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Can Non-Catholics be Saved?

Updated on April 14, 2015

Catholics believe ALL non-Catholics are going to Hell.

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[1] This phrase, as it is used literally by those words, is most commonly attributed to Cyprian in Epistles 4, 4 and 73, 21. But is also used “in other words” by Origen and Ireneaus.


Inter-religious conflict has been a human experience for as long as civilizations have interacted with each other. This conflict has even been the case for Christianity, and the Roman Catholic Church in particular. Much of this conflict arises from the group mentality associated with a religion—either you are a member of the group, or you are not. Many religions have used this “in-out” mentality to advocate for exclusive salvation: those who are not part of the group cannot receive life after death (whatever that may be for said religion). This has been especially the case for much of Christianity. For a majority of its history, the Church has interpreted the phrase Extra Ecclesiam nula salus[1] (outside the Church there is no salvation) literally—if you were not Roman Catholic, you could not receive salvation. This has changed in recent years however, and this posits a few questions. What is “church”? Who is saved? But what is the point of asking these questions if not for the purpose of Ecumanism and dialogue? Surely one could use this idea to foster an elitist and exclusive faith—a smaller church. But rather, if one is to take seriously the Great Commission and Christ’s desire for unity, salvation outside the church will provide a fundamental basis for ecumenical dialogue. Therefore, the purpose of this paper will be 1) to trace the history of the Catholic view concerning salvation outside the church, with specific focus on Extra Ecclesiam nula salus , and 2) examine specifically the implications of the Church’s current teaching.

Augustine of Hippo--Philippe de Champaigne, 17th century
Augustine of Hippo--Philippe de Champaigne, 17th century

[1] Stranksy, Thomas F. “Salvation of “the others.” Southwestern Journal of Theology 28, no. 2 (March 1, 1986): 112-116. “Others” is defined as “those Jews and Gentiles who were not disciples of Jesus, never members of his community, and if so, broke away and would not remain in his company any longer.” Cf. John 6:66.

[2] Dulles, Avery Robert, Cardinal. “Who can be saved?” First Things no.180 (February 1, 2008): 17-22. Pg, 18.

[3] Ibid.

[4]Sullivan, Francis A.Salvation Outside the Church?: Tracing the History of the Catholic Response.”( New York: Paulist Press, 1992), 15

[5] Ibid.

[6] Sermo ad Caesariensis caeariensis ecclesiae plebem, 6.

[7]Sullivan, Francis A.Salvation Outside the Church?: Tracing the History of the Catholic Response.” Pg, 24, 36.

[8] Ibid., 37.

[9] Ibid., 6. Pope Pius IX declared this in his singulari quadam (1854) in saying: “Certainly we must hold it as of faith that no one can be saved outside of the Apostolic Roman Church…” He further declared it as dogma in Quanto Conficiamur moerore (1863): “it is a well-known Catholic dogma that no one can be saved outside the Catholic Church.”

[10] Accessed from Sullivan, “Salvation outside the Church”, pg 6.

The New Testament to Augustine

While the salvation of “the others”[1] was a concern even in the New Testament, the heart of the issue arises with Cyprian’s statement “outside the Church there is no salvation” as early as the 3rd Century. It is important to note that even these early theologians made certain “salvational concessions” to the holy people of the Old Testament (such as the prophets) as well as a few of the Greek philosophers they felt paved the way for Christ (namely Aristotle).[2] However, according to the Fathers, the reason these people were saved was because they lived according to the Logos or wisdom that manifested Christ even before he came, and thus they were still saved, in a sense, by faith in Christ. As Dulles states:

Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, and Origen held that the Wisdom of God gave graces to people of every generation, both Greeks and barbarians. The saving grace of which these theologians were speaking, however, was given only to pagans who lived before the time of Christ. It was given by the Word of God who was to become incarnate in Jesus Christ.[3]

And as Sullivan says of Justin Matyr,

Justin also gave a positive answer to the question about the possibility of salvation for Gentiles who had kept the natural law. For him, this meant living according to reason, which, as a philosopher, he had known as logos . As a Christian, he knew that the Logos was incarnate in Christ. This explains his way of answering the question put to him about the Gentiles who had lived before the coming of Christ.[4]

Therefore, in sense of a pre-messianic salvation, the early Church was not completely exclusive, and even in the first three centuries after Christ, the Fathers remained mostly silent as to the salvation of Jews and pagans. Rather, the condemnation of being outside the Church was saved mostly for schismatics and heretics.[5] This is the context under which Cyprian made his argument:

Outside the church [the heretic and schizmatics] can have everything except salvation. He can have honor, he can have sacraments, he can sing alleluia, he can respond with Amen, he can have the gospel, he can hold and preach the faith in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit: but nowhere else than in the Catholic Church can he find salvation.[6]

The semi-inclusive teaching of salvation changed in the 4th century when it became the official religion of the Roman Empire. Augustine set the tone for the next millennium of salvation teaching by saying that, because everyone had now had the chance to hear the Gospel, those who were now unbelievers were precluded from salvation.[7] Later in his life, even when he became aware that there were tribes in Africa that had not yet heard the Gospel, he claimed that (vincible) ignorance did not merit there salvation, because original sin would still condemn them.[8] To Augustine, and many of his followers until the 16th century, to be outside the Roman Catholic Church, was to refuse salvation. Even into the 19th century, Pope Pius IX still held this view.[9] The Council of Florence, in 1442, exemplifies this position in its statement:

[The Holy Roman Church] firmly believes, professes and teaches that none of those who exist outside of the Catholic Church—neither pagans nor Jews nor heretics nor Schismatics—can become sharers of eternal life; rather, they will go into the eternal fire “which was prepared for the devil and his angels” (Mt 25:41) unless, before the end of their lives, they are joined to that same church… No one, even if he shed his blood for the name of Christ, can be saved, unless he remain in the bosom and unity of the Catholic Church.[10]

[1] Sullivan, Francis A. “The development of doctrine about infants who die unbaptized.” Theological Studies 72, no.1 (March 1, 2011): 3-14. Pg, 5.

[2] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1258-1259.

The New World to Vatican II

The first major shift happened in the 1500’s when the first missionaries travelled to the Americas to convert the natives. The missionaries, lead by theologians like Francisco de Vitoria, Domingo Soto, and Melchior Cano, found that the Gospel had not reached the America’s, but yet there were many natives that were living lives considered worthy of a Christian. The dilemma thus became whether these people who were living upright lives could be thought condemned based on their ignorance. Thus the emergence of a new teaching began, lead by many of the missionary theologians, which taught an “in votosacramentality, especially concerning Baptism.[1] Under this theology, the natives were not culpable for invincible ignorance of Christ, and thus, if they were living Christian-like lives, they were said to have “Baptism in voto”, or what would later come to be referred to as “Baptism by desire”.[2]

This theological line of thought continued to be develop through Vatican II with many of its various documents, but especially in Lumen Gentium 15: “Those also can attain to salvation who through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church, yet sincerely seek God and moved by grace strive by their deeds to do His will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience.” This is the current state of the question in the Roman Catholic Church, but it still leaves many questions to be answered. Among them are, how is this viewpoint faithful to God’s desire for universal salvation? Who is considered part of the Church, and what relationship does the Church have to the salvation of those outside it? Finally, by what specific means does this Baptism in votum save the non-catholic?

[1] The word “nation” is frequently translated as “gentiles”.

[2] Catechism of the Catholic Church #1033

[3] Packer, James I. “Salvation sans Jesus.” Christianity Today 49, no 10 (October, 2005): 88-318. Pg, 88.

[4] Stransky, 113.

God's Universal Salvific Will

An important question to ask concerning salvation outside the Church is who does God want to be saved? In both the Old and New Testaments it is clear that, while Israel is the chosen nation, God wills salvation for all peoples. Acts 10:34-35 says, “Then Peter began to speak to them: ‘I truly understand that God shows no partiality,but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” 1 Timothy 2:4 states, “[God] desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. Finally, Malachi 1:11 proclaims, “For from the rising of the sun to its setting my name is great among the nations, and in every place incense is offered to my name, and a pure offering; for my name is great among the nations[1], says theLordof hosts.”These are only a few of the examples of verses that show that God desires all people to be saved. This “universal salvific will” of God holds in tension the different elements of salvation including free-will, hell, and the core question of who is actually saved. Many may argue, if God wills all people to be saved, then why did he necessitate only a single religion, or Church, for salvation? Such a question is why we will later not only define what Church is in this context, but also how the Church can save those outside itself. It is important to remember that the Church continues to teach that those who are not saved, do so by their own free choice to reject God’s grace and his truth of revelation.[2]

This tension between God’s universal salvific will, and salvation outside the Church has lead to three opposing trends of thought. The position of Universalism claims “that despite the New Testament witness to the contrary, God will somehow bring all who leave this world as nonbelievers to share the inheritance of those who die living in Christ “.[3] On the other hand, the exclusive position claims that no one outside a particular church or religion can be saved. This is quite a literal interpretation of our axiom, and is actually more common among the evangelical denominations.[4] Finally, those holding an inclusive position believe that, while salvation is offered to all, and though some may be outside the Church, those who chose salvation will be saved through the Church. This is most in line with the current Catholic teaching.

the Church: not just a building
the Church: not just a building

One Opinion on the Matter

[1] Cf. Decree on Ecumenism, Lumen Gentium

[2] Responses to some Questions Regarding Certain Aspects of the Doctrine on the Church, Q. 5

[3] Nostra Aetate, “Nevertheless, God holds the Jews most dear for the sake of their Fathers; He does not repent of the gifts He makes or of the calls He issues-such is the witness of the Apostle.” Cf.Rom. 11:28-29; cf. dogmatic Constitution,Lumen Gentium (Light of nations) AAS, 57 (1965) pag. 20

[4] Sullivan, Francis A. “Further thoughts on the meaning of subsistit in.” Theological Studies 71, no. 1 (March 1, 2010): 133-147, pg 147.

[5] Ibid., 11.

Who is Church?

The next important question that must be answered is, if the Church is the means of salvation, then what constitutes the Church? In early Christianity, a community’s “churchness” depended on its “apostolicity” or rather, a community was said to be a Christian Church if it could adequately claim connection (in some sense) to the Apostles. If all recognized Churches could claim descent from the Apostles, then continuity of teaching across the universal Church could be better ensured. The church father Irenaeus (cir. 150’s) posited three criteria for this Apostolicity. The first requirement was that the community must have a Bishop, which by this time was developing into a single local Bishop. A community without a Bishop could not be guaranteed to be descended from the Apostles, and thus the authentic teachings of that community would be thought suspect. The second criteria for Apostolicity was that the community’s teaching was in continuity with the New Testament. If the local church taught anything contrary to what was taught (by Christ himself or by the Apostles) in the New Testament, then they could not claim to be authentically apostolic and thus not in community with the universal Christian Church. The third element of authentic apostolicity was what Irenaeus called “paradosis” (Greek for tradition), and consisted of a Canon of Truth (or a creed) which was handed down from the Apostles.

While not the fullest sense of what the “Church” is, this ecclesiological criteria still aids in the discussion about “who counts as church”. Where this is most applicable is in the Eastern Churches, both those in communion with Rome and those which are not. It has been a long-standing tradition that these communities be considered Churches proper. This is affirmed through the teachings not only of Pius XII in Mystici Corporisi, but also in the relevant Vatican II documents.[1]

This means that, since to some extent the Eastern Churches are part of “the Church”, though they don’t have the “fullness of truth” that the Roman Church has, they are still capable of receiving salvation through the Church.

This is different from the teaching about the protestant communities, which the CDF has maintained cannot be called churches but rather “ecclesial communities”.[2] Yet, as we shall see, they are in some way still a part of the "church".

But what about the Jews? Surely, a God who has promised them salvation would not break his promise. That the Jews can be allotted a place in salvation through their covenant is affirmed by the modern Church.[3] But surely they are not part of the universal church, for they have no faith in Christ, which the core and most fundamental element in being considered part of the Church of Christ. Furthermore, though the Jews are afforded a special place by virtue of their covenant with God, what about the other non-Christian religions, especially that of Islam? Is there no hope for their salvation? I believe the answer lies primarily in the distinction between the “Church of Christ” and the “Church of God”.

Lumen Gentium provides some valuable insight into the relationship of the Roman Catholic Church to the other Christian denominations and religions of the world. Paragraph 8 states,

This Church constituted and organized in the world as a society, subsists in the Catholic Church, which is governed by the successor of Peter and by the Bishops in communion with him, although many elements of sanctification and of truth are found outside of its visible structure. These elements, as gifts belonging to the Church of Christ, are forces impelling toward catholic unity.

It is the term “subsists in” which has been the topic of extensive debate over the last 50 years, but for the purpose of this paper, Francis J. Sullivan’s explanation shall be adequate.

Sullivan argues that by “subsits in”, the Council meant that, while the fullness of truth, revelation, and the Church lies solely in Roman Catholicism, although elements of truth, revelation, and remnents of salvation reside, in a lesser state, in other religions.[4]

Furthermore, the same chapter of Lumen Gentium states,

Christ, the one Mediator, established and continually sustains here on earth His holy Church, the community of faith, hope and charity, as an entity with visible delineation through which He communicated truth and grace to all. But, the society structured with hierarchical organs and the Mystical Body of Christ, are not to be considered as two realities, nor are the visible assembly and the spiritual community, nor the earthly Church and the Church enriched with heavenly things; rather they form one complex reality which coalesces from a divine and a human element.

This passage implies that, while there is one Church in its fullness (the Roman Catholic Church), there is no essential limit of the Church to a physical, social, hierarchical institution, but that the Church includes a mystical, communal, heavenly element. This means that, while a person may lie outside the institutional church, there may be ways that they are still included in the spiritual Church.

Finally, chapter 2 of Lumen Gentium discusses what is called the “ecclesia ab Abel”, “At the end of time it will gloriously achieve completion, when, as is read in the Fathers, all the just, from Adam and ‘from Abel, the just one, to the last of the elect,’ will be gathered together with the Father in the universal Church”. This shows that the Church is not only those formally joined to the Catholic Church, but rather “all the just”. Surely this is a bigger Church then just what Christ established in the Catholic Church—this is a Church of God.

There then resides a distinction between the Church of Christ, and the Church of God. The Church of Christ subsists in the Catholic Church, which is the fullness of revelation and salvation, and which is united to the person of Christ in his body. This Church is also present in a lesser way in the Eastern Catholic Churches, who still maintain Apostolic roots, and which have maintained many of the essential elements of the Catholic Faith.[5] Lastly, though not “churches proper”, the protestant ecclesial communities belong to this Church of Christ in a much lesser way, having no Apostolic origin and lacking many of essential elements of faith (Sacraments), but still maintain faith in Christ as the son of God.

The Church of God then is a broader manifestation of the saved, for it includes “all the just” that have died from Abel to the present day. While in some sense, “the just” can only be known by God, the upright and just, the “Christ-like” of the non-Christian religions would fall under this category. Thus, Muslims, Hindus, the invincibly ignorant, and in a special way the Jews, all are part of the Church of God and capable of being salvation through it, for God offers and desires salvation for all.

© 2013 rdlang05


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    • rdlang05 profile image

      rdlang05 5 years ago from Minnesota

      Thank you!

      Good luck in your studies, I wish you the best!

    • busillis22 profile image

      busillis22 5 years ago

      Wow, that is an excellent history of such an important issue in the history of theology. Thank you for all the great research you did! I am planning on going into historical theology professionally - I love learning about these things.

    • rdlang05 profile image

      rdlang05 5 years ago from Minnesota

      Thank you Blossom. I'm glad you appreciated it.

    • BlossomSB profile image

      Bronwen Scott-Branagan 5 years ago from Victoria, Australia

      A well-researched hub. Thank you for taking the time to write it and present your point of view. God bless you.

    • rdlang05 profile image

      rdlang05 5 years ago from Minnesota

      Thanks, I'll take a look at your hub.

    • Disappearinghead profile image

      Disappearinghead 5 years ago from Wales, UK

      Hi rd. I've written a hub detailing why I believe eternal torment is a false doctrine. So the next alternative is annihilation. I cannot accept this either as it contradicts the definition of good judgement and the concept that the punishment must fit the crime. For example, God gave the Israelites the principle of eye for eye, tooth for tooth, etc. This was designed so that punishment would not be too lenient or excessive. Thus sin committed in a finite life cannot be punished with an eternal punishment, whether that be torment or annihilation. All civilised nations have abandoned capital punishment, because such finality can never be a just punishment for a crime committed in life. If these nations regard the death penalty as barbaric and inhumane, then to accept that God does the equivalent by annihilation is to render man more civilised and loving than God.

      Consider this scenario. A teenager steals a can of beer from a corner shop, is caught, prosecuted, and found guilty. The judge passes a sentence of death by lethal injection. Don't you think the Church would be in uproar? Wouldn't Christians be the first to write to their political leaders to stop this abomination. Now tell those same Christians that the teenager didn't believe in Jesus. How quickly their response changes to he deserves hell, all lover, mercy, compassion disappears in a second.

      Now, if the Christian considers it barbaric to impose a death penalty for stealing a beer, how much more do you think God considers it barbaric to annihilate someone who didn't believe in him? "If you who are evil know how to give good gifts to your children........"

      So someone does not believe in Jesus, how is that possibly a crime? How can beliefs condemn someone? This is medieval thinking. How can one's salvation be dependant upon another human? It relies on the evangelising Christian to be able to put forward a sufficiently brilliant argument with supporting concrete testable evidence sufficient to overcome the experience and arguments of the unbeliever. This is just nonsense. Someone can only stand or fall by what they do, not what they believe.

      If hell was real, why did God never reveal it to the Jews or mention it in the Hebrew scriptures?

      We know that God intends all men be saved:

      1 Timothy 2:3-5

      3 for this [is] right and acceptable before God our Saviour,

      4 who doth will all men to be saved, and to come to the full knowledge of the truth;

      5 for one [is] God, one also [is] mediator of God and of men, the man Christ Jesus,

      Yet Christians believe this is a wishy washy halfhearted wishful thinking desire that God knows he cannot fulfil. Really? God rebukes such unbelief below:

      Isaiah 46:10-12

      10 I make known the end from the beginning,

      from ancient times, what is still to come.

      I say, “My purpose will stand,

      and I will do all that I please.”

      11 From the east I summon a bird of prey;

      from a far-off land, a man to fulfil my purpose.

      What I have said, that I will bring about;

      what I have planned, that I will do.

      12 Listen to me, you stubborn-hearted,

      you who are now far from my righteousness.

      1 Corinthians 15:22

      for even as in Adam ALL die, so also in the Christ ALL shall be made alive,

      Does Paul say only SOME will be made alive in Christ?

      How about the evil Kings Ahaz and Manasseh who burned their children:

      2 Chronicles 33:6

      He sacrificed his children in the fire in the Valley of Ben Hinnom, practised divination and witchcraft, sought omens, and consulted mediums and spiritists. He did much evil in the eyes of the Lord, arousing his anger.

      Ben Hinnom is none other than Gehenna which is the Greek rendering. It was this valley Jesus spoke about and understood by the disciples, not a pagan hell alien to Judaism. If our Father was moved to great wrath towards these kings for this unspeakable act of burning their children, how can anyone think he is such a two faced hypocritical despicable monster to do the exact same thing himself?

      There are many many more scriptures that demonstrate universal salvation, a doctrine held by the Church Fathers until crushed by the Church. I'd love to have the time to write a new hub, but I simply don't. Alternatively have a look at this link:

    • rdlang05 profile image

      rdlang05 5 years ago from Minnesota

      @Disappearing--I think that the idea of universal salvation is a happy thought, and it would be nice if it was true. But there are a great many biblical examples showing that not everyone will be saved. If you have, or write, a hub with evidence for your opinion, I would love to read it.

      @Pool--I don't necessarily disagree with you. I think there's a lot of distinguishments and ambiguities that can't really be expressed in a hub comment. Let me just say that, while Christ defines the Church and is the fullness of the Church, and thus whom he dwells in is part of the Church in some way... I think there are degrees of belonging (in any organization) and I think the fact that Jesus had leaders and the early Church had some form of "hierarchy", shows that there can be a human aspect of the Church without devaluing the essentialness and primacy of Christ.

      Thank you both for your comments

    • Pool Of Thoughts profile image

      David Steffy 5 years ago from Southern Ohio

      Thanks for sharing that and I agree that you must have had to wade through much to try to piece it all together. I do not believe that anyone is saved or lost outside of the dictates of Jesus Christ. The Church is merely those in whom He dwells. Is has nothing to do with a man-made organization. As far as those who never heard the Gospel or were misled in some vain religion, Christ is the Supreme Judge and He alone will grant eternal life or punishment to those who have not received His Spirit in their earthly journey. In one place the Lord Jesus said that, "Insomuch as you have done it unto the least of these my little ones, you have done it unto Me." Though they may be a heathen, or infidel, if they are good to the Bride of Jesus Christ they could very well be granted eternal life at the White Throne. But by the same token, they could be damned by mistreatment of His little ones. Who wants to take that chance when the door is still open to whosoever will, as far as I know?

    • Disappearinghead profile image

      Disappearinghead 5 years ago from Wales, UK

      I don't recognise the authority of the Catholc Church and thus it's conclusions to what constitutes the Church of Christ, or its claim on exclusivity. I believe in ultimate reconciliation of all people and believe that this position is a more accurate interpretation of the bible than the pagan hell that the Catholic Church grafted into Church doctrine.

    • rdlang05 profile image

      rdlang05 5 years ago from Minnesota

      Thank you both. I'm glad you enjoyed it and got something out of it.

      Cynth, best luck in your current contemplation, and I can't wait to read it if you publish it on hubpages.

      Cam, it was a confusing paper to write, but I'm glad it will help people understand better the nature of Church, Salvation, and God's will for us to be with him in Heaven.

    • cam8510 profile image

      Chris Mills 5 years ago from Missoula, Montana at least until March 2018

      rdlang, This is a meticulous, thorough and engaging search through history and human reason which reaches the conclusion that all who live Christ like lives receive salvation. You mentioned one word that, for me at least, adds a wrinkle to the fabric, namely Elect. It seems to me this trumps everything else, at least theologically. In the end, only the elect will receive eternal salvation. Biblically and theologically this seems to me to be unavoidable. That is why I reject all human reasonings, writings, scriptures and conclusions, including my own, and will wait and see what actually happens. If salvation is so complex that we haven't been able to decipher it in the last two thousand years, then either God has been playing a hideous game or mankind is so far off track as to be hopelessly lost. I consider The Church, in any and all forms, to be so confused and confusing as to be worthless.

      I admire you for making as much sense as you have, considering the senseless mass of accumulated human idiocy you had to wade through.

    • cynthtggt profile image

      Cynthia Taggart 5 years ago from New York, NY

      Wonderful hub! But I have to look at your hub more closely and deeply, as I am also working on a similar argument of what the church is. I am going to come back to this hub at a later time, but the essence of the spiritual versus religion is the tension we see today and I truly believe that more understanding of what you're saying here is needed by everyone in order to resurrect that which we were by design to lose over the centuries of church teachings alone.