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Can non-Christians go to heaven? What does the Church say?

March 26, 2012 by  
Filed under Dan Burke, Salvation

Dear Father John, I am confused. Jesus said he is the way the truth and the light, but the Church has moved away from believing salvation lies only in the Church. Even learned people in the Church (my Spiritual Director included) now say that God is bigger than we can comprehend so we non-Christian religionsneed to be open to the possibility that God is calling even those outside the Church. It makes the line very gray as to the purpose of evangelization. Can you comment? Thank you.

I hope that the answer to this question will be simpler than you might have thought. This question has generated reams of theological speculation, argument, and even bitter diatribes. In fact, it became so problematic back in the eighties and nineties that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, under the leadership of then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, actually published (with the full approval of Blessed Pope John Paul II) a thorough treatment of the issue, which you may want to read (give yourself some time and a full pot of tea; it is a rich, but somewhat long and somewhat dense). The document is called Dominus Iesus.

Christ and Bridges

The short answer to your question is this: Anyone who ends up in Heaven is a member of the Church. Heaven is communion with God, it is being a fully mature member of his family. The only bridge to Heaven is Christ – he is the only Savior, and only his self-sacrifice on the Cross opened the gates of Heaven and atoned for human sin. I believe that all the “learned people in the Church” you refer to in your question would agree with those statements. If they don’t, well, you will have to ask them to explain to you how they understand numbers 846 and 847 of the Catechism.

Now, in theory it is possible to cross a bridge without knowing the name of that bridge. You can even cross a bridge, in the fog, for example, without realizing that you are crossing a bridge. This is an image that can help us understand how a person could be saved, could enter heaven and become a full member of God’s family for all eternity, without being a Catholic here on earth. The condition for that, according to Church teaching, is that the person in question, through no fault of their own, “do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church” but even so “seek God with a sincere heart, and moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they see it” (Catechism, #847).

Our Limits and Our Calling

Obviously, you and I are incapable of judging whether some are seeking God with a sincere heart, or whether their non-membership in the Catholic Church is “through no fault of their own.” Furthermore, through God’s Providence, we have come to know the name of the bridge; we have been given, by the sheer gift of God’s grace, the wisdom “for salvation through faith in Jesus Christ.” The greatest act of love we can make towards our neighbor is to share that faith with those haven’t yet received it, or who have lost it. As Pope Benedict XVI affirmed in his first public homily as Pope: “… the purpose of our lives is to reveal God to men… There is nothing more beautiful than to know Him and to speak to others of our friendship with Him.” This is the meaning behind what the Church has always called – and still calls – the “missionary mandate” (Catechism #849): “Having been divinely sent to the nations that she might be ‘the universal sacrament of salvation,' the Church, in obedience to the command of her founder and because it is demanded by her own essential universality, strives to preach the Gospel to all men.”

Means vs Ends

The main point of recent discussion about these truths has to do more with the way we approach this missionary mandate, not its validity. Since the Second Vatican Council, the Church has made a concerted effort to reach out to people of other religions in a respectful way – respecting them as people, respecting the search for truth and salvation that their religion represents – and not with a condemning tone.

A few years ago, I wrote a couple of short essays on the subject of a Catholic’s view of non-Christian religions, and of non-Catholic Christians. They are available for reading and downloading here. You may want to read them over and reflect on them.

But make no mistake about it. Although we are called to respect all people and their search for religious truth, Jesus Christ alone remains the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and all salvation comes from him “through the Church which is his Body” (Catechism #846).


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About Fr. John Bartunek, LC

Fr. John Bartunek, LC, S.Th.D, received his BA in History from Stanford University in 1990. He comes from an evangelical Christian background and became a member of the Catholic Church in 1991. After college, he worked as a high school history teacher, drama director, and baseball coach. He then spent a year as a professional actor in Chicago before entering the religious Congregation of the Legionaries of Christ in 1993. He was ordained a Catholic priest in 2003 and earned his doctorate in moral theology in 2010. He provided spiritual support on the set of Mel Gibson’s "The Passion of the Christ" while researching the 2005 Catholic best seller, "Inside the Passion"--the only authorized, behind-the-scene explanation of the film. Fr. John has contributed news commentary regarding religious issues on NBC, CNN, Fox, and the BBC. He also served as the English-language press liaison for the Vatican’s 2005 Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist. His most widely known book is called: "The Better Part: A Christ-Centered Resource for Personal Prayer". His most recent books are "Spring Meditations", "Seeking First the Kingdom: 30 Meditations on How to Love God with All Your Heart, Soul, Mind and Strength", and "Answers: Catholic Advice for Your Spiritual Questions". Fr. John currently splits his time between Michigan (where he continues his writing apostolate and serves as a confessor and spiritual director at the Queen of the Family Retreat Center) and Rome, where he teaches theology at Regina Apostolorum. His online, do-it-yourself retreats are available at, and he answers questions about the spiritual life at

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  • judeen

    the catholic church reconizes all christians baptized in the name of the Father and the son and the HOly Spirit… as christians and part of the church…. as Jesus said there are some sheep that are not my flock but I shall be there sheperd…. and they will follow me….. scriptures talk in revelations of the 7 churches …..and would not Jesus let people have the truth before judgement about Jesus and let them choose whether to follow Him or not? there is so much that we do not know.. ours is not to judge… there is also scripture about the people who even did miricles in His name yet when it came to shut the door the called out Lord Lord , and Jesus says I do not know you…. do not be to sure just because your in the faith your saved… or even Jesus does miricles for you….. always guard you heart that it Loves God and neighbor more than self

  • BMP1980

    Dear Fr.John , please correct me if I am wrong .The truth is that without Christ there is no salvation and unless a soul accepts Christ he/she will not be saved – christian or non christian.Maybe just maybe in case of non Christians who have not “found” Christ in their life on earth but have lived or have struggled to live a life as per the natural law,Christ may give them a chance to accept Him after their death.St Faustina’s revelations some how centers on the theme “Unfathomable Divine Mercy”. Though this obviously does not give anyone the excuse to ignore or reject Christ while still on earth. one thing is clear “All with Peter to Jesus through Mary!”   

  • KurtB

    CS Lewis handled this question well via speculative fiction in both THE LAST BATTLE (Emeth character) and THE GREAT DIVORCE. People get another chance after death, but they continue the same choice patterns formed during life.

    • Dear Kurt – your comment does reflect accurately what Lewis depicts in TGD but it is important to note that as with orthodox Protestants/Evangelicals (which you know well) the Catholic Church does not teach that folks have a second chance after death. “It is given unto man once to die, then comes judgement…”

  • Diana Viau

    It is my understanding from what I was taught that a dogma cannot be changed. Is it not dogma that there is no salvation out side the Church? Your article is confusing.

    • The dogma has not changed. This is merely an explanation of the dogma.This explanation does not refute the idea that there is no salvation outside of the Church. For the best treatment of this topic at an in-depth level, try to find Ralph Martin’s doctoral dissertation or any appearances he has made talking about this. You can probably find something on Catholic Answers in their radio archives.

  • G. Gaudet

    How do you begin to have a conversation with someone who is adamant
    as in this retort
    I am a very strong supporter of making schools safer for gay students, and I don’t know how any loving parent could oppose that. I am well aware that Charles McVety and Ontario’s Catholic school boards oppose gay-straight alliances, and that’s a disgrace. These alliances are not about imposing an agenda on Catholics…they’re about building tolerance and respect.

    How many children have to commit suicide before catholic and other christian organizations wake up to this reality?

    • Dear Friend – this comment is a bit hyperbolic but I am sure you have heard it as you stated. The only way to overcome these kinds of responses are with love and patience. There are no logical arguments for these kinds of questions because the question is rooted in emotion, not facts. This is why I spend so much time traveling and speaking on “Apologetics of Extraordinary Love” – demonstrated, tangible love is the only way to reach someone who is struggling with these issues. Once that bridge has been built, truth will be able to pass over into their hearts.

      • LizEst

        That reminds me of what Cardinal Martini once said, “The beauty that will win the world is the love that will share the pain.”

  • LizEst

    Thanks for this Fr. John. I particularly like the analogy of the bridge and the different ways of crossing the bridge.

    Jesus Christ is the way to God for everyone, period.

    We know God is rich in mercy. Just in human terms, someone who is merciful is going to take everything into account regarding a particular person’s situation. How much greater is the mercy of God, who is infinite! He alone knows the human heart. So, someone who seeks God with a sincere heart certainly will be a recipient of His mercy, even if he does not know the name of Jesus. Yes, it is only in His name can we be saved. And, mercifully, God the Father has already spoken His Word once for all. But, that does not mean we who know better are exempt from making that Word and the name of Jesus known and from bringing others more closely to Him that they might know Him more fully, and that they might have joy and have it to the full.

    The Catholic Church, as the pre-eminent vessel of his grace on earth, through the table of His Word and the Eucharist in the Mass, through the Sacraments and the Magisterium, through Scripture and through the treasury of graces from her prayers and good works as the Church Triumphant (in heaven), the Church Suffering (in purgatory) and the Church Militant (on earth), is responsible for guiding people into His own wonderful light. It is through Her that God pours out grace and mercy throughout the world in every age. It is an awesome and profound responsibility.

    Can God pour grace and mercy onto agnostics and atheists? Yes. He can and does! But, it is what the Church does as the Body of Christ, as Christ’s representative here on earth, that actuates those graces and mercies upon the world. That’s what Christ gave to Peter when he gave him the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven (in addition to the power to absolve sins). The Mass makes present the saving act, the saving grace, of Christ’s passion, death and resurrection for our redemption and that of the whole world, here and now, yesterday, today and tomorrow. Padre Pio was right when he said that the world could not exist without the Mass. So it is that Jesus is the Way, the Truth and the Life for everyone and that no one comes to the Father except through Him.

  • Father Thomas

    From the high school retreats that I run in Toronto, I can say this is a very commonly asked question among teens. I normally highlight just a couple principles when I talk about this. The first is that it is God’s Will that all people be saved. This is clearly stated in Scripture, and that therefore he has a plan for people who never had the opportunity to know Christ and his Church. The second principle I bring up is that everyone has a responsibility to seek the the truth and to live by it, that is seeking God with a sincere heart.

  • A truly beautiful response, Dan. I believe one needs to be honest and agree the Catholic Church is THE CHURCH CHRIST FOUNDED and it is the Church where the Fullness of the Salvation Mystery subsists.  The Catechism of the Catholic Church addresses this question about salvation outside the Catholic Church very clearly. I believe the difficulty comes from those who find obeying the Teachings of the Catholic Church with fidelity too cumbersome and feel they can pick and chose what to obey and what to reject. And on this point the Prayer of the Act of Faith answers their misgivings.  Christ did not promise us an easy ride to Heaven. He calls each one of us to take up our Cross daily and follow Him.

  • judeen

    I have sat with the dieing,, and several have recounted their lives.. as they died.. saw angels and demons.. a lady who did not beleive fell flat on her desk… with no seemingly spiritual expereince.. each person seems to be judged at the time of death. … yet it is not the final judgement.. there will be a final judgement… when Jesus comes again… so I do beleive prayer for all souls are possible , we do it at all our masses.. the gift of beleif is just that a gift… we can not condemn those who dont… we leave that to God..
      and gays in school.. no.. I have a gay son… sex should not be promoted in school it does not make that person.. also , he will not go to church for he is not excepted.. this is a lie.. an excuse.. we are all sinners.. church is the place for us.. to grow and heal… church should be full people who need healing.. if you dont need healing why are you there? your perfect already…..

  • Gabriel Austin

    The problem of the salvation of non-Catholic souls seems to me to have a simple answer [which is probably why it generates so much discussion]. It is none of our business. We should be occupied with getting our individual souls into heaven and not concerned with whether others are “eligible”.

    • Well – the reason it is important is that, yes, we want to know the fullness of Christ ourselves, but we are also called to bring that same gift to others. If they will be just fine, no need to evangelize. If they won’t (and they won’t) we need to give all we can to bring this gift to them.

  • James

    The problem of the salvation of the non-Christians was of course a problem for the early Church, and St. Paul speaks of it specifically in his letter to the Romans. He makes it clear that the virtuous pagans will receive a favorable verdict: “There is no partiality with God. All who sin outside the law will also perish without reference to it, and all who sin under the law will be judged in accordance with it. For it is not those who hear the law who are just in the sight of God; rather, those who observe the law will be justified. For when the Gentiles who do not have the law by nature observe the prescriptions of the law, they are a law for themselves even though they do not have the law. They show that the demands of the law are written in their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even defend them on the day when, according to my gospel, God will judge people’s hidden works through Christ Jesus … Again, if an uncircumcised man keeps the precepts of the law, will he not be considered circumcised?  Indeed, those who are physically uncircumcised but carry out the law will pass judgment on you, with your written law and circumcision, who break the law. One is not a Jew outwardly. True circumcision is not outward, in the flesh. Rather, one is a Jew inwardly, and circumcision is of the heart, in the spirit, not the letter; his praise is not from human beings but from God” (Rom 2: 11- 29). Here it is worth noting that Jesus taught that the law consisted in love of God and neighbor. St. James puts it in another context when he says “… I will demonstrate my faith to you from my works” (Jas 2:18). How is this possible? St. Paul explains when he says, “work out your salvation with fear and trembling. For God is the one who for his good purpose works in you both to desire and to work” (Phil 2:12-13); and he confirms this idea also elsewhere, for example: “we are his handiwork, created in Christ Jesus for the good works that God has prepared in advance that we should live in them” (Eph 2:10). One might ask how are we to reconcile this with the necessity of faith and membership in the Church? Ultimately the scriptures come from the Spirit of Christ and deepen our understanding of his gospel. Jesus himself stated, “Just as a branch cannot bear fruit on its own unless it remains on the vine, so neither can you unless you remain in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit, because without me you can do nothing” (Jn 15: 4-5). St. Peter stated this all succinctly when he said, “In truth, I see that God shows no partiality. Rather in every nation whoever fears him and acts uprightly is acceptable to him” (Acts 10:35). The conclusion of all of this is that the virtuous non-Christians have a relationship to Christ, the vine, and through him are joined to those who belong to his Church. The union of the non-Christians with Christ is clearly not something they themselves even recognize, but the passages we have seen show that it is a reality and fact. This dependence is without a doubt the equivalent of faith, though it is what we would speak of in modern psychological terms as being in their unconscious, but nevertheless having a real impact in their lives which shows it is a reality for them even if they fail to realize it. Obviously this does not mean that evangelization is no longer necessary, for since humans has an intellect and will, they should be assisted in making the right decisions in a conscious way, and the fullness of the means at arriving at full discipleship should be available to all, but in less than ideal circumstances, salvation is still possible for the non-Christians – at least, that is what the Bible says.

  • Yvette

    The word of God says that we come to the Father through Jesus, he is our only intermediate between our father and us. Then,why do you pray and ask especially to the virgin Mary to be our intermediate for us? And, where can I find this in the Bible to read. Please help me understand.

    • Dear Yvette – thank you for your question. Do you ever ask other Christians to pray for you? I suspect the answer is yes. In that case, are you allowing those other Christians to supplant God’s mediatory role, or are you acknowledging that in God’s Kingdom, there are times when we need the prayers of others and that He desires that we rely upon them in that way? In the same way, we ask for the prayers of those who are with God (the saints). Make sense?

    • LizEst

      Yvette – Just wanted to add a few things to what Dan said below. You are right in that no one comes to the Father except through Jesus. What’s the quickest and surest way to Jesus? Mary, His mother. So, to Jesus through Mary. And then, through Jesus to the Father.

      We see, in Scripture, that when the Boy Jesus was found in the temple, when He was 12 years old, it was Mary who prevailed upon Him to come back to Nazareth with Mary and Joseph. We see in Scripture that Mary interceded with Jesus at the wedding at Cana. Mary has Jesus’ ear. She can plead with him and intercede for us as only a mother can.

      • Yvette

        LizEst-Thank you for sharing with me your point, idea and explantion. Like a wrote to Dan Burke, I still have some other questions regarding is theme. Some other day I will share with you my questions. Thank you again.

        • LizEst

          ¡De nada! Le escribí una respuesta arriba donde Ud contesto a Dan. ¡Qué Dios la bendiga!

          (You’re welcome! I wrote you a response above where you responded to Dan. May God bless you!).

  • Yvette

    Exo 20:4 Thou shalt not, or any likeness [of thing] that [is] in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters under the earth.
    Exo 20:5 Thou shalt not bow down to them nor serve them: for I [am] the LORD your God, a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that I hate
    Exo 20:6 And showing mercy unto thousands [of generations] of those who love me and keep my commandments.

    My questions are why the Catholics allows the creation of these images, is bow to honor them and for an example the Virgin Mary, If when the Bible specifies otherwise? Do you live the word or just do what seems good to his own trial/

    • Dear Yvette – thank you for this question as well. I am glad you are asking. The Israelites were commanded by God as outlined in Hebrews 9 to honor the Ark of the Covenant which was adorned with gold cherubim. Said another way, the Israelites at the command of God fashioned images of the cherubim in gold. Now, this was at the command of God. So, does God contradict himself? I think we both believe that he doesn’t. The answer then is simple given the context provided by Exodus. The issue in the text you cited is idol worship. The focus of the prohibition is with respect to idolatry. Unfortunately, many protestants are confused about these passages because they have been misinformed as to what Catholic’s actually believe and teach. As well, protestant teachers are often very focused on a few verses of scripture but fail to take the entire body of revelation into account. As with your question, most questions about Catholic practices related to scripture are easy to understand given the full context of scripture and inspired tradition. Yours in Christ – Dan

      • Yvette

        Dan Burke-Thank you for answering my questions. I still have some question regarding this theme. My first language is Spanish, I do understand speak, read English, but is easier for me Spanish. I soon as a read the bible and have set up the correct and right way to ask my questions, I will reply again.

        • Dear Yvette, you are welcome. Ask as many questions as you like.

        • LizEst

          Con mucho gusto. Estamos aquí para servirle.
          (Our pleasure. We are here to serve you.)

          Hay varias personas aquí que hablan español. Obviamente, yo también. Lo unico es que yo no tengo Biblia en castellano.
          (There are various people here who speak Spanish. Obviously, I do, too. The only thing is that I don’t have a Bible in Spanish.)

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