Why Salvation for Atheists is so important

If an atheist can be saved, without converting to belief in God, this implies that believers in almost any religion can be saved, even if the religion provides no substantial help along the path of salvation (like the polytheistic religions). And if atheists and non-Christian believers can be saved without converting to Christianity, then the path of salvation is broad and does not require the person to explicitly believe in Christ and enter the Church by formal baptism.

Few or Many?

Does this view contradict the saying of Jesus that the way to salvation is narrow, and few find it, while the way to hell is broad, and many find it? No, since that saying that few are saved can be interpreted figuratively. The Way of Salvation is narrow in that only those who love others are saved. I believe that many follow that narrow path. The saved are figuratively called “few” in that they follow that narrow path; they are few in the sense of being given a very special gift from God, which they do not deserve.

The way is narrow because Love is the sole path of salvation. Those who die without the infused theological virtue of love are condemned to Hell. Those who die with that virtue of love must also have faith and hope, and love is not present without the other two. (Faith can be present in the soul without love and hope, as when a baptized person commits actual mortal sin.) The way is also narrow because the path to Hell is easy and the path to Heaven is difficult.

[Matthew]
{7:14} How narrow is the gate, and how straight is the way, which leads to life, and few there are who find it!

[John]
{14:2} In my Father’s house, there are many dwelling places. If there were not, I would have told you. For I go to prepare a place for you.

Jesus says both that few are saved and many are saved. The many dwelling places in Heaven cannot be empty, as if God had failed. He would not prepare many places, if this were not necessary. On the other hand, the path to Heaven is the “straight and narrow” way. The percentage of those who go to Hell may well be a minority, but the number who go to Hell is large. So even if the number who go to Heaven are many, this is figuratively called few because a smaller but still large number go to Hell. The saved have avoided a final destination that far too many have chosen.

Errors on the Far Right

One of the problems on the Catholic far right is self-righteousness. They define salvation by their own ideas and lives. Whoever is like them is said to be saved, and whoever is not like them is said to be lost. They present themselves, in place of Christ, as the pattern to be followed to be saved. They place extreme emphasis on externals, like points of liturgical form and belief in a certain ideology (rather than living a life of love and mercy). How can they not see how much they resemble the Pharisees of old?

The claim on the far right that Catholic Christians are saved, and that salvation is rare or non-existent among non-Christians is the heresy of Feeneyism. The path of salvation prior to Christ was only implicit baptism of desire or baptism of blood. Christ did not come to take away those paths of salvation, to make the path narrower, but rather broader. For there are many dwelling places in His Father’s house.

This narrow view of salvation leads those on the far right to have contempt and even hatred for non-Christians and for persons whose lives are marked by frequent objective mortal sin. They villainize non-Christians and sinners, despite the teaching of Christ that the Centurion had great faith and that tax collectors and prostitutes get into Heaven, while many Pharisees do not. Their narrow views are not compatible with the Gospel.

And in order to defend these views, they must reject the Second Vatican Council and many post-Vatican II teachings. So they commit the sins of schism and heresy, in order to follow their own errors. Thus, they become subject to their own condemnation of all who reject Catholicism.

Refuting these narrow views, by defending the idea of salvation for atheists, helps to defend the Council and the teachings of Pope-Saints and the Magisterium more generally. Adopting their narrow views leads to schism and heresy. So it is important to utterly reject the idea that atheists cannot be saved without converting to belief in God, and to reject the idea that non-Christian believers cannot be saved without converting to Christianity.

The Teaching of Christ

How can a believer in a pagan religion, which would seem to be idolatry, be saved without converting? The pagan believer may be sincerely seeking religious and moral truth, and may have fallen into grave error with a sincere but mistaken conscience. But even if they are guilty of actual mortal sin, they may repent by implicit perfect contrition, that is, by an act of love of neighbor, in full cooperation with grace.

The Centurion (Mt 8) and the woman of Canaan (Mt 15) both followed pagan religions. Yet Christ states that they each had great faith — implying faith enlivened by love and hope. So they must have been in the state of grace. And this means they could be saved without converting. Whoever dies in the state of grace is saved. Thus, the pagan believers today can be saved without converting.

But paganism and atheism are not substantially different. The pagan believers have no substantial truths of faith or morals, other than what the light of natural reason might find about morals, so they are essentially in the same situation as atheists. Since Christ taught that the pagans can be saved without converting to Christianity, saved by the love of neighbor, this applies to atheists as well.

The Centurion was saved by selfless love for his suffering servant. “Amen I say to you, whenever you did this for one of these, the least of my brothers, you did it for me.” (Mt 25:40). By loving his suffering servant, he was implicitly loving Christ and therefore implicitly loving God. And the woman of Canaan was saved by selfless love of her daughter. By loving her offspring selflessly, she was implicitly loving the Son of God. Those who have the infused theological virtue of love (charity) necessarily also have faith and hope, even if their faith only implicitly believes in God and Christ.

Then a related question arises: can those living in objective mortal sin be saved without converting so as to reject these sins? Yes, if their objective mortal sin is not also an actual mortal sin, or if they repent explicitly or implicitly. Thus, Christ teaches that tax collectors and prostitutes (persons with objectively grave sins in their lives of greed or violence, or sexual sins) can enter the kingdom of Heaven (i.e. enter the state of grace which leads to Heaven) ahead of Pharisees. So LGBT persons can be saved, even if they do not explicitly repent of their sins.

Summary

This teaching that non-believers and non-Christian believers can be saved without converting gives hope to all humanity, and opposes that hatred which is based on differences of religion. Having hope that all can be saved (even though not all will be saved), we learn to love all others, even those who have objectively sinned gravely be rejecting Christianity or by lives of objectively grave sins.

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

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7 Responses to Why Salvation for Atheists is so important

  1. Jack says:

    You are correct to say salvation is not entirely impossible for those outside the visible faith without (mortal) fault of their own, but you go too far if you assert it to be common. The Gospel is commanded to be preached to all nations for a reason.

    • Ron Conte says:

      It is common. God is merciful, and all powerful, so it cannot be the case that the vast majority of non-Christians are condemned to Hell merely for not being Christians.

  2. Jack says:

    Not for not being Christians as such (presuming innocence in that matter), but rather for other grave sins for which there are no ordinary means for forgiveness nor regular means of grace. Perfect contrition is not easy, especially when emmeshed in a sinful lifestyle. It was not for nothing that Saint Francis Xavier told his Indian audience that now that they had heard his preaching, they must join the Church or forfeit their souls.

  3. Jack says:

    God would not condemn people for (innocently) being non-Christians, that is true. However, condemnation would be earned by the grave sins most people commit throughout their lives at one point or another, and then there would be no ordinary means of forgiveness. Acts of perfect contrition are not easy even to someone who is aware of what that even is or why they should be contrite.

    There is a reason that Saint Francis Xavier told his Indian audience to join the Church or lose their souls. It is very important.

    • Ron Conte says:

      Perfect contrition is not attained by human effort alone. First, there is prevenient grace (God acting alone), and then the human person responds by cooperating with subsequent grace. So it is not a question of ease or difficulty. God’s grace acts alone, and then cooperates. But perfect contrition is ordinary and common for those who live a life of love of others. They live in love, so they repent promptly with love. How common it is for atheists is unknown. But the mercy of God and His universal salvific will mean it is not rare.

  4. erm6 says:

    Hi Ron, I think this is an extremely important topic. I think it’s very important to develop, defend, and disseminate a robust salvation theology that is consonant with magisterial teachings. I very much appreciate your work in this area. I have a print copy of Forgiveness and Salvation for Everyone; not sure when I’ll get through the whole work though, as you wrote a very hefty book there :) But I consider this to be very important part of your output.

    After reading several of your recent articles, I am beginning to have the opinion that too narrow a view of salvation leads to a series of other errors. If the formal Sacrament of Confession is thought to be literally the only way that the state of grace, once lost, can be regained, then there is a chain of reasoning that narrows the likelihood of salvation exceedingly.

    You have rightly urged more people to go to Confession more often. Example https://ronconte.com/2018/12/28/the-not-so-funny-problem-of-priestly-boredom-2/ and https://ronconte.com/2016/08/05/how-often-should-you-go-to-confession/. Until more people heed your advice—people of all nations, languages, left, and right—there may be a perception among those whom you refer to above as the “far right” that “nobody but us ever goes to Confession.” Now, that perception is not true, of course, but now put together the following three ingredients: (1) the incorrect perception that only “we” ever go to Confession; (2) the quite correct perception of the enormous importance and benefit of Confession; and (3) the belief that Confession is literally the only way that the state of grace, once lost, can be regained. Put together these three ingredients and out pops the conclusion that almost the whole rest of the Church, outside our group or our subculture, is an apostate Church. And that leads to a series of other errors.

    You have argued that an atheist may have implicit perfection contrition, via love of neighbor, and therefore obtain forgiveness of any actual mortal sins, and possibly be saved. If that is true, then how much more likely is it that, among the subset of Catholics who unfortunately never go to Confession, there may exist some persons who have misunderstood the importance of Confession—for example after having been poorly catechized, or having been told some unfortunate misinformation like “after Vatican II we don’t have to go to Confession anymore”—but who have obtained forgiveness via implicit or even explicit perfect contrition? The number of such persons may not be small. So, when you argue against the narrow view of salvation, the neglect of Confession (as bad as this neglect may be) can no longer be taken as implying that all the non-confessing Catholics necessarily have apostatized. There goes the whole idea of an apostate Church, and a series of other errors are refuted too.

    Please continue your study and writing on this important subject. God bless you, Ron.

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