The question as to how many people go to heaven or are saved seems to have been important to the early Church and one that certainly is important in the Church to the present day. The actual physical size of heaven is one that is debated in Protestant circles and has been for a few centuries now. Selecting random verses from the Scriptures and a reference in the Book of Revelation, some have come up with precise dimensions. Then, estimating the size of a soul, and how much room is taken up by the Throne of God and all of the angels, etc., they can arise at some specific amount of people who are saved. Some sects, such as the Jehovah Witnesses hold to the number of 144,000.
Such debates legitimized slavery, as they alleged that some people didn’t have souls and it was made easier to claim if they just eliminated entire racial groups. In a subtle way, some aspects of the attitude in our country towards the treatment of the poor and marginalized comes from the Calvinist notion that being poor, sick or destitute was a sign that someone was not saved.
Fortunately, this is a lot of folderol and a waste of time.
From that perspective, especially when coupled with a theology of Predestination wherein God has preordained who will go to heaven and who will not, the overwhelming majority of souls are destined for eternal damnation and not salvation. This approach certainly rejects outright the merciful and loving God revealed by Jesus and the promise of eternal life accomplished through the Paschal Mystery.
Certainly the focus of contemporary conversations on the meaning of salvation has taken a much more relaxed attitude and over reliance on the merciful and loving God revealed by Jesus and the promise of eternal life accomplished through the Paschal Mystery has left us avoiding the problem all together.
However, the question about what it means to be saved, to have a share in eternal life, is one that we ought to ponder. God has placed no limit on the number of souls to be saved. At the same time, we have no guarantee of salvation. If we did, there would be no need for religion, worship, faith or moral discipline.
One of the more subtle sins that many of us commit is a sin called presumption. St. Thomas Aquinas defines presumption thus: “As to the hope whereby a man relies on the power of God, there may be presumption through immoderation, in the fact that a man tends to some good as though it were possible by the power and mercy of God, whereas it is not possible, for instance, if a man hope to obtain pardon without repenting, or glory without merits. This presumption is, properly, the sin against the Holy Ghost, because, to wit, by presuming thus a man removes or despises the assistance of the Holy Spirit, whereby he is withdrawn from sin.”
In the Gospel passage for this weekend Jesus warns against this presumptive attitude. While St. Luke does not develop this teaching of Jesus as succinctly as does St. Matthew, we get a clear picture of Jesus’ advice and warning.
As Jesus encourages his disciples to “enter through the narrow gate,” he is not suggesting there is a back way into heaven, but rather that choosing the life of faithful discipleship is not easy and that its discipline and demands offer a pathway to eternal life. Many will instead try an easier path, one that can just as easily get them lost along the way.
Even more challenging is Jesus’ noting that many will come and say: “‘We ate and drank in your company and you taught in our streets.’ Then he will say to you, 'I do not know where you are from. Depart from me, all you evildoers!’”
Even sharing in the Eucharist and listening to the Word is not enough. We are called to a life of faith, with repentance and on-going conversion at the core of our relationship with Jesus. May none of us ever take this relationship for granted.
Father Garry Koch is pastor of St. Benedict Parish, Holmdel.