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All the assurance

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.

Fr. Hudgins is pastor of St. Jude Church in Fredericksburg.


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2019