Can non-believers go to heaven?
For some people this question is a no-brainer. Each answer, yes and no, has its defenders, but both answers, though, make a difference for how Christians evangelize.
For some, the answer is “Yes, of course.” Millions of people live and die and never hear the gospel and countless children die before they can accept Jesus. A just God would not punish babies or unevangelized peoples for what is beyond their control.
For others, the answer is “No, of course not.” Jesus said “I am the way and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6) And Saint Peter said “There is no salvation through anyone else [than Jesus].” (Acts 4:12) Only Jesus can save people from original sin and the actual sins every person commits.
And for some Catholics, on the one hand, there is Vatican II’s Lumen Gentium 16, which says that non-Catholics “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 … to do His will as it is known to them,” can be saved.
And for other Catholics there is the 1302 bull of Pope Boniface VIII, Unam Sanctam, which says that outside of the Church there is no salvation. Also, Jesus says that unless you are baptized (John 3:5; Mark 16:16), repent (Luke 13:3) and eat his body and drink his blood (John 6) you cannot be saved or attain to the fulness of life. He thus says that these sacraments, and so the Church, are necessary for salvation, not mere faith in Jesus alone.
But then Jesus told the Good Thief crucified next to him, Saint Dismas, that he would be with him in paradise (Luke 23:43), and the thief never received these sacraments. He just professed his faith at the very end.
On the one hand, God is just, and he would not punish people in hell or deny them salvation if they didn’t have the opportunity to accept Jesus.
On the other, God says Jesus and the Church are necessary for salvation. And if people can be saved without believing in Jesus, why should they believe? Or why should we preach the gospel and call them to faith if it possible to attain heaven without them?
The first point I want to make is that over-emphasizing or denying one side or the other hurts the Church’s efforts to share the gospel. Plus, both extremes are just not true.
Too much emphasis on faith in Jesus and his Church as being so necessary that God would damn those who were not exposed to them, makes God appear cruel and capricious, which is not what the gospel of Jesus teaches. Such a presentation of the gospel, in fact, often repels people from Jesus. Jesus taught mercy and forgiveness. To insist on the necessity of forgiveness being found in Jesus alone, while ignoring the ignorance of unevangelized people and babies, contradicts God’s justice and mercy. It is not that God owes sinful people salvation; it’s that he owes it to himself to be just as this is in his nature as all-good.
God does not punish people for what they could not have known. This ignorance is called invincible — an ignorance that could not be overcome — and as a matter of justice, it excuses a person from wrongdoing. Just as it would be unjust to punish someone for using funds they sincerely and, through no fault of their own, thought were theirs, or for causing an accident they did not intend and tried to prevent, so it would be unjust to refuse salvation to distant peoples who could not believe in a gospel they never heard.
And too much emphasis on the fact that people can be saved without explicit knowledge of Jesus makes faith in Him and the Church optional, a mere preferences, and that is not true.
The truth is that if non-Christians or non-Catholics might be saved, they are only saved through Jesus and his body the Church. When Lumen Gentium 16 affirms the possibility of non-believers coming to salvation, it says this still happens through Jesus and His sacrifice, and by the working of God’s grace. We just don’t see or know if or how particular individuals receive this mysterious, hidden grace, but this fact should not affect what we do know: Jesus commanded us, “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:19-20)
The second point is that the Bible teaches that invincible ignorance excuses people from wrong-doing. Jesus says those who are ignorant of God’s will are punished less because of it (Luke 12:48), and that if someone is blind, or if they do not hear his words, they would have no sin. (John 9:41 and John 15:22; see also Romans 1:20 and 2:14-15). To insist that God does not condemn those ignorant of His commands is not a compromise of the gospel but part of it.
Third, if non-believers can be saved without hearing the gospel or membership in the Church, this is as an exception to the plan God set forth in Jesus. We know that knowledge of God and the grace He offers in Jesus communicated through the sacraments of the Church, are how he ordinarily, normally intends to bring people to salvation. This is why Jesus gave the Great Commission cited above (Matthew 28:19-20).
Salvation, getting to heaven, means becoming perfect as God is perfect (Matthew 5:48), becoming sharers in the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4), dying to self (Matthew 16:25; Mark 8:35; Luke 9:24; Luke 17:33) and giving your life for others (John 10:17; Romans 5:6-8). This is beyond natural human ability, which is why we need grace, and why the Church is the ordinary way of receiving it. If God can bring non-believers to salvation, it would be extra-ordinary and un-usual, humanly impossible, but God can work outside the visible Church, and no Church document or council says He cannot. How, and whether, He makes non-believers perfect is something known only to Himself Alone. Which brings us to . . ..
Fourth, if non-believers can be saved, there is no guarantee they will be. Instead, we should expect it is rare since Jesus tells us salvation is difficult even with the benefit of his explicit, manifest grace: “Strive to enter through the narrow door, for many, I tell you, will attempt to enter but will not be strong enough.” (Luke 13:24; see also Matthew 7:13-14) We do know that God can work outside of how he ordinarily and normally intends, which is how St. Dismas, the Good Thief came to salvation apart from the sacraments. But again, this is the exception.
Finally, ultimately, we don’t know who, Catholics or non-Catholics, is ever saved. We can’t know what anyone knows, or should have known, about God and his grace at work in their lives. All we can do is be obedient to his truth and his commandments as we ourselves know them, and the truth is, some may be saved without an explicit manifestation of the gospel and God’s grace in Jesus, but God nevertheless intends for us to manifest his grace through our efforts at evangelization.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church sums up all these points in Paragraphs 846-848:
“Outside the Church there is no salvation”
846 How are we to understand this affirmation, often repeated by the Church Fathers? Re-formulated positively, it means that all salvation comes from Christ the Head through the Church which is his Body:
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. (Vatican II, Lumen Gentium 14)
847 This affirmation is not aimed at those who, through no fault of their own, do not know Christ and his Church:
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. (Vatican II, Lumen Gentium 16)
848 “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.” (Vatican II, Ad Gentes, 7)