What happens to a good person who is not a practising Christian?

What happens to someone who is a good person but not a practising Christian? That was the second question put by my former parishioner, which I mentioned in the last post. 

This is a huge question, and one that has vexed theologians for a long time. It is also the one question that always commands immense attention whenever it comes up in discussions about the faith in a parish setting.

I do not want to go into the history of the question, or get into a footnote heavy discussion, but rather to provide a useful answer for the here and now.

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First of all, there are a lot of good people about, people who never go to Church, and who seem to be able to live without religion, but who are nevertheless good people. It would be a mistake to deny that they are good, or to claim that their goodness is an illusion. But it would be true, I think, to say that their lives lack something.

Their lives lack an explicit spiritual dimension, though, in conversation with them, one might find that they do have some spiritual awareness, though this may be rather unfocussed. What we as Christians should try to do is to engage with them on this wavelength and see if we can find something explicit in this implicit spirituality.

Their lives clearly lack an explicit faith in God, and this, though they may not realise it, means that they lack something important, namely God’s approval. Ignorance is never pleasing to God (how could it be?) and God wants to be known and loved by all; therefore if someone does not know God, this is a serious lack in their life. Yet, even though God does not approve of their ignorance of Him, we cannot say that God does not love them. God is love. Moreover, God loves human goodness, and therefore he looks kindly on all those who live good lives. Their goodness is not illusory: God, looking at their good deeds sees and loves in them what he sees and loves in Jesus Christ His Son, the Virgin Mary and all the Saints.

And yet we are told in the Scriptures and in the constant tradition of the Church that salvation is of Christ the Lord and that all who call on the name of the Lord will be saved. Outside Christ there is no salvation. This cannot be denied. I could quote numerous verses of Scripture to back this up – but I would rather just point to the whole of Scripture as bearing witness to Christ and salvation through Him.

Could these good people who do not know Christ explicitly, or who may have heard of Him but not responded to Him (at least not explicitly), could they somehow be people who belong to Christ without really knowing it themselves?

This is the usual answer to the question, one associated with the theology of Karl Rahner and his theory about what he calls “anonymous Christians”.

But I would prefer not to get stuck into Rahner, much as I think he was onto something of importance in his theory, even though it has its difficulties. I would rather go with the idea I once heard advanced in a sermon on Our Lord’s words about the vine and the branches. Some branches are clearly and visibly grafted onto the vine; other branches may be hanging onto the vine despite the fact that they have seemingly been broken off, yet they are part of the vine still.

Thus there may be baptised Christians fully participating in the life of the Church; and baptised Christians who seemingly are cut off, but are hanging by a thread or two, and receiving the grace of Christ. But it goes further: the grace of Christ in its operations transcends the physical structures of the Church. There may be those who participate in the grace of Christ without having any visible connection with his Church at all. Nevertheless that connexion may be real and effective.

I may have dug myself into a terrible hole over this, but I would stress one last thing. If someone, like my questioner’s son-in-law, is a good person who never goes to Church, and who seemingly has no need for or interest in religion, we should view this state of affairs as a challenge. We should not think he should be left as he is, but try our best to engage with him and to bring him into the Church. That must be the will of God, who, after all, founded the church to be the Ark of Salvation and a house of prayer for all nations.

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