I am often asked for definitive answers regarding the faith and salvation of Roman Catholics. For example did Pope John Paul go to heaven? Are Roman Catholics Christians or not? Most non-Christians, who think about it, think that Anglicans (and Baptists, Presbyterians and other Protestant denominations) and Roman Catholics believe the same things. The following are some excerpts from two interviews Cardinal George Pell gave in 2005 and back in 2001. Whatever the person sitting in the pew believes, and whether they are Christ’s person or not is an open question. But George Pell as he speaks for the Pope, and himself, and the theology of the Catholic Church seems to have answered the question for us.
In an interview (see http://www.abc.net.au/7.30/content/2005/s1350995.htm) on The 7.30 Report in April 2005, Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, George Pell, made the following remark about salvation:
MAXINE MCKEW: “Would Pope Benedict take the view that non-believers are damned?”
CARDINAL GEORGE PELL: “No, certainly not, certainly not. Salvation is open to all good people. Our God is a god of love and infinite mercy. The only person [sic] who might be damned are those who resolutely refuse to turn to towards the light, towards love, who lock them up obstinately in hate. My prayer and my hope is that very, very few will be damned.”
This agrees with what he said in an interview (see http://sunday.ninemsn.com.au/sunday/cover_stories/transcript_813.asp) on Sunday back in May 2001, just after he was installed as the Catholic Archbishop of Sydney:
JOHN LYONS, REPORTER: “Do you believe in heaven and hell?”
ARCHBISHOP GEORGE PELL, ARCHBISHOP OF SYDNEY: “Yes, I certainly do. I believe there will be a judgment. We will be punished or rewarded. How many people are permanently excluded from God’s life and light we’ve got no idea about that, but if there is a God that God will be just, as well as merciful, and some terrible crimes are committed and the scales of justice need to balance out across eternity.”
JOHN LYONS, REPORTER: “What criteria will people need to accept if they want to get into heaven?”
ARCHBISHOP GEORGE PELL, ARCHBISHOP OF SYDNEY: “That’s spelt out at the end of Matthew’s gospel, chapter 25, and the ones that were sent downstairs are the ones who were closed in on themselves. Never visited the sick, never clothed or fed the hungry, never clothed those who were naked, never visited those who were in prison. Christ said to those who will be rewarded whenever that is done to the least of his brothers and sisters, that’s done to Christ.”
Problem is Jesus Christ was very clear about the criteria for getting to heaven; “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on him.” (John 3:36). Salvation is not a reward for good works. Paul makes this point in Romans – see for example 4:4-5: “Now when a man works, his wages are not credited to him as a gift, but as an obligation. However, to the man who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness.”
We must get this right. Salvation is a free gift from God, available to all who accept Jesus. It is not something God gives to people based on merit or good works. Rewards in heaven are precisely that: rewards you may or may not get once you are in heaven. But there is only one way to get to heaven, and that is through Jesus Christ.
George Pell says that “God will be just as well as merciful”.
But how can God be just if he justifies the wicked? He did promise, after all, that sin would be punished. If he breaks that promise, he is being unjust and untrustworthy.
This is why the death of Jesus on the cross is so amazing. It is the only way that God is both just and merciful. He is just, because the price of sin has been paid in full. He is merciful, because he pays that price himself, with the death of his own Son. Paul captures it perfectly in Romans 6:23: “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
The wages of sin includes not visiting the sick, or feeding the hungry, or clothing those who are naked, or visiting those who are in prison. We should do these things, but they can’t pay for our eternal salvation. So this is why each person has a choice: either pay the price for your sin yourself, with your own death (for eternity), or accept Jesus’ death as the price for your sin. And this is why all the ‘good works’ in the world won’t do you any eternal good if you reject Jesus Christ.
As I said – it does seem to answer the question. If George Pell is correct then Pope John Paul is not in heaven – and George Pell, if he truly believes what he is reported as saying, then he will be joining the last Pope. Thankfully all that is in the hands of our incredibly merciful God.