Salvation of Non-Christians
What is the fate of those who lived and died before they have the chance to hear the Gospel? Before we answer that question we need to briefly summarize what Catholics believe about our salvation:
Men, though have freedom, can neither will nor save themselves without God’s Grace. God, by His Grace, takes the first initiative for our salvation and using our freedom we response to and cooperate with His Grace. Grace is (Catechism of the Catholic Church # 1996) favour, the free and undeserved help that God gives us to respond to his call to become children of God, adoptive sons (John 1:12), partakers of the divine nature and of eternal life (2 Peter 1:4).
God calls all men for salvation and therefore He gives His Grace through Christ to everyone. Scripture says (RSV): ‘For the grace of God has appeared for the salvation of all men’ (Titus 2:11) and ‘For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.’ (1 Corinthians 15:22).
Since the initiative for our salvation belongs to God, there is what we call as predestination. God predestines some (the Elect) to heaven but He predestines no one to hell. Scripture says that He desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth (1 Timothy 2:4, RSV). Those who end up in hell do so because they, in using their freedom, reject or refuse to cooperate with His Grace.
God’s Grace first moves us to believe in Christ and to obey His Commandments. Without His Grace we cannot do both, not even have the initiative to do them. Scripture says (RSV): ‘No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him‘ (John 6:44) and ‘Not that we are competent of ourselves to claim anything as coming from us; our competence is from God‘ (2 Corinthians 3:5). Catholics believe that salvation is by grace with which we must cooperate using our freedom. Thus Catholics reject what is known as monergism, the belief that God’s grace requires no human cooperation. Scripture says (RSV): ‘But by the grace of God I am what I am. and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God which is with me (1 Corinthians 15:10) and ‘work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure (Philippians 2:12-13). In Revelation 3:20 while Christ takes the initiative to knock at our door He waits our response to open the door to welcome Him.
The Elect have assurance of salvation but unless God reveals it to us we cannot identify them.
Christ died on the cross for all men – He ‘who gave himself as a ransom for all’ (1 Timothy 2:6, RSV), who ‘came into the world to save sinners’ (1 Timothy 1:15, RSV) and who ‘came to seek and to save the lost (Luke 19:10, RSV).
Faith in Christ and in God is God’s free gift – He gave it to us not because we did something to deserve it; faith is necessary and is the beginning of our salvation. Once we believe in Christ and if we have the opportunity we should be baptized and become the member of His Church, which is His Body; then with the help of and moved by God’s Grace we obey His commandments – we undergo what Scripture calls as Sanctification. Scripture says (RSV): ‘He who believes and is baptized will be saved’ (Mark 16:16), Do this and you will live“! (Luke 10:28) and ‘God chose you from the beginning to be saved through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth’ (2 Thessalonians 2:13). Scripture nowhere says that faith alone saves us. Christ said (RSV): ‘Not every one who says to me, Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is ion heaven (Matthew 7:21). ‘You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone (James 2:24, RSV)
From these seven points Catholics believe that salvation is still possible to those who NOT through their own fault, do not hear the Gospel and therefore do not know the Church. Since God, by His Grace offers salvation to all (Titus 2:11) and through Christ all shall be made alive (1 Corinthians 15:22) then He should provide a mean to those who never heard the Gospel – He would not contradict Himself or makes empty promise.
Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience – those too may achieve eternal salvation.
Catechism of the Catholic Church # 847
Is there any biblical basis for what Catholics believe?
And Peter opened his mouth and said: “Truly I perceive that God shows no partiality, but in every nation any one who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.
Acts 10:34 (RSV)
One might argue that here Scripture talks about Cornelius who later became believers of Christ. But certainly there are other Cornelius’ in every nation who fear God and do what is right, which is acceptable to God, even if they do not know Christ. Are they saved by their works? Recall that Catholics believe no one can do any good works without being first moved by God’s Grace.
It is worth to mention that Clause 847 should be read together with:
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.
Catechism of the Catholic Church # 846
Although in ways known to himself God can lead those who, through no fault of their own, are ignorant of the Gospel, to that faith without which it is impossible to please him, the Church still has the obligation and also the sacred right to evangelize all men.”
Catechism of the Catholic Church # 848