Each issue carries an
Archdiocese of Cincinnati.
Who Will Be Saved?
What Catholics Believe
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 beliefswe 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 metaphorsour
"word pictures" or imagesof 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 thingseven 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
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 womanI 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 Stalinsand
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 loveto 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
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 Ialong with many other touristswas
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
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).