Who Is Saved?
Most of the time I am fairly content in my place between Protestant Christianity and the Catholic Church. I trust that God is at work in my community and in my circumstances, even if I can't see to what end. Other times, however, I wig out and wonder if I am doing everything all wrong. Am I wrong to be questioning the theological structures that I grew up with, wrong to be drawn towards the Catholic Church that (according to what I was taught) places human tradition alongside sacred Scripture and thus presents an adulterated version of the Christian faith? Many of my Catholic friends hold a wider, more agnostic view about whom God saves and whom he works through than the perspective I grew up with.1 Am I wrong to be internalizing their assumptions, wrong to be loving a non-Christian, wrong to be seeking and finding signs of God in all these thinkers and artists and writers who aren't outwardly Christian?
The evangelical faith tradition that I grew up in strongly emphasized Biblical truth. I was taught that the Bible is the inerrant Word of God and that the only path to salvation is through explicit faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Anyone who had not done this was almost certainly headed for hell. My church also affirmed the orthodox Augustinian (sometimes referred to as Calvinist) position that fallen humans are utterly depraved and unable to save themselves, and that everyone is deserving of death and hell. God in his mercy decided to extend grace to the world and sent Jesus to die for our sins. In his sovereign wisdom, God also predestined certain people (irrespective of their merits) to respond to his offer of salvation. Obviously he didn't elect everybody, since not everyone in the world becomes a Christian before they die. Our job as Christians was not to try to guess whom God had predestined to be saved, but to share the gospel with everybody and by all means try to convert some.
It always bothered me that all else being equal (all people being equally fallen and depraved), God opted to save some and not others. It seemed to me that Jesus' sacrifice on the cross was a sort of bulk purchase, i.e. it wouldn't have cost God any more to save everybody than some people only. But for some inscrutable reason, God's limiting his salvation to only the elect brought him greater glory than if he had chosen to do otherwise. If this was troubling, we had to keep in mind that all of us were deserving of death and hell, and God saving anyone at all was already going above and beyond. God could offer or withhold mercy from whomever he pleased; otherwise, God's mercy wouldn't truly be free and humans could claim to have some right to God's favor, which of course we did not.
The more I contemplated these doctrines, the more depressed I grew. Part of me wanted to embrace the perspective that I realized I was already living by most of the time - to see God at work everywhere and in all things and in every person. I wanted to believe, as Thomas Merton wrote, that "at root one searches for God by only one way; i.e. in following the truth with all the sincerity of one's conscience." But was I being deceived by cognitive dissonance - coming to believe that something was true not because of good evidence, but because I wanted it to be so? I wanted so much to believe that God loved everyone; that God understood the historical circumstances that led to someone becoming Jewish or Muslim or Hindu or atheist; and that he wouldn't hold it against someone like Gandhi, for example, who had been exposed to the gospel and was therefore technically without excuse, but who had spent his entire life loving his enemies and fighting peacefully for justice.
My teachers would say that Gandhi is a perfect example of how works cannot save us; only faith in Christ can. Even someone as good as Gandhi was deserving of hell. The entire world was like the sinking Titanic, and the church was the one lifeboat that could ferry people to eternal life. The truth might be depressing, but instead of making us sad it should motivate us to go out and evangelize more. I couldn't help thinking, though, that it was a losing battle. If it was true that no one except Christians (plus children who had died in infancy and a handful of pagans who had never heard the gospel but had responded in their hearts to limited revelation) would escape eternal torment in hell, then what was the point of trying to create art or beauty or science? We should all drop whatever we are doing and try to convert as many people as possible.2 But even if we did that, there would still be people dying all over the world, every day, without having accepted Christ. It simply wasn't possible to save everyone.
If the doctrine that I had been taught was true, then it wouldn't matter what love or meaning or pain a non-Christian experiences in this life, would it, since their eternal damnation would nullify all that had happened before? When Mother Teresa tried to express Jesus' love by holding dying lepers in her arms so that they could at least look into the face of someone who loved them as they died, if the lepers didn't accept the gospel, would they after that brief moment of love be cast into the fires of hell forever? And the non-Christian victims of Rwanda, Nanking, the Holocaust - did they die amidst overwhelming pain and terror only to wake to even worse terror? It seems too awful to contemplate.
A few weeks ago I sat in Fr. Nathan's office crying that if the view of reality I had been taught was true, then the world was a sad and terrible and crappy place, and I wanted no part in it. He asked if this belief was making me so miserable, which it clearly was, then why didn't I decide not to believe it anymore? I replied that it didn't matter if a belief was making me miserable; it mattered if it was true. Was it true that most of the world was destined to hell, and that God had made it this way on purpose even though he could have done differently?3 Was it true, and how could I know?
A starting point that makes sense to me is the observation philosopher Thomas Talbott makes about the inclusive nature of love. Love makes us vulnerable in that when we love somebody, we bind ourselves to our beloved’s happiness and sorrow, their suffering and gain, their salvation or damnation. This is why parents are always worried that some evil will befall their children: any evil that befalls the child (e.g. falling off a slide or eating poisoned Halloween candy or being condemned to hell forever) is likewise an evil that befalls the parent, who loves the child as she loves herself. The more we love, the more interconnected our destinies become. As Thomas Merton says, “we neither suffer alone nor conquer alone nor go off into eternity alone … united with those we love in [God] because we are united with Him.”
Growing up I was taught that God would find a way to make the redeemed happy in heaven while most of the human race (including many of their loved ones) was tormented eternally in hell. Presumably it had something to do with being so content in God’s presence that the fate of the damned will pale in comparison, or the redeemed identifying so strongly with God’s holiness that they will rejoice in the rightness of sending sinners to hell. But that doesn’t make sense. How can heaven be us finally becoming like Jesus if it means our becoming more callous and indifferent than we are now, in our corrupted earthly state? Isn’t God like the woman who searched and searched and would not rest until she had found her lost coin, or the shepherd who left his 99 other sheep to seek for the one who was lost? Union with God doesn’t mean separation from the ones that God loves or the ones that we love in him. When I love God more, I love people more, not less; when I draw closer to God I draw closer to my fellow human beings, not farther away. Talbott writes:
Several critics have argued that God will so transform the redeemed that the fate of the lost will no longer threaten their own happiness; they will be sufficiently sanctified that they share the attitude of God towards the lost… But just what is God’s own attitude towards the lost? If God never so much as willed or desired their salvation, then God need only bring the attitudes of the redeemed into conformity with his own. He need only cause them to despise – and therefore to disobey Christ’s command that they love – those whose sins against God are no worse than their own. But if God’s love for the lost is far greater than any human love, as it surely is, then the more our love reflects his boundless love the more we will come to regret the loss of a single loved one. For it is simply not possible both to love someone even as you love yourself and, at the same time, to remain happy knowing that your loved one has come to a bad end. You might as well try to remain happy even as you come to a bad end yourself.
I believe that God's love is infinitely wider and stronger and more inclusive than my limited human love. God's concern for any person is infinitely greater than mine. So whatever is the case about hell, and who ends up in hell, and if hell lasts forever (none of which I am sure about) - I have to, I think, try to understand in light of God is Love.
In the past when people would argue that God is love, I would respond, “Yes, but God is also just.” I was taught that as postmodern American Christians, we sometimes over-emphasized God’s love at the expense of his holiness and justice. God’s love might compel him to forgive us, but at the same time his justice demands that someone suffer the punishment for our sins. When Jesus died on the cross, God punished him in our place so that those who accept his sacrifice can be forgiven and have Christ’s righteousness imputed to them. In this way, God shows mercy towards sinners without violating his sense of justice.
More recently, I am coming to believe that justice and mercy are not competing aspects of God's character. They might be separate attributes, but that doesn't mean they aren't both expressions of God's most fundamental characteristic, which is love. Love always desires and works for the true good of its object, and, as George MacDonald and Thomas Talbott argue, God punishes sins and forgives sin for the same reason: to save us from our sins, to deliver us from evil: to make us good. When we turn away from God we experience his love as punishment and wrath – like a disobedient child experiences his parents’ love as correction – while when we turn towards God we experience his love as kindness.
Talbott also makes the interesting assertion that the real penalty that justice demands of the sinner is not eternal punishment (that would not cancel out a single sin) but repentance and complete restoration of any harm. In other words, completely undoing any wrong that was committed. On earth we often settle for retributive justice, he argues, because true justice is beyond our grasp. Even if we can convince a murderer to repent and to be sorry for what he did, there is no way for us to bring the murdered person back to life and to repair the relationship between murderer and the victim. So the best that we can do is to even the score by taking from the murderer what he took from his victim – a life for a life. Talbott doesn’t make explicit this connection, but maybe what Jesus did on the cross was to make possible this justice, this restoration, that we as humans could never accomplish on our own. Maybe on the cross, Jesus died not because God’s wrath demanded that somebody be punished for human sin, but because God’s justice demanded that the fallen creation be put right, be returned to its original state (death destroyed and every trace of sin erased); and only Jesus’ triumph over death and evil could accomplish that.4
Saint Paul says that “the wages of sin is death.” I had always understood him to mean “the punishment for sin is death” – both physical death and damnation in hell. But what if Paul means that “the natural consequences of sin is death?” Taking Talbott’s definition of justice as repentance, reconciliation, and complete restoration of any harm, it would make sense that death is the ultimate harm that human power cannot restore. Maybe, in dying and rising from the dead, Jesus made even this restoration possible for human beings.
As I was researching soteriology (the study of salvation), I discovered that much of the tension between God’s justice and love arises from the juridical idea of salvation that has dominated the western Church, both Catholic and Protestant.5 Historically, the western Church has tended to view Jesus’ death as substitutionary atonement: all sin deserved punishment, and sin against an eternal God deserved eternal punishment in hell. Through his suffering and death, Jesus paid the legal debt that humanity collectively owed and in doing so, appeased the wrath of God. I was surprised to learn that many of the Church fathers in the east and the Eastern Orthodox Church developed a different emphasis on salvation. Instead of treating salvation as being (at least at the moment of conversion) a de jure stamp of righteousness that conferred exemption from hell, the eastern church tended to view salvation as the transformation of human nature through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. By taking on human flesh, God somehow changed and redeemed fallen human nature and made it possible for humans to not only repent and be forgiven, but to become truly good: to become like God in character. As St. Athanasius of Alexandria wrote, “[Christ] was made human that man might be made God.” Accordingly, eastern theologians tended to interpret Jesus’ death as the consummation of his uniting the divine and human natures – only man could die, so God as man underwent the final experience of being human; and only God could overcome death, so the man who is God rose from the dead to eternal life. Because Christ was fully human, humanity too could share in his life of perfect holiness and victory over death.6
The eastern concept of salvation is not without its problems (as Max points out, it relies on semi-Platonic concepts of human nature and divine nature that philosophers no longer believe in), and inevitably, any theory is bound to fall short of the mystery. Still, I found it helpful to view my questions through this lens. I had come from a religious background that so emphasized orthodoxy that to learn there were other, alternative explanations of salvation that were less odious while still being profoundly Christian, was eye-opening. Maybe there are ways to regard Jesus' death as other than substitutionary punishment (the transformation of human nature, for example). Maybe God's justice is not just retributive, but restorative as well. And maybe - keeping in mind that all models are ultimately imperfect - there are good ways to think about salvation that don't pit God's wrath against his mercy, or justice against love.
If love is a fundamental attribute of God (which everything in the New Testament says it is), then it’s not possible for God to act in an unloving way towards anyone, is it? Assuming that Augustine was right about the ultimate fate of human beings being up to God's decision, God wouldn’t choose a certain subset of humanity to show his love to and everyone else to demonstrate his righteous hatred towards, would he? That would be like me claiming to be a loving person if I loved everyone except black people, or like describing an SS officer as a loving person if he loved everybody – his wife and kids and colleagues and even animals – except Jews. That’s why I reject the Augustinian notion that all things being equally up to God's sovereign will, God chooses to bestow salvation on some elect persons and not on others. It doesn’t account for the revelation that God is in essence love. Some would argue that God does love even the people he chooses not to save, by giving them families and food and culture in their mortal lifetimes only, which is already more than they deserve. Maybe, but isn’t love wanting and acting in the beloved’s best interests? Giving someone good things in this life while condemning them to hell for all eternity when you could do otherwise hardly counts as acting in somebody’s best interest. Furthermore, how can God command his followers to evangelize (out of love for their fellow man) when he has already decided that he himself does not love some of the very people he has commanded Christians to love, at least not enough to save them? Jesus repeatedly teaches us in his parables to love our neighbors and even our enemies so that we can be perfect like our Father is perfect. Surely it follows that what we do imperfectly – loving everyone to the utmost whether they deserve it or not – God does perfectly.
Whereas Augustinian theology emphasizes the sovereign omnipotence of God in choosing whom to save and whom to damn, Arminian theology – the other major strain in Protestant thinking – emphasizes the role of human free will in choosing eternal destiny. God may be infinitely powerful, but at the same time he respects our human decisions and wants us to love him back. In contrast to Augustinian thought, Arminian Christians believe that God does love everyone and want to save every person, but that some people reject his offer of salvation and effectively damn themselves. C.S. Lewis, for example, writes that “the doors of hell are locked on the inside [of the human heart].”
Isn’t there in loving someone always the possibility of defeat? And yet we don’t need love to be reciprocated in order to keep loving. After all, that’s the whole point in loving our enemies. So I don’t think that, even if people keep rejecting God, God stops loving them. Maybe it takes a long time or even an eternity for people to love him back, and maybe in the end some do become damned (I don’t know), but I believe that if anyone is damned forever it’s not because God doesn’t want to save them.
What if a soul persists in evil? Is there a time limit on God’s willingness to forgive? Jesus taught us to never stop forgiving no matter how many times our brother sins against us. Jesus asked God to forgive even the people who were nailing him to the cross. Would this forgiveness have been revoked if on the way home, one of his murderers had suffered a heart attack and died before repenting?
Perhaps this isn’t orthodox, but I don’t think that God’s love for us (Christians or not) ends at the grave. I am coming to believe that death is a moment that passes, not the final end. And related to this belief, I have been contemplating the Catholic idea of purgatory. Not as in Dante’s Purgatorio, but as in all of the growing that I will have to do, all of the selfishness and envy and insecurity and fear that I will have to let go of as I draw closer to God, on this side of eternity or the other. Like many Protestants I had always believed that something magical happens to Christians at death, and we instantly become perfect. I had rejected (and still reject) the construal of purgatory that Martin Luther rejected: the doctrine that, if you buy x indulgence you can take off y years of suffering from a loved one’s time in purgatory. I’m not so sure anymore, though, that the idea of posthumous growth in holiness is completely bogus. Maybe we stop committing new sins when we die, but it now seems to me that the process of becoming perfect requires our participation and active growing. It seems like cheating if I could just step in front of a bus tomorrow and suddenly become perfect!
I have also been thinking, in light of purgatory – the “working out” state, of the dying that I want to do in this life: to all the sinful habits and false beliefs that, instead of making me more fully alive, make me less. T.S. Eliot has a line in one of his poems about “a lifetime’s death in love.” That makes sense to me. Isn’t love the path by which we die to ourselves and live to Christ (and in him, our true selves)?
As I was researching this subject, I felt discouraged by all the different perspectives that very smart people have held. If it was so important who is saved and how one can become saved, then you would think that God would make it more obvious. There were Augustine, and Jonathan Edwards, and John Calvin, and J.I. Packer, all of whom I had been taught to revere and all of whom upheld the orthodox position that there is no salvation outside of Christ (which I believe), that all of the human race is hopelessly evil, and that the vast majority of the human race that dies without acknowledging Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior is doomed to hell (which I don't - at least don't want to believe). And then there were Karl Barth and Karl Rahner, who hoped for universal salvation, and the Vatican II consensus, which recognized the work of God's Spirit in all places and cultures, and Madeleine L'Engle, who was not a theologian but was so incarnational in her writing. Madeleine L'Engle influenced me tremendously. Her love for people that radiates through all of her stories, her deep appreciation for them (despite their serious flaws), her openness to seeing God at work and beauty everywhere - struck me as true and so very much the way that I wanted to see the world and art and people. I love people. I love Paul Graham and Madeleine L'Engle and Suzanne Farrell and Marion Cotillard. I love them for the ways that they help me to see God. I love them for helping me to love God and to understand my vocation. I love them as so much more than wretched depraved sinners that God dangles like loathsome spiders over the fires of hell.
Is this too humanist of me? Is it denying the necessity of salvation to admire and love people this much? Fr. Nathan says that humans are flawed and wonderful, with an emphasis on wonderful, and I think yes, that sounds right. Flawed and needing salvation and yet so very wonderful and deeply loved. I don't think I could be an artist if I believed that 95% of human beings are destined for destruction, with nothing redeeming about their lives except the fact that God chose to display his just wrath in them. I could - not - be an artist if I believed that.
It is frustrating how much we are a product of our times and culture. I read that Christians tended to adopt a more inclusive, even universalist, attitude towards salvation after decolonization exposed Christians in western countries to Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus and atheists in closer proximity than before. (It is easier to consign people to hell when they live on the other side of the planet, and when you think that Africans, Indians and Asians are sub-human anyway.)7 We were being misled, the writers claimed, by our affection for our neighbors - letting our experience corrode our adherence to the hard doctrines that the Bible taught. I asked Max if I was being duped into heresy, and he suggested that I try looking at the question through a different frame. One could also ask, could it be true that after decolonization and globalization, Christians in the west have come to realize what was obvious all along - that God is deeply at work and present even in people of other faiths and persuasions?
We’re all terribly limited by time and place. At any moment I probably believe a multitude of wrong ideas. If I had lived a century ago, I would have thought that socialism was a great idea. Every man contributing according to his ability and taking according to his need. Who could have predicted that it would turn out so terribly in the Communist dictatorships? It’s the same with my concept of salvation. How can I know that what I think is a great idea is not in fact a flawed and harmful belief? Because the stakes are so high here (eternal destiny), I am terrified of getting things wrong. What if I thought that people could come to know God without explicit knowledge of Jesus Christ in this lifetime, and because of that belief, I didn’t evangelize as strongly as I could or should have, and many of my close friends end up in hell? What if I believed that it was the journey that mattered, the gradual deepening in love and knowledge of Jesus and not a moment’s commitment, and what if someone I knew was coming to know Jesus but got hit by a bus before we could pray the sinner’s prayer, because I didn’t stress the urgency enough; and ended up damned? I’m really trying (as far as I can tell) to honestly know, to honestly discover… and so are all of these people with different opinions. So it can’t all depend on us having the right answers, can it? Can it be that if someone doesn’t become a Christian in this life, that it is necessarily because of their wickedness and not because of an honest and reasoned error in belief? Conservative theologians would say that we are all without excuse, but if we can’t even tell if we are being honest in trying to pursue the truth or not, then what?
Fr. Nathan reminds me that our word confidence comes from the Latin con fide, which literally means “with faith”. I have been trying (with more success sometimes than others) to live confidently, with faith in God who loved us enough to die for us while we were yet sinners, God who will not abandon his creation, who works all things for the good of those that love him and are called according to his purpose. I try to live with faith that my salvation doesn’t depend on my having all the right answers, that it’s not even the quality or the strength of my faith that matters; it’s Jesus. I am saved because God through Jesus reconciles the world to himself. Protestants argue that we are saved by faith alone and not by works, but sometimes describe it in such a way that having faith (the right kind, in the right propositions and none of the wrong ones) becomes a necessary work. Saint Paul says it’s not by knowledge or even faith that we come to know God, but love… it is through love that we draw near to God.
Thomas Talbott writes that “so long as we can believe that it is God’s very nature to love and that his love will eventually triumph, we can leave the rest to mystery.” I have become convinced that God’s nature is to love and that he loves everyone without exception. But as usual, I am left with more questions than answers. If Jesus’ death was not intended primarily to satisfy God’s wrath towards us, then what does it mean that Christ was the propitiation for our sins? What is the meaning of the atonement? Which criteria are necessary for salvation? If God’s Spirit is already at work in all cultures and places, how are we to be a Church with mission? Is our task to try to convert people as urgently as possible, or to love them sacrificially even if that doesn’t result in their being “saved” in this lifetime? Whom does God work in and through? And if God’s salvation is indeed wider than just the people who call themselves Christians in this life, then why does Paul say that he tries “by all means to save some?” Doesn’t this imply that there are others, who didn’t accept his message, who will not be saved? And so on…
I used to get annoyed at myself for asking questions that I knew wouldn’t yield definite answers in the near future, but now there’s a certain peace I make with questions that have become even more complex than they were before, but that I’ve thought through and wrestled with as much as I can. As Brian Greene writes in The Elegant Universe – “Sometimes attaining the deepest familiarity with a question is our best substitute for actually having an answer.”
What are the questions that you wrestle with? Is this one of them? And if so, what are your thoughts?
 This openness towards people of other faiths and no faith is a recent development in the Catholic Church. Pre-Vatican II, the church took a much harder stance towards other religions, modern philosophies, and other branches of Christianity.
 All Christians, that is, except doctors and firefighters and other people who save lives, because prolonging people's life spans increases the odds of their accepting Christ before they die.
 Some philosophers posit that most of the world is indeed going to hell, but that God in fact couldn't have done things differently in a way that would have been better. In this view, the destiny of souls is like one of those math problems where you are given limited materials and have to determine the height and width and length of a box that will maximize its volume. You can't just make the box as big as you want, since you only have a fixed number of building blocks. I find it hard to believe that taking explicit faith in Christ as the criteria for salvation, God could not have made a world in which a larger percentage of people met this criteria before death. For starters, if geographical distance was a barrier to evangelization, couldn't God have prevented continental drift and kept us all on Pangaea to facilitate missionary work? Maybe allowing continental drift prevented some greater evil that would have happened otherwise... but then it seems that this whole line of reasoning devolves rapidly into butterfly effect speculation.
 I always thought it was odd that God couldn't just forgive people instead of demanding that somebody (Jesus) suffer the punishment in our place, for justice's sake. After all, I forgave people all the time - my brother, for example - without demanding that he or anyone else be punished for the wrong that he did. And even if I did require punishment, I wouldn't count it justice if someone else served the sentence for him - like if my brother's friend offered to be spanked in his place. But if God's justice is understood not as fulfilling some kind of cosmic debt, but as insisting that things be set truly right again (sin banished from the Creation and death defeated), then it makes sense that we would need a Savior to help us do that.
 At least since the time of Augustine (354-430 AD).
 Eastern theologians disagreed whether the transformative effects of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection applied to all humans or only to those who joined themselves to him in faith and righteous living.
 This is not quite fair. Many of the original missionaries to China, for example, really thought highly of the Chinese people and wanted to bring the Gospel to them. But it was easier for Europeans as a whole to believe that most of the world was headed to hell when other races and cultures were viewed as vastly inferior to theirs.
Thanks to Etai Adam, Nathan Castle, John Etchemendy, and Max Etchemendy for reading drafts of this essay.