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Fr. Joe Answers:
Thanks for your question.
First and foremost, the question of what happens to us after death leads us into a place of mystery. We don’t have a photograph or a road map. The most basic decision that Christians make in the face of death is to trust in the reality of a God who wills eternal life, not death for us. The first letter of Paul to Timothy speaks of “God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (I Tim. 2:3-4). As Catholics, we believe that God’s will for salvation for all is conditioned by our human freedom to say “yes” or “no.” God does not force Divine life and love upon us. God’s gift of salvation is given to anyone who does not refuse it. “Heaven” is our word for the state of being united with God in love. My favorite definition of hell is that of the Russian novelist Fedor Dostoevskii: “hell is the suffering of being unable to love.”
Whether those who are not Catholic or Christian can be saved has been a topic of debate for centuries. The discussion has become particularly intense in our own time because increased global communication and patterns of immigration have made it far more possible for us to encounter neighbors or co-workers who are Hindu, Buddhist or members of other religious traditions whose members do not acknowledge Christ as Savior. Dialogues between Catholic theologians and spiritual leaders of other religions have served to clear away many misunderstandings we harbor about one another’s beliefs, and have clarified many true points of difference.
Many American Catholics have heard the story of the life of Mohandas K. Gandhi, a Hindu of India who lived a life of great spiritual insight and holiness. He demonstrated in his own personality and actions many of the characteristics that we would associate with a saint. Would God wish to deny heaven to such a person as Gandhi? It doesn’t seem to make sense.
The great 20th century Catholic theologian Karl Rahner, S.J., believed that those who do not believe in Christ as their Savior, or maybe have never even heard of him, can encounter him “anonymously” in a way we don’t fully understand, although we can perhaps sometimes recognize it in the quality of the lives they lead. Other Christian theologians and religious thinkers of other religious traditions have found Rahner’s explanation unpersuasive or incomplete. The debate continues both within and without the Catholic Church.
My own inclination is to believe that human lives will be judged in the end not so much on the content of the doctrines they espouse (i.e., reincarnation v. Christian heaven) but on the degree to which they are open to a life with God in this world, through their practice of such virtues as honesty, forgiveness and compassion in their relationships with other people.