All the Assurance
by Rev. James C. Hudgins
Reprinted with permission of "The Arlington Catholic Herald"
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Written to explain that
Christ came to save everyone.
Great crowds were traveling with Jesus, and he turned and addressed them "If anyone comes to me without hating his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. Which of you wishing to construct a tower does not first sit down and calculate the cost to see if there is enough for its completion? Otherwise, after laying the foundation and finding himself unable to finish the work the onlookers should laugh at him and say, 'This one began to build but did not have the resources to finish.' Or what king marching into battle would not first sit down and decide whether with ten thousand troops he can successfully oppose another king advancing upon him with twenty thousand troops? But if not, while he is still far away, he will send a delegation to ask for peace terms. In the same way, anyone of you who does not renounce all his possessions cannot be my disciple."
Each day, the souls of more than 150,000 people pass from this life into eternity. That’s more than 6,000 each hour, or 100 each minute. Have you ever wondered what happens to them all? Where do they go? Jesus’ teaching holds forth two, and only two, eternal destinations for the human soul — either everlasting fulfillment in heaven, or everlasting torment in hell. Dare we hope that most people go to heaven? Some spiritual writers, most notably St. Clement of Alexandria and St. Gregory Nazianzen, believed that God's mercy was so great that most souls were saved. Many other saints, most notably St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, believed that evil was so pervasive and sin so corrupting, that most souls were lost.
If you’ve ever wondered about the comparative population statistics of heaven and hell, no scripture passage addresses the subject more directly than the Gospel we hear this week. As Jesus passed through the towns and villages, someone asked him, “Lord, will only a few people be saved?” Note how Jesus’ reply is directed not to idle curiosity, but rather to the eternal salvation of the inquirer. Jesus does not say, “Most will be saved,” or “Most will be lost.” Such knowledge does the questioner no practical good. Jesus’ answer, “Strive to enter through the narrow gate” (Lk 13:24), is exactly what we need to hear. Imagine for a moment if Jesus said, “Most people end up in hell.” What happens? Your heart grows saddened and slouches into discouragement. The opposite reply has even worse consequences. If Jesus had answered, “Most people go to heaven,” would anyone put forth the hard effort needed to conquer sin and overcome selfishness?
Salvation is a mysterious reality. Contrary to popular opinion, Christians do not believe that heaven is a reward we earn for good behavior. Eternal salvation is not a mercenary transaction in which God conveys the kingdom of heaven in exchange for a lifetime of prayers recited, church attended and commandments kept. Christians believe, rather, that heaven is an utterly unmerited gift, and yet a gift that requires that we strive with all our heart, mind, soul and strength to receive it.
A metaphor for salvation once used by Franciscan Father Benedict Groeschel is the most helpful I’ve ever heard. Imagine a man drowning at sea. Someone on a nearby ship catches sight of the man and mercifully throws out a rope. A voice from the ship cries out, “Grab the rope!” With all his strength, the drowning man grabs hold of the rope, and holds on tight until he is safely aboard. “Thank you,” the man says, “You’ve saved my life.” Sin makes us like the drowning man, powerless to save ourselves. God the Father is like the one who throws the rope, Jesus Christ is the rope, and the Holy Spirit is the voice that tells us to grab hold. Thus, salvation is a gift, and yet we must strive with all our being to receive it. We “strive” to receive it by observing the commandments (Jn 14:15), by keeping the priorities of the Lord and not those of this world (Gal 1:10), by remaining faithful to prayer (1 Thess 5:17), by taking the teachings of the church to heart (Lk 10:16), and by persevering to the end (Mt 24:13).
Imagine if an angel from heaven appeared in the middle of Mass and announced, “Everyone at Mass today is going to hell — except for just one person.” If you took those words to heart, fought to conquer sin and to be faithful to the voice of Christ, you would become that “one person.” Imagine if that same angel were to announce, “Everyone at Mass today is going to heaven — except for just one person.” If you gave up on prayer, began living by the whims of the secular world instead of the commandments of Christ, and indulged every sinful inclination, you would become that “one person.” Christ will not fail to give us every material and spiritual gift we need, and if we persevere in his love, nothing will separate us from him (Rom 8:39). That’s all the assurance we are given, and thankfully, all the assurance we need.
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