Who Can be Saved?

If you are accosted by a person on the street who asks, “Are you saved?,” it’s like being asked: ” did you stop beating your wife?”

Answer either “yes” or “no,” and you’re in trouble.

In such moments, I think of Joan of Arc’s answer to Jean Beaupère, one of the prosecutors at her trial, who asked whether she thought she was in the state of grace. She replied: “If I am in the state of grace, may God keep me there; if I am not, may He put me there.”

St. Thomas Aquinas (Summa I-II, 1123, 5) poses the question whether we can know we are in the state of grace. He answers that there are two ways: 1) through a special revelation; 2) with a bit less certainty, through interior experience of the manna absconditum (“hidden manna”) spoken of in Rev. 2:17.

Very few saints have been given special revelations. There’s the “good thief,” who received assurance from Jesus on the Cross that he and the Lord would be together in Paradise that very day. Two of the three child visionaries at Fatima received assurances from Our Lady that they would soon be going to heaven. But even great saints, as St. Paul says (Phil. 2:12), have to work out their salvation “with fear and trepidation.”

Should we be envious at the apparent absolute certitude of some Protestants who, like some Catholics, have had a powerful religious experience that they interpret as being “born again?” Catholics with the same experience may take it as a sign of a vocation, or of the need for repentance.

But “born again” Protestants also seem to assume that they can never be lost. This is doubly amazing. Since most Protestants don’t believe in Purgatory, “born again” Protestants would thus believe they go immediately into heavenly bliss after death. No delay!

Jesus’ disciples did not seem to have such absolute certainty. In Luke 13:23, they asked Him whether only a few are saved. Jesus avoided a direct answer, but recommended to them that they “take the narrow gate,” and warned them in Mt. 7:13 that the “wide gate” can lead to destruction.

The problem is particularly severe, Jesus says, for the wealthy, since it will be easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for them to be saved (Mt. 19:25, Mk. 10:26). Jesus’ disciples, astonished at this statement, wondered whether anyone could be saved; but then the Master assured them that with God, all things are possible. Even what’s impossible for us.

          James: page one

In her famous Dialogues, God the Father assures St. Catherine of Siena that, at the very last minute, He can offer even a great sinner the grace of repentance. In Chapter 132 of that work, He mentions that He has a special “trick” up His sleeve: He persuades some who have “spent their life in wickedness” to “put immense trust in my mercy” – thus keeping them from despair, that is, from “the single sin that leads them to hell.” In other words, avoid despair at all costs.

In the Old Testament, “salvation” often had the connotation of deliverance from the multiple external exigencies and enemy forces that threatened the struggle of God’s chosen people to establish His reign in the world. The political aspects of this ideal remain in the Gospels, but Jesus gradually brought his followers to focus primarily on the spiritual and eschatological aspects of salvation.

Most of us are probably amazed at the sheer presumption of the Apostles James and John, when they ask to sit at the side of Jesus, one on the right side and one on the left, when He comes into His glory. But on second thought this just brings out what tremendous familiarity they must have had with the incarnate Son of God, spending days and days with Him, eating and drinking, with hours and hours of conversation. Many of us might be quite satisfied just to have some obscure corner of heaven reserved for us.

If we can take a cue from the Roman martyrology, vast numbers of Old Testament personages having no connection with the Mosaic Law not only were saved but are to be revered as saints: Abel, the brother of Cain; Enoch, who was taken up bodily into heaven; Lot, the brother of Abraham; Noah, the Babylonian; Job, Melchizedek, and even the Arabian Queen of Sheba, who visited Solomon.

In the New Testament, Jesus offered Baptism as a passport to salvation. But also assured his followers (Mt. 10:42) that even someone who gave a cup of cold water to one of His disciples would not lose his reward. And he promises that, in the final judgment, those who fed the hungry, clothed the naked, or visited the sick and prisoners would be saved (Mt. 25:35-37).

Especially in view of the tremendous obstacles to conversion in such places as North Korea, many Middle Eastern countries, and countries overwhelmed by secularization – the traditional catechetical alternative of “baptism of desire” and “baptism by blood” assume greater and greater significance.

A long tradition of interpretation of Rev. 12:4 holds that two-thirds of the angels after Creation were saved. Are we to believe that we humans, with all our temptations and sufferings and struggles with doubts, are going to end up with more than one-third losing out?

In the drama of salvation, the devil apparently has a tremendous advantage. He knows, doesn’t he, exactly who has been saved. And he knows what sort of things brought about the downfall of those who are with him. With our minuscule strength against the power of Satan, how can we win?

But we may assume that the angels, who have had as much experience with humans as the devils, have also developed strategies for keeping their charges on the road to salvation. Just read C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters: he seems to know the strategies on both sides.


Howard Kainz

Howard Kainz

Howard Kainz, Emeritus Professor at Marquette University, is the author of twenty-five books on German philosophy, ethics, political philosophy, and religion, and over a hundred articles in scholarly journals, print magazines, online magazines, and op-eds. He was a recipient of an NEH fellowship for 1977-8, and Fulbright fellowships in Germany for 1980-1 and 1987-8. His website is at Marquette University.

  • Lee Gilbert

    As you say, “In Luke 13:23, [the disciples] asked Him whether only a few are saved. Jesus avoided a direct answer…” However, in Mt 7:13 he is very direct:

    “Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leaves to life, and those who find it are few.”

    Later you ask, “Are we to believe that we humans, with all our temptations and sufferings and struggles with doubts, are going to end up with more than one-third losing out?”

    The answer clearly is yes. If only one third lose out, that means that two- thirds make it, but that would turn this saying of Jesus on its head, with the many being saved and the few lost.

    Here and in other places Our Lord is the enemy of any complacency on this subject, to the extent of having us envision ourselves as coming to the Wedding Supper of the Lamb without a wedding garment: “And he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you come in here without wedding clothes?’ And the man was speechless. “Then the king said to the servants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness; in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ “For many are called, but few are chosen” (MT 22:12-14)

  • Eric Giunta

    “Noah the Babylonian”? Huh?

  • Manfred

    This is an interesting piece, Howard. Does one have to be Catholic in order to be saved? You never mention the Sacrament of Penance/Reconciliation. If you are going to mention the Fatima visionaries, why don’t you mention that Francisco, who was to die with his sister in the Flu Epidemic of 1918, when he asked Our Lady if he would be saved (Remember, all three had seen the vision of Hell) was told: “Yes, but you must say many, many rosaries.” Why don’t you mention that John Vianney and St. Augustine, as two examples, prayed everyday on their knees begging God that He would not comnsign them to Hell. I don’t get any sense of urgency whatever from your article that each of us faces eternal life OR eternal death every day. That, of course, was the purpose of the theology of the last 70 years-the implicit suggestion (“we must believe in Hell, but we do not have to believe anyone is there”)that everyone is saved. In the Church of the Ages, this is a heresy.

  • Other Joe

    Whew! What a cannon of worms. Best I think to pray and to hope and work at achieving some humility. There is a recurrent image in the gospels of the unfairness of salvation: the workers who come late to the fields; the grumbling of the prodigal son’s brother; the good thief getting ushered in after a life of crime (as noted). Yet God must also be just and so reason suggests the existence of purgatory or something along those lines. Anecdotal indications from near-death experiences (as difficult for others to evaluate as the millions of reports of alien abduction) involve the presence of Jesus at the personal judgment, often followed by a time of purging. There is the joy of the divine presence mixed with the suffering of the full and final revelation of our own sin and its true nature. The suffering is made all the more urgent after having experienced divine love in person. Such transcendental experiences must always remain essentially a mystery to the earthbound, however the anecdotal record is deep and rich. Until we have the eyes to see another’s heart, it is best to judge behavior only. However, only a fool believes there is no hell. Modern history is filled with examples of hell brought to earth by those who have turned their souls against God. Foreshadowed is forewarned.

  • Howard Kainz

    @Lee Gilbert: You cite, as I do, Jesus’ admonition about the “narrow gate,” and then ask if it’s possible that a third of humans, like the tradition about angels, could be lost, and you answer, “The answer clearly is yes.” You rush too quickly in your exegesis. You omit that other passage which I cite, that what is impossible for men is possible for God. Neither of us knows for sure about the numbers. Ironically, the Catholic doctrine of purgatory offers room for optimism.

  • Manfred

    The word is, of course, “consign”.

  • Patrick

    Certainly a deep and knotty subject. I suppose we should not be too quick to think we know who is saved and who not, because ultimately only God possesses that knowledge. I think it is true that God *wants* everyone to be saved, and that He will do His utmost to help us achieve salvation.

    But it is not for us to be the judge, so it also is not for us to know who exactly is saved. The quote from Joan of Arc kind of alludes to this. She leaves the matter in God’s hands.

    As with other endeavors in life, such as work, marriage, and raising children, we have to find a balance between complacency and neurosis or unhealthy obsessive anxiety. Martin Luther was one who seemed to let neurosis get the better of him, leading to the heresy of “sola fide.” Because he could not trust God’s judgment, he created a division in the Church.

    We should also remember that we have our family members and the contemplative orders of monastics to pray for our souls — we don’t go it alone. Don’t forget to pray for mercy on behalf of those who now stand before their final judgment.

  • Rick DeLano

    Those are saved who are translated from the condition of child of Adam to child of God.

    This can only be accomplished through baptism or the “votum” (usually translated “desire”) for it.

    There is no other way to be saved, since there are no other means revealed to us by God by which to accomplish the translation from child of Adam to child of God.

    So says the Council of Trent.

    There has never been a a subsequent solemn definition of similar authority on the matter.

    Baptism of desire is a certainty, but can legitimately be held only to apply to those who desire *it*; that is, *baptism*.

    Legitimacy has also been given (for better or worse) to the “anonymous Christianity” of Rahner, who took the “desire for it” and turned it into a desire to be with God.

    I think that is heresy, but I’m not the Pope.

    I would insist upon a solemn definition of the Rahnerism from a Pope or Council before I would believe it, and in the absence of such a solemn definition I would happily die or be excommunicated before believing it for a second.

    Baptism of blood is not a dogma of the Church, although it has been held by a lot of theologians, and has been taught in the recent catechism.

    But those parameters established, it is absolutely certain that the unbaptized cannot be saved.

    How many of the baptized will be saved?

    God knows.

  • Howard Kainz

    @Rick DeLano: Baptism by water, blood, or desire has a long tradition in the Church, going back to the early Fathers. Pope Saint Pius X in his Catechism, sums up the teaching of the Church as follows: “The absence of Baptism can be supplied by martyrdom, which is called Baptism of Blood, or by an act of perfect love of God, or of contrition, along with the desire, at least implicit, of Baptism, and this is called Baptism of Desire.”

  • Dennis M.

    Thank you for this interesting article. I am Protestant, (probably more so than most, actually) so I’m sure you and I disagree on many things, but we probably do agree on the apparent presumption of those who think that because they got saved at one time, nothing in the future can ever change that.

    I think it is better to consider the issue in terms of learning to trust God for our righteousness and salvation, and learning that God is trustworthy, instead of whether or not one is “saved” for all time based on a decision or experience done once in the past.

    A good day and God’s blessings to you today!

  • Rick DeLano


    I do not deny the fact that Aquinas taught baptism of blood. My point is that no authoritative teaching of the magisterium has taught it, and those are the teachings which bind Catholic conscience.

    The problem in all of the “implicit desire” arguments is that they are not in accord with the understanding of Scripture unanimously attested by the Fathers, and they do not honestly deal with the fact that Trent’s infallible definition requires the desire for *it*, that is, *baptism*.

    No Catholic can be bound to anything beyond this, since no comparable exercise of magisterial authority has addressed the question.

    If the magisterium wishes to state explicitly, and authoritatively, that original sin can be remitted without the desire for baptism, then the matter will be settled.

    Until then, I reject baptism of implicit desire, and I insist that original sin can be remitted only by baptism or the desire for *it*. If you think this makes me an heretic, please contact my bishop, Archbishop Jose Gomez in Los Angeles, and tell him so.

    I am completely ready at all times to submit to the heaven-protected magisterium of the Catholic Church, but not to the opinions of theologians or of bloggers.