The Church teaches that no one can attain salvation outside the Church, but that teaching should be understood in the context of the Church’s other teachings. So let’s talk about whether or not non-Catholics (even atheists) can be saved.
Do We Know Atheists Go to Hell?
The Church has never made a claim about any particular person being in Hell. But that doesn’t mean that the Church doesn’t think people can and do go to Hell — Christ himself teaches that Hell is a real possibility. But as far as any individual, the Church doesn’t make any definitive claims. Instead, the Church entrusts each person after death to the mercy of God.
So What About Invincible Ignorance?
Sometimes people will say that non-Christians can be saved because they have “invincible ignorance.” This means that they never could have accepted the Church due to extenuating factors, like never hearing the Gospel. But you have to be careful here because we’re not saved by a lack of something, or nothing. Rather, we’re saved by something — namely, Christ!
What this means is that you can’t just be saved because you “didn’t know enough.” Instead, Christ offers every person enough grace to know and love God sufficiently for salvation.
What IS Required For Salvation?
Thomas Aquinas draws this principle from Hebrews 11:6, which says “And without Faith it is impossible to please Him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that He exists and rewards those who seek Him.”
This means that everyone must believe in God’s existence and his providence. Aquinas then schematizes that to mean that we must believe — at least implicitly — in the Triune God and the Incarnate Lord for salvation. After Christ’s public revelation in the Gospels, the responsibility for explicit knowledge is much higher: salvation generally requires an actual assent to Faith in the Triune God and his Incarnation.
Our Responsibility in the Drama of Salvation
This means that it is our responsibility to help everyone to accept the faith of Jesus Christ. Of course, it is God who actually provides the grace, but it is often the case that it is through us that grace is mediated! It’s not enough to just hope that “God will send some other means;” it’s very possible that YOU are those means!
We have to try to help our atheist brothers and sisters to know the message of Faith, for God’s glory and the salvation of everyone. God’s mercy is powerful, and we must commend every person to it. But we must also be willing to be protagonists in God’s plan as he sees fit to include us.
Do not be afraid to help others on the road to Christ. They need it, and so do you.