Destiny: The Possibility of Salvation
Donald X. Burt, OSA
Originally presented on Wednesday - April 2, 2003
INTRODUCTION: LIFE IN A HOSPICE
In a sermon to his people in the fifth century Augustine said:
We are now travelers on a journey. We cannot stay in this place forever. We are on our way, not yet home. Our present state is one of hopeful anticipation, not yet unending enjoyment. We must run without laziness or respite so that we may at last arrive at our destination.
Sermon 103, 1
Some 1500 years later when I was chaplain at a small New England College I gave a sermon that began this way:
“Today the doctors told me that I am going to die.”
Unfortunately (but happily, because it showed that I was loved), my announcement caused consternation. I was, after all, only 30 years old with a freshly minted Phd in philosophy and a lifetime to pursue wisdom! I was too young to die! (or so they thought)
Now, in my eighth decade with my philosophy career behind me (44 years of pursuing wisdom was quite enough), I am not sure that the reaction would be the same. Now, saying “I am going to die” might only prompt the response “Has anybody claimed your apartment yet?” Sad to say, when you reach “geezerhood” announcing your coming death may cause regret but little surprise.
The point of my announcement to the students when I was still a “young mover and shaker” was simply that everybody is going to die someday. The only issue not resolved is when and how. This should not come as an extraordinary revelation for anyone who is a realist. St. Augustine made this point over and over again in his sermons to his people. His message to them (and to us) is quite simple:
All of us are moving towards death. Indeed, we begin to die the moment we are conceived because we are put on a road that can lead nowhere else.
His favorite metaphor for this life of ours was taken from the story of the Good Samaritan. Like the poor fellow rescued by the Samaritan, we are all living in a Hospice, a temporary home for travelers who are passing through.
We must eventually “check out” someday and make our exit through the doors of death. The longer we live the closer we come to that momentous moment, a moment because it lasts for only an instant and momentous because it is the point at which we begin our eternal life beyond death.
THE CERTAINTY OF DEATH
Nothing can be done about the fact that we will someday die. Augustine uses the analogy of an oil-lamp to make this point. A lamp is filled with light only because it is constantly burning off its resource of oil. If it burns a long time, the light begins to flicker and die as its source of energy is used up. The light can be kept burning only by supplying new oil. However, the time will come for every lamp when its wick dissolves and its light dies forever. So too it is with us. Even at the brightest and most vigorous moments of our lives, our wick (our body) is slowly being eaten away by time and by use. (Sermon 362, 11)
Augustine’s analysis makes some sense. We humans are indeed much like living lamps. We must take nourishment over a lifetime in order to maintain our vital activities. It might seem to the simple-minded that as long as we have enough to eat and drink our life can go on forever. But this cannot happen. The very vessel in which the vital activity is carried on is itself eroding, wearing down, and wearing away. The day will come when it can no longer support the flame of life no matter how much nourishment is poured into it. When that day comes, the body falls apart, the soul escapes and the human dies.
Understandably, most of us try to avoid facing this fact as long as we can. It is hard to leave life when the party is still going on. We are like two friends of mine who left their wedding reception with much joy only to return an hour later. A short distance down the road, they realized that there was more assured fun at the motel they had left behind than in the unknown territory where they were going. So too when we face the prospect of leaving this life, we sometimes try to put off our leaving as long as possible, paying great sums of energy and capital to stay just a few more days in this Inn for Travelers, this Hospice. But the effort is of little use. We become like little children sticking their hands out the window of a speeding car, trying desperately to slow its progress towards the hated school.
IS THERE AN “AFTER-LIFE”?
Because we are so certain that someday we will die, most of us would like to be just as certain about what comes after life. Is there life after death? Are we traveling to “something”; or to a “nothingness”? Unlike the motels of our earthly travels, the Hospice which is the place of our life before death takes no open-ended reservations. We could be asked to leave at any time. But leave to what?
Most of us would not be satisfied to exit life into oblivion. I for one want to exit this Hospice into an eternally vibrant life, a life that has all of the joys and none of sorrows of this life! Augustine agrees with me. One day he told his friends:
This life is sweet, and nobody wants to end it, wretched though it sometimes is. What then must a blessed life be like considering that we cannot help loving this one with all its miseries: its disappointments, its toil, its sickness, its real sadness, its phony cheerfulness, its prayers for relief, its fear of temptation and tribulation? Who can possibly have the eloquence to adequately describe the sometime miseries of this life? But we love it all the same.
Sermon 335B, 3.
Loving this life with all its imperfection, we dream and hope for a life that is even better, which indeed is perfect because it brings the permanent satisfaction of all of our desires. (The Trinity, 13.8.11)
THE PROMISE OF RESURRECTION
But is such a dream realistic considering what happens to our poor old bodies once we die? Augustine tried to console his listeners with the happy fact that not only is death not the end of us; it is not even the end of our body. He told them:
When you die your flesh will be stripped away for a while but will come back to you at the end of time. This is going to happen whether you like it or not. You are not going to rise from the grave because you want to; nor will your “not wanting to” prevent it from happening. Even if you don’t believe in your eventual resurrection, you will still rise from the grave “willy-nilly”.
Sermon 344, 4
Augustine’s words are consoling to me because I am one of those who would like to rise from the dead. The assurance of ancient Greeks like Socrates and Plato that my soul will live forever is all well and good, but it is not enough to make me look forward to my after-life experience. Nor is their advice on how to achieve a good after-life too consoling. Their exhortation to purify the mind, increase knowledge, and reach out for sublime wisdom is not too attractive to ordinary “clods” like me. Their heaven seems reserved only for the intellectual elite while the rest of us “ordinary folk” seem destined to swim through various stages of reincarnation in the “cave” below. In order to make me happy, I need assurance that after death I will continue to exist “with” my body because (as Augustine observed):
My soul loves life and hates death and it does not want death to happen even to my body.
Sermon 344, 4.
If I had to leave this old body behind forever when I pass through the doors of this Hospice, it would be like checking out of a hotel and being told to leave all my baggage behind. I would leave with sadness if I could not take that body with me which was such an important part of my pleasure during my days here at this Inn. Leaving, I would feel naked and apprehensive because I was forced to leave part of myself behind with no assurance that I would ever see it again. My body may not be the most important part of me but over seven decades I have gotten used to it and now it is hard to imagine living without it.
The message of Christianity that someday we shall rise again gives us great hope as we live out our dying life just now. We want to live and we want to live forever happy in body and soul. The resurrection of Christ gives us that hope, the hope that we too can rise one day to a blessed life. We know this will happen because he has shown us that he has the power over death and he has promised that he will use that power to bring us back whole and entire at the end of time. As Augustine assured his people long ago:
Great indeed the power by which Jesus was able not to die; but greater still was the loving kindness by which he was willing to die. The reason why he did out of loving kindness what by power he was able not to do was to give us a basis for believing in our own resurrection. He wanted to show that the perishable, mortal element that he took upon himself for our sakes would be able to rise again. He did this so that we might hope to do the same thing.
Sermon 362, 12
Our faith in Jesus and our belief in his resurrection gives us the hope that someday we too shall rise from the dead ... body and soul. But the question remains: “Rise to what?”
HEAVEN OR HELL: TWO POSSIBILITIES
For those who believe in the promises of Jesus-God, the one certainty in the midst of this flowing life is that a heaven exists and is a blessed existence where it is possible for every human being to enjoy life unending in the presence of God. However our faith also warns that there is a hell and that it is possible that we may spend our eternity there. Just as the happiness of heaven is caused by an eternal union with God, the suffering of hell is caused by a decision to separate from that God forever.
In the fifth century Augustine again and again warned his listeners about a terrible “Second Death” which awaited those who had turned their back upon God. He cautioned them:
Death should be dreaded but it is after all only a passing event. Would that this first death separating soul from body were the only death. A worse death is that Second Death where the soul is not separated FROM the body, but where the soul is tormented IN the body. Fear this death more because nothing is worse than a death that never dies.
Sermon 335B, #5
Though no one knows for sure that any human being is in hell, it remains a terrible possibility for every one of us. One of the disturbing results of the creation of immortal beings with free will is that it made “hell” a sad necessity. Once granted that human beings have free choice and that in a world created by a just God “Justice must be served,” the need for a hell follows. It is evident from experience that human beings do not always act “justly,” they do not always act in accordance with their nature. They disrupt the order of the universe by pretending to be God, by not treating fellow humans as equals, by acting as though they were animals bound by no law except the law of self-fulfillment.
The glory of freedom is that most of us are able to freely and irrevocably choose God; the tragedy of freedom is that we can just as irrevocably choose to reject God, to turn our back on God and walk away. And this is what hell is: to firmly and forever turn our back upon God.
Our Christian faith assures us that there is a ”somewhere” beyond the doors of this Hospice where we live just now, indeed that there are two “somewhere’s.” The good news is that one of these is heavenly. The bad news is that the other is hellish. The VERY good news is that where we finally end up is within our control. There may be a sad necessity for hell but there is no necessity for us to end up there. Our salvation is in our (and God’s) hands and working together we can accomplish it.
THE POSSIBILITY OF MY SALVATION
But will salvation happen to me? As I stand looking out through the window of this hospice at the eternity beyond, I ask myself:
What is the probability that at the end of my life I will make the right choice? What must I DO to be saved?
The answer to this last question is more easily expressed as a negative:
To be saved all I must do is NOT CHOOSE to turn my back on God.
It seems reasonable to say this because Christ died for all human beings. He wished to give salvation to everyone and therefore any human being can be saved who does not choose to reject it. No one will be denied salvation except those who knowingly and freely choose to reject God.
In a sermon to the people of Hippo, Augustine once wisely observed that:
Anyone who lives well is not able to die badly.
Sermon 249, 2
Christ outlined what “living well” means when he told his listeners that they must love God above all and love their neighbor as themselves. (Matthew, 23:37-40)
To love God above all means to respect and honor every place of God in the universe. It means to respect and love nature because this is a creation of God and God continues to support it by his presence, guiding the rise and fall of its various seasons. It means honoring and respecting ourselves because we in an even more noble sense are places of God in the world, living “temples of the Holy Spirit” making our way through time. We must love ourselves by taking care of ourselves, not abusing ourselves, not destroying ourselves by a life-style hostile to health. Our person (body and soul) is a sacred place, not a toy to be used for our pleasure. Finally, we must love and respect every other member of the human race. They, like ourselves, are special places of God in this universe and in reaching out in love to them we are reaching but to God Finally, we must reach out in desire directly to God Himself, that Divine OTHER who is beyond and above us. Those of us with faith have learned something about what this God is like, not only as he appears in the beauty of nature, or the wonder of ourselves, or the loveliness of our human loves, but even as he is in himself, an infinite being who is some strange way seems to love us. But even those without faith, without belief in anything beyond this life, must at least reach out to a “something” beyond and above themselves ... an ideal, a cause, a dream, anything that draws them beyond a purely earthy existence. In “turning their eyes” to the heavens beyond their pedestrian day by day existence, in focusing on something beyond themselves they are beginning to reach out to a God still hidden.
These directions on how to be saved are helpful, but they don’t answer the nagging question: “How sure can I be that I will have the strength to fulfill the two great commandments of love well enough to get into heaven even though in a slightly “scarred” and perhaps “singed” condition? It is true that through the grace of God I have some vague idea of what I must do to be saved, but what assurance can I have that someday I will not try to hide the truth from myself? What assurance do I have that for the rest of my life I will actually go ahead and DO what needs to be done to be saved? The sad fact is that just now I can’t be sure. I have been redeemed but I do not yet know whether I am in a “saved” condition or will be so tomorrow.
To merit hell one must choose to reject God forever. Is it likely that I will make that choice? The parable of the laborers in the garden gives the consoling message that even if I make a decision for God late in life, come to work in his garden at the last hour, then my essential reward (heaven) will be the same as that given to those who spent a lifetime working for the Lord. (Matthew, 20, 1-16) But implied in the story is the frightening message that if I walk away after a lifetime working in the garden, my punishment (hell) will be the same as those who walked away in the first hour.
But is any human being capable of making such a momentous decision freely and knowingly? What about those who never experienced love in this life, those who were cruelly abused or discarded? What about those who never knew of Christ, indeed never knew of a personal God who cared about them?
Can someone turn their back on the Eternal Light when they have lived their whole life in darkness? Can a blind man be condemned for not embracing a light they have never known? A sad reality of this life is that some humans seem never to have experienced the light that comes from loving and being loved. Can they be condemned, when at the end of life they see no God to embrace? Are there reasons for hope that such as these will be saved? Are there reasons for hope that WE will be saved, we who have been gifted with faith and love but have often wasted those gifts?
Augustine suggests that there are good reasons for hope for all of us. First of all, our God is a God of power and mercy. We may sometimes fear his powerbut it is precisely that power that he uses mercifully to prevent us from being tempted overly much or, if we fall to temptation, to encourage us to repent and try again.
Most importantly, our hope is firmly based on the life and death of Jesus Christ. As Augustine told his people:
Christ has become our hope by being tempted, by suffering, by rising again. That is how he has become our hope; for what do we say to ourselves when we read about these happenings? We say: God surely won’t damn us in the end, since it was for us that he sent his Son to be tempted, to be crucified, to die, and to rise again. God cannot despise us, if he did not spare even his own Son, but delivered him up for the sake of us all.
(cf. Romans 8:32)
That is how he has become our hope. He made himself a pattern for the life we live now by his labors, his temptations, his sufferings, and his death; and in his resurrection he is the pattern for the life we will live later. Without him, all that we would have known of human life is that we are born and we die; we would not have known that anyone could rise from the dead and live forever. But he took upon himself the human life you know, and gave you proof of what you did not know. This is why he has become our hope in distress and in temptation.
Commentary on Psalm 60, #4.
Finally, the really good news is that we need not be perfect to get into heaven. We just need to be repentant. Towards the end of his life Augustine got into an argument with a group who insisted that even the least sin could condemn a person to hell. He angrily replied that if that were true, NO ONE would make it! He then went on to give a description of the ordinary people who someday were likely to be saved:
They are those who, with faith in Christ, are moved by his love to perform whatever good works they do. Some are ordinary married persons who have intercourse with their spouse (but never with anyone else) sometimes for the sake of having a child and sometimes just for the pleasure of it. They are people who will often get angry and desire revenge when they are injured, but who are ready to forgive when asked. They are people who are very attached to their property but who will freely give at least a modest amount to the poor. They will not steal from you but are quick to take you to court if you try to steal from them. They are realistic enough to know that God should get the main credit for the good that they do. They are humble enough to admit that they are the source of their own evil acts. In this life God loves them for their good acts and gives forgiveness for their evil, and in the next life they will join the ranks of those who will reign with Christ forever.
Against Two Letters of the Pelagians, 3,5,14,
Augustine in this encouraging description of slightly scarred saints is repeating the message of the Book of Revelations (7,14) that those who will eventually be saved and march into heaven will be ...
... those who have survived the great period of trial, those who have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.
I do believe that if the observer had further asked God why these people limping into heaven had merited salvation, he would have heard the response:
They were not perfect nor did they clearly see what they should do, but at least they tried their best.
With God’s help I hope to be among that happy band, moving from this land of grace-assisted living to God’s land of unmerited loving. And there is good reason for my hope. It is found in the truth expressed by Augustine long ago:
We are on our way to see the Christ who is God and the Christ who shares our humanity is the way through which we are going. We are going to him and we are going through him. Why then should any of us fear becoming lost?
Sermon 123, 1.3
A PRACTICAL OBSERVATION FOR OUR TROUBLESOME TIMES
One may ask what importance does all this have for our present times of war and distrust and dissension? Augustine recognized that such times are always part of human history. Human beings may be part of a single community but it is a community of cracked individuals who want perfect satisfaction of all their wants and there is nothing in this life that can do that. As a result:
The City of Man remains in a chronic condition of civil war where there is always the oppression of those who fail by those who succeed.
City of God, 18.2
Neither lions nor dragons have fought such bitter wars as human beings... Nothing is so conflicted because of sin and yet so sociable in nature as the human race.
City of God, 12.23
In such troublesome times, words about immortality, resurrection, heaven and personal salvation can be comforting. Desire for the eternal heaven that is within our grasp and fear of NOT getting there, can override any fear of what may or may not happen to us in this life. As Augustine put it:
If a human being is afraid of losing God, no other human can frighten them. Fear what is above all humans and then no human will terrify you. Love what God promises and fear what God threatens and then you will neither be bribed by human promises nor frightened by human menaces.
Commentary on Psalm 63, 1
We may have little control over what nature or other people do to us. We do have absolute control over what we do to ourselves. Put simply, world peace may not be in our power to achieve, but our eternal peace remains forever in our hands.
Augustine’s reading of Sacred Scripture led him to conclude that some humans are not saved, indeed, that many are not saved. Over and over again he emphasized the need for the Sacrament of Baptism for salvation but in various places in his works he suggested ways through which the unbaptized person might be saved. Thus he says that Dismas the good thief and others as well received the Holy Spirit in a way other than through baptism. Saintly humans were able to possess the Spirit even before the coming of Christ. (Cf. On 83 Diverse Questions, 62; Retractions, 1.26; On the Happy Life, 3.9.12) The heroes of the Old Testament (e.g. the prophets) were gifted with a faith in a Christ who was yet to come. (Cf. City of God, 18.47; Commentary on the Gospel of John, 109.28) Salvation was given to some Jews of antiquity and other non-Jews who were “partakers of his worship”. (Cf. Letter 102, 12; On the Predestination of the Saints, c. 17.34) Even towards the end of his life, he suggests that although hearing the preaching of the gospel is indeed the ordinary way of coming to Faith, this does not preclude the possibility that a few may receive the doctrine of salvation through God Himself or through angels from heaven. (Cf. On The Gift of Perseverance, 19.48).
Happily Augustine’s gloomy conclusion about the numbers in hell has not found a place in the official teaching of the Catholic Church. It is certain that an eternal hell exists and that it is possible for any of us to end up there. But no one knows if any human has ever had the depths of malice that would warrant such an terrible condemnation. This position is reflected in the official Catechism of the Catholic Church. After stating that “Believing Jesus Christ and in the One who sent him for our salvation is necessary for obtaining that salvation” (# 161), it adds later on that
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 statement does not address the salvation of those who are unable because of age or disability to make conscious decisions for or against God. At least the suggestion of God’s saving will for such poor souls is implied in the statement regarding infants dying without baptism:
As regards children who have died without baptism, the Church can only entrust them to the mercy of God. Indeed, the great mercy of God who desires that all men should be saved and Jesus’s tenderness toward children which caused him to say: “let the children come to me, do not hinder them”, (Mark 10:14; I Timothy 2:4) allows us to hope that there is a way of salvation for children who have died without Baptism.
What these texts seem to conclude is that:
1. Those believing and baptized in Jesus Christ who do not turn their back on God at the end of their lives will be saved.
2. Those who without their fault do not possess that faith but who try to follow the will of God as this is revealed through their conscience will also be saved.
3. God’s mercy allows us to hope that those who are innocent, 0that is unable to make a decision for or against God, will also be taken care of by the good God.
The ambivalence of these last statements is simply a humble admission that how God works with the “good living pagan” or those innocents incapable of personal sin remains a mystery.
John Sachs gives the following summary of the current views of Catholic theologians writing about heaven and hell:
1) Because human beings are free, they are able to reject God. Therefore hell is a real possibility.
2) Though final damnation remains a possibility with which every individual must reckon, neither Scripture nor Church teaching claims that anyone in fact has been or will be finally lost.
3) Certain knowledge about the final outcome of judgment for individuals is impossible, but because of Christ’s victory over sin and death, we may and must hope that all men and women will in fact be saved.
John R. Sachs, S. J. “Current Eschatology: Universal Salvation and the Problem of Hell,” Theological Studies, June 1991, vol. 52, no. 2 pp. 233-241.
Professor Burt’s presentation was part of a four part series on Augustinian Spirituality, sponsored by the Office for Mission Effectiveness at Villanova University. This text has been graciously provided by the author and is posted with permission. It may not be reprinted or retransmitted for public use without permission of the author. Brief quotations may be taken from the text without permission but must carry appropriate attribution.
For more information about this program, contact the Office for Mission Effectiveness.