Sunday, March 20, 2011

Is Gandhi in Hell?

No "Saint Gandhi"

This post is really not about Gandhi; rather, it is using Gandhi as an example of a lot of what is wrong in the way a lot of Christians are thinking today regarding the Church's perennial teaching on the reality of hell as well as the abuse of the concept of invincible ignorance.

According to the manner in which the doctrine of invincible ignorance is popularly (and errantly) understood in the Catholic Church, those who are ignorant of the Gospel and Christ's Church in such a way that it is "not their fault" that they have not heard are not guilty of their sins and we can safely presume that will go on to heaven, saved, as it were, by their ignorance. Thus, we need not worry ourselves about Hindus, African bushmen, the natives of the Amazon or the Muslims, because so long as it is "not their fault" that they do not know Christ, we can presume salvation.

This is, of course, an errant interpretation of the concept of invincible ignorance, an idea that is contrary to two thousand years of tradition and something that undermines the missionary impulse of the Church. It leads to things like Mother Teresa's nuns visiting Hindu temples for prayer instead of evangelizing the Hindus, the Columban missionaries having "role playing" sessions with Muslims and teaching that all religions lead to God, and the Trappist monks of Tibhirine, Algeria praying with Sufi Muslims instead of trying to teach them about Christ (they were rewarded for their interest in Islam by being beheaded, by the way). I don't know if in any of these cases the concept of invincible ignorance was cited specifically, but we cannot deny that an ecclesial culture that keeps tossing around this concept is going to breed these sorts of abominations.

As an interesting aside, evangelicals have an interesting answer to the question about what happens to remote natives and persons who never heard of Christ. They basically say, "If anyone of them is open to the truth, God sends them a missionary. If they never hear of Christ and nobody comes to them, it is because God knows they will not listen. Thus, they are without excuse, even if they have never heard."St. Thomas and St. Augustine seem to have opined similarly, though neither taught this as definitive as far as I can tell. I don't know that we can always presume that God will work this way; Ezekiel 33:6 states that when a righteous man fails to warn sinners of their plight and the sinners perish, it is the righteous man who is guilty for not spreading the word: "And if the watchman see the sword coming, and sound not the trumpet: and the people look not to themselves, and the sword come, and cut off a soul from among them: he indeed is taken away in his iniquity, but I will require his blood at the hand of the watchman." Irregardless of whether or not those in true invincible ignorance are saved, Scripture is clear that if they are not reached by the Gospel, it is our fault. I don't think it is responsible to just write them off and say, "Well, if they never heard it is because God knew they wouldn't listen." But this is a digression.

The Catechism says this on invincible ignorance: "Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience - those too may achieve eternal salvation" (CCC 847), quoting Lumen Gentium 16. It must be understood that this is not "another way" to salvation outside of Christ; the Catechism is stating that some may "stumble" into salvation through Christ ignorantly, but just not be cognizant of it, much like the Calormene at the end of C.S. Lewis's The Last Battle. There is only one door, but some may enter through it even if they don't realize it. So the Catechism at least says that salvation is possible for those in invincible ignorance, but does not by any mean state it as a given.

Invincible ignorance is originally a premise in moral theology that has been transplanted to soteriology. The Catechism mentions it in this context in paragraph 1793 regarding culpability for moral actions: "If...the ignorance is invincible, or the moral subject is not responsible for his erroneous judgment, the evil committed by the person cannot be imputed to him. It remains no less an evil, a privation, a disorder. One must therefore work to correct the errors of moral conscience" (CCC 1793).

So, applying this to soteriology, we must first understand that this is not saying that those who have never heard of Christ are absolved of all their sins by this ignorance. According to the principle of invincible ignorance, they may at least be innocent of the sin of unbelief, but invincible ignorance does not negate culpability for sins against natural law (theft, murder, adultery, etc).  The Catechism says this clearly:

"However, no one is presumed to be ignorant of the principles of moral law since these are written on the heart of every man" (CCC 1860).

So one can be innocent of the sin of unbelief but still be guilty of a host of other damnable sins,  first among them idolatry, but also theft, adultery, fornication, lying, etc. Therefore, being invincibly ignorant of salvation does not in any way "secure" salvation - it merely means you can't be imputed with the guilt of the sin of unbelief. It is in this context that Pope Pius IX said, "It is equally certain that, were a man to be invincibly ignorant of the true religion, he would not be held guilty in the sight of God for not professing it" (Pius IX, Allocution of December 9, 1854). He speaks here only of the guilt of not professing the true Faith, not he guilt relating to sins against the natural law.

To see invincible ignorance as somehow being salvific is entirely misleading and destructive to faith. How could ignorance ever be salvific? St. Thomas reminds us that ignorance is a result of sin and remains penal in character. This passage from the Summa wraps up the teaching from the Catechism and Pius IX nicely:

"Unbelief has a double sense. First, it can be taken purely negatively; thus a man is called an unbeliever solely because he does not possess faith. Secondly, by way of opposition to faith; thus when a man refuses to hear of the faith or even condemns it, according to Isaiah, "Who has believed our report?" This is where the full nature of unbelief, properly speaking is found, and where the sin lies. If, however, unbelief be taken just negatively, as in those who have heard nothing about the faith, it bears the character, not of fault, but of penalty, because their ignorance of divine things is the result of the sin of our first parents. Those who are unbelievers in this sense are not condemned for the sin of unbelief, but they are condemned on account of other sins, which cannot be forgiven without faith” (
Summa Theologica II-II, Art. 10 Q. 1).
Ignorance is penal. Furthermore, St. Paul teaches that, even though many of the nations are in ignorance of Christ, God will no longer overlook their ignorance but calls them all to repent:
"Since therefore we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the divinity is like an image fashioned from gold, silver, or stone by human art and imagination. God has overlooked the times of ignorance, but now he demands that all people everywhere repent because he has established a day on which he will 'judge the world with justice' through a man he has appointed, and he has provided confirmation for all by raising him from the dead" (Acts 17:29-31).
Note that the call to repent is for "all people everywhere." This is totally contradictory to the creeping universalism within the Church which seems to optimistically believe that, not only those who are invincibly ignorant, but even Muslims and Jews will be saved without converting so long as they are "good people."

Gandhi is the most common example of a pagan "righteous man" that is given. Do a Google search on "Gandhi in hell" or "Gandhi in heaven" and you will see that the use of Gandhi as an example in this discussion has become as standard as the use of Socrates in learning logical syllogisms. Does Gandhi in any way fulfill the criteria for someone who was "invincibly ignorant" of the faith? Let's look at a quote from his autobiography:

"It was more than I could believe that Jesus was the only incarnate Son of God, and that only he who believes in Him would have everlasting life. If God could have sons, all of us were His sons. If Jesus was like God, or God Himself, then ...all men were like God and could be God Himself. My reason was not ready to believe literally that Jesus by His death and by His blood redeemed the sins of the world. Metaphorically there might be some truth in it .... I would accept Jesus as a martyr, an embodiment of sacrifice, and a divine teacher, but not as the most perfect man ever born. His death on the cross was a great example to the world, but that there was anything like a mysterious or miraculous virtue in it my heart could not accept" (Mahatma Gandhi, Gandhi An Autobiography: My Experiments with Truth, pp. 170-71).

If anything is clear from this passage, it is that Gandhi was emphatically not in any ignorance about Christianity, Jesus or the central beliefs of the Christian Faith. He knows enough about Christ to paraphrase the Gospel of John at the top of the passage and to understand the Christian concept of Christ being God's "incarnate" Son. He knows Christians believe that "His death and blood redeemed the sins of the world." He understands very well the Christian idea of Jesus' death being unique and atoning. Based on this, we can hardly call Gandhi ignorant, let alone invincibly ignorant. Gandhi knows Jesus' claims to lordship but will not accept them; as a teacher, as a martyr perhaps, but not as Lord. He understands the tenets of Christianity perfectly well and yet consciously chooses to reject them.

Let us remember that the word "invincible" literally means "unconquerable." Gandhi was raised among Christians in British India and his ignorance can hardly be said to be unconquerable. "But," it might be said, "perhaps the example of Christianity he was given was so poor that it spoiled any chance of him ever believing." Well, if we take this line of reasoning then basically every person on the planet is invincibly ignorant unless someone as perfect as Christ Himself comes to preach to them, since we could always cite sins or faults on the part of the one presenting the Gospel. Secondly, Gandhi did not say he rejected Christianity because of Christians (although he was not impressed with the Christians he met), but because he could not accept the message of Christ. It was Christ that Gandhi rejected, and did so quite openly and deliberately.

By the way, even if Gandhi was in "invincible ignorance", it would mean only that he was incuplable for the sin of disbelief, not for any other sins.

Some Catholics assert that it is impossible for those in invincible ignorance to be saved. Following the Catechism and Lumen Gentium, I have to at least admit the possibility, though as opposed to modern, progressive Catholic universalism, I must insist that the criteria for this be understood as narrowly as possible, and that we do no more than admit the possibility without asserting salvation in any specific cases. We should certainly never, ever, ever engage in any of the nonsense like making icons of Gandhi, as we see at the head of this post. In my opinion, those who are in a state of invincible ignorance are few and far between. And even if they are not guilty of unbelief, this does not mean they are not guilty of a host of other sins, much less that they do not need the message of Christ preached to them.

Is Gandhi in hell? Of course, there is no way to know; I can admit the possibility of a hypothetical last-minute, interior conversion known only to God alone. But barring that, and knowing how Gandhi thought about Jesus, I think it is an insult to the Gospel to suggest that such a man could gain heaven just because of his social and political activism while ignoring the insulting things he said about Jesus and the Church.


JD said...

I've seen that icon on Robet Ellsbergs book "All Saints", a book in which he canonizes Ghandi, Martin Luther King Junior and a handful of those involved in the modernist heresy of the early 20th century.

Once I heard an FSSP priest say that somewhere in he writings of Blessed Pius IX (quanta conficiamur or the Syllabus of Errors) one of the condemned propositions was that "we can have a reasonable hope of the salvation of non Catholics" meaning baptism of desire is probably something very rare and something that we better not bank on for those outside the Church, including Ghandi.

Greg said...

Great post, thanks!


Anselm said...

Very good on the whole. I have just one quibble. I'm not convinced that Lumen gentium requires us to admit that some men can be saved without at least faith in Christ.

It says that such men 'can' be saved, and cites St. Thomas, ST III, q. 8, a. 3, ad 1. Where we read:

"Those who are unbaptized, though not actually in the Church, are in the Church potentially. And this potentiality is rooted in two things--first and principally, in the power of Christ, which is sufficient for the salvation of the whole human race; secondly, in free-will."

So, I am thinking that one might reasonably hold that the statement to the effect that a non-Christian 'can' be saved might simply equate to the statement that such a one 'can' become a Christian. It is not impossible.

I admit that this is not the most obvious reading of the text, but it does have the advantage of preventing Lumen gentium from contradicting St. Augustine (who very clearly taught what you allude to in the post) and St. Thomas (who arguably taught the same thing, although there has been some debate over that). Not to mention, of course, such famous dogmatic definitions as that of the Ecumenical Council of Florence:

"The holy Roman Church... firmly believes, professes and preaches that all those who are outside the catholic church, not only pagans but also Jews or heretics and schismatics, cannot share in eternal life and will go into the everlasting fire which was prepared for the devil and his angels, unless they are joined to the catholic church before the end of their lives..."

peet said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Boniface said...

Thanks for the comments, Pete, and blessed Confirmation!

paula said...

Thank you for opening our eyes. I never thought of it before.

Editor said...

You are quite thoughtful in your presentations. I'm blessed to start following your blog. God bless you always.

Godwin Delali Adadzie

Sandy said...

Are you sure? I am very impressed that you know the mind of God! Tell me, can you give me the winning lottery numbers? I will split the pot with you....

Boniface said...


What are you talking about? Did you read the article? I say in the article that there is no way to know. Look at the last paragraph:

Is Gandhi in hell? Of course, there is no way to know;

Anonymous said...

There is a story from the early centuries of the Church in England relating to the death of an unbaptised person who was a friend of St Erconwald, a bishop of London. Apparently the friend lived a good life and the Saint was very distressed on his dying unbaptised and wept bitterly. It seems that in a dream his deceased friend appeared to him in great joy. To allay further worries concerning his soul, the friend told the Saint that his tears had been sufficient for a baptism.

Seraphim said...

The issue of whether or not a person is saved is a very complicated one, and I am glad the Catholic Church leaves the question of salvation to God.

We can never know a person's heart or mind, not to mention how that person's heart and mind have been shaped by the life they have experienced. I would not call myself a universalist, but I definitely pray and hope for the salvation of all my brothers and sisters. May they all accept God's love.

Ad Quem Ibimus? said...

I pray there is no one in hell... but what about gods justice? people go to hell...! it is up to the church to stop people going to perdition by preaching repentance to those not in the faith!

James said...

A most helpful essay. Thank you.

(That Gandhi icon is ridiculous - the use made of it, OTOH, excellent.)

Anonymous said...

Thank you for saying this.

Anonymous said...

Saying that someone is "invincibly ignorant" of Christianity does not mean that they do not know of the existence of Christ or about the fact that some people say he was God. It means that on the evidence available to them they could not reasonably believe these things to be true. For example, a Muslim in an Islamic country may know about these claims, but have no evidence which would convince them, and no particular reason to undertake an investigation, just as you yourself are unlikely to investigate the claim of Mohammed to be the prophet of Allah. So a random Muslim in an Islamic country is quite likely to be invincibly ignorant of Christianity, despite knowing about its claims.

In fact, you seem to be saying that as soon as someone hears the idea that there is a man who claimed to be God, he should instantly assume it is true, and that to do otherwise is "insulting" to Christ. This does not seem very reasonable.

Boniface said...

That's not how it has traditionally been viewed.

For example, when St. Isaac Jogues came to preach to the Huron, he did not consider them invincibly ignorant simply because he had showed up an announced Jesus Christ. He believed Indians who died without accepting Christ went to Hell. The mere fact that he showed up an made the announcement sufficed to dispel their ignorance. This is in his writings. All other Catholic missionaries have assumed the same historically.

Peter's mere announcement to the Jews on Pentecost that Christ was Lord laid an obligation on them to investigate the truth, as he says they all must repent or perish. The mere proclamation of the truth dispels ignorance, as far as I can tell.

Even if that was too strict, there is no way to consider that Gandhi, who lived among British Christians for decades - could possibly be considered invincibly ignorant.

Konstantin said...

Hi Boniface, I just read your article. Thanks for treating this extremely important topic. People don't realize that by their extreme interpretations of "invincible ignorance" they make the Church's whole missionary effort and ultimately the whole Catholic Faith look superfluous. Maybe you can treat the related case of schismatic or heretical "martyrs" (i.e. the Copts supposedly beheaded by ISIS) one day...

God bless,


Boniface said...

Thank you for trolling my old posts, Konstantin! Lol. As a matter of fact I have had just such a post on schismatic martyrs planned for a long time.

Konstantin said...

It makes for interesting Sunday reading ;-)

Really looking forward to that article. I caught flak for saying they weren't martyrs, and the Josias publicly apologized after being attacked by their readers... It's horrible how riled up people can get when you contradict their cult of objective schismatics and heretics. I have been accused of not knowing Traditional teaching and been told that the Council of Florence taught that only those who wanted to cement their errors through martyrdom can't be saved. It really looks like they interpreted "Cantate Domini" in a quite exotic fashion:

"even if he has shed blood for the name of Christ"

So they want to tell me that in this case, "the name of Christ" = schism and/or heresy? Phew...

Konstantin said...

This is the article I was referring to:

Boniface said...

So was that article authored by yourself?

Konstantin said...

My article is on my German missions blog so I guess it won't be much of a help. I don't know who penned the article on The Josias.

myth buster said...

So what then of the man who before this was a pagan, yet when interrogated by ISIS and his life threatened, replied, "Their (i.e. the Copts) God is my God?" Should we or should we not canonize those who scarcely even heard the Name Jesus Christ, yet when pressed, choose to die for Him even on the testimony of heretics or schismatics?

Hans Georg Lundahl said...

"According to the manner in which the doctrine of invincible ignorance is popularly (and errantly) understood in the Catholic Church, those who are ignorant of the Gospel and Christ's Church in such a way that it is "not their fault" that they have not heard are not guilty of their sins and we can safely presume that will go on to heaven, saved, as it were, by their ignorance."

It takes two things for them to be saved :

1) Supernatural faith (without which original and perhaps personal mortal sins are not forgiven), 2) the Ignorance by which a possible Supernatural faith would be subjectively such despite objectively defective by standards of faith.

According to St Thomas, if Gandhi heard Catholics and rejected their teaching, he must either have been a very stupid and untalented man (I don't think his admirers will admit that) or have gone to Hell.

With C. S. Lewis, at least he did not reject all of it. Still ... I would not canonise him, but I prayed for his soul one of the first indulgences I tried to win after conversion.

Hans Georg Lundahl said...

"all religions lead to God"

All religions have elements leading to the true one and therefore also to God (or to God in the immediate and therefore also to the true one).

That was the reason why Nicolas of Cusa argued that those who did not reach the true religion before the end of their life on Earth would have been too inattentive about truth, too indifferent about their salvation to go to Heaven, to not be in a state of mortal sin when dying.

Hans Georg Lundahl said...

" Should we or should we not canonize those who scarcely even heard the Name Jesus Christ, yet when pressed, choose to die for Him even on the testimony of heretics or schismatics?"

I heard of a German cobbler who was Lutheran but died along with Catholics who were being killed by Turks, and who was canonised.

That is the news which gave me some hope Cassie Bernall can have made it too. Both the cobbler (conditions of life) and Cassie (shortness of time between Christian conversion and death) might have excuses for not knowing the part of faith which is The Church correctly.