Can Non-Christians Be Saved?
20th Sunday in Ordinary time, Year A (Matt 15:21-28)
August 20, 2017
By Msgr. Lope C. Robredillo, SThD
WHEN it comes to the doctrine of salvation, there still seems to be exclusivism in the teaching of many ecclesial bodies and sects. In Isang Pagbubunyag sa Iglesia ni Cristo, the following is claimed: “Jesus taught that a person needs to enter into him in order to be saved… In Col 1:18, it says: ‘And he is the head of the body, the church… Christ is the head and the Church is Christ’s body. Whoever enters into Christ, enters into Christ’s head… Therefore, in order for a person to be saved, he must become a member of the Iglesia ni Cristo.” D. Platt’s Counterfeit!, from which the quote was lifted, states that according to the teaching of the Jehovah’s witnesses, only 144,000 will share in the heavenly glory, because this is plainly shown in the Scriptures. If this is true, will the more than two billion people in the world who do not belong to the Iglesia ni Cristo, or who are outside the 144,000, not share in God’s glory? Is one saved exclusively on the basis of the body he enters into, or of a required number? Will it be only on the basis of who are able to get into an island, as in the case of Ruben Ecleo’s PBMA which teaches that only those who come to Dinagat will be saved from the coming cataclysm? What does the Bible really say of salvation of peoples?
The fate of other people, their salvation, was a great concern of the early Church. It was even so crucial not only in the discussion but also in the division of the first Christians. In its early history, Israel did not consider the Gentiles within the purview of salvation. For one thing, there was, as Grelot and Pierron note, scarcely anytime that the existence of Israel as a nation was not threatened, if not ravished, by the Gentile nations, caught as she was in the currents of international politics. If they opposed Israel which was the depository of essential values that pertain to salvation, they thereby set themselves in opposition to God’s plan. For another, the Gentiles represent paganism, idolatry and tyranny. Therefore, in order that Israel would not be contaminated by their pagan and idolatrous worship and tyrannical rule, the Israelites tried to separate themselves from these nations. Indeed, the community of Israel would not even permit Gentiles to become membership (cf Deut 23:2-8). There cannot be any salvation for these pagans. This religious culture seems to be the backdrop of today’s Gospel. When a Canaanite woman came to Jesus so that her daughter, who was tormented by a demon, could be healed, and his disciples told him about it, Jesus replied: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Mark 15:24). In fact, he said to the woman, “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs” (Mark 15:26) “Children”, of course, represents Israel, while “dogs” is a Jewish term of contempt for Gentiles.
But the exile of the Jews to Babylon transformed their view of the Gentiles. In Isaiah, for instance, the prophet envisages a time when nations will come to Jerusalem to learn the law: “Many nations shall come and say: ‘Come, let us climb the Lord’s mountain, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may instruct us in his ways, and we may walk in his paths” (Isa 2:2-3). The nations will be converted, justice will be established, peace will reign and all will worship one God. Thus the first reading: “My salvation is about to come, my justice, about to be revealed. And all foreigners who join themselves to the Lord and becoming his servants—them I will bring to my holy mountain, and make joyful in my house of prayer.. for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples” (Isa 56:1.6-7). In this Isaianic tradition, which has a universalist outlook, all will share in the one salvation of God, but of course, this happens through Israel. No wonder, St Paul could write Timothy: “God wants all men to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2:4). This is why, despite the earlier claim that he was sent only to the house of Israel, Jesus expelled the demon from the daughter of the Canaanite (Matt 15:28).
In principle, therefore, all Gentiles can share in the ultimate salvation. And just as Isaiah envisaged that the Gentiles will come to the Lord through Israel, so in the new order, all nations will receive salvation through the new Israel, Jesus himself. “God has not destined us for wrath, but for acquiring salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thess 5:9). In the plan of God, then, salvation is not dependent on a required number, or limited to a sect, or to those who can get into an island in time for the great catastrophe. No! All nations are included in God’s plan of salvation in Jesus Christ. This biblical faith is likewise the faith of the Catholic Church. Says the Declaration Dominus Iesus on the Unicity and Salvific Universality of Jesus Christ and the Church: “It must therefore be firmly believed as a truth of Catholic faith that the universal salvific will of the One and Triune God is offered and accomplished once for all in the mystery of the incarnation, death and resurrection of the Son of God” (n 14).
But how does a man or woman, Gentile or not, respond to God’s offer of salvation? In today’s Gospel, Matthew tells us that the response of faith is salvific. When the woman insisted, saying, “Please, Lord, even the dogs eat the leavings that fall for their masters’ table,” Jesus told her, “Woman, you have great faith! Your wish will come to pass” And Matthew adds that that very moment, her daughter got better (Matt 15:27-29). By faith of course is not meant simple trust or confidence. Rather, in the words of the same Declaration, it is “by which man freely entrusts his entire self to God, offering the full submission of intellect and will to God who reveals, and freely assenting to the revelation given by him. Faith is a gift of grace: in order to have faith, the grace of God must come first and give assistance, there must also be the interior helps of the Holy Spirit, who moves the heart and converts it to God, who opens the eyes of the mind and gives to everyone joy and ease in assenting to and believing in the truth. The obedience of faith implies acceptance of the truth of Christ’s revelation, guaranteed by God, who is Truth itself: faith is first of all a personal adherence of man to God. At the same time, and inseparably, it is a free assent to the whole truth that God has revealed. Faith, therefore, as a gift of God and as a supernatural virtue infused by him, involves dual adherence: to God who reveals and to the truth which he reveals, out of the trust which one has in him who speaks. Thus, we must believe in no one but God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit” (n 7).