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Wednesday, May 16, 2007 

Either You're Catholic, Or You’re Going To Hell

A bit ago, Tishale asked me to talk (write) about why and how God, being merciful and all, would let those who confess to be catholic go to hell. I have been, for the better part of a month, been trying to come up with a tactful way of explaining that. But as anyone who reads this blog knows, tact is usually something I’m lacking.

One of the things that make this task so difficult is the Tishale’s anti-Roman Catholic biases. Last time we chatted, I said that all catholics (see, lower case “c”) are going to heaven. I explained that catholic is a theological word meaning universal, in other words, all of Christ’s Church. I then went on to say that membership in the visible church Tishale attends, however dynamic and exciting, doesn’t necessarily guarantee every member of said group heaven. Tishale assured me I was incorrect and that every member of the congregation is going to heaven. “You can just tell, they love Jesus, it shows!” Tishale exclaimed.

Taking the bait, I brought up the parable of the tares (weeds) in Matthew 13:24-30 as well as Jesus saying “the scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat” from Matthew 23:2. I said if Christ says we can’t tell the believers from unbelievers, then, we can’t tell, it’s not possible! The Church catholic is something only known to God. I also zeroed in on Matthew 10:32, 33 where Christ states “Whoever confesses me before men, him I will confess before my Father in heaven.” I said it was not how the people appeared that got them in to heaven, but rather their confession, which can only be made by the undeserved gift of faith given to us by the Holy Spirit!

But this was really getting way off topic… To subscribe to a visible church only leads into the same Roman heresy that the Pope, or whichever elected or appointed church official, guards the gates of heaven based on membership in an earthly established temporal organization. How one can hate our Roman friends but then subscribe to an identical dogmatic position is enough to give me a pretty severe headache on the very best of days.

So how do we get to heaven, or rather keep from going to hell? Well, by a righteousness that comes not from what we do or what group we belong to, but instead, a righteousness that comes from God, through faith in Jesus Christ as laid out in Romans 3:21-26; 4:5

But now the righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, to all and on all who believe. For there is no difference; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed, to demonstrate at the present time His righteousness, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.

But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness

So it’s not a visible church we should look to but instead we look to Christ nailed to the cross doing it all for us. It is Christ’s righteousness that becomes our own by God’s merciful grace.

What I eventually got back to in our conversation was the word catholic. Tishale really had a problem with the word itself. For Tishale, catholic equals Roman Catholic. I explained the word catholic means universal. Tishale responded with “but that word isn’t in the Bible so I don’t believe it even if you say it’s a real word. We only believe in the Bible and I don’t remember reading that word in the Bible.”

This brings me to the purpose of this post. Let’s look at where the word catholic comes from and how do theologians, even amateur ones like me, use it.

The first extant reference to the “Catholic Church” occurs in a letter written by St. Ignatius of Antioch. In his Letter to the Smyrnaeans written in 107 AD we find the following statement: “Wherever the bishop is, let the people be there; just as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.” Clearly, the word catholic predates the formation of the western Romanized church by several hundred years. At the time St. Ignatius wrote his letter, the bishop of Rome was just one of several leaders in the early church. There were bishops of Constantinople, Alexandria, Jerusalem, along with a bunch of others, all with “equal” authority. (It’s also important to remember Christianity wasn’t really even legitimized by Constantine’s Edict of Toleration until 313 AD.) All the way back to the first Christians, catholic was used to describe Christ’s Church as a singular confession of faith and doctrinal unity.

But if you wish for a more secular reference instead of dead martyrs and saints, even online dictionary’s can be a little help here. Dictionary.com lists the definition as well as the Greek etymology of the word:

Cath·o·lic Pronunciation Key - Show Spelled Pronunciation[kath-uh-lik, kath-lik] Pronunciation Key - Show IPA Pronunciation
1. of or pertaining to a Catholic church, esp. the Roman Catholic Church.
a. (among Roman Catholics) claiming to possess exclusively the notes or characteristics of the one, only, true, and universal church having unity, visibility, indefectibility, apostolic succession, universality, and sanctity: used in this sense, with these qualifications, only by the Church of Rome, as applicable only to itself and its adherents and to their faith and organization; often qualified, especially by those not acknowledging these claims, by prefixing the word Roman.
b. (among Anglo-Catholics) noting or pertaining to the conception of the church as the body representing the ancient undivided Christian witness, comprising all the orthodox churches that have kept the apostolic succession of bishops, and including the Anglican Church, the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church, Church of Sweden, the Old Catholic Church (in the Netherlands and elsewhere), etc.
3. pertaining to the Western Church.

4. a member of a Catholic church, esp. of the Roman Catholic Church.

Clearly the use in this country of the word catholic gravitates towards the Roman Catholic Church. But Tishale, the word is real and it does have other uses than to fuel bigoted tendencies. No earthly established church can claim that they are the gate keepers to heaven. This is why right minded Christians look to Scripture and let God’s Word purely preached and His Sacraments rightly administered define where the Church universal, catholic, reside. It is these Marks, these confessions that define for us where Church is.

In conclusion, Tishale, at the end of the day, you can rest easy because God will not let any confessing catholic go to hell. He loves His elect so much that He allowed His son to be nailed to a tree at Golgotha to prevent just that which causes you concern. In fact, it is those who are outside of the Christian faith which you should pray for that they might be brought to faith and join the rest of Christ’s catholic Church.

In other words, if you ain’t catholic, you ain’t… well you’re going to hell. Cool eh?

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  • I'm Frank Gillespie
  • From The Haut South
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