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When discussing sin, hell, and damnation in relation to salvation, people sometimes bring up an objection citing a person in an isolated jungle who has never heard the Gospel. Surely, they claim, God would not be so “cruel” as to condemn this person to hell merely because he never had an opportunity to hear the Gospel. This well-meaning, but utterly misguided, notion shows a deep lack of understanding regarding the true Catholic Faith. Let’s consider this situation a bit further to see if we can come to a better understanding regarding the Truth of God’s Law.
First, we very clearly need to distinguish that if a person outside Christ’s Church is saved, he is not saved because of his religion but in spite of it. Certainly God is completely free to save whomever He chooses, including those outside the Church, yet at the same time we cannot discount what He has told us through His Divine Revelation about His plan for Salvation.
Some within the Church, on both sides of the rail, have misinterpreted the teachings of Vatican II, either accidently or on purpose, to claim that every religion is just as good as any other and that the Catholic Church has no particular claim on the Truth, and therefore has no right or obligation to proselytize. This is a dangerous lie. Vatican II very clearly taught, in complete continuity with Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition, that the fullness of Truth subsists in the Catholic Church (here’s a link to a very important document from the CDF clarifying the meaning of the word “subsists:” http://www.catholicnewsagency.com/document.php?n=162).
According to the Fathers of the Church, the most primitive religion is the natural religion of monotheism brought about by the work of God’s holy angels entrusted with the care of nations. As Fr. Jean Danielou says in The Angels and Their Mission, “The very regularity of the laws of nature is a sort of revelation through which man can recognize the existence of a provident God.” The angels were charged with the mission of providing protection and temporal assistance to nations, along with a primary spiritual role of leading pagan people towards God and retaining the spark of natural revelation. However, nations turned away from the natural religion due to the egotism and presumption of man, coupled with the activity of demons; instead of God, pagans turned to foolish worship of idols.
Thus, while elements of truth exist in other religions, they do not contain the fullness of Truth. God does not desire man to remain in the ignorance of false religion. Instead, those elements of truth in otherwise false religions are designed to prepare people for and lead them to the Truth, which is found only in the one, true, orthodox Catholic Faith. This is why missionary and apologetic activity remains critically important and why ecumenical activity should encourage dialogue but never compromise the Truth.
God is not cruel; He is pure and perfect love. As pure and perfect love, He grants us the free will to either accept or reject Him – for true love only exists if it is freely given and freely returned. Therefore, it is not God’s pure and perfect love which condemns us. It is we, through our own actions, who condemn ourselves. We forget that true love isn’t all smiley faces and warm puppies. Instead, true love is very often tough and difficult. Our Lord reminds us of this throughout Sacred Scripture. A close reading of Sacred Scripture shows us that salvation is anything but easy or a “given” – in fact our Lord clearly indicates the truth that not everyone is saved. In a misguided attempt not to “offend,” there’s been a de-emphasis of sin, the devil, and damnation in recent decades. Yet, isn’t it better to live in the Truth no matter how difficult it might be than to be “comforted” by a lie?
St. John pulls no punches when he tells us, “Unless a man is born again of water and the Holy Spirit he cannot enter into the Kingdom of God” (Jn 3:5). Thus, the Second Council of Lyons (1274) and the Council of Florence (1438-1445) declared: “the souls of those who die in mortal sin or with only original sin soon go down into hell, but there they receive different punishments.” Those two punishments are the “pain of loss” and the “pain of sense.” The “pain of loss” is the absence of the Beatific Vision. The “pain of sense” is brought about by actual sin and is felt by the senses even after the resurrection of the body. As Pope Innocent III summed it up, “the punishment for original sin is the loss of the vision of God, but the punishment for actual sin is the torment of an everlasting hell.”
The “pain of loss” is compatible with a state of natural bliss or perfect happiness – it merely lacks the Beatific Vision. This is the state many orthodox theologians throughout the history of the Church refer to as “limbo.” Limbo itself is not a dogmatic teaching of the Church, but is a strongly accepted theory among many eminent and solid theologians. I agree with the arguments for the existence of limbo and its role as the repository for souls who die without the Sacrament of Baptism. I don’t find this to be “cruel,” but instead simply a fact of the Truth. Those in limbo are in a state of perfect natural happiness; they are not being eternally punished as are those suffering “pain of sense,” instead they simply lack the Beatific Vision (they are happy, but unaware they could be more happy).
This notion that God wouldn’t be so “cruel” as not to save everyone comes down to believing what we wish to be true instead of what we’re told through Divine Revelation is actually the Truth. God clearly spells out His Law and the consequences of either rejecting or accepting that Law. Yet in our subjective and relativistic “me” centered society, we think it “unfair” and “cruel” if we’re held to an objective standard of Truth. However, at the end of the day, no matter how loudly we complain or how much we wish it were otherwise, we cannot break His Law, but only break ourselves against His Law.
As for our man we left standing alone in the middle of the jungle, did not our Lord command us to “make disciples of all nations?” If our man in the jungle dies without every hearing the Gospel, or worse yet turns to demon-inspired idolatry, then in a sense aren’t we at least partly to blame for not fully following the command of our Lord?
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