For the early Christians, there was no doubt that Christ had made salvation possible for humanity in a way that it had never been possible before. They themselves had experienced that salvation and they deeply desired to share it with others. The knew that Christ's dying and rising was the pivotal event of world history. It had changed everything.
Today, sometimes, we are not so sure. We don't want to be arrogant or appear merciless in suggesting that only Christians will enjoy eternal happiness with God. And we certainly find it hard to believe that those who have never heard of Jesus will be cast into eternal damnation.
These are legitimate concerns. God is just and merciful. And he sent his Son to bring salvation, not condemnation. However, there is another side of the coin which we first need to consider.
Salvation is a gift. We cannot be saved by our own efforts. We can try and try and try to be saved on our own and we will never make it. Indeed, the obsessions people have -- gambling or alcohol, wealth, power or fame -- all speak of our desire to save ourselves. Even our pursuit of good ends can blind us to the fact that we cannot be saved without a special gift from God.
By nature, humans are part of God's creation. We are not the Creator. By nature, we can never share in the life of God, which is what eternal life amounts to.
It is only because the Son of God came among us that we have hope. It is only because Christ -- who is both God and human -- trampled on death that we might do the same. We, of course, cannot become God. That is not our nature. But by being united with Christ's death and resurrection, we can share in the life of God. Not just in heaven, but from the moment that union takes place. We become not Children of God, but adopted children of God.
The place this union with Christ's death and resurrection begins is, of course, baptism. That's why Jesus told Nicodemus, "No one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and the Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit" (John 3:5-6).
Quite literally, we need to be born again. Our birth in the flesh does not enable us to share in divine life. We must be born of water and the Spirit. We must be baptized.
And when we are baptized, the grace of God produces in us a likeness to God which goes beyond our nature. We are re-configured into Christ. A special indelible character is imprinted on our souls which says we are God's adopted children. It is because of this super-nature that we have hope of eternal life with the heavenly Father. We can defile our super-nature with sin or we can choose to live in harmony with God's love and will. But without being born again into this new life, salvation is not a possibility.
With this understanding, Christians naturally ask what will become of those who die unbaptized. Great heroes of the Old Testament -- Abraham, Sarah, Ruth, David, Isaiah, etc. -- were never baptized. As well, many, many people have achieved something resembling sanctity through Eastern religions. And what of those who knew no religion, but who lived morally upright lives? Surely God would not condemn all these people to hell.
Surely, he would not. But the revelation God gave us admits of only two everlasting possibilities -- heaven and hell. Some theologians have talked about limbo -- a place of happiness, but no union with God -- for those, especially children, who die unbaptized.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church does not mention limbo. Instead, it says that God's mercy and Jesus' love for children "allow us to hope that there is a way of salvation for children who have died without baptism" (no. 1261). It leaves the question open.
The Catechism also refers to baptism of blood and baptism of desire which bring the fruits of baptism without the actual sacramental baptism. "Baptism of blood" would be received, for example, by the Holy Innocents murdered by Herod or by other unbaptized people slain by those persecuting the Christian faith.
"Baptism of desire" was originally interpreted as applying to those who desired to be baptized but who died before receiving the sacrament. In recent centuries, it has been interpreted much more broadly. Theologian Joseph Martos notes that "Slowly 'baptism of desire' came to mean a desire to lead a good and upright life, a desire to live like a Christian, so to speak, which was thwarted not by personal fault but by the church's failure to bring the sacrament to lands it never heard of" (Doors to the Sacred, p. 171).
Hence, we see the Catechism speak of salvation in these terms: "Every man who is ignorant of the Gospel of Christ and his church, but seeks the truth and does the will of God in accordance with his understanding of it, can be saved" (no. 1260).
Ultimately, of course, we know neither who will be saved nor who will not. Nor is it our judgment to make. What we do know is that Christ has told us of the transforming, salvific power of baptism which enables us to live in a way far exceeding our ordinary human nature. Our task is to live that life as fully as possible and to do what we can to make others aware of the great promise Jesus holds out to all people.
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