Question Box: Can nonbelievers be saved?


By Fr. Thom Hennen
Question Box

If someone does not believe that Jesus died on the cross for our sins and rose again, can they be saved?

Fr. Hennen

With challenging questions like this, I like to paint from the outside edges in, if that makes sense. It may be helpful to propose a couple of extreme positions and then see what more our Catholic faith teaches.

On the one extreme, we would find a kind of unbridled relativism that says that it doesn’t really matter what you believe. God is very nice and we are all forgiven and get to heaven no matter what. In this case, “you do you.” Figure out what “flavor” of belief or spirituality works best for you. If Jesus is your guy, cool! If not, fine. Above all, just be nice.


Our Catholic Christian tradition most definitely does not teach this, and this thinking can quickly devolve into syncretism (a blending of belief systems) or even an idolatry of self. Rather, we believe in one God who created all things and who sustains us in being, who revealed himself to us in various ways down through the ages, in covenant and word, and through the prophets. As Christians, we believe the fullness of God’s self-revelation came in the person of Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son of God. We believe that he fulfilled a necessary mission for the salvation of all the world by taking upon himself our sins and laying down his life on the cross for us. He conquered sin and death by rising from the dead and “charted the course” for us. If we do not believe this as Christians, then we are a sad people, blindly following a sad man with a sad story, who was needlessly martyred.

On the other extreme, we would find a very rigid and technical understanding of salvation. This can have various iterations. Evangelical Christians may ask, “Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior?” For them, the answer to that question makes all the difference. Many Catholics may believe that only by being a “card-carrying” member of the Catholic Church may one dare to hope for eternal salvation.

I’m reminded of the joke about St. Peter giving a tour of heaven to a newly admitted Lutheran. Walking past one large room full of people, St. Peter said, “We have to be very quiet while we go past this room.” “Why?” the Lutheran asked, to which St. Peter responded, “Those are the Catholics. They think they’re the only ones here.”  

Whether or not someone believes that Christ died for them does not change what he did for them and for us all. If we have been shown this and have come to know it, then we should embrace it. If we reject it, even while knowing it, then it will have dire eternal consequences. God forces salvation on no one.

The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium) from the Second Vatican Council states: “Those also can attain to salvation who through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, yet sincerely seek God and moved by grace, strive by their deeds to do his will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience” (par. 16).

While the Catholic Church teaches that baptism is necessary for salvation (see the Catechism of the Catholic Church par. 1257), and while our beliefs and actions absolutely matter, we also have no window into anyone’s conscience but our own. We must be careful not to tie God’s hands or decide for God who he can or cannot save.

(Father Thom Hennen serves as the pastor of Sacred Heart Cathedral in Davenport. Send questions to

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