Do Catholics Believe That All Non-Christians Automatically Go to Hell? (Lenten Scriptural Commentary #5)
by Erik Ritland
Fully Alive’s Lenten Scriptural Commentary helps Christians get more out of Lent by taking God’s word seriously.
Mostly avoiding personal stories and anecdotes, our commentary dives deeply into the scripture readings for each day and applies them to the broader context of Lent. We use the daily Mass readings from the Catholic lectionary.
If possible, read each passage slowly, taking in each word. If you find that you’ve hurried through a reading, read it over a few more times. Let the words reverberate in your heart. After you’ve let it sink in, read our Lenten Scriptural Commentary.
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First Sunday of Lent
The Exodus and the temptations of Jesus are two of the most important episodes in all of scripture. They teach us about Jesus’ mission and are foundational Lenten stories. In Romans, St. Paul emphasizes the importance of confessing Christ.
Readings: Dt 26:4-10/Rom 10:8-13/Lk 4:1-13
Click here to read the complete text from the USCCB website
He brought us out of Egypt
with his strong hand and outstretched arm,
with terrifying power, with signs and wonders;
and bringing us into this country,
he gave us this land flowing with milk and honey.
(cf Dt 26: 4-10)
The Egyptian enslavement of the Israelites seemed hopeless. Even then, though, God was watching over them. Isn't this our situation as well?
It can seem like it is hopeless that we can overcome the sin in our lives. "Sin" can seem like a harsh, condemning word, especially in our hyper-sensitive times. But it's a pretty basic, non-controversial thing. It just means the ways that we miss the mark, the ways that we aren't perfect.
Most of us could benefit from thinking about the ways that we aren't perfect and trying to get better at them.
Doing that is a good start. But we can't justify ourselves. We aren't God; thus, we need God. We can't lift the weight we feel about the things we've done wrong on our own. It's simply impossible.
Christianity teaches that through the indeed “terrifying power” of Christ, in His passion and resurrection, we are free from sin.
Again, this is a lot less complicated or convoluted than it might seem.
It is simply God's invitation to do what you can't do on your own: take away the burden of individual guilt for things done wrong. "Catholic guilt" can be a punch line, but we all know that we do things wrong, and the more we face up to it and try to change for the better, the happier we'll be. And the better people we'll be.
When you feel the weight lifted from the worst things that you've done, you understand what it is like to live in paradise while on earth. According to Christianity, that’s what Jesus does for us.
For, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord
and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead,
you will be saved.
For one believes with the heart and so is justified,
and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved.
(cf. Romans 10: 8-13)
Catholics have a complex understanding of the eternal fate of non-Christians. While always confessing that the only way to God is through Jesus, Catholicism defaults to God’s mercy when it comes to the ways that salvation in Jesus can be accomplished.
In short, Catholicism doesn't believe that all non-Christians are automatically going to hell. God is the ultimate judge, and God is mercy. Regardless, even if non-Christians are saved, it is through the power of Christ.
I sympathize with the idea that it seems arrogant for Christians to believe that it is only the power of Christ that saves.
In actuality, it's no less arrogant (or exclusive) than basically any other truth claim. And we all make truth claims, whether they are "there is no God," "we can never know if there's a God or not," "I believe in Judaism," or "I believe in Islam." If any of those is true, then things that contradict them can't also be true.
Muslims believe that the way to God is through Islam, Jews through Judaism, agnostics that we can never know, atheists that the entire endeavor is pointless. They all have the right to believe those things, and they're all making claims that they're right about how they feel. They're all saying that people who disagree with them are wrong.
Christianity should have the freedom to do the same.
In a mature society, we then discuss and even argue about who is right and who is wrong in a constructive way. This is what adults do.
The gospel (Lk 4:1-13), as it always does for the First Sunday in Lent, highlights Jesus’ temptations.
Christianity is the only world religion in which God Himself becomes one of us and suffers the way we do. In Christ, God puts His money where His mouth is. This is no passive God that doesn’t care. And what is the ultimate way to show that you care? Go to the depths of what you’d expect those you create to go to.
When Jesus says “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” from the cross, He means it. He went to the absolute depths of evil and pain – to the point of god-forsakenness – to save us from our sin.
His journey begins with the temptation in the desert.
Erik Ritland is a writer and musician. The founder of Fully Alive Christian Media, he also created The Minnesota Sport Ramble and is a writer and copy editor for Music in Minnesota. He was Lead Staff Writer for Minnesota culture blogs Curious North and Hometown Hustle. Reach him via email.
Erik Ritland received his MA in Theology in 2017. He's the founder and content manager of Fully Alive Christian Media and Rambling On, copy editor and writer for Music in Minnesota, and an acclaimed songwriter.