Not too long ago, a firestorm erupted over the following words from Scripture:
Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said: “Leaders of the people and elders: If we are being examined today about a good deed done to a cripple, namely, by what means he was saved, then all of you and all the people of Israel should know that it was in the name of Jesus Christ the Nazorean whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead; in His name this man stands before you healed. He is the stone rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone. There is no salvation through anyone else, nor is there any other name under heaven given to the human race by which we are to be saved.” (Acts 4: 8 – 12)
Let me clarify a bit: It was not so much the reading from Acts that sparked the firestorm, but the preaching about this passage from Sacred Scripture. Why? Because of the troublesome lines, “There is no salvation through anyone else, nor is there any other name under heaven given to the human race by which we are to be saved.”
Does this mean that only those who profess the name of Jesus can be saved? Is St. Peter telling us that only Christians can go to heaven?
It would take pages and pages to summarize all the theological perspectives on this question. Rather than summarize them and then evaluate each of those positions, let me instead offer my take on this question, my experiences of truly good men and women of other faiths, and my prescription for Christian evangelization. I know: that’s a lot to tackle in so short a letter. That’s why this letter will probably end up as a four-pager!
I am indebted to the Catholic philosopher and theologian Peter Kreeft for the following understanding of these words of St. Peter. As Kreeft rightly maintains, Jesus Christ is the only Savior. It follows, of course, that if anyone is saved, it is by Jesus Christ!
This does not mean, however, that one must profess the name of Jesus Christ in order to be saved. How could we possibly consider that a criterion for salvation? What of the millions upon millions of inhabitants of the planet, past and present, who have never even heard the name of Jesus? Or the men and women of non-Christian faiths, who follow in good conscience the religious tradition in which they have been raised from their youth?
The answer is that they too have been saved – and saved by Christ – even if they do not realize it until they stand before the throne of the triune God.
Consider, if you will, this analogy: I am traveling far from home. I suffer a heart attack. I am rushed to the emergency room and then operated on by a heart surgeon whom I have never met, whose name I do not even know. Or, perhaps I am closer to home, but the surgeon who saves my life is not my own doctor, but one whose name is well known in the community. In both of these scenarios, the doctor who has saved my life is not my own doctor, but he has nonetheless saved my life. And, no doubt, once I regain consciousness and learn the name of the surgeon who saved me, I will be eternally grateful to him. Why? Because in a very real sense, he was my savior.
And so it is with Jesus Christ, our one, true, eternal Savior. He saves many who do not follow Him or who do not even know Him until the very end of their lives. And if we’re a little unsettled by the seeming unfairness of deathbed conversions – if we’re left wondering what was the point of a whole lifetime devoted to Christ – then we would do well to consider the parable of the vineyard laborers. In that iconic story, it turns out that the landowner pays the laborers hired at the eleventh hour the same wages as those he hired a daybreak, much to the chagrin of those who worked all day. Why should those Johnny-come-latelies receive the same wages as we? The response of the landowner says it all: “Are you envious because I am generous?” (Matthew 20: 16)
I was blessed to grow up in a politician’s household. My dad was a Port Washington Republican Committeeman; a Republican Chairman; a North Hempstead Town Councilman; a New York State Assemblyman; a candidate for the United States Congress; and, until he passed from cancer in 1996, a New York State Supreme Court Judge and a Justice of the Appellate Division.
And I mean it: I was blessed to grow up in a politician’s household. My dad was a bridgebuilder. He valued people from all walks of life, from all races and ethnic backgrounds, and from all religions. He loved – and I mean loved – Judge William C. Thompson, a Democrat, a pioneering African-American New York politician, and a fellow Justice of the Appellate Division. I remember that friendship nostalgically – and many others like it – today, when bitter division rather than mutual respect sems to characterize American politics.
Some of my parents’ closest friends were men and women of the Jewish faith. We spent every Memorial Day with Marvin and Judy Bayles, Arthur and Lenny Holland, Ros and Eric May, and all their kids. Year after year, Herb and Barbara Balin invited my family to join their family for their annual Passover Seder dinner. Joe and Carol Hauptman were frequent guests at our Christmas Eve and Christmas Day dinner tables. From these wonderful friends of my parents – Catholics and non-Catholics, Christians and non-Christians alike – I learned about the life of virtue. I learned about loyalty, honesty, generosity, joy, grace under pressure, and unswerving adherence to principle. It is difficult – impossible, really – for me to believe that these good and upright friends are not saved by a good and generous God. And, if God sees fit to be generous with me (as I hope He will), I look forward to feasting with these friends at the Heavenly Banquet.
“Are you envious because I am generous?” It saddens me when I see and hear fellow Catholics squabbling over who is saved and who is not. It pains me when we partake in the tribalism that tears at our social fabric. Some seem preoccupied with determining who’s in and who’s out, who’s with us and who’s against us, who’s saved and who’s not, who’s “us” and who’s “them.”
“Are you envious because I am generous?”
And if we find it hard to imagine Christ’s saving generosity towards others, even if they think and believe very differently than we do, then perhaps we might do well to turn that question on ourselves. Because, after all, if we are going to be saved, it is because of God’s generosity. I know that’s true of me. My only hope is to echo the prayer of the tax collector: “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” (Luke 18: 13) I’d be more than a little hesitant to close off the pipeline of God’s generosity.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting that we should err by the sin of presumption, thinking that we’ll all be saved, no matter what kind of life we lead. I’m simply suggesting that, when and if we are saved, it will be by the mercy and generosity of God. And I think He just might do His best saving work in the emergency room. I suspect the repentant thief knew that!
What are we to do in light of these considerations? I would suggest, first of all, that we stop judging one another, at least as much as is practically possible. In the final analysis, judgment is God’s job, not ours. Only He can read the hearts of men and women – their struggles, their motives, their strengths and weaknesses. We can’t. Fr. Daniel Griffin, a Kellenberg Memorial graduate of the Class of 2001 and now the chaplain of the Latin School there, frequently offers this intercession during the Prayer of the Faithful: “That we might pray for one another rather than judge one another.” I love that intercession. Every time I hear it, it’s a real wake-up call.
Secondly, I would suggest that we fall ever more deeply in love with Christ. We know Him. We know His name, the name by which we will be saved. And yet, how often we take Him, His name, and His offer of salvation for granted! I know I do.
Because, if we really loved Christ – with our whole mind, our whole heart, and our whole soul – then how much more effective would our evangelization be! If Christ made a real difference in our lives, then how much more would He make a real difference in the lives of those we meet! Let us evangelize by our example of a vibrant life lived intentionally and intensely in the joy of the Gospel, the joy of the Good News, the joy that Jesus saves.
I confessed a moment ago that I often take Jesus, my Savior, for granted. How do I combat this? Well, if you will indulge me for a moment, I take a bit of roundabout inspiration from the 1997 award-winning movie As Good as It Gets. In this film, Melvin Udall (played by Jack Nicholson) is an obsessive-compulsive (and quite wealthy!) writer of romantic fiction who is rude to everyone he meets. He sees a psychiatrist, who has prescribed medication to make Melvin a little less obsessive-compulsive, a little less socially awkward, a little less obnoxious, and a little more agreeable to others. Melvin does not take the medication . . . until he begins to fall in love with Carol Conelly (played by Helen Hunt), the only waitress at the local diner (at which Melvin eats dinner EVERY day) who will serve him.
To make a long story short, Melvin invites Carol on a date to an upscale restaurant and, in his own exceedingly clumsy way, tries to explain just how much she means to him. True to form, Melvin says all the wrong things, even insulting the just-for-the-occasion red dress that Carol has picked out for their night out on the town. She’s about to walk out on him, but he beseeches Carol to stay. She does so, but only on the condition that Melvin pay her a compliment. “Pay me a compliment, Melvin. You hurt my feelings. So, pay me a compliment, and it better be a good one.”
Wringing his hands and dripping with perspiration, Melvin explains, “I see a doctor – a shrink – and he prescribed these pills that are supposed to make me a little less obnoxious. Now, I hate pills. I’m talkin’ HATE. But, when I met you, I started taking those pills.”
“Melvin, I don’t quite see how that’s a compliment for me,” Carol responds, puzzled.
And with that, the romantic music swells; Melvin laughs nervously; and Carol, now glowing, declares, “Melvin, that’s the nicest compliment that I’ve ever received.”
“You make me want to be a better man.” At some point in our lives, all of us meet someone or encounter some cause that makes us want to be better people. I think that’s a big part of what falling in love means. “You make me want to be a better man.” When I look at the Cross, when I see Jesus hanging there for my sins, when I consider the lengths He went to save me, I say, in hushed tones and in fear and trembling, “You make me want to be a better man.” For all my faults, for all my sins, for all the times I say and do all the wrong things, Jesus makes me want to be a better man. I’m not there yet, but, by God, Jesus does make me want to be a better man.
“You make me want to be a better man.” When they see Him, those who have not known Jesus will almost certainly exclaim, “You make me want to be a better man.” When they encounter the radiance of His glory and the depth of His love, those who have not yet been convinced and converted will, I think, declare, “You make me want to be a better man.” They will, like doubting Thomas, humbly confess, “My Lord and My God.” (John 20: 28)
It is indeed Jesus, and only Jesus, who saves. It is the name of Jesus that saves. In the end, I think many – a vast multitude, in fact – will bend the knee at the name of Jesus and acknowledge Him as their Lord and Savior. And, like the repentant thief, they will be saved.
Hopefully, we will not be envious because He is generous.
In Christ and His Blessed Mother,