Understandably, my title begs many questions, and maybe creates some skepticism, yet there are interesting similarities between the mysteries of the Catholic Church, the sacraments, belief in Jesus Christ, and the mystery of hell — but not in the ways that critics of the Catholic Church might suggest.
For many, the doctrine that the Catholic Church and her sacraments are necessary for salvation is an awkward thread that runs throughout the history of the Church. Over the years, many have challenged the justice of this claim: “What about those who have never heard of the Catholic Church or her sacraments? What about those who, due to no fault of their own, have a lifelong visceral alienation from the Catholic Church? Are they morally culpable for remaining outside the Catholic Church? What about those who have been so scandalously treated by the Church that they were essentially forced out of the Church? Are they culpable? What about the good, sincere followers of Jesus Christ outside the boundaries of the Church, who have faith in Christ, but may not have received Baptism or any of the other sacraments? Are they also outside of salvation?”
These and other challenges to the long-standing doctrine that the Catholic Church and her sacraments are necessary for salvation have tended toward diminished endorsement and enforcement of the doctrine, to the point where today one rarely hears a Catholic, cleric or lay, even mention, let alone affirm, the necessity of the Catholic Church and her sacraments. As a result, one finds that the majority of modern Catholics no longer believe that membership in the Catholic Church is necessary for salvation, or that her sacraments are of any true significance — as a recent Pew Survey showed, less than a third of self-proclaimed Catholics even believe that the Eucharist is truly the body and blood, soul and divinity of Christ.
One can make the same analogy of the necessity of belief in Jesus Christ for salvation. Our Lord claimed that no one comes to the Father except by Him, yet one could pose the same caveats mentioned above, leading to the same result of today’s indifferentism. The common conclusion is that anyone to whom God eventually grants salvation is mysteriously saved through Christ and His Church, regardless of whether that person was in the Church or believed in Christ, or even heard of either. The result is that few today believe that belief in Christ, membership in the Catholic Church, or reception of any of the sacraments are ultimately necessary for salvation: “Our God is a much too loving, merciful, understanding, kind, and fair God!”
So how is all of this similar to the mystery of hell? The longstanding doctrine and thread running throughout the history of the Church is that there are ultimately only two destinations for all of humanity: either eternal union with the Trinity in the Beatific Vision (i.e., heaven), or eternal separation from God and eternal punishment in hell. From the beginning, theologians and others have posed caveats similar to those mentioned above: “But what about those who never knew about God, Christ, or the Catholic Church? What about those who never heard about sin and the law, or about heaven and hell? Will they face eternal punishment? What about those who have been taught all their lives that all these things are but myths? Will they face eternal punishment? This seems highly unfair and unjust! What about all the ‘good’ people we know, who certainly are far from perfect and often fail, yet have good intentions and a sincere desire to be better? Will they roast for eternity?”
Over the years, people have offered alternative theories about hell, starting with the third century theologian, Origen, who suggested that eventually even Satan himself would be saved. The rise of 18th century Universalism grew out of a conviction that a loving God would hardly punish anyone eternally for a temporal mistake.
And so, today, few believe in the reality of hell, just as few (even self-proclaimed Catholics) believe in the necessity of the Catholic Church or her sacraments, just as fewer and fewer (even self- proclaimed Christians, Catholic or non-Catholic) believe that explicit faith in Christ is necessary for salvation.
These are all signs of the deeper apostasy in which we are all now living. This apostasy was predicted in Scripture and emphasized as yet another thread running throughout the history of the Church. Christendom has grown complacent and numb to the pervasive influence of the evil one and the resultant pervasive indifference.
With humility we must begin by recognizing and affirming the mystery of God. He is not merely a much larger, more powerful version of man (i.e., of ourselves), but a wholly, Holy Other, far beyond the myriad ways in which we project upon Him the weaknesses of our fallen humanity.
There is indeed a heaven and a hell, and all that Our Lord, the Scriptures, the Church Fathers, and the Church have taught about heaven and hell, about eternal judgment and punishment, are still true. As our Lord proclaims in the book of Revelation, “He who conquers shall have this heritage, and I will be his God and he shall be my son. But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the polluted, as for murderers, fornicators, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their lot shall be in the lake that burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death” (Revelation 21:7-8).
How this will work itself out for the ignorant, for the supposed innocent, for the seeming undeserving, is beyond our understanding. We simply need to stand in judgement of no one, to proclaim the truth in love as long taught by Christ and His Church, and to prepare ourselves daily for our own eventual place in the dock, to seek by grace through faith in love to live in holiness, so that one day — maybe soon — we can stand before Him without embarrassment. We must also affirm that it is still necessary for salvation to have faith in Jesus Christ and to per- severe in Him to the end. And, as has long been taught, we must also affirm that Christ did establish a Church as the “pillar and bulwark of the truth,” as the primary means of salvation, giving her the sacraments as the primary channels of salvific grace.
And lest we wonder whether the doctrines of heaven, hell, and the necessity of belief in Christ and His Church are indeed still the teachings of the Catholic Church, she herself proclaimed them in the Second Vatican Council and the Catechism of the Catholic Church, reaffirming what has been believed and taught throughout the ages (emphases added):
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 (CCC, 846; Lumen Gentium, 14).
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’” (CCC, 161).
The Church affirms that for believers the sacraments of the New Covenant are necessary for salvation (CCC, 1129).
The teaching of the Church affirms the existence of hell and its eternity. Immediately after death the souls of those who die in a state of mortal sin descend into hell, where they suffer the punishments of hell, “eternal fire” (1035).
Before Christ’s second coming the Church must pass through a final trial that will shake the faith of many believers (cf. Lk 18:8; Mt 24:12). The persecution that accompanies her pilgrimage on earth (cf. Lk 21:12; Jn 15:19-20) will unveil the “mystery of iniquity” in the form of a religious deception offering men an apparent solution to their problems at the price of apostasy from the truth (CCC, 675).
Certainly, both the Vatican II documents as well as the Catechism offer qualifications of mercy for those who are invincibly ignorant, but we must never presume the knowledge to judge whether someone is invincibly ignorant; we have only the right and responsibility to proclaim and live the truth of Jesus Christ, His Church, her sacraments, and her teachings, so that we, in imitation of St. Paul, “might by all means save some” (1 Cor 9:22).