No Salvation Outside the Church and Evangelization

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By Will Deatherage, Executive Director

So Jesus said to them,
“Amen, amen, I say to you,
it was not Moses who gave the bread from heaven;
my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. 
For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven
and gives life to the world.”
So they said to him,
“Sir, give us this bread always.” 
Jesus said to them,
“I am the bread of life;
whoever comes to me will never hunger,
and whoever believes in me will never thirst.”

Jn 6:29-35

Are the ancient Israelites in Heaven? The Church teaches that there is no salvation outside of its doors, but the precise definition of what constitutes membership in the Church has not always been clear. Consider how St. Augustine believed in the existence of the Church before Christ’s birth.[1] According to St. Paul, obedience to Old Testament Laws, despite their provisional nature, was just as important for Israelites as obedience to Christ’s New Laws was for the early Christians.[2] Because of this, many theologians speculate that the Jews before Christ could be considered members of the Church.

In ancient times God spoke to us
Through prophets, and in varied ways,
But now he speaks through Christ his Son,
His radiance through eternal days.

Hymn from Stanbrook Abbey

What about the pagans? Perhaps surprisingly, Church Fathers like Justin Martyr believed in paths to salvation for pagan philosophers like Socrates because of an often-neglected aspect of Christ’s character: Logos, or universal wisdom.[3] The Church teaches that Christ’s existence did not begin at His birth; He has always existed as the eternal wisdom that attracts and guides people of all faiths and cultures to God the Father. Thus, just as the Ancient Jews were governed by God’s revealed provisional laws, their pagan counterparts were governed by God’s natural ones. But if the Church Fathers were open to the admittance of self-identifying pagans and Jews (who were, according to the Fathers, actually Christians) into Heaven, how could future popes teach that “Jews, heretics, and schismatics […] will go to the ‘eternal fire prepared for the devil and its angels,’ unless before the end of their life they are joined to [the Church]”?[4]

Brothers and sisters:
I declare and testify in the Lord
that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do,
in the futility of their minds;
that is not how you learned Christ,
assuming that you have heard of him and were taught in him,
as truth is in Jesus,
that you should put away the old self of your former way of life,
corrupted through deceitful desires,
and be renewed in the spirit of your minds,
and put on the new self,
created in God’s way in righteousness and holiness of truth.

Eph 4:17, 20-24

Should children be judged the same as adults? I consider Christ’s birth as a pivotal point in the maturation of the human race. Those who were graced with Christ’s incarnation could have chosen to remain childish and reject God’s saving Word, or they could have chosen to maturely accept Him and His Church. This is why St. Paul emphasizes how when the Gospel is introduced to a foreign society, all citizens are obligated to accept it. Once Christianity became the basis for law and order across Europe, it was generally accepted that a rejection of the Gospel signified a rejection of all that was good, both spiritually and temporally. Renouncing Christianity not only meant renouncing your personal faith but rebelling against your culture and family. It could be compared to an American renouncing their citizenship while threatening its leaders. In other words, rejecting Christianity in a Christian empire meant rejecting all of Christian ethics, from “love your neighbor” to “thou shalt not murder.” The Church Councils were right to declare “no salvation outside the Church,” for the Church of Christendom, unlike the Church of the Fathers, was a well-organized institution that believed it had successfully preached the Gospel to the ends of the Earth. The Kingdom of Heaven had been established on Earth, the rejection of the Earthly Kingdom signified rejection of its heavenly counterpart.

R. (24b)  The Lord gave them bread from heaven.
What we have heard and know,
    and what our fathers have declared to us,
we will declare to the generation to come
    the glorious deeds of the LORD and his strength
    and the wonders that he wrought.

PS 78:3-4

People are no longer born into a culture of Christendom, which has very important implications on their salvation. Once again, we live in a world of Gentilic dominance; the Church’s relationship to culture is more similar to what it was 2000 years ago than what it was 200 years ago. This means that, once again, we must adjust our understanding of what it truly means to accept or reject the Church. A majority of Western civilization is constantly presented with a distortion of our Faith by the media, and the formerly well-organized monolithic Christian religion has been shattered into dozens of sects and denominations, further obscuring the Gospel. To assign a modern person the same expectations of accepting the Church as someone who grew up in a Catholic culture is foolish and unjust. Yes, there is still no salvation outside the Church, but we must always humbly acknowledge that God ultimately has final say over who is welcomed into Her doors; and the definition of who exactly is considered worthy of entrance has and will continue to change based on historical circumstance.

One might think that this debate over who is considered “inside the Church” has solely speculative relevance. This is not the case. The way we understand this topic has vast implications on how we evangelize. Shortly after the height of Christendom, the age of exploration in the Americas resulted in numerous destructive acts that were committed in the name of “no salvation outside the Church.” While I refuse to pass judgment over colonialists, whose understanding of the human person was far different from ours, I think we can still learn from their actions. Today, we know that non-Christians are not savages, sub-humans, or warmongers. They are not wholly “other” because they are united to us by a common sense of reason that compels all men to pursue knowledge and, therefore, Christ. We must take advantage of this common language, since bashing an atheist over the head with a Bible will do as much good as doing the same to a Roman soldier. We must recall that the most brilliant Church Fathers invoked Christ as Logos, universal wisdom who inspires people of all religions, to build His kingdom.


[1] “What we now call the Christian religion existed amongst the ancients, and was from the beginning of the human race, until Christ Himself came in the flesh; from which time the already existing true religion began to be styled Christian” (Retract., I, xiii, 3)

[2] See Romans 7.

[3] “Those who have lived in accordance with the Logos are Christians, even though they were called godless, such as, among the Greeks, Socrates and Heraclitus.” (1 Apol. XLVI, 1-4).

[4] From the Council of Florence

6 Responses

  1. Catechism of the Catholic Church:
    Who belongs to the Catholic Church?

    836 “All men are called to this catholic unity of the People of God. . . . And to it, in different ways, belong or are ordered: the Catholic faithful, others who believe in Christ, and finally all mankind, called by God’s grace to salvation.”320

    837 “Fully incorporated into the society of the Church are those who, possessing the Spirit of Christ, accept all the means of salvation given to the Church together with her entire organization, and who – by the bonds constituted by the profession of faith, the sacraments, ecclesiastical government, and communion – are joined in the visible structure of the Church of Christ, who rules her through the Supreme Pontiff and the bishops. Even though incorporated into the Church, one who does not however persevere in charity is not saved. He remains indeed in the bosom of the Church, but ‘in body’ not ‘in heart.'”321

    838 “The Church knows that she is joined in many ways to the baptized who are honored by the name of Christian, but do not profess the Catholic faith in its entirety or have not preserved unity or communion under the successor of Peter.”322 Those “who believe in Christ and have been properly baptized are put in a certain, although imperfect, communion with the Catholic Church.”323 With the Orthodox Churches, this communion is so profound “that it lacks little to attain the fullness that would permit a common celebration of the Lord’s Eucharist.”324

    The Church and non-Christians

    839 “Those who have not yet received the Gospel are related to the People of God in various ways.”325

    The relationship of the Church with the Jewish People. When she delves into her own mystery, the Church, the People of God in the New Covenant, discovers her link with the Jewish People,326 “the first to hear the Word of God.”327 The Jewish faith, unlike other non-Christian religions, is already a response to God’s revelation in the Old Covenant. To the Jews “belong the sonship, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and of their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ”,328 “for the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable.”329

    840 And when one considers the future, God’s People of the Old Covenant and the new People of God tend towards similar goals: expectation of the coming (or the return) of the Messiah. But one awaits the return of the Messiah who died and rose from the dead and is recognized as Lord and Son of God; the other awaits the coming of a Messiah, whose features remain hidden till the end of time; and the latter waiting is accompanied by the drama of not knowing or of misunderstanding Christ Jesus.

    841 The Church’s relationship with the Muslims. “The plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator, in the first place amongst whom are the Muslims; these profess to hold the faith of Abraham, and together with us they adore the one, merciful God, mankind’s judge on the last day.”330

    842 The Church’s bond with non-Christian religions is in the first place the common origin and end of the human race:

    All nations form but one community. This is so because all stem from the one stock which God created to people the entire earth, and also because all share a common destiny, namely God. His providence, evident goodness, and saving designs extend to all against the day when the elect are gathered together in the holy city. . .331
    843 The Catholic Church recognizes in other religions that search, among shadows and images, for the God who is unknown yet near since he gives life and breath and all things and wants all men to be saved. Thus, the Church considers all goodness and truth found in these religions as “a preparation for the Gospel and given by him who enlightens all men that they may at length have life.”332

    844 In their religious behavior, however, men also display the limits and errors that disfigure the image of God in them:

    Very often, deceived by the Evil One, men have become vain in their reasonings, and have exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and served the creature rather than the Creator. Or else, living and dying in this world without God, they are exposed to ultimate despair.333
    845 To reunite all his children, scattered and led astray by sin, the Father willed to call the whole of humanity together into his Son’s Church. The Church is the place where humanity must rediscover its unity and salvation. The Church is “the world reconciled.” She is that bark which “in the full sail of the Lord’s cross, by the breath of the Holy Spirit, navigates safely in this world.” According to another image dear to the Church Fathers, she is prefigured by Noah’s ark, which alone saves from the flood.334

    “Outside the Church there is no salvation”

    846 How are we to understand this affirmation, often repeated by the Church Fathers?335 Re-formulated positively, it means that all salvation comes from Christ the Head through the Church which is his Body:

    Basing itself on Scripture and Tradition, the Council teaches that the Church, a pilgrim now on earth, is necessary for salvation: the one Christ is the mediator and the way of salvation; he is present to us in his body which is the Church. He himself explicitly asserted the necessity of faith and Baptism, and thereby affirmed at the same time the necessity of the Church which men enter through Baptism as through a door. Hence they could not be saved who, knowing that the Catholic Church was founded as necessary by God through Christ, would refuse either to enter it or to remain in it.336
    847 This affirmation is not aimed at those who, through no fault of their own, do not know Christ and his 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 actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience – those too may achieve eternal salvation.337
    848 “Although in ways known to himself God can lead those who, through no fault of their own, are ignorant of the Gospel, to that faith without which it is impossible to please him, the Church still has the obligation and also the sacred right to evangelize all men.”338

  2. Our Lady of La Salette said that ( Rome will lose the faith and become the seat of the Anti-christ) You tell me that this is the true Church, you got to be kidding. The true Church doesn’t have the errors that the Roman Church has, the gay mafia, or papan worship at the Vatican. There are many other errors that are going on in the Roman Church.

      1. A true Church can’t proclaim errors like to Church of Rome has done, this is why so many Catholic saints have said that the Church falter. Our Lady of La Salette said that ( Rome will lose the faith and become the seat of the Anti-christ; that doesn’t sound like a winning hand there. The prophecies are the key to what will happen to the Roman Church try reading them.

        1. Read this comment and let me know what you think: “the city of Rome in the last century will be a lot like it was in the first. The Antichrist will be the head of state, persecuting the Church, and the pope will be leading the Christian underground, just like Peter in first-century Rome.”

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