“Lord, will those who are saved be few?” The question asked in the Gospel this Sunday is probably inevitable. The minute you talk about salvation someone is going to ask who gets saved and who doesn’t. And there have always been around Christians who will tell you precisely who gets saved and who doesn’t. But the question arises out anxiety and calculation, when the proper Christian attitude towards salvation is faith and hope.
Should we conclude from the Gospel that Jesus himself taught on the Judgement Day the lost will greatly outnumber the saved? Actually what Jesus effectively does, as he so often does, is refuse to answer the question. He goes out of his way not to satisfy the curiosity of the questioner. He says, on the one hand, "Strive to enter by the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able”. On the other hand,” men will come from east and west, and from north and south, and sit at table in the kingdom of God.”
The group that Jesus has in mind are those in Israel who will not accept the inclusion of the gentiles in the chosen people, the men who will come from east and west and from north and south and sit at table with the patriarchs of Israel. So hard is this to take that they will weep and gnash their teeth. The first will become last. Yet even being last is not being without hope: for, as St. Paul reminds us, all Israel will be saved.
Pope Francis recently made the news once again: “Pope Francis rocked some religious and atheist minds today when he declared that everyone was redeemed through Jesus, including atheists.” In fact he was only saying what St. Paul said:
“God desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. . . there is one mediator between God and man, Jesus Christ who gave himself as a ransom for all . . . The grace of God has appeared for the salvation of all men.”
Pope Francis was only saying what the Church has always taught. The viewpoint that Christ did not die for all men was the view of John Calvin: Christ died not for all men but only for the predestined few.
To say that Jesus redeemed the world is not to say that everyone will be saved because there is a big difference between the universal redemption in the Cross of the Jesus Christ and the acceptance of that salvation. It is not to say that anyone can be saved apart from Jesus Christ. Nor is it to say that folks get saved who do not want to be saved. What it is to say is that atheists just like Christians are called to do the good; they are held to the same standard as everyone else.
In essence, Jesus is telling the questioner: “Do not worry about abstract questions like the exact number or percentage of people who will end up being saved. Such knowledge will not be revealed to you, and in any event would do you know good, one way or the other. Your concern should be for your own salvation, because the path of salvation is not easy.”
It would be very surprising if he said anything else because Jesus more than all of us knows the cost of human salvation: the cross. For us it is not just a matter of saying one day “I accept Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior” because Jesus himself corrects sharply Peter after his confession: ‘you are on the side of men, not of God” We must take up our cross and follow him and if you think that is easy then you have never tried it.
One of the reasons that people like to imagine that everyone automatically gets saved is because that completely lets everyone off the hook or maybe we should say off the cross.
Which is what the Gospel today is really all about. We do not need to be brooding all the time about the prospects of our own salvation, far less the salvation of others. Never mind what God has in store for those outside the Church. We should develop a habit of mistrusting the soft option. Our gift for self-deception will see to it that the more attractive looks like the more-important. To do, always, the most difficult thing that lies open to us—that is the path of heroic sanctity; a rugged short-cut which attenuates and abbreviates the Narrow Way itself. But, if we cannot rise to that, we can still beware of the soft option when a choice between two courses is forced upon us. Here is an interval of leisure; here are two rival duties clamoring to be fitted in; which of them has the preference? Probably, though not certainly, the more distasteful.