The Eskimo said to the Missionary: “So, if I died without ever knowing about Jesus, I’d go to Heaven?” “Yes,” said the Missionary. “So why did you tell me about him?” asked the Eskimo.This is a statement made in a comment box that somebody named Zack claims he gets a lot of different responses to. I believe him. There is a lot of confusion among Catholics on this point. Even protestant converts, who are normally very orthodox, often fudge this. They typically have a lot of protestant friends and family members who are unlikely to convert. They want to manufacture some certainty about their salvation. In the process they create this kind of problem.
The answer the missionary gives is wrong. The best he can say is, "I don't know." Vatican II said people living in ignorance of Christ and His Church are not automatically damned. That they might be save through Christ and His Church through some invisible means. Somehow people have translated that to mean they are all saved or at least the vast majority of them. How do they get there? Just through some hand-waving appeal to the love of God.
The trouble is that such an leap of logic does not take into account why hell exists in the first place. It is because of sin. We sin. Eskimos sin. That problem of sin needs to be dealt with. We can't deal with it ourselves. We need grace. That is why Jesus came to earth and died. That is why He established His church. That is why He commanded the church to send missionaries. The problem of sin has a solution and God's desire is that as many people as possible have that solution made available to them.
That is the story of salvation. Christians are to preach the good news to the world so they can be saved. They don't find the world already saved. They find the world on the path that leads to hell. Look at the book of Romans. Paul is preaching a message of grace. Where does he begin? He starts with human sin and God's wrath. Not many preachers do these days.
I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.”The first couple of verses about grace are quoted a lot. It struck me how Paul moves so quickly to talking about God's wrath. We just are not that comfortable talking about God's grace and God's wrath in the same breath. But God cannot be divided into component parts. He is what the philosophers call simple. So it follows that God's grace and God's wrath are not two things. They are one thing. They are the same thing as God's love, God's wisdom and God's justice. To separate them is to distort them.
The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse. Rom 1:16-20
Anyway, Vatican II was not ditching this concept of man as a sinner in need of salvation. We still need grace. It was merely allowing us to speculate that God might have some other way of applying His grace to human lives beyond what has been revealed. We know God works through his word and sacraments. Can someone who is ignorant of them receive God's grace another way? We can hope that happens. How common is it? We don't know. But St Paul does not seem to give us a lot of reason for optimism. Here is how he describes first century Romans:
Furthermore, since they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, he gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done. They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they are senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them. Rom 1:28-32Does he say 100% of Romans are going to hell? No. Still he does not seem to think they are all headed for heaven either. He sees the need for the gospel as very grave. That is the way we need to see the world. People don't want to hear that their sin is hugely offensive to God. We live in a culture that worships self esteem. That message will get a lot of resistance. That is why the doctrine of hell gets so much resistance. If sin is no big deal then hell is just a ghastly doctrine.It seems like God is responding in a way that is completely out of proportion. I am a nice enough guy. Why can't God just accept me?