“Ask a Priest: Can Non-Christians Enter Heaven Without Sanctifying Grace?

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Q: How do non-Christians enter heaven without sanctifying grace? -O.A.

Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC

A: You touch on an intriguing topic. Jesus tells us, “Amen, amen, I say to you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit” (John 3:5). So how could non-Christians, the unbaptized, be saved and enter heaven?

Two points are worth noting right away.

First, no one can enter heaven without sanctifying grace. We all need it. Sanctifying grace is an indwelling of God in us. It “perfects the soul itself to enable it to live with God” (Catechism, 2000). Sanctifying grace can be lost by a single mortal sin (see Catechism, 1861).

Second — and this helps to answer your question — “God has bound salvation to the sacrament of baptism, but he himself is not bound by his sacraments” (Catechism, 1257). In other words, God can grant salvation even to a non-Christian who by definition has not received the sacraments. How exactly God works in this case is a mystery.

The Second Vatican Council stated that non-Christians can reach salvation. In its document Lumen Gentium (The Light of Nations), the council said: “Those also can attain to salvation who through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church, yet sincerely seek God and moved by grace strive by their deeds to do His will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience. Nor does Divine Providence deny the helps necessary for salvation to those who, without blame on their part, have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God and with His grace strive to live a good life” (No. 16).

As regards children who have died without baptism, the Church can only entrust them to the mercy of God. “Indeed,” the Catechism in 1261 says, “the great mercy of God who desires that all men should be saved, and Jesus’ tenderness toward children which caused him to say: ‘Let the children come to me, do not hinder them,’ allow us to hope that there is a way of salvation for children who have died without Baptism.”

So that is our hope: We believe that God can and does open to heaven to those who tried to live good lives or who died before having a chance to receive baptism.

These are comforting teachings, connected to the theological virtue of hope, but they can also be misinterpreted. For example, some people use them as an excuse not to share their faith with others, not to reach out to non-believers with the Gospel. But that is a kind of spiritual laziness. If we truly love others, we want to help them discover the good news of Jesus Christ. And since God has made baptism the normal means for receiving sanctifying grace, we should be interested and active in helping those who haven’t been baptized learn about God’s grace and receive the sacrament.

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