Can we hope that all human beings will be saved? Theologians have wrestled with this question since the early Church. More recently it has arisen in light of the secularisation of many previously Christian countries, and the fact that many people elsewhere may never hear the gospel of Christ. We used to hear of the “mission lands” where Christian missionaries would travel to bring the gospel to non-Christian peoples. Nowadays, we are living in a “mission land” with secularism on the rise and more and more people identifying themselves as having no religion.
Any hope that all people will be saved must be based on a belief that this is so. But do we find anything in Scripture revealing the eternal destiny of all humans to be such? There are passages which say things like God “desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2:4). But Jesus says, “unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (Jn 3:5). The Church teaches that Jesus is speaking here of baptism (by water, blood, or desire) as the means necessary to enter eternal life. Such passages from Scripture must be held together. Many other passages could be given in support of either side, but none on its own is definitive. As a whole, Scripture never says that God promises all humans will be saved.
Where then does this leave us? Should we continue along our merry way, living as though our eternal happiness were guaranteed despite our good or bad actions? The more prudent manner would be to act as though our eternal happiness were on the line. Striving always to live in relationship with Christ according to gospel virtues of heroic love, faith, and justice, amongst others. Christ’s parable of the judgment of the nations (Matt 25) provides a sober warning that our fate is yet to be decided. It is also a moral exhortation to live out Christian charity here and now for our eternal destiny depends upon it. It is noteworthy, however, that God does not leave it all up to us. He offers helps or graces along the way. Hence we entrust our salvation to the mercy of God, while always striving, with the help of his grace, to become holy.
What about those who haven’t yet heard the gospel of Christ? The Church prays for them every day. Individually, we are to take every opportunity to befriend these people, sharing our lives with them if possible, and telling them about Christ’s love for them and his offer of eternal salvation. This is a big task but the Holy Spirit is already at work in the hearts of these people, drawing them to Christ through us, his Church.
Artwork: The Last Judgment (detail) by Michelangelo (1474-1564).
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