For as long as we Christians have been doing theology, that is, seeking to understand our faith, we have been asking questions about salvation. How are we saved? From what do we need to be saved? Who will be saved? A question of particular controversy in church history has been whether the whole human race will be saved or only some. The most common answer by far is that not all will be saved. However, since the Second Vatican Council, it has become much more common for Catholics, even popes, to say that all will be saved. Recently Pope Francis said, “The good Lord will save everyone—do not say this aloud.” Is this true, and if so, how did we get to this answer?
Because this is a profound and complex question, it requires a thorough answer. Before we can even approach it, we must ask a more basic question: how can non-Christians be saved at all? Thus this essay will be divided into four parts on the following themes:
- Extra ecclesiam nulla salus and the necessity of baptism
- Salvation of non-Christians: medieval and early modern theology
- Salvation of non-Christians: 19th and 20th century theology
- Universal salvation
In this first part I will introduce the question and basic data, including the exclusive mediatorship of Jesus Christ, “no salvation outside the Church,” and God’s universal salvific will. This groundwork must be laid before we can understand the opinions of later theologians and Catholic doctrine.
No salvation except through Christ
Let every Christian say humbly but without embarrassment that Jesus Christ is the one and only Savior of the human race and that absolutely no one will be saved except by him. In the New Testament this belief is of central importance. It is everywhere assumed and stated explicitly twice. Christ himself declares: “No one comes to the Father except through me” (Jn 14:6). The Apostle Peter testifies about him: “There is no salvation through anyone else” (Acts 4:12). Let’s not equivocate on this point, or we may ourselves be in danger of being lost, for Jesus said: “Whoever is ashamed of me and of my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of when he comes in his glory” (Lk 9:26; cf. Mk 8:38).
Because of this, the mainstream opinion throughout Church history has been that non-Christians, people who do not believe in Jesus, cannot be saved. Not only does this follow from St. Paul’s teaching that we are justified by faith in Jesus Christ and not by works of the Law (e.g., Gal 2:16; Rom 3:24-25), but John’s Gospel says so explicitly: “Whoever believes in him will not be condemned, but whoever does not believe has already been condemned, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God” (Jn 3:18). In the longer ending of Mark’s Gospel (16:9-20), Jesus declares: “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved; whoever does not believe will be condemned” (v. 16). These are very weighty arguments in favor of the impossibility of non-Christians being saved, which is why Christians who insist on taking the Bible “literally” consider it heretical to suggest otherwise, or even ask the question.
Who Belongs to Christ?
Yet this exclusivist fundamentalist position is unorthodox for Catholics. Pope Pius IX stated in his 1863 encyclical on false doctrines Quanto Conficiamur that those in a state of “invincible ignorance about our most holy religion … are able to attain eternal life by the efficacious virtue of divine light and grace” (7). This was later stated with greater magisterial authority by the Second Vatican Council under the leadership of St. Paul VI:
For those who are inculpably ignorant of the Gospel of Christ and of his Church yet with sincere heart seek God and try by their works to do his will—well known to them through the precept of conscience—under the influence of grace, can obtain eternal salvation.
But if Christ is the only Savior, how can that be? To answer this question I will retrace the steps of church history, for it is only by studying the development of doctrine that we can understand the Church’s wise teaching.
Salvation outside the Church
Many important Fathers of the Church assert that there is no salvation outside the Church. Origen: “Outside the Church, no one is saved.” St. Cyprian: “There is no salvation outside the Church.” From these patristic sayings comes the dogmatic formula Extra ecclesiam nulla salvus: no salvation outside the Church. Origen makes his statement by means of an allegorical interpretation of the destruction of Jericho, from which no one escaped except those in the house of Rahab the prostitute (Jos 2). The scarlet thread in her window symbolized the saving blood of Jesus Christ (v. 18). More commonly, the Church is analogized to Noah’s ark, outside of which there was no salvation from the flood (Gen 7:23; cf. 1 Pet 3:20-21). Although Scripture does not say explicitly that there is no salvation outside the Church, it follows syllogistically from the twin beliefs that Christ is the “one mediator between God and the human race” (1 Tim 2:5) and that the Church is his body (e.g., 1 Cor 12:12-13). If you believe in Jesus Christ, you are a member of his body, the Church; if you don’t believe in him, you are not part of his body and are thus outside the Church. Since Jesus is the only Savior, those outside the Church cannot be saved.
Whether we frame the question as “can non-Christians be saved?” or “can those outside the Church be saved?” we are asking the same thing. Therefore, the root issue is whether Christ can save people who do not believe in him. It is at this point, on the basis of what I showed above, that many Catholics draw the mistaken inference that non-Christians cannot be saved. But the diligent student of Sacred Tradition finds that non-Christians can be saved. Manualist theologians before the Council reconciled this by saying that the Church’s necessity for salvation is “not an absolute necessity, but a hypothetical one.”
God’s Universal Salvific Will
Fundamentalists cannot reach this conclusion because they accept the authority of divine revelation alone, without reference to human reason. But the classical definition of theology is faith seeking understanding. It includes both the divine (faith) and the human (understanding). When we think about salvation, rational inquiry suggests that non-Christians should be able to be saved. Consider the following syllogism:
A) God loves all his rational creatures and wants them to be eternally happy with him.
B) Large numbers of these creatures never hear of Jesus Christ and so cannot believe in him.
C) It is contrary to God’s will (A) for these creatures (B) to perish through no fault of their own.
We theologians call the first proposition God’s “universal salvific will.” It is a truth of faith stated in the scriptural verse immediately before the statement that Christ is the only mediator: God “wills everyone to be saved and to come to knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2:4). This is given as the very reason why God provided us with a unique mediator of salvation.
The second proposition is an undeniable fact: many people cannot believe in Jesus because they’ve never heard of him. Saint Paul mentions this problem while praising missionaries who bring people the Gospel (Rom 10:14-15). He does not address the question we are asking about the fate of those who are never sent any missionaries.
The conclusion that God would not allow such people to be lost (C) does not follow absolutely. One can contrive reasons why God might allow some of his creatures to perish, seemingly contrary to his own will. Indeed, at least in his late, anti-Pelagian writings, St. Augustine took this view. St. Paul had already taken up the inscrutable mystery of why God does not call everyone:
What then are we to say? Is there injustice on the part of God? Of course not! For he says to Moses: “I will show mercy to whom I will, I will take pity on whom I will.” So it depends not upon a person’s will or exertion, but upon God, who shows mercy. (Rom 9:14-16)
Building on this, Augustine argued that God’s mercy is precisely that: mercy. As such, it is not owed to anyone; God bestows it freely to whomever he wishes. We may not understand why God has not bestowed it upon all, but apparently he hasn’t. This may seem injustice on God’s part, that he would punish some without cause, but Augustine argues that since those who are not spared have committed sins, they deserve their punishment: “In those He condemns we see what is due to all, so that those He delivers may thence learn what due penalty was relaxed in their regard and what undue grace was given them.” The righteous also deserve to be punished, but God freely spares them in his mercy. The fact that he didn’t spare all only amplifies the gratuity of his mercy and should make the few elect who are spared all the more grateful to God for sparing them, since they are equally deserving of condemnation.
The extreme difficulty of reconciling grace and free will forced Augustine into this extreme position because he did not want to concede any ground to the Pelagians, who believed human beings can obey God even without the help of his grace. Although Augustine’s influence on the Catholic Church can hardly be exaggerated, and Pelagianism was rejected as heretical, the Church did not fully embrace all of his conclusions. Even in his own day, another Doctor of the Church, St. Jerome, disagreed with Augustine’s absolute view of predestination.
The question of salvation outside the Church was taken up later in church history by the scholastic and early-modern theologians. Rather than following the strict view of St. Augustine, they made the decisive move in allowing for the salvation of non-Christians. In my next post I will lay out which non-Christians they believed could be saved and how.
 My translation. Qui enim Evangelium Christi Eiusque Ecclesiam sine culpa ignorantes, Deum tamen sincero corde quaerunt, Eiusque voluntatem per conscientiae dictamen agnitam, operibus adimplere, sub gratiae influxu, conantur, aeternam salutem consequi possunt
 Origen, Homilies on Joshua 3,5: Extra ecclesiam nemo salvatur.
 St. Cyprian, Letters 73,21: Salvus extra ecclesiam non est.
 Ludwig Ott, OP, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma (4th ed., 1960), 312.
 St. Augustine, Against Julian 4,8,45 (tr. Matthew A. Schumacher, FOTC 35 , 207).
 See Stuart Squires, “Jerome on Sinlessness: A Via Media between Augustine and Pelagius,” Heythrop Journal 57 (2016): (697-709) 702-04.
Image: Adobe Stock. By zwiebackesser.
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Dr. Rasmussen is a Religious Studies teacher at Our Lady of Good Counsel High School in Olney, MD. He has a Ph.D. in Theology and Religious studies from The Catholic University of America, specializing in historical theology and early Christianity. He is the author of Genesis and Cosmos: Basil and Origen on Genesis 1 and Cosmology (Bible in Ancient Christianity 14; Brill, 2019).