You may recall Pope Francis’ statement a couple of years ago concerning God’s love. First, the pope said: “The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! Even the atheists. Everyone!” That statement shook a lot of people up. And it is true: the Church has always taught that Jesus died and redeemed all of God’s children. But a lot of people drew several incorrect conclusions: “Well, if atheists are redeemed, it really doesn’t matter what we do, right? We’re home free.”
No, sorry, that is not only incorrect, but that’s not what Pope Francis meant or said. The pope used the word redeemed and not justified. Only God can redeem, and that redemption takes place because of Jesus’ death on the cross. No human can redeem himself. Only through Jesus do we have a chance at salvation. That means everyone—including atheists—have the opportunity to reach a perfect union with God.
There are two aspects to the question of salvation. One is God’s role (which is what Pope Francis was talking about), but the other is our role. That role is our response to God and his plan for salvation, which is why Jesus taught as he did in the Gospels. He did this not just by words and instructions, but also by his own lived example.
The Gospels are God’s map—our GPS, if you will—as we all walk our pilgrimage on this earth. God, in fact, says to every person, “Come to me.” But only we, given our free will, can say “Yes, God, here I come.” It is amazing that some humans say no to God. He will not force anyone, no matter how much he wants us with him.
Even though we must say yes, the Lord is abundant with grace to help us. The truth is that if anyone is not saved, it is his fault and not God’s.
Another important factor is that God alone understands perfectly the circumstances of everyone’s life. We have to admit that we are truly blessed to have been given the gift of faith. But imagine someone who, through no fault of his/her own, doesn’t know who God is. Consider a native in central New Guinea. God will not demand something of someone who is incapable of meeting that condition.
What about a person raised in an environment where he/she has been influenced away from God, but who still chooses to have faith? God knows it is a great responsibility to believe and follow the Gospels of Jesus. That’s why it is unchristian and imprudent for some of our brothers and sisters in faith to determine who is saved and who is not. That’s why the Church has never said that any particular person is in hell. A person’s response to God can only be known by God. He alone knows every human heart.
And that is why bishops of Vatican II said so wisely in the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their own actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience—those too may achieve eternal salvation” (847).