Not long ago a theologian within the Eastern Orthodox tradition named David Bentley Hart released a new book entitled Heaven, Hell, and Universal Salvation in which he proposes that ultimately all people attain eternal salvation, regardless of what they believed or how they behaved during their earthly lives. For Hart, there is no such thing as hell or eternal torment; all peoples everywhere will ultimately be saved – a belief referred to as universalism.1, 2
This false belief is by no means solely a modern-day trend, even though its popularity might very well be growing in recent years.3 Around the time of Jesus’ public ministry there was a lively debate amongst the Jewish people regarding which people would be saved and how many. 4 It is this debate that contextualizes a lesson Jesus gives on the kingdom of God found in chapter 13 of Luke (vv. 22-30). In it, the Evangelist explains how someone comes to Jesus and asks “Lord, will only a few be saved (v. 23)?” And to this Jesus says “[s]trive to enter through the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able” (24).”
So here Our Lord provides an image of a narrow door or gate to a city with many people struggling to get through this tight opening but only some being successful. In other words, not all people attain eternal salvation – only some.5 That being said, it is crucial we realize that God calls all people everywhere to salvation. All are called to enter the narrow door and this entranceway is Jesus Christ – the Risen Lord is our gateway to eternal life! 6
And while salvation is offered to all through God’s grace, through Jesus Christ, it is necessary that we cooperate and strive to do His will through all of our thoughts, words, and actions.7 Not everyone responds this way, but certainly all are called.
Cooperating with God’s call means that we conform ourselves to the Person of Jesus Christ. And this involves reflecting on who He is.
While various traditions propose that Jesus was a prophet or a good moral teacher, our Catholic-Christian beliefs maintain that He is much more than this. For instance, in the Nicene Creed we proclaim our belief “…in one Lord Jesus Christ…true God from true God, begotten, not made…” It is here that we articulate that Jesus is divine – Jesus is God.
This Creed goes on to say that “…for our salvation [H]e came down from heaven, and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and became man.” So here we proclaim that Jesus is also a man, and in His humanity he profoundly suffered through His saving Death on a Cross.
But death did not have the final word, and after Jesus’ glorious Resurrection and Ascension there was an “explosion” of prayerful activity within the early Church, as different faith statements and hymns were passed on and written about Jesus in order to spread His teachings. Furthermore, sacraments such as Baptism and the Holy Eucharist were frequently celebrated so that people could encounter the Risen Lord.8
All this activity was met with resistance from the Roman Empire who inflicted waves of persecution upon the Church. Faithful Catholics refused to worship the Roman Emperor and the pagan deities and so tens of thousands of them were cruelly put to death. This persecution continued for about 300 years, sometimes worse than others, but the Catholic Faith continued to spread. This prompted the Church Father Tertullian to write that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.” 9
By the early 4th century Christianity was legalized throughout the Roman Empire, and this made it much easier for people to attend Mass and live out the Catholic-Christian Faith. But this did not mean the end of conflict, as heated disputes arose over Church teaching, particularly teachings about Jesus.10 One false teaching that created a lot of confusion was Arianism, which taught that Jesus was not actually God, but some sort of “third thing”; a created being that was greater than humans but inferior to God and thus very distant from us.11
Despite all this confusion, the Church, led by the Holy Spirit, clearly taught and continues to teach that Jesus Christ is one Person with two natures – one divine and one human. Thus, Christ is completely accessible to us, He is “God-with-us.” It is through our personal relationship with Jesus, through our ongoing prayers in His name and through the sacraments, that we are united to God. We are linked to Jesus through His humanity and thus incorporated into and experience His Divinity. We are transformed by Christ, a transformation that can continue for eternity but God does not force Himself or salvation on us. We can choose to either embrace or reject Christ. 12, 13
It is obviously much better to embrace rather than reject Christ, and it is crucial we draw close to Jesus throughout our lives, including during difficult times. This includes personal disappointments or rejection by others, the death or illness of a loved one, perhaps our own illness or some other trial. Turning to Christ in trying times is highlighted in the Letter to the Hebrews, which states that “…discipline always seems painful rather than pleasant at the time, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it” (12:11).
In other words, when difficult circumstances arise in our lives it is crucial that we turn to God in prayer and sacrament to obtain the saving grace and courage that only He can give. For instance, if we are plagued by a serious illness the Anointing of the Sick heals us spiritually and even physically if God wills it.
If our relationship with God is damaged due to sin then celebrating the sacrament of Confession is incredibly healing. Moreover, we know how fruitful the graces are when we attend Mass, listen to God speak to us through the Scriptures, and consume the Body and Blood of the Risen Lord in the Most Holy Eucharist. And let us never underestimate the depth of prayer we may enter into through Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament; a great way to come before the Lord and experience His healing power as we look at Him and He looks at us.14
When we turn to the Lord in prayer and sacrament in the midst of our trials we will experience the joyous fruits of His peace and we are more likely to share these fruits with others. In other words, we will strive to do His will through our thoughts, words, and actions, and thus are more likely to pass through that narrow door to salvation that is found only in Christ Jesus.
So, let us turn our minds and hearts to the Risen Lord, not presuming salvation but faithfully striving to attain it by opening ourselves to His never-ending grace and help. We pray and have that great hope that at the end of our earthly journeys, which will happen to all of us at some point, we will essentially hear the following: “Well done, my good and faithful servant….Come, [and] share your master’s joy.” (Mt 25: 23).
1 Source: https://www.catholic.com/magazine/online-edition/do-all-people-go-to-heaven (Retrieved August 16, 2022).
2 Source: https://yalebooks.yale.edu/book/9780300258486/that-all-shall-be-saved/ (Retrieved August 25, 2022).
3 Source: https://www.catholic.com/audio/cot/what-is-hopeful-universalism (Retrieved August 25th, 2022).
4 Brant Pitre, The Mass Readings Explained. The Twenty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time– Year C (Part one), p. 2-3.
5 Ibid., p. 5
6 Catechism of the Catholic Church. 543.
7 Ignatian Catholic Study Bible – New Testament, p. 134.
8 Source: http://www.americancatholic.org/Newsletters/JHP/aq0107.asp (Retrieved August 17, 2015).
9 Source: http://www3.dbu.edu/mitchell/anceint_christian_martyrdom.htm (Retrieved August 18, 2015).
10 St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology. Journey Through Scripture: The Bible and the Church Fathers.
11 Pope Benedict XVI. Great Christian Thinkers. Fortress Press: Minneapolis, MN. 2011, p. 39.
12 Source: http://www.gotquestions.org/council-of-Chalcedon.html (Retrieved August 17, 2015).
13 Pope Benedict XVI. Ibid., pp. 39-41.
14 Source: https://beginningtopray.blogspot.com/2009/08/st-john-vianney-continued.html (Retrieved August 17, 2022).