Is Jesus the Only Way to Salvation?

It’s not politically incorrect to believe in God.  Just so long as you acknowledge that all are God’s children, and that there are many, equally honorable paths to the Most High.

After all, that’s only fair.  How conceited it would be to claim that your way is the only way.

There is nothing really new about this attitude.  In the days of the Roman Emperors, no one had any problems with people worshiping some carpenter from Galilee who they believed to be God’s son.  As long as they’d be broad-minded enough to worship the emperor and Jupiter, and the rest of the Pantheon as well.  But instead, they believed what Peter proclaimed in this Sunday’s first reading: that there is no other name given under heaven by which we can be saved (Acts 4).  Not Caesar, or Jupiter, or Mohammed, or Buddha.  For such arrogant closed-mindedness they were thrown to the lions.

Does this mean that other creeds have nothing to offer but damnable lies?  Not in the least.  St. Justin Martyr (d. 165) said that there were “seeds of truth” scattered about in the teaching of the great philosophers.  St. Paul honored the Athenians for their pious worship of the “unknown” God (Acts 17).

But we are not talking here about bits and pieces of truth, but about eternal salvation.  Redemption required more than some good lectures or inspiring quotes–namely, a perfect sacrifice of a perfect life, a life of infinite value.  Buddha did not lay down his life for his followers.  Neither did Mohammed.  And even if they had, they weren’t “savior” qualified in terms of possessing a sinless life of infinite (read divine) value.

Only the Word made flesh was qualified, and only he dared do it.  He is, as Sunday’s gospel teaches us, the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep.  But he is not exclusivist – his sheep include anyone wants to be one of his sheep, even those who formerly drove the nails into his sacred hands.  One sacrifice for all people, for all time.

Does this mean that if people haven’t heard of Him and continue to follow Mohammed or Buddha that they are certainly hell bound?  Not exactly.  For we are told that there are “other sheep” who do not yet travel with the flock but who do belong to the Shepherd.  Responding to the hidden grace of the Holy Spirit, they’ve opened their heart to the truth, wherever it may be found, and seek to do what their conscience tells them is their duty.  They may be devotees of Mohammed or Buddha because their hearts have recognized some sparks of truth and goodness in the teaching of those men, and they are hungry for truth and righteousness.  If they die good Muslims or Buddhists and are saved, they are saved not by Mohammed or Buddha, but by the only savior, the one who died for them, the unknown God that they secretly sought as they eagerly read the Koran or contemplated the bliss of nirvana.

So we should just leave them alone since they’ll be saved anyway, right?  That’s not what the gospel says.  The fact that it is possible they’ll be saved doesn’t mean it’s a sure thing.  The Shepherd wants to feed his sheep with rich fare, with nourishment adequate for the long and arduous journey home.  And he wants to protect them from the thieves and robbers waiting to ambush the sheep as they make their way down the road.  He can only do this if he can gather them into one flock that he can lead to the green pastures of the Scriptures, the Sacraments, and the rich Tradition of the Catholic Church, the nourishment that makes for not just survival, but an abundant life (John 10:10).  So it’s our duty to do what we can to introduce them to the Shepherd and let them know where the best food is to be found.

Marcellino D'Ambrosio, Ph.D.

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Dr. Marcellino D’Ambrosio writes from Texas. For info on his resources and pilgrimages to Rome and the Holy Land, visit www.crossroadsinitiative.com or call 800.803.0118.

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  • Larry Peterson

    I was just a kid but I can vividly remember my dad (this was from the early 1960s) debating with a fellow in Harry’s Candy Store (NYC) about salvation. The man’s argument was that if you did NOT accept Jesus you could not be saved. My dad said (I am quoting here because it is SO VIVID) “You tryin to tell me that a native who lives in the jungle and worships a rock but is kind and decent and treats his neighbors with respect and goodness cannot be saved? Get outta here. God ain’t like that. He loves all His creations.” I never forgot that–I also always thought that made more sense than anything else and I still do think that–Yes–I love my Catholic faith and attend daily Mass etc. I figure that if we ALL must know Jesus somehow, someway, we will ALL get to meet Him and decide. Otherwise–it is a cruel joke.

  • dtcomp95

    One problem with the “possibility of salvation” outside the Church assumption is that it requires invincible ignorance, which in this modern world of quick, or at least accessible information and communication, may not be likely for much of the world. Most people have at least heard of Jesus, and the Church. When we hear, we are responsible to seek the truth, not simply ignore it or assume it doesn’t apply to us. It is also up to every individual, even if ignorant of the Church, to live a life of loving God and being obedient to Him as far as they are aware, and God is apparent in the world around us. Much of the world is now rejecting not only God, but the idea of truth itself. That isn’t out of ignorance, but choice. That is a huge problem, and a paradox if we assume living a “good” life in ignorance is sufficient for salvation. After all, without knowing God, how can we know what is truly good?

    The other problem is that a “flexible” view of salvation implies the Church isn’t really necessary – as long as we remain “ignorant” of the Church (even intentionally), we are fine – even better off since outside the Church, the “requirements” often seem much simpler. But that is not true. We can’t presume God’s mercy and grace. If the Church isn’t the only path of salvation, or simply presented as the “best” path, then many will conclude there isn’t any real need to become Catholic, or even Christian – just love “god”, and be a good person and you will get to heaven. But this of course, is not true. Jesus told his disciples to strive to enter through the narrow gate, and that few would find it – few, not most, not even many – *few*. He also said the path to destruction is wide for a reason – because that is where most of the world will end up – i.e. if few will find the right path, then even fewer will stumble upon it out of ignorance.

  • JR

    As far as you are concerned? Yes… He is the only way. Do not worry about others. How He deals His judgement is a mystery and will remain so.

  • Pax

    I believe you are misinterpreting the author. Certainly if the author means what you are saying he is not stating catholic theology very well.

    First of all to the objection the ‘church isn’t necessary’. If people have ‘possibility of salvation” it means they become members of the church when they are saved. This is non optional. Everyone in heaven even Moses and the patriarchs are part of the body of Christ aka the Catholic ( read Universal) church.

    Second there is only a “__possibility__ of salvation” and honestly , God would violate justice ( perhaps mercy) if he sent the all of humanity except Mary and Jesus to hell. So a possibility in the case means an utterly unknowable chance because we are not only not the Judge but don’t even really understand the laws.

    We can be Much more certain of someones possibility of salvation if they have been baptized, even more so if they made frequent confession and received the sacraments. In some cases like infant baptism immediately before death ( or of canonized saints) we can almost certain of a persons salvation.

    So, we should be terribly concerned for anyone who is not a member of the church itself. They have a much smaller probability and we don’t even know 100% for certain if they have the possibility of salvation.

    On the other hand I do think there is a lot more ‘invincible ignorance’ then you allow. Simply because you may have heard the that there was this guy named Jesus doesn’t mean you really understood what you heard. Sometimes people have many obstacles and misinformation thrown in front of them by the enemy that prevents them from finding the truth. Also, i think you are wrong about the reach of modern technology and information, there are 1.4 billion people in China , who are taught in their schools in a highly censored society that God doesn’t exist. There are another billion or so Muslims living in 2nd and third world countries who have never seen or used a Tv or radio, little lone heard anything about Jesus.
    God judges the heart not the mind. Even if there was just 1 person , it wouldn’t make the argument invalid. How many of them will be saved is a mystery.

  • Maynila Dyaryo

    remind us the Jesus has other flocks, as well!!

  • dtcomp95

    Hi Pax – I understand the author, and I think you and I actually agree even with slightly differing perspectives on some details. As the article is about Jesus being the only way of salvation, the points presented on those outside the Church, or even non-believers, are good.

    I am only offering a general caution on interpreting the
    “possibility” of salvation outside the Church as either being a statistical likelihood, or statistical improbability (the latter rather than the former). Too often I’ve seen this teaching interpreted too loosely, at least in conversation (even if the author is not implying the same). This tells me many fellow Catholics think, or want to think, that salvation is rather easy to obtain for anyone, likely based on a misinterpretation of the modern
    catechism or other Church commentary. But that contradicts Jesus’ own
    words, and the core of this teaching of the Church for all of its history – that few will find the right path – the path of salvation (i.e. the Church).

    We should be clear about salvation vs. saying that people become
    “members of the church when they are saved”. As a former Protestant, we would “accept Jesus as our savior” in word only, but this isn’t recognized anywhere in scripture or Church teaching, as the only nad specific means of salvation. Baptism (in the trinity) marks us for Christ – even those outside the Church, provided the baptism is valid. But it doesn’t make one Catholic when baptized outside the Church. Nor is it all that is necessary to be saved.

    As Catholics, we are not simply saved once, but in the process of
    salvation – this is a lifelong process and the key to our relationship
    with God. It isn’t a one time event. The remaining sacraments, and
    living, and dying in a state of grace, are also keys to our journey with Christ, our relationship with God, and how God will judge us in the end.

    Baptism is the first key to salvation, and (from the Catechism on the Vatican site), “The Church does not know of any means other than Baptism that assures entry into eternal beatitude;”…..and also that God is not bound by this process – we simply don’t know when or if He would save someone otherwise. That is all the Church’s “possibility of salvation” teaching implies – we don’t know God’s mind. But we do have Christ’s teachings, and they are clear.

    I think we probably agree on the possibility of salvation outside the Church – it is likely difficult, and hence, the necessity to evangelize. I’ve had this conversation with quite a few Catholics, including apologists, who are under the impression that anyone who believes in Christ, or even in God, has a good chance of salvation. But this creates a paradox – if salvation is possible, or even likely for any believer, then the Church would not be necessary. In fact, it would be better to leave others in “invincible ignorance” as living a Catholic faith is not as easy as remaining ignorant. If the Church were simply the “better” path of salvation, there would be no convincing argument that the Catholic Church is the one true Church, contradicting Church teaching, and Matthew 16:18-19.

    So we can only interpret the possibility of salvation outside the Church as just that – a possibility, not a likelihood, much less a guarantee. When speaking of possibilities, we can also note that it is possible to win a medal at the Olympics, or survive a plane crash. In both cases, a few do, but not many. Whether the two examples equate statistically or numerically to salvation, I have no idea – they are just examples that the Church has not put numbers on this possibility. All we have are Jesus’ words: “Strive to enter through the narrow door, for many, I tell you, will attempt to enter but will not be strong enough” (Luke 13:24, NAB).

    For this reason, we should, as you say, be concerned about giving others a chance to discover the hope, grace, and beauty of the Catholic Christian faith for the sake of their salvation, as much as we are, and should be concerned with our own.

  • Pax

    well said.
    Although if my understanding is correct there is a sense used sometimes in catholic theology , and one that often causes confusion, by which “members of the church when they are saved”. Although if I said that I must have mis-typed it I seldom used that phrase. What I was implying is that the only way to enter heaven and the beatific vision is to become a member of the body of Christ , therefore it is logically impossible to enter heaven without being a member of the ‘the church triumphant’.
    So of coarse the passed sense of the word ‘saved’ can only be applied to those who have already entered heaven. until then we are ‘being saved’.
    not ‘saved’ and there is quite a difference.
    In catholic theology there are actually two entities that are distinguished and can sometimes be called church. The word church of coarse coming from Greek with its original meaning being ‘gathering or congregation’. There is ‘the visible body of Christ’ also called ‘the church militant’ which is composed of all baptized Catholics in good standing.
    Then there is ‘the mystical body of Christ’ with is at the same time narrower and wider. It is composed of all those who are saved, are beings saved and will be saved ( even though not yet born). So in some senses those ‘saints’ are also part of the ‘church’. If there are bishops who have or will be dammed they are not part of it and if there is a little humble pagan who lived 60,000 years ago but God brought into heaven , he is part of it.
    The point being the categorical statement ‘There is no salvation without the church’ is fully and properly true when you are talking about the second definition of church. However, it is also very important to note their is only one way that God has given human’s to enter the mystical body and that is through the church militant. Anyone who understands that fully and refuses would be dammed. Anyone who does not understand it fully must at least wish to understand it ( because they desire all truth and to be pleasing to the cause of truth) or likewise they cannot expect salvation. So it is always the utmost kindness to divest someone of their ‘invincible ignorance’. Without even enumerating the many other benefits of a convent with God that is entered into by all members of church militant.

  • pbecke

    The article surely makes perfect sense of both Jesus’ teachings and of our Christian sense of justice, which ranks so high in the hierarchy of Judaeo-Christian virtues..

    I’ll try to find an article on an Egyptian Muslim footballer, playing for Liverpool, called Salah, who would be a credit to any religion, and evidently inspired by the Holy Spirit.

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