15

Salvation Is Not a Right

My last post spurred some interesting comments about human rights. One commenter in particular made an astute observation about three inalienable rights in terms of our temporal life.

  • The Right to Life: Relates to your future; lose your life and you lose your future.
  • The Right to Liberty: Relates to your present; lose your liberty and you lose your present.
  • The Right to Property: Relates to your past; lose your property (the fruit of your life and liberty) and you lose your past.

And in the end no one, other than God, can justly infringe upon these rights assuming there is no need to take your life or liberty in self-defense or as punishment, and that your property was justly acquired.

But aren’t terms like “life”, “liberty” and even “property” subject to interpretation and understanding? You’d think the right to life would be fairly straightforward, but for some, animals and trees have more right to be alive than humans who happen to be physically located in their mother’s womb. Along these same lines, a sense of entitlement can lead one to conclude that the right to an abortion is part of a woman’s “liberty” and that your property is not really yours, but actually communal property that can and should be distributed equally.

Kids and young adults might express this sense of entitlement more freely than older adults and this can all relate to how we view salvation. My confirmation students will sometimes say what many adults might often think. An example is when we discuss Original Sin in class. Objections to the dogma may go something like this…What’s the deal with Original Sin? Adam and Eve disobeyed, not me. I didn’t do anything, especially when I was a newborn baby, so why should I have to deal with all the ramifications of Original Sin? It’s not fair!!

The attitude above seems to imply that we are entitled to salvation; we have a right to the free gift of grace and eternal life with God. In contrast, St Paul spoke of salvation as more of a process “So then, my beloved…work out your salvation with fear and trembling.” (Philippians 2:12) “Work out” implies a process, and “fear and trembling” implies that it can be lost or never realized.

The following analogy seems to help clear things up in terms of Original Sin and not taking salvation for granted: Imagine your father was an impoverished man who befriended a billionaire long before you were born. They were such good friends that the billionaire made your dad heir to his fortune. One day your father betrayed the billionaire, so he removed him from his will, leaving him in his poverty. Years later your father met your mother and you were born. Eventually, you learned the story of friendship and betrayal between the billionaire and your father. You realize that you would have been next in line for the fortune if your father would have remained a faithful friend, so you say, “My father betrayed him, not me. I didn’t do anything, so why should I have to deal with this poverty. It’s not fair!! The fortune should still go to me.”

The reality is that you never had a claim to the fortune in the first place.

7

A Divine Wedding, Justice and Hell

Jesus again in reply spoke to the chief priests and elders of the people
in parables, saying,
“The kingdom of heaven may be likened to a king
who gave a wedding feast for his son.
He dispatched his servants
to summon the invited guests to the feast,
but they refused to come.
A second time he sent other servants, saying,
‘Tell those invited: “Behold, I have prepared my banquet,
my calves and fattened cattle are killed,
and everything is ready; come to the feast.”‘
Some ignored the invitation and went away,
one to his farm, another to his business.
The rest laid hold of his servants,
mistreated them, and killed them.
The king was enraged and sent his troops,
destroyed those murderers, and burned their city.
Then he said to his servants, ‘The feast is ready,
but those who were invited were not worthy to come.
Go out, therefore, into the main roads
and invite to the feast whomever you find.’
The servants went out into the streets
and gathered all they found, bad and good alike,
and the hall was filled with guests.
But when the king came in to meet the guests,
he saw a man there not dressed in a wedding garment.
The king said to him, ‘My friend, how is it
that you came in here without a wedding garment?’
But he was reduced to silence.
Then the king said to his attendants, ‘Bind his hands and feet,
and cast him into the darkness outside,
where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.’
Many are invited, but few are chosen.”

Matthew 22: 1-14

 

‘Beyond a doubt the elect are few.’

Saint Augustine

 

 

Jesus, meek and mild, basically sums up the contemporary image of Christ.  Jesus is a forgiveness machine, a divine Barney the Purple Dinosaur who loves us just the way we are.  If more people read the Gospels these days, this type of lie would quickly be smashed beyond recognition.  In the above excerpt from the Gospel of Matthew, Christ talks about how His Father is readying the marriage of His Son to His bride, the Church.  The invited guests, most of the Jews, are refusing to appear at the nuptials.  God responds by bringing to those who refuse His invitation the legions of Rome to destroy Jerusalem.  In the meantime, substitute guests, the Gentiles, are invited to the wedding feast.  So far so good, but then God the Father sees a guest who has not suitably prepared himself for the feast and casts him into the outer darkness (Hell).

The above analysis of this passage is how most Catholics would have interpreted this passage before the day before yesterday historically.  It is filled with violent imagery of doom that is so much a feature of the Gospels as the justice of God exacts the penalty of sin.  Christ came to save us from this justice by repentance, conversion and penance.  Hell is an ever present reality in the teaching of Christ, as is the judgment of God.   His mission is to save as many as He can from the everlasting fires and the worms that do not die.

How many of us have ever heard a sermon like that?  I can recall a handful half a century ago.  For every one such sermon, I have endured hundreds filled with the type of feel good pablum that is the hallmark of Catholic preaching in these decadent days.  The desperate urgency that the best priests have always felt to save as many as they could, has been replaced by confusion, cheap mercy and grace, and, too often, a yawning indifference.  Of course our clergy are not solely to blame.  They are taken from a laity that mostly sleep walks toward the cliff at the mouth of Hell.

The words of Christ at the close of the above passage never fail to send a chill through me:  “Many are invited, but few are chosen.”  Words to live and die by.

 

 

7

Universal Salvation and Probability

Every so often, another Catholic encourages me to “dare to hope that all are saved”. After all, it is not a matter of doctrine that any specific person is damned. We know that God’s mercy is great, and given God’s mercy and our beliefs about the bliss of heaven and the torment which is hell, it seems reasonable that any soul would choose to embrace God over separating himself permanently from Him.

For me, this idea seems to fall down, however, when applied to the whole of humanity. In a sense, it’s a lot like the issue of the probability of sinlessness which I wrote about briefly a while ago: Given that we have free will, it would seem that in any given situation we could choose to do the right thing — though obviously we in many cases feel a strong urge not to or don’t even have a clear understanding of what the right thing is. However paradoxically, while in every individual choice it would seem that we could choose not to sin, it seems like an impossibility that any one person would in fact make the right choice in every single circumstance, thus living a life entirely without sin (except for original sin.)

Similarly, it seems to me that while there’s clearly a chance that any given person, no matter how sinful, will repent before death, embrace God’s forgiveness, and be saved, I simply can’t imagine it as possible that every single person in the history of humanity would do so. We see people so very frequently, in ordinary life, actively choose to do thing which they know will make them unhappy out of anger, pride or even just habit — I just don’t find it persuasive that no one would ever have chosen to utterly refuse union with God and insist that he would “rather rule in hell and serve in heaven.”

So I do not hope that all will be saved — I stick to hoping that each person will be saved.