“Yes, for the struggle to be good
rather than bad is important, Glaucon, much more important than people think.
Therefore, we mustn’t be tempted by honor, rule, money, or even poetry into neglecting
justice and the rest of virtue.”
Plato, Republic, X, 608b
“Then he will say to those on his
left: ‘Out of my sight, you condemned into the everlasting fire prepared for
the Devil and his angels.’”
“Grace does not cancel out justice.
It does not make wrong into right. It is not a sponge which wipes everything
away, so that whatever anyone has done on earth ends up being of equal value….
Evildoers, in the end, do not sit at table at the eternal banquet beside their
victims without distinction, as though nothing had happened. Here I would like
to quote a passage from Plato which expresses a premonition of a just judgment
that in many respects remains salutary and true for Christians too. Albeit
using mythological images, he expresses the truth with an unambiguous clarity,
saying that, in the end, souls stand naked before the judge. It no longer
matters what they once were in history, but only what they are in truth.”
Benedict XVI, Spe Salvi 44
Many ways can be proposed to deal
with universal salvation. One way is simply to deny any sort of after-life, to
affirm that at death nothing further happens. This position means, logically,
that it does not really matter what sort of life we lead. No ultimate personal
consequences, no final judgment, will be rendered on our lives. Classical
atheism was in large part an effort to escape the fear of final judgment. It
denied any further life for mankind. Both Socrates and Cicero touched on this
possibility that death was an end after which nothing further was happened.
Modern relativism comes to a
similar conclusion, though it is often tinged with an inner-world utopianism
that sees some earthly city within history to be the goal of mankind. In this
view, everyone is saved by affirming that no truth exists. Truth is whatever we
want it to be. No criterion can make one “better” than another. Hence, we have
no basis for judging one choice of life good and another bad. They are all
“equally” what they are. This approach results in a world in which we think and
live as we want. Our polity is designed to permit us to do this, to facilitate
our desires and wants.
While these views may be
comforting in that they make us all “equal” by allowing us to do whatever we
want, the Platonic concern remains. Socrates heldand this aphorism is the
basis of our civilizationthat it is “never right to do wrong.” But we know
much wrong is done in all existing cities while many good deeds are unrewarded.
Hence Plato’s concern: “Is the world then created in injustice?” If it does not
make any difference what we think or do, then the distinction of right and
wrong is meaningless.
The proposition about the
immortality of the soul and a final judgment, then, arose out of this Platonic
concern about justice. As a part of this position, it followed that those who
did wrong in the world were punished eternally, unless somehow forgiven.
Christianity on this point took the same position. The main thing that
Christianity added was a clearer view of life after death and, via the Incarnation,
a more direct approach to forgiveness and mercy. But Christianity in general
still maintained that eternal punishment for those who do wrong and do not
repent is both possible and happens, at least to some. Augustine doubted if
very many were in fact saved.
Within Christianity, however,
beginning from perhaps Origen and including responsible theologians like von
Balthasar, a view was proposed that everyone might be saved. A good God could,
or would, find a way to save everyone. Just how this saving was to be
understood or accomplished? This approach fits more in with the optimism of
much modern thought that does not want any possibility of a divine judgment for
human actions that would lead to eternal damnation.
The problem then arose: “Granted
the normative position of revelation, how was this universal salvation
possible?” Gaudium et Spes (22) and Lumen Gentium (15) of Vatican
II, addressing this question tangentially, stated that, for those who did not
know revelation or its terms, but who strove to live good and worthy lives, God
would find a way to save them. “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” (LG 15).
What I call here the “logic” of
universal salvation arises at this point. Aside from the question of other
races of rational beings in other solar systems, we can estimate that some
hundred billion human beings have lived on this planet since it became possible
for men to dwell on it. In Christian theology, every human being exists through
the direct creation of his soul. He is intended to reach the end of eternal
life, a supernatural end, through the use of his faculties in the time he is
granted on this earth. Thus, from the beginning, we have two elements: 1) God’s
creation of each existing person and 2) that person’s free response to what
this life is all about. We cannot save ourselves apart from the order that God
provided for us; God cannot “save” us if we are unwilling to be saved except by
our own definition of what is good.
The actual human race includes
all of those ever conceived of human origins, whether they be born or die
before they are born. It includes all periods of history and places on this
planet. We also need to attend to those who live mature lives. Thus, the
problem of the salvation of those who were not baptized or who did not reach
the use of reason is related to the salvation of those who do. Moreover, of
this one hundred billion human beings who have lived on the planet, probably at
most 10 to 15 percent have been Christian in any meaningful sense. How much
longer human beings will exist on this planet can be debated. Some think we are
just beginning so that there will be many more; others think that we are near
Whatever the situation in the
future, we are reluctant to hold that the purpose of the existence of those who
have lived before us is simply to make possible a better life for us or others
down the ages. Christianity, while it recognizes a time before and after
Christ, does not exclude those who lived before him from being a part of the
human race. But the central issue of universal salvation has to do with those
who die after living a complete life in this world. What is the purpose of this
life? Its purpose is that each person, in the course of his individual life,
chooses for or against God and the plan he provided for reaching the end. That
is, eternal life that God has freely offered to man.
Christianity maintains that the
original end offered to man in Adam was rejected when Adam and Eve chose their
own wills over that of God. That is the essence of the Fall. It is an act that
is repeated in every sin since. That is, we choose our own definition of what
is right over that of God.
The Incarnation means that,
granted man’s sins, was it still possible to reach his original end? The answer
was given in Christ’s life, passion, death, and resurrection. But the fact that
we can repent to reach our original end does not mean that everyone does. This
is where the “logic” of universal salvation becomes important. It refers to
Plato’s question: “Is the world created in injustice?” This is a theme that
Benedict took up in Spe Salvi.
Those who hold universal
salvation is a fact have to show how even those who commit the most heinous
crimes and sins, who show no signs of repentance, can still be saved at the
last moment. This view, of course, makes everything invisible. It also means,
if true, that we really don’t need to worry about how we live as we will be
“saved” in the end no matter what. I think the dubiousness of this view was
indicated by Benedict’s remark that evildoers do not sit at the same table in
the eternal banquet with their victims.
more obvious understanding of universal salvation is that not all are saved.
Some do reject God and intend to do so. God leaves them with their choices.
Plato is right. The world is not created in injustice. There is, as the Creed
says, a final judgment of the living and the dead. It is on this basis that the
integrity of human dignity and divine love can take its stand.
Return to Vatican II, Salvation, and the Unsaved: A CWR Symposium