If our salvation hinges on our acceptance of Jesus, what about souls who never heard of Jesus? Here’s what the Church teaches:
“Those also can attain to salvation who through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church, yet sincerely seek God and moved by grace strive by their deeds to do His will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience. Nor does Divine Providence deny the helps necessary for salvation to those who, without blame on their part, have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God and with His grace strive to live a good life” (Lumen Gentium, 16; cited in the Catechism, 847).
In other words, those who lived before Jesus, and those of all ages who never received the gospel, can be saved if they are following the will of God as well as they can understand it. The Book of Job provides a very interesting example in this context. At the beginning of the story, God describes Job as “his servant,” adding “there is no one like him, blameless and upright, fearing God and avoiding evil.” Now Job lives in “the land of Uz,” which was somewhere in Edom or Arabia. Job, then, was not an Israelite, yet God still recognizes his righteousness.
We arrive at a gray area when we consider how many people today and over the centuries know something about Jesus, but, sometimes through no fault of their own, have not really been told who he is or what he preached. Can such people be saved? A blanket “yes” or “no” statement won’t do here. We can be fully confident that God alone knows the hearts of men; that his justice is greater than we could ever imagine; and that his mercy is his greatest attribute. Kenneth Howell expressed it very well on Catholic Answers: “We believe that God is sovereign and loving. He will judge people according to their knowledge. If they live in a way that accords with their best knowledge of God, we trust that he will be merciful to them.”
Expanding on this idea, Saint John Paul II, in his general audience of December 4, 2000, addressed the issue of conditions for salvation for non-Christians in an affirmative manner, citing Scripture throughout:
“Those who have chosen the way of the Gospel Beatitudes and live as ‘the poor in spirit’, detached from material goods, in order to raise up the lowly of the earth from the dust of their humiliation, will enter the kingdom of God. ‘Has not God chosen those who are poor in the world’, James asks in his Letter, ‘to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which he has promised to those who love him?’ (Jas 2:5). Those who lovingly bear the sufferings of life will enter the kingdom: ‘Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God’ (Acts 14:22; cf. 2 Thes 1:4-5), where God himself ‘will wipe away every tear … and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore’ (Rv 21:4). The pure of heart who choose the way of righteousness, that is, conformity to the will of God, will enter the kingdom.”
The obligations of Christians
For those of us who are members of the Church, we shouldn’t read this and think we have an excuse not to share the Good News, because those with little or no knowledge of Christ still can be saved. We remain duty bound to share the joy and beauty of the gospel, and we should do so confident that those who genuinely seek the truth will recognize it in all its fullness in the words and deeds of our Savior Jesus Christ. “All the children of the Church should nevertheless remember that their exalted condition results, not from their own merits, but from the grace of Christ. If they fail to respond in thought, word, and deed to that grace, not only shall they not be saved, but they shall be more severely judged” (Lumen Gentium, 14).
And beyond duty, why wouldn’t we share the truth and beauty, the joy and peace, and the love and mercy of our risen Savior with the whole world? Why aren’t we shouting it from the rooftops? As members of the Church, we (and I’m very much including myself here) need to spend more time with our Lord in prayer, understanding the mysteries of his great love for us, so we can share that message with the whole world. The world is trying, and often succeeds, in holding us back. But the Holy Spirit gives us, just as it did the Apostles on the day of Pentecost, the courage to overcome the world.
The parable of the talents
Jesus’ parable about the master who gives talents to three servants is particularly useful for understanding salvation. The servant given five talents uses them to make another five, and the servant given two talents uses them to make another two. Both of them are rewarded by their master. Conversely the servant given one talent hides his, merely returning to his master what he was given. The master casts this servant out into the darkness. (Matthew 25:14-30) (1)
Now how would the master have reacted if the servant given five talents had returned with only three? And what if the servant given one talent had come back with two? Who would the master reward? The servant with three talents has more. But I think the master would reward the servant who took his one talent and doubled it, and punish the servant who had five but lost two.
A talent in those days was a large amount of money. Not all talents had the same value, as their worth depended on the metal used (gold, silver or copper). However, one talent of silver was equivalent to about fifteen to twenty years’ wages for a manual laborer.
When I hear talents mentioned in the parable, I tend to hear talents in the modern sense of word as our natural, God-given abilities. Biblical scholars have also identified the talents of the parable with the spiritual gifts God has given us, with our financial resources, and with the mysteries of the Kingdom that have been revealed to us. And the talents could be a combination of all of these things. (2)
For those of us who have been blessed not only with natural abilities but all of the graces – the sacraments, the Word of God, the communion of saints – poured out in God’s church, we are blessed and obliged to put these talents to good use for the glory of our Lord. God bestows his grace on all, but not in the same amounts. God has plans for all, but not the same plans. “Much will be required of the person entrusted with much, and still more will be demanded of the person entrusted with more.” (Luke 12:48) We respond to these words with humble confidence that the Lord will pour out his grace on those who ask for it, and that his grace will give us the courage and wisdom to do his will. “For to everyone who has, more will be given and he will grow rich.” (Matthew 25:29)
(1) The parable of the talents is unique to Matthew (there are a number of similarities and a few differences in Luke’s parable of the ten coins – see Luke 19:11-26). It’s worth noting that this parable is immediately followed by the parable (also unique to Matthew) where the Son of Man separates the sheep who fed the poor and cared for the sick from the goats who did not do those things. “Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.” (Matthew 25:40) In Matthew’s gospel this is Jesus’ final teaching before his Last Supper and Passion.
(2) Curtis Mitch and Edward Sri, The Gospel of Matthew: Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Publishing Group, 2010, p.323.
Image: The Parable of the Talents depicted in a 1712 woodcut (downloaded from Wikipedia Commons).