[This is an edited version of the Post sent out last evening which had a number of errors in the text.]
21st Sunday of the Year (C)
Strive to enter through the narrow gate, for many, I tell you, will attempt to enter but will not be strong enough. Luke 13:24
One of the livelier discussions I still recall from my seminary days, long ago, was whether or not Judas was damned. One of our professors had made the quite accurate statement in class one day that the Church, which can and does make infallible judgments that certain persons are in Heaven, the canonization of saints, had no similar mandate or power granted to her for making such an infallible judgment about anyone being damned to Hell, including Judas.
However, our discussion regarding Judas did not hinge on the Church’s infallible power of judgment, but on the troubling words of Christ, who says that it would have been better had the one who was about to betray him had never been born and on the fact that Judas is clearly designated by Jesus as the Son of perdition in John 17:12. Many saints have understood these words as a fearsome judgment on Judas even if the Church herself has never spoken definitively on the matter.
Now as Christians, we certainly must have the mind and heart of Jesus, and since He died for all, including Judas, and also for Hitler, and Stalin, and Mao, and every other evil genius in history, surely we must leave open the possibility that perhaps these men repented of their evil before their judgment by God. Moreover, since Jesus loved all human persons enough to die for salvation of each and every one, then surely, if we would be Christians, we must, like Jesus, have the charity to desire their salvation.
However, while all this is true, it is quite another thing to assert as many do today that because of Jesus’ charity and mercy all must be saved in the end, even Judas, for a good God will not allow anyone, no matter how evil their lives, to be eternally lost. Now that in fact was the erroneous opinion of Origen and some of his followers in the 3rd Century, and it has been officially condemned by the Church numerous times. It was a dangerously false opinion then, and it is still dangerously false today.
The words of Jesus in today’s Gospel about the narrow gate that leads to Eternal Life which many fail to enter because they are not strong enough, or His words elsewhere about many being called but few being chosen, seem to leave little room for such a misunderstanding of the Christian virtues of charity, mercy and hope. It is one thing to believe that all man can be saved by the grace of the redemption, because Jesus died for the salvation of all, and quite another to jump to the conclusion that all mankind will be saved. Likewise, it is one thing to have a charitable desire for the salvation of all, and quite another to thing to suggest or assert that such charity demands that all in fact will be saved, regardless of how they live their lives in this world, even if they apparently die with no desire to repent of their sins.
This kind of salvific universalism, which states that in the end all men will in fact be saved, is a deadly doctrine for rather obvious reasons. Since the time of Origen, great Church bishops and doctors have made it abundantly clear that such a doctrine, if believed, easily leads men to a deadly presumption regarding their own salvation, and thus a grave temptation to live any way they choose in their life, regardless of the moral laws of God. This deadly conclusion certainly seems to be alive and well in our own day among masses of people, who, if they believe in the afterlife at all, also believe that everyone is going to Heaven. The moral collapse of a formerly Christian civilization in western countries seems to me to have one of its roots in this pernicious doctrine that all men will somehow be saved.
This false presumption is always based upon a false understanding of God’s love and mercy and a false understanding of the virtue of hope given to Christians. In fact, we find no support from Jesus for any such notion of personal salvation regardless of a person’s beliefs or moral actions. Jesus certainly teaches us that God is infinitely merciful, but his mercy does not imply in any way that God saves even the unrepentant sinner, which would mean His mercy contradicts His justice. And secondly, such a notion of divine mercy would also end up contradicting God’s truthfulness.
First, to suggest that any person will be or could be saved without genuine repentance for sin, is to deny that sin is truly contrary to the eternal law and divine justice, and thus fails to see how sin is truly destructive of the person as such, and most precisely destructive of his or her supernatural life. Sin then becomes something purely extrinsic to man’s being, a kind of legalistic reality, an extrinsic legal offense that can simply be forgiven without any actual change in the being of the person which takes place though the genuine repentance of the free will.
The truth is, that for God to forgive the person who is unrepentant would be to totally deny any objective or real significance to the freedom of the human person in the process of salvation. This was precisely the error of Luther, Calvin, and other Protestant leaders. They had a false notion of the relation between faith and freedom in man’s salvation. They also had a false understanding of the true nature of sin, for they did not understand sin as a wound in our very being, and they likewise misunderstood the true nature of Grace as a real inner transformation of the sinner which requires man’s free cooperation. Many so-called reformers ended up with a horrific notion of predestination where most men were damned. Today the opposite error is found in the writings of many of their religious descendants who now believe that all men are saved. What they have in common is the denial of human freedom.
Our Catholic faith teaches us that the only things that will exclude man from Heaven are a deliberate refusal of the gift of faith, offered to all by God in some way, or the presence of grave sin in the human will. Mortal sin, properly understood, is in fact a true form of death, that is, the exclusion of God’s supernatural Life from the soul. The person living in such a state of grave sin is truly dead in relation to God, for the supernatural Life of God is totally absent from that person’s soul.
Moreover, God alone can restore the spiritually dead person to Life in the supernatural order. This “being raised from the dead” takes place only by the combination of God’s forgiveness and the sinner’s genuine repentance. Amazingly, because of the very nature of grave sin, God alone cannot accomplish this resurrection to Life without the person’s willingness to live that supernatural life, a willingness that manifests itself by the act of sincere repentance. Only God knows for sure who is truly repentant, but many people seems to live and die without any outward sign that they are truly sorry for their sins.
Looking further into Scripture, the false idea that all are saved in the end also seems to directly contradict Matthew Chapter 7, where Jesus actually declares that there will be souls who will arrive at their judgment unrepentant because they have become blind to their own sins. This seems to go beyond the implications in today’s Gospel reading.
In today’s Gospel from Luke, the people ask Jesus if only few will be saved, which seems to imply that His difficult teaching seems likely to exclude the many. Here, Jesus simply warns that one must “strive to enter through the narrow gate” which surely means that no one can get to Heaven without a great effort. However, He also directly states that many will not get through that gate because they are not strong enough to make the effort, which again at least suggests that some or many are not going to enter the Kingdom.
Indeed, in Matthew’s account in Chapter 7 of this same question about many or few being saved, Jesus is even clearer as to the full implications of this narrow gate with reference to salvation: “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road broad that leads to destruction, and those who enter through it are many. How narrow the gate and constricted the road that leads to life. And those who find it are few. (Mt. 7:13-14)
What, then, is this narrow way and narrow gate referring to if not the personal struggle required of our freedom to make our way to Heaven, i.e., the demands of repentance and moral struggle? In this Sermon on the Mount, Jesus contrasts this narrow way/gate which leads to Heaven and requires much effort with the broad and easy way/gate that leads to Hell. He says few take the difficult path to Heaven, while many take the broad and easy way to Hell. While this does not absolutely settle the question as to whether only a very few will be saved, it certainly seems to totally exclude the idea of universal salvation and indicates that many in fact will not be saved.
So what concretely is that broad gate and easy way that leads to Hell? Surely this indicates the way people take when they believe that it does not matter, for one’s salvation, how one lives in this world. This broad way means one chooses to live as if God simply ignores the violation of Hs own commandments and does not really require repentance for sin – in spite of the fact that the call to repentance is at the heart of Jesus’ preaching from beginning to end. In reality, this broad and easy way has a very definite name, and it is the way of presumption, which is the counterfeit of the virtue of hope, which can only be authentic if it’s based upon one’s struggle to enter through the narrow gate and follow the narrow way.
The narrow gate and way, on the other hand, is the way of the commandments, and the way of repentance for one’s sins, and this way is never easy for us sinners. That is why Jesus calls it narrow or difficult, because it’s not easy in our wounded human nature to obey all God’s commandments, and with our human pride, it’s not easy for us to admit that we are living in sin and in need of repentance
In fact, at the end of this Chapter 7 in Matthew’s Gospel Jesus anticipates the very real temptation to such presumption, or false hope. Immediately after speaking about the narrow gate and way, indeed in the very next verse, Jesus next warns us to “beware of false prophets” which may well mean, in this context, false prophets who reject the necessity of choosing the narrow way, the false prophets of presumption.
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven,* but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name? Did we not drive out demons in your name? Did we not do mighty deeds in your name?’Then I will declare to them solemnly, ‘I never knew you. Depart from me, you evildoers.
So likewise, in today’s Gospel from Luke, we find virtually these same words of Jesus warning against presumption:
Lord, open the door for us.’ He will say to you in reply, ‘I do not know where you are from. And you will say, ‘We ate and drank in your company and you taught in our streets.’ Then he will say to you, ‘I do not know where you are from. Depart from me, all you evildoers!’
The real issue here, then, is not whether most people think they will be saved, but whether they will be saved in fact, and thus whether their hope is real hope or simply deadly presumption. True Christian Hope in salvation is based upon two things: first of all, the mercy of God and His faithfulness to his promises to forgive us and to reward our fidelity to Him by giving us Eternal Life, uniting us to His Infinite goodness. But, secondly, Hope is authentic and realistic only if it is also based upon our free determination to do whatever God requires of us in order to enter Eternal Life through the narrow gate so as to participate in God’s infinite being and goodness. That cooperation requires our conscious and free efforts to obey his commandments and to live Godly lives as Jesus teaches us.
The sin of presumption leaves out the second part, and one simply assumes that one can live any way one chooses in this world, according to one’s own interpretation of right and wrong, and that God will simply respect our sincerity and his mercy will forgive all, even if we refuse to recognize our sins and repent. Sincerity is certainly one thing God looks at, but a person can be sincerely wrong and totally responsible for that wrong in spite of the sincerity. Only God knows when sincerity excuses wrong doing, because only God knows what has caused us to be sincerely wrong, our free will, or something that has blinded us to the truth without our fault.
In that parallel passage from Matthew, Jesus sums it all up when he says that the one who will inherit his Father’s kingdom is not the one who cries “Lord, Lord,” but “only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven”, which means precisely the one who keeps His commandments. In another place Jesus simply says – if you love me, keep my commandments. If one fails to do that, nothing else will bring salvation, not miracles, not preaching, not having known him historically or having eaten with him or even all the good works one may have performed. All this matters only if one first keeps his commandments and repents for one’s sins when one fails to keep them.
Now there is no doubt that God powerfully desires our salvation, for the death of His Son for our salvation proves it. And if we are sincerely struggling to live by his commandments, and our sincerity includes our repentance when we fail, then we will have a well based hope for our personal salvation. Nonetheless, we must be on guard against any presumption on our part, and that means steering far clear of any such doctrine as universal salvation
Finally, it is nonetheless interesting that Jesus never chooses to reveal just how many will actually be saved, whether a majority or minority of men, few or many, will be save in the end. He simply informs us that while many people will take the broad way in this world, we must choose the narrow. That is sufficient for us. The final outcome is known only to God, for conversion always remains a possibility, and we ourselves are not to try to judge these matters before the appointed time. Then Jesus alone will bring about that final judgment. The bottom line for us, then, should simply be this: if we are to have true Christian hope, we will never give up on God and will continue to struggle. And if we are to have true Christian charity, we will never give up on anyone else during our and their time in this world. Hope is a necessary virtue for our own personal salvation, and charity will always desire the salvation of all, just as Jesus did, and that charity and desire will always stir us to work for that great goal.