“Dear Father Justin: I was in my Bible study group today when the discussion became a hot debate. It was about whether people who have died without believing in Jesus end up in hell. As you know, my friend’s brother died suddenly and without believing in Jesus. Does it mean that her brother will go to hell even though he was a good person in his heart but may have chosen not to have a religious faith?”
I wanted to make a joke at this point in the homily, but my team advised against it!
[Listen to Fr. Justin’s homily here.]
We want everyone to be saved, and God wants everyone to be saved, but our culture and the Bible disagree on how they can be saved. 1 Timothy 2:3-5 says, “God our Savior… desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.” Just remember 1 Timothy 2-3-4-5.
To understand the Biblical answer, we need to be rational, not emotional. We need to seek the truth, even if it hurts, because the truth is always better than a lie. Being a good person is good and praiseworthy, but it’s not enough to go to heaven, for three reasons.
Reason #1: When people say that someone was a good person, how good were they? Once, there were two evil brothers. They were rich and used their money to keep their immoral ways from the public eye. They even attended the same church and outwardly appeared to be good Catholics, but it was fake. One day their pastor died, and a new one arrived. The new pastor saw right through their hypocrisy. When one of the brothers eventually died, the other handed the priest a cheque and said, “This is for the new addition to the church, Father. There’s only one condition: At the funeral, you have to say my brother was a saint.” The pastor took the cheque, promised he would, and quickly deposited it. However, during the funeral homily, the priest didn’t hold back: “He was an evil man. He cheated on his wife and abused his family.” After going on like this for a few minutes, he ended with, “But compared to his brother, he was a saint.”
So, are people good based on Biblical standards, or are they good compared to the rest of society? Being good in our culture means being…? Nice. But a lot of nice people live more or less selfish lives and don’t stand up against evil. So, are they really that ‘good’? Is this type of goodness extraordinary or heroic? No. If goodness is more or less selfish and can’t stand up against evil, that’s not goodness.
God speaks to us through our conscience and tells us what’s right and wrong. How many of us can say that we’ve obeyed our conscience throughout our life? Before I practiced my Catholic faith I can tell you honestly that I violated my conscience a lot. Why? Because everyone else was doing it, and remember, I was still a good person, right? Is it possible that I was just using the good person idea as an excuse to do what I wanted? I was resisting what God was telling me all the time through my conscience, and I was still a good person? Don’t a lot of us do that? So, it’s reasonable to think that people who believe in Jesus and people who don’t, would do the same.
Here’s the point: I don’t think we’re all as good as we think we are. I think many people, those who believe in Jesus and those who don’t, use the good person idea to excuse their bad behaviour. There’s so much crime in Canada, and so much crime that’s never caught, so much lying, and it’s done by a lot of good people, and a lot of good people do nothing to stop it. They don’t need to, because they’re already good people.
Reason #2: Everyone needs a saviour, Christians and non-Christians alike. Because we all sin and need to make up for it. As we discussed in January, sin isn’t just breaking of a rule. It’s more fundamentally a damaging of a relationship with God, and we need to repair that relationship. Every person who has ever lived has disobeyed God the Father in their conscience, and not trusted Him. Who’s going to make up for this? Will there be any human being who will obey, trust, and love the Father the way He deserves? Yes. That’s Jesus. The man who died without believing in Jesus was a sinner like the rest of us, and needs a saviour, just as we do.
Reason #3: Here we come to the essence of the answer. Being a good person is not enough to get to heaven, because heaven isn’t just the land of chocolate about which Homer Simpson dreams. That land is really great, and being nice would be enough in exchange for a land of chocolate. Heaven is so much better: It’s being in God’s house with God Himself. Heaven is about God the Father.
The Gospel today illustrates this truth: “There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So the father divided his property between them” (Lk 15:11-12). Scripture scholars point out how this would be insulting to the father, to ask for an inheritance that would only come once the father had died! The son represents humanity, who says to God, “I don’t care about You. You’re as good as dead. I want to do my own thing. Leave me alone.”
“A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and travelled to a distant country” (Lk 15:13). The distant country means “interior estrangement from the world of the father… interior rupture of relation…” (Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth, Vol. 1, 203).
“When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. The young man would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything” (Lk 15:14-16). So, when we move away from God, we always suffer. Some people, however, honestly believe they don’t need God, and admittedly, they are pretty happy. But there remains deep down a desire for perfect happiness planted in them by God. And when we don’t know and love Him, “we underlive our lives, undervalue ourselves and others, and underestimate our full destiny and call” (Fr. Robert Spitzer, SJ, Finding True Happiness, 65).
“But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands” (Lk 15:17-19). These “words show that his whole life is now a steady progress leading ‘home’” (Pope Benedict, 205).
This is the answer to our question! Being a good person isn’t enough to get into heaven, because heaven’s about a relationship! Remember this question: Can someone go home to the Father’s house without loving the Father?
In the 1998 movie What Dreams May Come featuring Robin Williams, his character dies and goes to a perfect place. When he meets Cuba Gooding Jr.’s character, he asks, “Where’s God in all this?” and Cuba replies, “He’s there. Somewhere.” What!? God’s not in heaven!? I laughed out loud when I heard that! That’s not heaven! Heaven is God’s home where the Father is.
So, will that good person who didn’t believe in Jesus go to hell? The answer is: We don’t know. Like the rest of us, he needed a saviour. Acts 4:12 says, “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” Jesus teaches that He’s the only way to the Father (Jn 14:6). If non-Christians are saved, it’s still through Jesus. And we don’t know if that man’s relationship with the Father was restored. But some will ask, “Wouldn’t God forgive him?” Yes, God offers his forgiveness, but many still choose never to come home. When the prodigal son essentially told his father to die, left home, and destroyed his relationship with the father, did the father forgive him? Yes! Was their relationship restored? No. Not until the son came home and received the father’s forgiveness.
One thing important to know in our discussion is that it’s not an us-versus-them mentality, or Christians versus non-Christians. We’re all in this together. And the same rules and realities of salvation apply to us all. Christians are those who have accepted the gift of salvation, and so we should share this gift with others.
Now, for those who have not explicitly known and loved Jesus, can they be saved? Vatican Council II explains it this way: “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” (Lumen Gentium, 16).
Let’s read this carefully: The Church is saying salvation is possible for non-Christians, but it’s not saying whether it’s likely or not. We don’t know who is saved, even for Christians. Baptism gives us a pledge of salvation (Cf. CCC 1274) (what a gift!) but we can still lose it through mortal sin; that’s why we pray for each other when we die, because our hope is that we at least go to purgatory, but we don’t know for sure. Jesus teaches, “Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (Mt 7:13-14). The road to hell, the road away from the Father, is wide and easy, and many people take it. The road home, to the Father, is narrow, hard, and few find it.
Going back to the text from Vatican II, which says “through no fault of their own.” This is important because it’s possible that non-Christians may turn away from Jesus through their own fault. Maybe it’s their choice not to follow Jesus’ teachings.
It continues by saying that they can be saved if they “sincerely seek God.” I hope people will do this, and I’ve met people who do sincerely seek God and it’s amazing, but I don’t know if many do, because, as I said, there was a time when I didn’t, and even when I found Him, I sometimes ran away from home.
Lastly, the text says, “Strive to do His will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience.” Do they obey their conscience? For me, I still don’t always obey my conscience, which is why I need the Church to tell me when I’m doing wrong, and I need Confession.
Some people may object, “But some people never know the Father. So, there’s nothing for them to reject.” On the contrary, there is something to reject, because all people hear God whispering to them in their conscience. If people can reject their conscience, they can reject God. If they can seek greater goodness and truth, they’re morally bound to do it.
So, yes, it’s possible that someone can be saved without explicitly knowing and loving Jesus, provided that it’s not their fault, provided that they sincerely seek God and provided that they, moved by grace, strive by their deeds to do His will as it is known to them through the conscience. Notice that the principles behind these three conditions apply to us Christians as well.
The Father is waiting for everyone to come home! However, we shouldn’t be naïve and think that everyone’s sincerely seeking God and just hasn’t found Him. Vatican II also says, “But often men, deceived by the Evil One, have become vain in their reasonings and have exchanged the truth of God for a lie, serving the creature rather than the Creator.” If people are saved who never knew Jesus, it’s reasonable to think that these are the people who would have loved him, would have chosen to receive Baptism had they known about it (Cf. CCC 1260).
Today, let’s follow Jesus’ teaching:
1) Stop thinking about individual people and whether or not they go to heaven (Cf. Lk 13:23-24). It’s completely useless to worry about it. Pray for them, because they all need God’s mercy.
2) Spend more time praying for the salvation of the whole world, because people are separated from God, and the point of life is to know and love Him (Cf. Jn 17:3). That’s why last week we started filling out the cards in our pews with the names of loved ones who are far away from the Father or don’t know Him. Please feel free to use them again and we’ll place them underneath the altar as a sign we’re praying for them.
3) Seek God today. I think we often complicate the issue of salvation with so many ideas, and this, in turn, distracts us from doing God’s will as best we can. Avoid this. Instead, focus on doing His will today!
4) Jesus went looking for people and so should we (Cf. Lk 19:10). Not in a pushy, aggressive way because that’s not right, but in a loving, inviting way. Jesus always invites. We should talk to people about life, their frustrations, their longings. Remember, 46% of Canadians do want a closer relationship with God, and would be open to a trusted friend’s invitation.
Alpha is perfect for this: It’s so respectful of people. By the way, you know we can always invite people to Alpha at any point in the 12 weeks. Just invite someone and show up.
It says in today’s Gospel, after the younger son makes his decision to go home and starts the journey, “While he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him” (Lk 15:20). If the father saw the son while he was still far off, this means that the father was waiting for him to come home! He doesn’t even let the son finish his prepared speech, but hugs and kisses him and “orders a great feast of joy to be prepared” (Pope Benedict XVI, 205).
God the Father is so good and wants everyone to be saved. We don’t know if everyone will be saved, because it’s not about being a good person. It’s about being with the Father.