Part of a series.
Today I wonder: Is it better for Christians to emphasize that God is exceedingly merciful and generous and might allow everyone to be saved, or is it better for us to emphasize that the only way we know to salvation is narrow?
I've been going roughly from earlier to later writers in this series on the early Christians, but I'm jumping ahead to Tertullian (160-230) today, because I came across a passage just this afternoon I wanted to discuss. From his On the Resurrection of the Flesh:
Now such remarks have I wished to advance in defence of the flesh, from a general view of the condition of our human nature. Let us now consider its special relation to Christianity, and see how vast a privilege before God has been conferred on this poor and worthless substance.
It would suffice to say, indeed, that there is not a soul that can at all procure salvation, except it believe whilst it is in the flesh, so true is it that the flesh is the very condition on which salvation hinges. And since the soul is, in consequence of its salvation, chosen to the service of God, it is the flesh which actually renders it capable of such service.
The flesh, indeed, is washed, in order that the soul may be cleansed; the flesh is anointed, that the soul may be consecrated; the flesh is signed (with the cross), that the soul too may be fortified; the flesh is shadowed with the imposition of hands, that the soul also maybe illuminated by the Spirit; the flesh feeds on the body and blood of Christ, that the soul likewise may fatten on its God. They cannot then be separated in their recompense, when they are united in their service.
Those sacrifices, moreover, which are acceptable to God --- I mean conflicts of the soul, fastings, and abstinences, and the humiliations which are annexed to such duty --- it is the flesh which performs again and again to its own especial suffering. Virginity, likewise, and widowhood, and the modest restraint in secret on the marriage-bed, and the one only adoption of it, are fragrant offerings to God paid out of the good services of the flesh.
Lovely bit of writing, isn't it? Well, what caught my eye (technically, ear, since I heard it on Mark Shea's bit on Relevant Radio) today was the bit I've highlighted in bold/underline.
The reason I took notice of it is that I just finished re-reading, for probably the fifth or sixth time, C. S. Lewis's The Great Divorce. In this short work, a narrator "dreams" that he accompanies a tour bus ride out of a dreary Hell into the foothills of Heaven. There blessed spirits come to meet the grumbling, suspicious travelers and attempt (mostly unsuccessfully) to convince them to stay and journey deeper into Heaven with them.
Lewis's main point is really that Hell is something we actively choose rather than something chosen for us. Still, this and other works make it clear that he considered it possible that God gives souls a chance to choose after death. Tertullian, on the other hand, emphatically insists that we must make our choice "whilst in the flesh." And so did most Christian writers throughout history, if I'm not mistaken. But Lewis isn't the only one I've heard venture a guess: maybe we get a chance after death, when everything is much clearer.
I think we all want to believe in, and speak about, a God who gives humans every imaginable chance of salvation. I know I want to believe in that myself! It is so very hard to love a God who seems capricious and punitive. And it is so hard to convince unbelievers that a God of that sort is worth believing in. We want to paint Him in the best possible light. And we want to paint ourselves and our Church in the best light too: If we say our God might not accept this person as he thinks and behaves, then we fear we will be seen as not accepting the same person. So for these and other reasons, we project the most generous conditions of salvation that we can out to the world.
So, take this simple formula as an example: Outside the Church there is no salvation. Well, that used to mean something quite straightforward: You've gotta be a baptized Christian, preferably a Catholic, to make it to heaven! Nowadays we don't say that. We say things like: Well, we don't know for sure that you have to be explicitly a member of the Church to be saved. All we know is that salvation comes through the Church; if you are saved it is due to the saving work of Jesus Christ through the Church, whether you know it or not. God can save whoever he wants, after all.
This sounds good. It makes God sound nicer than the old interpretation did. I hope that it leads more people to feel a welcome that leads them to become believers.
Still, though, might it be safer to believe that the gates of salvation are narrower than that? I am not sure. We have actual promises of Christ in the Gospels that if we participate in the life of the Church as faithful members, we will be saved. There are no other kinds of promises. The possibility that non-Christians can be saved somehow is left open, yes. But there are no other kinds of promises.
I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. (John 3:5)
I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. (John 6:53)
Tough call. When you get down to it, all kinds of possibilities are open, but we only know of one Way that is certain.
And it's a tough call, too, when it comes to that whole "can-you-choose-after-death" question, the one that Lewis struggles with in TGD. I heard a priest speculating in a homily once --- to his credit, he did make it clear that it was only speculation --- that perhaps we all get a moment of perfect clarity in the instant after our deaths, and it is with that perfect clarity that we are given the moment to choose God or not-God. He wanted to believe in a God that would give everyone equal opportunity to say Yes or No.
Lewis didn't come up with the main idea in TGD; the refrigerium, or excursion from Hell, is an old idea. And he tries to reconcile Protestant and Catholic notions to it, uniting it with ideas of Purgatory and even of predestination, by appealing to the idea that in eternity a particular moment "contains all moments," all choices. But in any case, Lewis's vision is far more liberal than Tertullian's. If Lewis is right, then we have a chance to move the pieces after the game is over; if Tertullian is right, we do not. Yet Lewis is likely to convert more people of the modern mindset; does Tertullian have any appeal at all anymore?
What is the solution? Maybe it is simply that we project the generous version of events to the world, and then hold ourselves and each other --- all of us already within the Church --- to the higher standard. Bait-and-switch? I don't know. But once we become aware of the kinds of demands that Jesus makes of us in the Gospels, and once we believe He is who He says He is, can we really take any chances?