“The Lord created us in His image and likeness, and we are the image of the Lord, and He does good and all of us have this commandment at heart: do good and do not do evil. All of us. ‘But, Father, this is not Catholic! He cannot do good.’ Yes, he can… “The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! ‘Father, the atheists?’ Even the atheists. Everyone!”.. We must meet one another doing good. ‘But I don’t believe, Father, I am an atheist!’ But do good: we will meet one another there.”
The popular reaction was interesting. It was as if the Pope was introducing some new teaching that was completely at odds with what people assume to be the Christian position on such matters. In fact, Pope Francis stands in a long line of Christian teachers from the early centuries of Christianity who were quite universalist in their perspective. Teachers like Origen, St. Gregory of Nyssa, St. Isaac of Nineveh, and St. Justin Martyr were among them. They worked this out theologically in somewhat different ways, of course, and they all believed that universal salvation was made possible by God in Christ (the position which Pope Francis also took in his homily). For most if not all of them, their belief in universal salvation was rooted in their appreciation of the depth and breadth of God’s love for all people.
Certainly, there are New Testament texts that could be cited against this view, but there are also texts that can be cited in support of this view (John 3:17, 1 Cor. 15:22, 1 Cor. 15:28, Romans 5:18, Romans 11:32, Phil. 2:9-10, Rev. 5:13 to name a few). As in most things, the Bible rarely decides a matter: it simply provides grist for the mill as we seek to deepen our relationship with the mystery of God and understand the implications of that mystery.
The reaction to Pope Francis’s homily uncovers something important: the degree to which most people think that religion in general, and Christianity in particular, is about some form of “getting to heaven.” For those who regard their Christian faith as a passport to heaven and eternal life over against those poor non-Christians who will be going to hell, introducing the ideal of universal salvation — even a universal salvation which depends somehow on Christ — seems to make their whole religious endeavor meaningless. If everyone is “saved”, then what’s the point? It ends the idea of Christianity as an exclusive, heaven-bound club and replaces it with…..what?
Well, it replaces it with a more mature understanding of religion. Christianity, in common with the other great religious traditions of the world, seeks to bring about a transformation of the human being. At the heart of the Christian tradition is a conviction that we get a great deal wrong about what it means to be human. Christ is given to us not as a get out of hell free card but rather as a gift to show us what it looks like to live as a human being rooted and centered in God. God shines through Christ, and we are meant to reflect that divine light, as well. The point of the Christian life is not to get a free ticket into heaven, but to give birth to heaven within and among us as we know ourselves to be safe in the deep beloved-ness of God.
If we can embrace this kind of Christianity, a Christianity that preaches the universal movement of God’s love toward all, then we can let go of our need to judge others, and, indeed, let go of our own need to appear holier-than-thou. At the same time, however, if we do let go of these things and our idea that Christianity is simply about getting to heaven, then we have to get down to the serious work of allowing ourselves to be changed, to becoming the kind of God-filled human being that we see in Jesus. And that is hard work. And maybe that’s why people are really upset with the Pope, because they don’t really want to have to work that hard on themselves.