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Unlike many Roman Catholics, I grew up very devout.  I remember a kind, retired priest taking me under his wing and showing me the ways of the Catholic church.  Much of what drew me in as a young teen was the mystery of God and the reverence with which this particular priest approached God.  With time, however, the more questions I had, the more the mysteries began to dissipate in the light of God’s Word.  I don’t want to rehearse my personal journey out of the Catholic church here; what’s important to note is that theological mystery is good for the Catholic church and many Catholics are content to live “in the dark” about what the Catholic church explicitly teaches in many areas.

I, for one, am glad the Pope said what he said concerning atheists and eternal life.  To many in the secular media, the Pope’s admission that atheists who follow their conscience are heaven-bound will sound like a new and welcome break from the dogma of conservative Catholicism, represented most recently in Benedict.  The media elites will celebrate Pope Francis as a liberal breath of fresh air in the stuffy halls of the Vatican.  Others within evangelicalism will be aghast at such an “admission” and rebuke the Pope for diverging from Catholic dogma.  However, this Pope has duped both the secular media and conservative evangelicals if they think the Pope has said anything new or controversial.  In fact, what Pope Francis stated has been the normative teaching of the Roman Catholic Church since Vatican II.

In Lumen Gentium, Chapter 2-On the People of God, Canon 16, the Catholic Church teaches:

Finally, those who have not yet received the Gospel are related in various ways to the people of God.(18*) In the first place we must recall the people to whom the testament and the promises were given and from whom Christ was born according to the flesh.(125) On account of their fathers this people remains most dear to God, for God does not repent of the gifts He makes nor of the calls He issues.(126); But the plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator. In the first place amongst these there are the Mohamedans, who, professing to hold the faith of Abraham, along with us adore the one and merciful God, who on the last day will judge mankind. Nor is God far distant from those who in shadows and images seek the unknown God, for it is He who gives to all men life and breath and all things,(127) and as Saviour wills that all men be saved.(128) 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.(19*) Nor does Divine Providence deny the helps necessary for salvation to those who, without blame on their part, have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God and with His grace strive to live a good life. Whatever good or truth is found amongst them is looked upon by the Church as a preparation for the Gospel.(20*) She knows that it is given by Him who enlightens all men so that they may finally have life. 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.(129) Or some there are who, living and dying in this world without God, are exposed to final despair. Wherefore to promote the glory of God and procure the salvation of all of these, and mindful of the command of the Lord, “Preach the Gospel to every creature”,(130) the Church fosters the missions with care and attention.

So yes, since Vatican II the Catholic Church has taught that anyone who has “not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God” may be saved.  So long as those who know not, deny or are ignorant of God “strive to live a good life,” they will merit eternal life because the church sees this “goodness” as “given by Him who enlightens all men so that they may finally have life.”  When Pope Francis admitted that atheists who follow the dictates of their conscience go to heaven, he was merely quoting Catholic dogma.  Here is the pertinent statement:

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.

However, it’s not just atheists who go to heaven according to the Catholic Church; it is also Jews, Muslims (Mohamedans), those acknowledging their creator and those seeking an “unknown god.”  Anyone, anywhere who sincerely seeks truth, light will find life according to the Catholic Church.

To be sure, the Roman Catholic Church teaches that salvation is only through Christ’s sacrificial and atoning work on the cross.  So the Catholic Church teaches that salvation is through Christ and no other.  However, the Church would say that one does not need to express explicit faith in Christ to be saved.  This is the official position of the Catholic Church: inclusivism.  Evangelicals have argued that the Bible teaches that salvation is only through Christ’s sacrificial and atoning work on the cross AND that one must believe in Christ, receiving his cross work on their behalf and turning away from a life of sin: exclusivism or particularism.

Recently, some “evangelicals”, like the Catholic Church, have also embraced inclusivism: i.e., John Sanders (1991), Clark Pinnock (1995)Terrance Tiessen (2004).  Unfortunately, their influence has grown.  However, it’s not hard to understand why.  You only have ask a number of people in your church the age-old question about the man on the deserted island who’s never heard of Christ and never will.  What happens to him?  What happens to those who never hear the gospel?  It is an emotional question, and we are inclined to give an emotional answer.

Nevertheless, we must work through the difficult topics and teach what the Bible says rather than shrouding difficult doctrines in mystery.  Mystery only works when people ask no questions.  Even hard questions deserve answers. When we think carefully about the difficult question concerning the fate of those who have never heard the gospel, we should be moved to feel the urgency of the church’s mission.  The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few.  However, if it doesn’t matter whether or not people hear the gospel and place explicit faith in Christ for salvation, then we will do more harm than good when we go on mission, for if we go and they reject Christ, then their fate will be sealed.

A Couple of Resources for Thinking Through Pluralism, Universalism, Inclusivism & Particularism

Faith Comes by Hearing: A Response to Inclusivism, edited by Christopher W. Morgan and Robert A. Peterson.

Is Jesus the Only Savior? by Ronald H. Nash

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