On Universal Salvation: The Logic

“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.’”

— Matthew 25:41

“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 held—and this aphorism is the basis of our civilization—that 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 the end.

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.

The 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 

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About James V. Schall, S.J. 180 Articles
James V. Schall, S.J. (1928-2019) taught political philosophy at Georgetown University for many years until retiring in 2012. He was the author of over thirty books and countless essays on philosophy, theology, education, morality, and other topics. His of his last books included On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018 (Ignatius Press, 2018) and The Politics of Heaven and Hell: Christian Themes from Classical, Medieval, and Modern Political Philosophy (Ignatius, 2020).