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Who Will Be Saved?
What Catholics Believe
About Salvation

by Thomas Richstatter, O.F.M.

There's a knock at the door at mid-morning. You go to see who it is and you are greeted by, "Hello, I'm sister Dorothy and this is my son Jason. We've been saved by the blood of Christ. Are you saved? May we come in and talk to you about being saved?" At this point many Roman Catholics become uncomfortable and are not too sure what to do. While we want to be polite and respect the callers' goodwill and obvious faith, we are hesitant to say, "Come in!"

There are several reasons for this hesitancy. The Gallup poll has shown that we Catholics are less likely to talk about our faith than are other Christians. Furthermore, American Catholics tend to respect others' choice in beliefs—we are uneasy in trying to bring others to our way of thinking.

But more important, perhaps we realize our visitors and we will be talking about salvation in two different ways. Protestants and Catholics tend to use different metaphors for salvation. Simply put, a metaphor is a "poetic" way of conveying meaning. In this Update we'll see that our metaphors—our "word pictures" or images—of God color our very understanding of who will go to heaven or hell.

Picturing God as a just accountant

The accounting metaphor is so natural to Catholics that we do not even know that it is there. We see a relationship between our good deeds and our place in heaven. In a sense we earn heaven by doing good deeds and lose our place in heaven by sin; to die in mortal sin merits hell: "Each will receive wages in proportion to his labor" (1 Corinthians 3:8); "The wages of sin is death" (Romans 6:23). We imagine God as a just accountant who will reward us according to what we deserve.

I remember the days when I was told that religion is like an insurance policy. We pay premiums (good works) and in the end the policy pays off (heaven). It was explained to me that the Catholic religion was the best religion because the premiums were the highest (Catholics had the most rules to follow) and therefore the payoff would be greater in the end. If we don't pay the premiums (good works) or even worse, if we commit mortal sin, then we are no longer deserving of heaven and merit the pains of hell. The Heavenly Bookkeeper sees all things—even our most secret thoughts. The accounting is just, so when we die, we'll get what we deserve.

The accounting metaphor is, of course, not usually this obvious in our thinking. Yet Catholics may be surprised to learn that not all Christians think this way. Only half as many Protestants think heaven is a divine reward for those who live the good life, Gallup pollsters found. They found that twice as many Protestants as Catholics would say the only hope for heaven is through personal faith in Jesus Christ. The stereotype that Catholics believe heaven is achieved by good works and Protestants believe it is achieved by faith is clearly borne out by this finding.

Yet Catholics have a broader awareness of God than the just accountant metaphor. We acknowledge, along with other Christians, that grace is a free gift. The accounting image does not adequately convey this teaching of our faith.

Jesus himself pointed out the limits of the accounting metaphor. Recall the parable of the Vineyard Laborers (Matthew 20:l-16): "The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out at dawn to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with them for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard." We remember how the landowner went out at nine o'clock, noon, three o'clock, and finally again at five o'clock, and each time hired more laborers. And we know the end of the story: "When it was evening the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, 'Summon the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and ending with the first.' When those who had started about five o'clock came, each received the usual daily wage. So when the first came, they thought that they would receive more, but each of them also got the usual wage."

When we understand salvation exclusively by imagining God as a just accountant, we are upset with the owner. We understand why the workers in the parable grumbled against the landowner; we'd grumble too! (And many Catholics do grumble when they hear this parable preached.) Jesus reminds us in this parable, and in many other places in the New Testament, that the accounting metaphor is not sufficient for understanding salvation. The accounting comparison must be balanced by the parenting comparison.

The parenting metaphor

"God is a loving parent" is a truth that we all believe, but we often don't apply this image to the question, Who will be saved? This can impoverish our notions of religion, salvation and God.

Why isn't the parenting metaphor emphasized more? Is it because many of us in the Catholic Church who write and preach about salvation are not parents ourselves? Is it because our American culture places more value on work and money than on parenting and personal relationships? Whatever the reason, I think that it will he helpful to examine the parenting metaphor and to see its implication for our understanding of salvation.

One major difference between "God is a loving parent" and "God is a just accountant" is that in the parent metaphor, reward is not based on the work accomplished. Parents love their children independently of the child' s labor or earnings. Parents love a newborn infant who has not accomplished anything. As the child grows, parents love children who make C's and D's in school, and parents love children who make A's and B's. I have seen parents at the Special Olympics as proud of their children accomplishing a task as parents cheering for their star sons and daughters at the high school basketball championship games.

Sometimes a child who is sick or in trouble seems to get even more love and attention than the other children who are well and achieving their life goals. The other day at the state prison one of the inmates told me: "Father, I just can't understand why my mother still loves me. She drives clear down here from South Bend to see me each visiting Sunday. And after the way I treated that woman—I would steal the wheels off her car and sell them to buy cocaine; and she couldn't get to work, and would get in trouble with her boss and lose her job. And still she comes all this way to visit me!" Parents are like that. It is not just, it is not good accounting but it is the way parents are. And if our human parents love us so much, how much more our Heavenly Parent!

How we learn about God

I was celebrating the Eucharist with fourth-graders the other day and I wanted to say something about how we learn who God is. I told the children that if they wanted to know about God, think of the good, wonderful and beautiful things that we see around us and multiply by a hundred million zillion. That is how good, wonderful and beautiful God is.

Among the wonderful and beautiful things we have around us is the gift of human parents. Jesus had outstanding parents in Mary and Joseph. Multiply their goodness by a hundred million zillion and we can imagine what a wonderful image of God he must have had! This may be one of the reasons why the metaphor "God is a loving parent" figures so prominently in the New Testament. Jesus refers to God as father over 100 times in the Gospels.

Not all children today are blessed with the gift of two mature, loving parents; and sometimes it may be difficult to sort out the good from the bad before multiplying. But even if our human mothers and fathers fail, our God never fails. Isaiah assures us, "Can a mother forget her infant, be without tenderness for the child of her womb? Even should she forget, I will never forget you" (Isaiah 49:15).

Story after story in the Bible tells us of God's limitless love for us. I think of the story of the prodigal son. The father in the story loves both of his children, each in a different way. Actually it is the father who is prodigal, too. Who would give half of his possessions as an inheritance while still living, especially if he knew they would be squandered! It seems to me that the father in the story loves his children beyond what a good father ought. Can it be that our Father in heaven loves us even more than a father should?

Who can be saved?

No one needs to tell us that there is evil in the world. No one needs to tell us that there are men and women who do evil things. The metaphor "God is a just accountant" assures us that in the end they will get their due. (Sometimes, though, our assurance is a little too self-righteous. It is often other people who we want to see in hell: the Hitlers, the Stalins—and sometimes the people next door!)

The metaphor "God is a loving parent," however, leads us to a different set of numbers. A parent's love can extend beyond what a child deserves. The reward is measured not by the size of the child's achievements but by the size of the parent's love. How loving is our God? How powerful? Is God's love restricted by our judgment as to whom God can or should love?

Who goes to heaven? Using the accounting idea the answer is simple: all those who act justly in this world. Using the parenting image the answer is also simple: God wants all God's children, all those whom God loves, to go to heaven.

This is not to say that good works are unimportant, or that it is O.K. to sin, or that God does not respect our free will. But it does invite us to look at the issue in a different way. For example, it changes the reason we avoid sin and perform good works. We do not perform good deeds in order to purchase heaven by our own merits, or to be assured of an eternal reward by the Heavenly Accountant. (We do not, for example, go to Mass each Sunday to get our card punched so that when we arrive at the seat of judgment it will be clear that we have paid our dues.)

"God is a loving parent" assures us that God loves us. Once we know that we are loved, it is normal to want to return that love—to love the God who loves us first. There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear because fear has to do with punishment, and so one who fears is not yet perfect in love. We love because God first loved us (see 1 John 4:18-19).

St. Paul reminds us that while the law is powerless, love is all-powerful (see Romans 8:3). Parents know that threatening a child with punishment may change behavior for a time, but the best way to effect lasting change is by enfolding the child in love. When we are loved we are empowered to grow, to love, to perform generous deeds. Jesus, the carpenter of Nazareth, entered the Jordan at his baptism, "And a voice came from the heavens, saying, 'This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased'" (Matthew 3:17). Jesus emerged from the river, empowered by that love, to save the world.

The importance of being loved

Several of my Baptist friends told me that the first prayer they remember learning was the hymn that goes, "Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so." This prayer has shaped their belief about God in a beautiful way. It helps them to realize at a very basic level that God loves each of us very much. And indeed the Bible does tell us so: God "wills everyone to be saved and to come to knowledge of the truth" (1 Timothy 2:4).

A finding of a Gallup poll disturbed me: Among the various Christian groups in this country (Evangelicals, Baptists, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Episcopalians, Methodists, other Protestants and Catholics), Catholics were the least likely to believe "God loves me a great deal" and the least likely to say "God loves me." The reason this upset me was because I consider that my principal task as a priest, as a Franciscan and as a Christian is to proclaim the love of God. And when I read that Catholics are the least likely to believe "God loves me a great deal" it seems that I must not be doing a very good job proclaiming the love of God if the people I am talking to are not getting the message. Are Catholics receiving more bad news than gospel good news?

Why all this talk about hell?

Why is it that so many Catholics are unaware of the magnitude of God's love for them? Is it because we have been preaching accounting more forcefully than parenting? Is it because of our fascination for evil? Is it because it is easier to describe evil than to describe grace? I know from my own experience that it is much easier to preach about the torments of hell than it is to describe the joys of heaven. Not only preachers but also poets and other artists seem to do better with hell than with heaven.

When I was a student in Europe I remember visiting cathedrals where scenes of the Final Judgment were depicted in vivid sculptures over the great doors. And I remember standing in front of Michelangelo's "Last Judgment" in the Sistine Chapel. In both cases I—along with many other tourists—was always much more fascinated by the torments of the damned than by the bliss of the saints. Hell holds a fascination for all of us.

Many preachers tell us about the end of the world, interpreting the Scriptures in such a way as to show us the destruction God has planned for creation. They draw pictures for us of countless souls burning in hell. When we hear these stories it is good to remember that, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us, the references to hell in sacred Scripture and in the teaching of the Church are a call to responsibility so that we might use our human liberty in accord with our eternal destiny. They are an urgent call to conversion.

Although the Church definitely teaches the existence and eternity of hell, the Church has never taught that anyone is actually in hell. That judgment is up to God alone. When we think of salvation using the "God is a loving parent" metaphor, the number of those we imagine to be damned is drastically reduced! As the Catechism makes clear, the purpose of this language is to call us, the living, to responsibility and to respond to the love of our Heavenly Parent.

How many are saved?

Our American culture is so permeated with the spirit of individualism that it is difficult to imagine that we are all in this together. We are so accustomed to thinking of sin as a private act that it is hard to realize that, as Pope John Paul II has reminded us, every sin affects others, the Church, indeed all creation.

We do not often think of all creation being saved. "For creation awaits with eager expectation the revelation of the children of God; for creation was made subject to futility, not of its own accord but because of the one who subjected it, in hope that creation itself would be set free from slavery to corruption and share in the glorious freedom of the children of God. We know that all creation is groaning in labor pains even until now" (Romans 8:19-22).

The accounting image can lead us to overlook certain texts of Scripture and the liturgy that don't seem to fit our idea of salvation. Examples are the Scripture passage which says that God is patient with you, not wishing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9); or the prayer of the Eucharist: "Take this, all of you, and drink from it: This is the cup of my blood, the blood of the new and everlasting covenant. It will be shed for you and for all so that sins may be forgiven....Father, accept this offering from your whole family. Grant us your peace in this life, save us from final damnation, and count us among those you have chosen" (Eucharistic Prayer I).

We see people around us who do evil things. We see the evil that men and women do to the love with which God embraces us. Yet if we see God as our Heavenly Parent, evil and sin are seen not so much in terms of punishable actions but as those actions which keep us from responding to God's loving embrace.

What things (actions, people, attitudes) can prevent us from responding to God's parental love for us? Jesus says that one of the things high on the list that blocks us from God is wealth (another shock to those accustomed to the accounting metaphor of salvation)! As a Franciscan, I like to think that this is the reason why St. Francis, the poor man of Assisi, could respond to the Father's love so completely: No attachment to wealth stood in the way.

When the rich young man in the Gospel asked Jesus, "What must I do to inherit eternal life?", Jesus told him to get rid of his possessions. "Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, 'How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!' The disciples were amazed at his words. So Jesus again said to them in reply, 'Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.' They were exceedingly astonished and said among themselves, 'Then who can be saved?'" (Mark 10:17-26).

Here we have the key to understanding the parenting metaphor of salvation. When we think of love, we tend to think of the ways in which we human beings love. To imagine the vastness of God's love for us is difficult if not impossible. We ask with the disciples, "How is this possible?" Jesus answered his disciples immediately: "For human beings it is impossible, but not for God. All things are possible for God" (Mark 10:27).

Thomas Richstatter, O.F.M., has a doctorate in liturgy and sacramental theology from the Institut Catholique of Paris. A popular writer and lecturer, Father Richstatter teaches courses on the sacraments at St. Meinrad (Indiana) School of Theology.


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