Salvation of the “gentiles”

- a Christmas meditation -



St. Thomas Aquinas discussing whether explicit knowledge of the mystery of Christ is necessary for salvation, argues in this way: “…the mystery of Christ's Incarnation and Passion is the way by which men obtain beatitude; for it is written (Acts 4:12): ‘There is no other name under heaven given to men, whereby we must be saved.’ Therefore belief of some kind in the mystery of Christ's Incarnation was necessary at all times and for all persons, but this belief differed according to differences of times and persons. … Many of the gentiles received revelations of Christ, as is clear from their predictions…If, however, some were saved without receiving any revelation, they were not saved without faith in a Mediator, for, though they did not believe in Him explicitly, they did, nevertheless, have implicit faith through believing in Divine providence…”[1]

In consequence, the effort to bring the “light of Christ” to the nations – represented in a way by the star over Bethlehem in the midrashic[2] story of the three Magi in Mt 2:1-12 – does not stem from the dire necessity to save people of other religions or of no religion at all, thinking that without explicit faith in Jesus Christ they would perish without salvation. Not so, since all are children of God who wants to save all and even those who never heard of Jesus of Nazareth will find salvation through him by giving their love to their fellow men and women. By this love they show themselves to be true children of God who is love and they become implicitly members of the Church – if not of the institutional one, then of the “soul of the Church” – and so they belong to Jesus Christ.

The prodigal son of the parable (Lk 15:11-32) “came to himself” - that is experienced the grace of God in a strong personal and unique way - while in the pigsty far away from home and after having wasted everything - thus this story might be called a model of experience of transcendence and reflexivity [3]. This parable confirms that there is no situation where one cannot encounter God. The Spirit of Christ works “anonymously” in all persons and in all places [4] and not only in the Church but also through other channels as well, through all creation and all human history where God is present as in a “sacrament” [5]. Rahner has put it so: “In all these situations God, as the condition which makes all this possible, is already experienced and accepted, even if this is not expressly and objectively formulated. This is true even if the word ‘God’ is never heard and is never used as the term for the direction and goal of the transcendental experiences known in this way”[6]

So what is then the sense of proclaiming the good news to them, what is the purpose of all the missionary effort? Certainly we do not do so because they would “go to hell” if not converted to Christianity – this would contradict also the goodness of the Father who’s will is not to loose any of his children (cf. Mt 18:14). Also it would render ineffective the work of the Son who “has come to seek and to save what was lost” (Lk 19:10). Rather, Christians who confess to belonging to Jesus Christ explicitly need to become themselves like him, “light for the nations”[7] – and this by following the example of their Master and Lord each in their own personal way according to their gifts and circumstances. We need to proclaim the good news about God who is a loving and merciful Father and about the goodness of his creation and the future he has prepared for us and about the possibility to live in peace with each other and so fulfill our fundamental human vocation. As Paul wrote to the Corinthians of the urgency and necessity that compelled him, “If I preach the gospel, this is no reason for me to boast, for an obligation has been imposed on me, and woe to me if I do not preach it!” (1Cor 9:16). This proclamation might require more actions than preaching with words in the strict sense. We need to do so in order to become what we ought to be and to obey the command given by the risen Lord to bring the gospel to all (cf. Mt 28)[8]. Our own salvation is at stake constantly if we behave in an inauthentic manner violating what we confess, spreading violence instead of peace, hatred instead of love, revenge instead of forgiveness – even more so if we do all these with “sacred” motives and in the name of our faith. Christians who explicitly heard of Jesus Christ and confessedly belong to him have more responsibilities and obligations since whoever received more is obligated for more (cf. Lk 7:41-47).



Our Lady Of the Graces Hermitage

December 1, 2007

[1] Summa Theologica, 2-2, q. 2, a. 7 (emphasis is mine)

[2] Midrash (Hebrew: מדרש; plural midrashim) refers to a method of exegesis of a biblical text. The term "midrash" can also mean a narrative or meditation combining several biblical texts for educational purposes. The story of the Magi is an elaborate midrash around seven veterotestamental prophecies: Num 24:17; Mic 5:1; 2 Sam 5:2; Ps 72:10-11, 15; Is 60:6; Hos 11:1; Jer 31:5.

[3] I am indebted for the use of this parable as model for an inclusive approach to spirituality to the study of Eric Stoddard entitled “Spirituality and Citizenship: Sacramentality in a Parable” in Theological Studies” 689(2007) pp. 761-779. Originally Philip Endean used this parable to illustrate “transcendence” and “reflexivity” the notion of “spirituality” of Rahner in Philip Endean, Karl Rahner and Ignatian Spirituality (New York: Oxford University, 2001) p. 115.

[4] The “anonymous” work of the Spirit in all hearts is a notion corresponding to the “pneumatic dimension” of the human person discussed in my article on the topic “The pneumatic dimension: The presence of God in the human heart and its therapeutic function” (November 19, 2005) ( )

[5] The story of the prodigal son is personally revealing for me as I recall my own religious conversion: I can say that my nearest encounter, the deepest, the most striking and life changing experience of his presence and love happened to me when I was confessed atheist, and it arrived to me in the bleakness of my existence when I was not even searching explicitly for God. God in the world and history as sacrament is a concept of Jurgen Moltmann in The Crucified God (London: SCM, 1974).

[6] Karl Rahner, The Practice of Faith: A Handbook of Contemporary Spirituality (New York: Crossroad, 1083) p. 47.

[7] Isaiah says of the Servant of God that he will be “a light for the nations” (Is 42:6) cf. Is 49: 6, “I will make you a light to the nations”. In the scene of the presentation Luke refers to the fulfillment of this promise in Jesus who is “a light for the revelation to the gentiles” (Lk 2:32) and further, the Acts of the Apostles presents the vocation of Paul and Barnabas as the continuation of what was fulfilled in Jesus: “For so the Lord has commanded us, ‘I have made you a light to the gentiles, that you may be an instrument of salvation to the ends of the earth’ ” (Acts 13:47 cf. Acts 26:23 expressing that this mission is participation in the work of the risen Lord).

[8] The command and its validity is independent of the question if Mt 28 goes back to an original “word” of Jesus or is born of the post-paschal reflection of the nascent Church in the light of the resurrection.