Things that Seem Unfair in Salvation Theology

These types of questions come up quite often. Essentially, the questions are based on a comparison between what Catholic salvation theology teaches versus what seems fair. And the answer, typically, is that it does seem unfair, and would be unfair, if not for other considerations, which have not been taken into account.

Example 1

An adult Christian has lived a good life, prayed often, done many works of mercy towards persons in need, loved God and neighbor. Then he commits an actual mortal sin and dies an hour later. Having died unrepentant, he is sent to Hell. That seems unfair.

Additional considerations: The person who lives a holy prayerful life, and who chooses to commit an actual mortal sin, has a greater guilt because living a holy life gives us a greater awareness of what is sinful and how evil sin it. But then, too, the holy person who lives a holy life is able to repent much more easily than the hardened sinner. Therefore, what is most likely, is that the holy person who sins gravely will repent very soon after that grave sin, and will have much help from providence and grace to be able to repent before he dies.

Example 2

A young Catholic Christian commits an act he knows from Church teaching to be a mortal sin. He dies soon after and goes to Hell. He is young and made one mistake, yet he is punished eternally. That seems unfair.

Additional considerations: The mere knowledge that an act is a mortal sin under Church teaching is not sufficient to make that act an actual mortal sin. Often an objective mortal sin is not also an actual mortal sin due to the many factors that decrease culpability, including youth. So the young person in the example does not go to Hell, but to Purgatory and then Heaven.

Example 3

A person lives a long and sinful life, with many unrepentant actual mortal sins of great wickedness. Then he repents at the hour of death and goes to Heaven. That seems unfair.

Additional considerations: The more sins a person commits without repentance, and the greater the sins, and the longer the person persists in sin, the less likely they are to repent, even at the hour of death with the thought of Hell before them. Most persons described in this example do not repent.

A Saint can repent of a lifetime of occasional venial sin in an instant. But a person who has lived a long and very sinful life usually requires a significant amount of time to repent. They typically can’t repent in a single moment, and then go to Heaven. They have to consider all the grave sins of their life, and then make a good Confession, OR be repentant with perfect contrition (out of love for God and neighbor).

But if a person does repent, should we not welcome them into eternity? Even so, such a person, dying repentant, will be sent to Purgatory for a very long and very painful punishment. Then, in heaven, that person will have much less glory than the lifelong faithful Christians. The hardened sinner does not escape justice by repenting.

Example 4

An atheist goes to Heaven, by invincible ignorance and the love of neighbor. A Catholic who lives according to Church teaching also goes to Heaven, but only by living a very strict life in accord with Catholic teaching. It seems unfair that the atheist gets to Heaven with a life that is so much less rigorous, as to what is required of him. And the same could be said for non-Christian believers or even non-Catholic Christians.

Additional considerations: The atheist’s path to Heaven is a dark and meandering path, full of ignorance of truth and goodness, full of unnecessarily sufferings in mind, heart, and soul. The atheist is much less likely to get to Heaven, and if he does obtain Heaven, he has much less glory than the faithful Catholic. The Catholic has a well-lit, level and straight path to Heaven, with many additional helps, greater grace and providence, and an easier path to return to the state of grace if he sins gravely. And the Catholic’s glory in Heaven is much greater.

Example 5

The path to Heaven for Catholics seems much more dangerous, since Catholics realize that many acts are grave sins, while most other persons, including Protestants, do not have the same fullness of understanding of the moral law. So they often get to Heaven by ignorance, while some Catholics end up in Hell because they had that understanding.

Additional considerations: The considerations that reduce culpability also apply to Catholic sinners. And it is easier for a Catholic to return to the state of grace because we have the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Also, our understanding of morality makes it easier for us to avoid mortal sin, and thereby avoid the sufferings that result from mortal sin. So we are not worse off for having a better understanding of morality.

If you have other situations to propose, add them in comments.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

Please take a look at this list of my books and booklets, and see if any topic interests you.

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18 Responses to Things that Seem Unfair in Salvation Theology

  1. Mark P. says:

    Ron, this is a very helpful post. Thank you. Perhaps you could place it either in your “Important Posts” or “Salvation” sidebars for quick reference?

  2. Marco says:

    Very interesting post, Ron, thank you.

  3. Tom Mazanec says:

    I don’t know if this is commonly used but:
    What if a person commits an actual mortal sin as a teenager and never repents of it, because he forgot about it over the years before he tried to be a good Christian? Would he go to Hell? I hope not.

    • Ron Conte says:

      Catholics are forgiven for all sins, mortal and venial, even ones they have forgotten, by a good confession. Non-Catholics are forgiven for all sins by any act of perfect contrition, which can be implicit. So an act of selfless love constitutes an implicit perfect contrition, thereby forgiving all past mortal and venial sins.

  4. Tom Mazanec says:

    Non-Catholics are forgiven for all sins by any act of perfect contrition, which can be implicit.

    But things in human psychology are almost never black and white, but shades of gray. Nearly everybody who repents of sin will have at least some fear of the pains of Hell in the back of their minds. So very few people benefit from this.

    • Ron Conte says:

      Perfect contrition always includes imperfect contrition. Perfect contrition is based on the love of God above all else, which always includes the love of neighbor as self. Imperfect contrition is based on an ordered love of self. Whoever loves God, also loves their neighbor and themselves (in an ordered way). So having some fear of Hell does not imply absence of perfect contrition.

  5. Tom Mazanec says:

    Here is another scenario:
    In a Third World mission territory, a person commits an actual Mortal Sin and then makes an imperfect contrition. The Priest making his rounds for Confession has a flat tire and is delayed, and so he reaches the sinner one minute after he dies.
    So because of a flat tire the person goes to Hell.

    • Ron Conte says:

      In reality, what would happen: (a) God prevents the flat tire, or, (b) God delays the death, or, (c) God gives additional graces so that the person repents by perfect contrition. No one is treated unfairly by God’s providence and grace, esp. concerning their eternal salvation.

  6. Mark P. says:

    In the previous post from Tom (Sept. 7 at 12:50 am) my understanding is that if someone sincerely intends on going to confession, but due to no fault of their own is unable to (flat tire, accident, priest was delayed or detained, emergency with which to deal, etc.) they would still be forgiven even of mortal sin. But that may not be the case if they were unrepentant and had no intention of confessing.

    • Ron Conte says:

      For mere imperfect contrition, absent a Sacrament, the person is not forgiven by the intention to confess.

      But if a person is unconscious, and can’t confess, and they receive the anointing of the sick, they are forgiven if they had mere imperfect contrition before they became unconscious.

  7. Matt says:

    Today’s Mass 2nd reading and the homily by our Priest confirmed the exact same thing you are stating in this post, Ron.

    I believe the fear of Hell, then repentance, and reception of Holy Communion , saves many fallen away Catholics, during the weeks and days before, and at the hour of their death. That also seems unfair. However, don’t play games with your salvation, as sudden tragedy may occur, and you will find yourself at the particular judgement, with no chance of repentance.

  8. Jeff Obrien says:

    This article is insightful and thought provoking, as we were always taught in sunday school that the mercy of God to forgive was beyond human understanding. Does mercy trump justice? Does God know what is in the hearts of men at their final seconds? Another interesting question…

  9. Matt says:

    Regarding Example 3:

    On July 24, 1982, the Blessed Mother in Medjugorje said: “Whoever has done very much evil during his life can go straight to Heaven if he confesses, is truly sorry for what he has done, and receives Communion at the end of his life.”

    You state that such a person will have to go to Purgatory for a very long and painful time. I agree with you, Ron. However according to the Blessed Mother, the person can go straight to Heaven. Is it because of the person receiving Communion?

    • Ron Conte says:

      You misunderstood me. I was not referring to the case of a Catholic who receives Last Rites (Confession, Communion, Anointing of the Sick). Such a person is forgiven for all sin by confession, and atones for past sins by devout reception of those Sacraments. Also, there is a plenary indulgence at the hour of death available to Catholics who have prayed frequently during their lives. So the quote from Mary is correct, and is consistent with my salvation theology.

    • Marco says:


      “There is a plenary indulgence at the hour of death available to Catholics who have prayed frequently during their lives.”

      What does it mean frequently?

      Another question: what do you think about the promises attached to the fifteen prayers of Saint Bridget? I’m praying them, I’ve started 19 November 2016 so i have two months left.

    • Ron Conte says:

      Frequently is not defined in the text of the indulgence. The prayers of St. Bridget are a good devotion.

    • Marco says:

      I wrote

      “I’m praying them, I’ve started 19 November 2016 so i have two months left”

      Because Jesus wanted those devotions to be prayed for a year.

      Anyway Ron, I’ve started praying them because a friend of mine prayed them and he told me that his family did the same in the last generations. He even said that his grandparents (his parents are still alive, even though they are old) were visited by Jesus before they died, and that they knew they were about to die (two or three days before their death).

      This is revealing, because one of Jesus’ promises attached to this devotion is “before his death I shall come with My Dearest Beloved Mother”.

      So it seems that the promises are true, even if the Church has issued a “non constat de supernaturalitate” (which is still very different from a “constant de non supernaturalitate”, the “non constat” only means that the Church has no definitive elements to declare the supernaturality, it’s not a condemnation).

      I think that these devotions are a huge help for catholics.

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