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, 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.