I was recently speaking with another Christian about whether non-Christians can go to heaven. She said that the only way someone can go to heaven is through Jesus Christ. I believe an all-loving God would not deny heaven to those who do not know Jesus Christ. Jews and Muslims love God the Father. Also, some people have never been exposed to Christianity. What can I say to her?
Whoever is in heaven is indeed there because of the saving passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. That does not mean, however, that everyone in heaven had an explicit faith in Jesus before arriving there or was even baptized.
The saying “Outside the Church there is no salvation” is credited to St. Cyprian (third century). More than 150 years later, St. Augustine wrote that the Church has some people whom God does not have, and God has some people whom the Church does not have. Father Leonard Feeney, SJ, was excommunicated in 1953 for his overly strict interpretation of St. Cyprian’s saying. He was later reconciled with the Roman Catholic Church, which continues to reject his position on this issue.
At Vatican II, a document on Catholicism’s relation to Judaism eventually became the “Decree on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions” (approved October 28, 1965). After addressing how Hinduism and Buddhism address deep human needs, the bishops wrote: “So, too, other religions which are found throughout the world, attempt in different ways to overcome the restlessness of people’s hearts by outlining a program of life covering doctrine, moral precepts, and sacred rites.
“The Catholic Church rejects nothing of what is true and holy in these religions. It has a high regard for the manner of life and conduct, the precepts and doctrines which, although differing in many ways from its own teaching, nevertheless often reflect a ray of that truth which enlightens all men and women. Yet it proclaims and is duty bound to proclaim without fail, Christ who is the way, the truth, and the life (Jn 1:6). In him, in whom God reconciled all things to himself (2 Cor 5:18-19), people find the fullness of their religious life” (2).
After acknowledging Muslims who worship one God, venerate Jesus as a prophet, honor Mary, and are devoted to prayer, almsgiving, and fasting (3), the decree describes Catholicism’s debt to and unique relationship with Jewish people, specifically rejecting the claim that they are cursed for the part some Jews played with the Romans in Jesus’ death (4).
According to Vatican II’s “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World,” Christians have been configured to the death of Christ but go forward in hope to the resurrection. The text immediately adds: “All this holds true not only for Christians but also for all people of good will in whose hearts grace is active invisibly. For since Christ died for everyone, and since all are in fact called to one and the same destiny, which is divine, we must hold that the Holy Spirit offers to all the possibility of being made partners, in a way known to God, in the paschal mystery” (22).
God’s judgment must remain God’s judgment! No one can replace God’s judgment with human judgment.