’s impossible for him to do otherwise! But not everyone is a part of God’s family; not everyone can call him or herself a son or daughter of God. That only happens through baptism, in which we receive the grace of the Holy Spirit and are intimately joined to Jesus and each other as brothers and sisters in the Lord. That’s why Jesus, in today’s gospel, could say: "I know mine and mine know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father."
Jesus wants everyone to know him in this way. He wants them to love him because he loves them: as a good shepherd, who cares for them, who gave up his life for them, and who shares his life with them- just as he has done, and does, for us.
Jesus mentioned other sheep who have yet to hear his voice- those who do not yet know him as their shepherd. That was true in Jesus’ day, and it’s true in ours. That why the Church continues to evangelize, send missionaries around the globe, and encourage us to share the good news with those we know. Because even though we can believe that anyone may indeed be saved; it is our hope that everyone will come to know as savior the only good shepherd, Jesus our Lord.