What If a Pagan Sins Mortally?

Author: Fr. William Most


Fr. William Most

St Paul urges (Romans 3:29):"Is He the God only of the Jews? Is He not also the God of the gentiles? Yes, He is the God of the gentiles."

Paul means that if God had made salvation depend on keeping the Mosaic law, then all who did not know of it would go to hell. But Paul knows God is not like that, is not a cruel monster. So Paul insists that God has provided for the salvation of non-Jews too. How? Paul says it is by faith that they can be saved.

To explain how that works out we must first notice what Paul means by that word "faith". He does not mean just developing a confidence that the merits of Christ apply to him. (If he has an emotional experience at such a point then he is "reborn", but without such an emotion, one goes to hell, say the Fundamentalists). Such a view is simplistic, rests on nothing in St. Paul. For we need to read every passage (probably with the help of a concordance) where Paul speaks of faith, read each in context, keep notes, and add them up. If we do that our result is: If God speaks a truth, faith requires we believe it in our minds; if He makes promise, faith requires we have confidence He will keep it; if God tell us to do something, we must do it—this is "the obedience of faith" of which Paul speaks in Romans 1:5, that is, the obedience that faith is. All these are to be done in love.

Martin Luther, in his "Exposition of Psalm 130.4", said about justification by faith: "If this article stands, the church stands, if it collapses, the church collapses." How sad! he wrote his own church's obituary, for he did not know what faith means -there is quite a contrast between just getting the conviction that the merits of Christ apply to me (plus or minus emotion at the time) and a faith that believes, hopes, obeys, and loves. The Protestant "Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, Supplement", on p.333 gives precisely the definition of Pauline faith we have just given. If that be the case, faith, which includes obedience, cannot excuse from obedience so that one can sin greatly, but believe still more greatly (Luther, "Epistle" 509).

Can one who follows him still be saved? We will be more generous than the Fundamentalists who consign to hell all who are not "born again", i.e., have an emotional experience of a "faith" that is not Pauline faith. So we will say yes, they can be saved in spite of such a sad error. For St. Paul in Romans 2:14-16 explains: "The gentiles who do not have the law, do by nature the things of the law. They show the work of the law written on their hearts." And according to their reaction conscience will accuse or defend them at Judgment. St. Justin the Martyr ("Apology" 1.46) applies this sort of principle to Socrates. He says Socrates was really a Christian, because he followed the Divine Word, the Logos. In "Apology" 2:10 Justin adds that the Divine Word, the Logos, is within each one. Thanks to St. Paul, we can see what the Word does there: He writes the law on their hearts. Now if Socrates accepts that law, even though he does not know that it is the Divine Word that writes it, Socrates is objectively following the Spirit of Christ. Then, from Romans 8:9, we note that if one does have and follow the Spirit of Christ, that one "belongs to Christ." To belong to Christ is to be Christian; in fact, it also means, in Paul's terminology, to be a member of Christ—which is to be a member of the Church! (So much for the Extra Ecclesiam problem).

We note in passing how well this squares with the recent Encyclical on the missions of John Paul II (#10): "The universality of salvation means that it is granted not only to those who explicitly believe in Christ and have entered the Church.... For such people, salvation in Christ is accessible by virtue of a grace which, while having a mysterious relationship to the Church, does not make them formally part of the Church, but enlightens them in a way which is accommodated to their spiritual and material situation." We are here suggesting how that "mysterious relationship" could work. Socrates of course did not formally become a member of the Church, yet we are suggesting he could have a substantial, though imperfect form of membership, sufficient to satisfy the teaching "Extra Ecclesiam nulla salus."

Just as John Paul II in the same Encyclical stressed that what he said in #10 did not mean we should not promote the missions, so we emphasize that our proposal does not diminish that need. Pius XII said it well in his Encyclical on the Mystical Body (#103): "They still remain deprived of those many heavenly gifts and helps which can only be enjoyed in the Catholic Church." And he wants them "to withdraw from that state in which they cannot be sure of their salvation."

But suppose a person, pagan or other, has reached justification, the state of grace, by the means we have explained, suppose he later sins mortally. If he just continues to believe it is all right, that he need do nothing about it, will that cancel his mortal sin? Of course not. A mistake does not give absolution.

And yet Paul's confidence expressed in Romans 3:29 that God is the God of all, suggests He has provided a way. Such a person will not make an act of perfect contrition. A pagan hardly even dreams of such a thing. The born-again man thinks there is no need.

Let us present for comment something new. In chapter 33 of Ezekiel God says emphatically that if the just man turns from the just way, he will not live. But he also says that if the wicked man turns from his evil way, he will live. And there is no mention of perfect contrition.

Let us recall that in God there are no real distinctions. We do not say that He has love, but that He is love. Similarly He is justice, He is mercy. If one, thinking of the fact that God is good in Himself, regrets having done something sinful, that is perfect contrition.

But we need to recall that when we love God, we do not act on the usual definition of love: "To love is to will good to another for the other's sake". No, we cannot will that God we well-off, that He get anything. Instead, Scripture pictures Him as pleased if we obey, displeased if we do not. Of course, our obedience does not give Him anything. He cannot benefit. But still, He wants us to obey, and for two reasons: 1) He loves all that is good, loves objective morality; 2) He wants to give to us—but that giving will be in vain if we are not open to receive. So He wants us to obey so He can give. Since He is Generosity itself, it gives Him pleasure to give effectively to us.

Therefore we get this equation: Love directed to God is in practice the same as obedience to Him, and obedience is love. (Cf. John 14:15 & 21).

So if the wicked man of whom God spoke through Ezekiel turns from his evil way, the man begins to obey, and so he loves, and in effect says: Now I see that this is not good, it is wrong, it is evil, I should not do it, it is not right. So it would seem that this is how God could say that that man will live. In God justice and love are identified—as are all His attributes. So this man, motivated by God's justice (and with the grace He always makes available) is doing the equivalent of acting on the basis of God's goodness. His obedience really is in practice, love of God.

An ancient Jew would recognize that what he had done was not only wrong in general, but was wrong because it offended God, who is "sadiq", [morally righteous], and loves "sedaqoth", [things that are morally righteous]" as Psalm 11:7 told him. But what of a pagan who does not know the true God? St. Justin the Martyr's lines can help here: Socrates in accepting what is objectively the Spirit of Christ, did not know what He was accepting. Yet that acceptance, according to St. Justin, made Socrates a Christian. So in a parallel way, the sinner who turns from his evil way will live, as God told Ezekiel, since he bases his turn-about on what is good in itself—but it is God who is good in Himself. The man would not explicitly have all these thoughts in mind. But yet, what he is and does objectively can suffice, just as it would for Socrates. His obedience is in practice the same as love of God.