At the Intersection of Faith and Culture

One of the (Roman Catholic) Mass readings this past Sunday was from the Acts of the Apostles.  In this reading, Peter says: “In truth, I see that God shows no partiality. Rather, in every nation whoever fears him and acts uprightly is acceptable to him” (10:34).

During his homily, my priest and pastor of many years shared his version of an old joke so as to illustrate God’s inclusiveness, what he presented as the meaning of Peter’s remark.

On my priest’s telling of the joke, a Protestant of one of the thousands of Protestant denominations in existence dies and goes to Heaven. Upon entering the Pearly Gates, Saint Peter proceeds to show him around.  Eventually—this is the punchline to which the joke leads—he encounters a huge wall.  On the other side, Peter explains, are the Catholics.  “Are they in Hell?” the Protestant asks.  “Not at all,” Peter replies.  “They just like to imagine that they’re the only ones here!”

In this version of the joke, though, while the newest addition to the Heavenly community sees Baptists and other Protestant Christians, he also sees Muslims praying on their prayer rugs and Jews worshipping in their own distinctive ways.

Evidently, as long as such non-Christians live decent lives while seeking God, they are “anonymous Christians.”  The idea of Anonymous Christianity was developed by the 20th century Catholic theologian Karl Rahner and later endorsed by the Church during Vatican II.

“‘Anonymous Christianity’,” Rahner explains, “means that a person”—like, say, “a Buddhist monk”—“lives in the grace of God and attains salvation outside of explicitly constituted Christianity.” Because this person “follows his conscience,” he “attains salvation and lives in the grace of God.”  Such a person, Rahner declares, is “an anonymous Christian” (emphasis added).

So, a person needn’t personally, consciously, or expressly accept Christ in order to receive Christ’s offer of eternal salvation.  In other words, one can expressly and repeatedly deny Christ and yet still be saved.

There are reasons to reject this doctrine.

First, Christians have long recognized that since God is Truth, He most certainly is present wherever truth manifests itself, both within and beyond the Christian universe.  After all, it’s not for nothing that Saints Augustine of Hippo and Thomas Aquinas—two of the most influential Christian philosophers of all time—synthesizing with Christianity to the extent that they did the insights of Plato and Aristotle, respectively, are said to have “baptized” these ancient Greeks.

No one, or at least no Catholic, should have reservations about the claim that God can be found within non-Christian contexts, or that those, like Plato and Aristotle, who lived prior to the advent of Christ can be retroactively saved.

But those who lived in a pre-Christian era, i.e. those who never had the opportunity to hear the Gospel, must not be likened to contemporary non-Christians who are aware of Christianity.  One’s responsibility extends only as far as one’s knowledge.  Pre-Christians had no duty to accept the Gospel, for they could not have known about it (at least not in the form in which it was delivered by Jesus).  Yet Muslims, Jews, and many other non-Christians today are aware of Christianity.  Insofar as they remain non-Christians, they continually reject Jesus’s Lordship.

In other words, as long as one remains identifiably non-Christian, one cannot receive salvation—if, that is, Jesus is the only path to salvation.

Second, the arguments for Anonymous Christianity are on shaky ground.

Unless, Rahner says, he infers that a person, like a Buddhist monk, is an anonymous Christian, “I would have to presuppose that there is a genuine path to salvation that…simply has nothing to do with Christ.”  This Rahner is not willing to do. Thus, “if I hold [that]…everyone depends upon Jesus Christ for salvation, and if at the same time I hold that many live in the world who have not expressly recognized Jesus Christ, then there remains in my opinion nothing else but to take up this postulate of an anonymous Christianity.”

Rahner presents a false dichotomy: Either explicit, recognizable non-Christians receive salvation from Christ or they receive salvation from some other source.  Since the latter alternative is no alternative at all, according to Rahner, the only available option is the former.

Yet there are at least two other alternatives:

(a)There are indeed those who, despite having lived decent lives, will not receive salvation because, in refusing to embrace Christ as the Savior of the human race, they refused to avail themselves of the gift of salvation that He offered them.

(b)There are indeed decent non-Christians who will receive salvation.  But they must, at some juncture—and not necessarily while they remain in this world—acknowledge that they had been mistaken and that Jesus is God and Savior.

Option (b) is viable, particularly for Catholics who believe that there is an intermediate spiritual state between this world and Heaven.

Even Protestant Christians can concede that for God “all things are possible.”

The Catechism of the Catholic Church reads: “Those who through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do His will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience—those too may achieve eternal salvation.”

This argument too is fallacious, subtly trading, as it does, on a weak analogy between pre-Christians, on the one hand, and those who live in the Christian era. It also commits the fallacy of equivocation.

Knowledge can be understood in more than one sense, as can “through no fault of their own.”  Socrates cannot be held responsible for not knowing the Gospel of Christ and His Church.  It was through no fault of Socrates that there was no Gospel of Christ and His Church for him to know at the time at which he lived.

In stark contrast, while those of our contemporaries who adhere to non-Christian traditions, having spent their entire lives in non-Christian cultures, are less likely to “know” Christ than they would’ve been had they been raised in a place in which Christianity was more prevalent, and while their upbringing is due to “no fault of their own,” Christianity remains an option to them—however limited that range of options may be.

Indeed, unless this was so, there would be no way to explain the fact that the members of such cultures convert to Christianity, almost always at exorbitant cost because of the ferocity with which Christianity is persecuted.

God offers salvation to all through Christ. And all can be saved.  Yet we needn’t view those who subscribe to worldviews that conspicuously deny Christ as anonymous Christians.  Such folks can be saved—but only after, at some juncture, whether here or elsewhere, they choose, for themselves, to embrace Christ.



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