Can only Catholics go to heaven?

by Olivia Martin

KANSAS CITY, Kan. — One of the most misunderstood teachings of the Catholic Church concerns who can attain eternal life in heaven.

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “outside the church there is no salvation.”

If so, what does that mean for other Christians? Or what about non-Catholics or people who have never heard of Christ?

Father Joseph Arsenault, SSA, archdiocesan consultant for ecumenical & interreligious affairs, explains.

Q: Jesus taught that those who believed in him and followed him could attain eternal life. What did he mean by that?

A: Jesus meant those who follow him, do his will and believe in him will have eternal life in heaven available to them.

Q: Who did he mean it to apply to?

A: “To everyone,” said Father Joseph. “He came to call everyone to heaven.”

Q: Was belief in heaven part of Jewish tradition, or would this have been a teaching unique to Jesus?

A: There was a belief in a kind of afterlife in ancient Judaism. “However,” explained Father Joseph, “there were some of the Jewish people who did not believe in the resurrection of the body.”

Q: Did teaching on heaven develop in any way during Jesus’ years of ministry? For example, was it taught that Gentiles as well as Jews can enter the kingdom of God?

“The Jewish people believed that they were the ones that God revealed himself to and that he was theirs,” said Father Joseph.

The early Christians believed, however, because of Jesus’ teaching, that the kingdom of God was open to Gentiles (non-Jewish people) as well as Jews.

“The Gentiles helped to bring about the church [and show] that heaven was open to everyone,” said Father Joseph. “You didn’t have to be Jewish to believe in Jesus.”

Q: In the centuries that followed, was the teaching on heaven developed at all? Who was eligible for the afterlife? Those who came to Jesus through the Catholic Church but no one else?

A: This is where things get complicated. For centuries, it was believed that people had to come to know and follow Jesus in “real time,” so to speak, to have a chance at eternal life. 

And it is true, said Father Joseph, that if people are going to make it to heaven, it’s going to be through Jesus Christ.

“They can’t acquire it through anyone else,” he said. “He is the only way.”

But that does not mean that faithful Jews, or Buddhists or those who lived and died before Jesus had no chance at heaven if they did not come to know and follow Christ in their lifetime.

Everyone is created in the image and likeness of God, explained Father Joseph. Even without knowing him, they could be redeemed through Jesus if they had lived lives in accord with Christian teachings. 

“Whether we acknowledge it or not,” he said, “deep within us is the reality of God.

“As we come in touch with who we really are, we come in touch with God — even if we can’t articulate that.”

Q: What happened after the Protestant Reformation? Were Protestants not eligible for eternal life according to Catholic Church teaching at that time?

A: The church teaches there is no salvation outside of the church. And for centuries of church history, that was interpreted very literally.

“The way that was interpreted at the time [of the Protestant Reformation] was that you had to be a Catholic in order to get into heaven,” said Father Joseph, “and if you weren’t a Catholic, it wasn’t possible.”

So, there was a period in the history of the church in which it was believed that you had to be a Catholic to go to heaven.

Q: Did the Second Vatican Council impact this teaching?

A: Yes, it made the proper interpretation of the church’s teaching clearer.

“Vatican II made it clear that there is the possibility of attaining heaven without being Catholic,” said Father Joseph.

“I think we would still say there is no salvation outside the church,” he continued, “but what we mean by that is that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life, as he said.

“He’s it. So, if there’s salvation, it’s in him.

“If I am saved, I am saved by Jesus Christ and no one else.”

Q: What does the Catholic Church teach today about faithful Protestants, Jews or non-Christians entering the kingdom of heaven?

A: “We teach that it’s a possibility for everyone to enter heaven if their life conforms to the ways of the Lord,” said Father Joseph.

“They may not know or acknowledge Jesus,” he added, “but if they have an openness to striving to live a good and godly life, then, doing that, they are pleasing to the Lord.”

Q: How should we understand the clarification of this doctrine?

A: In simple terms, that which was assumed within doctrine was investigated and made explicit in Vatican II.

“[This clarification of teaching] is giving it a different interpretation because the doctrine hasn’t changed,” said Father Joseph. “There is no salvation outside of the church. That hasn’t changed. How we understand that has.”

Father Joseph gave the example of Jesus while on the cross offering eternal life in heaven to the repentant thief.

“Well, he wasn’t a Catholic!” said Father Joseph. “Hope of resurrection is open for all.”

19 Responses

  1. Lisa Drew at |

    God is coming back for a pure and blameless church without spot or blemish not a denomination those that believe in Jesus Christ and are born of water and spirit will see heaven those that do the will of the father

  2. Colin Lennox at |

    To those who will read thisThe only way a person can get toheaven is by Christ alone trusting only in his finish work on the cross Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou will be saved we saved through his blood that was shed on calvery No church pope minsters Christ alone The thief on the cross cried out to Jesus he was saved immediately Today u will be with me It’s so sad to see how Rome add on all other practices and burdens on people No man can forgive or save u is Christ alone Look what Peter said to the Philippian jailer Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and u will be saved he points him to Christ he could do nothing for him Christ only Acts 16v30 The Bible states 1Tim2v5For their is one mediator between God and man the man Christ Jesus It’s Christ alone

  3. Donna at |

    Comments are more correct than the actual article. A mere person’s interview about the history and the world, versus scriptures from Bible, and the controversial details of the seemingly truth, whoever has a true love for Jesus should understand which is accurate. It’s sad that there are still lots of people believe they can be saved by their good deeds, but hopefully Jesus Christ will show them enough signs before too late for them to accept Jesus, repent, and get baptized (according to the Bible, this is the process of being saved after Jesus gone to heaven). Amen.

  4. Bob at |

    A: “We teach that it’s a possibility for everyone to enter heaven if their life conforms to the ways of the Lord,” said Father Joseph.

    “They may not know or acknowledge Jesus,” he added, “but if they have an openness to striving to live a good and godly life, then, doing that, they are pleasing to the Lord.”

    This is a total contradiction of what the Bible teaches.
    For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith —and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— 9 not by works, so that no one can boast.

  5. Danny Spann at |


    1. Meg at |

      I mean no disrespect but you really don’t have to put everything in all caps to make a point. It seems you are upset but getting upset won’t help you win the argument. The truth is that the Catholic Church was the only church for the first 1000+ years. I’m a protestant Christian, but I can’t ignore the fact that the Catholic church can be traced back to Jesus. No other denomination in protestant Christianity can claim this as man started every other branch (ex. Luther, Zwingli, Calvin and Symth etc.). I’m not trying to change your mind but enlighten you with some historical context.

    2. HG at |

      Well said.

  6. James at |

    If you think you need to add anything to Jesus’ sacrifice then you are sadly mistaken….i for one would not want to tell God …that just didnt feel like it was enuff to save me…so i fixed it…Jesus said you only have to believe….the thief on the cross had mere minutes to believe on Jesus …he didnt have to get off that cross and go live a good life…Jesus told him he would be in heaven with him….JUST BELIEVE….

  7. Sandra Thornton at |

    Vatican !! Was invalid. Our Lady tried to have the third secret read before it started in 1960 but the last seven Popes have hidden her message. Now we have Chasstisement in need of the consecration of Russia to the Immaculate heart of Mary Since then sin and error have entered into the Church and the world. Even one of the seers of Garbandal four children have left the church as have mine-I personnaly cannot believe that when Jesus returns after all that has happened in the Church my children who believe in Jesus would be outright denied Heaven.

  8. Daniel Fleming at |

    I’m friends with a Catholic womanineed help . Don’t forget fully understand her belief

  9. Ethan at |

    “They may not know or acknowledge Jesus,” Mr. Arsenault added,”but if they [faithful Protestants, Jews or non-Christians] have an openness to striving to live a good and godly life, then, doing that, they are pleasing to the Lord”.

    The problem with this statement is that no one can please God apart from Jesus Christ. Our own “goodness” comes no where even remotely near comparing to God’s holiness – to say nothing of all the sin each of us commits.

    “…we are all like an unclean thing, and all our righteousness are like filthy rags…” (Isaiah 64:6).

    1. Charles F Odom at |

      Amen brother!

  10. C at |

    This is a lie straight from the pit of hell….no one comes to the father but through me Jesus said. None are good, and Christ paid the penalty for our sins. If we can get there simply by being “good”, then what was the point of His life, death and resurrection?

    1. Nancy Workman at |

      I agree with the above comment. Jesus said I am the way the truth and the life no one comes to the father but by me. Why in the world what he suffer what he did not only on the cross but fighting for our souls which meant he had to be apart from God for that time, if all we had to do was live a good life. it is correct in one away if we could live a perfect sinless life we could go to heaven but that is impossible oh, Jesus was the only one that lived a sinless life and was able to be our sacrifice. I’m

      1. James McKelroy at |

        You are correct. Jesus IS the only way. No one can ever be good enough

      2. Charles at |

        Amen sister! Who can judge what is good enough for God? Only Christ will judge our lives and by the time that moment comes when we are absent from the body and present with the Lord, it will be, sadly, too late for any who’ve strived to achieve salvation through his/her own good works. The Apostle Paul is very clear on that in Ephesians 2:8-9, “for by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works lest anyone should boast.” The one question, then, I have to ask myself is do I believe that all scripture is the inspired Word of God? If not, which is true and which is not? Is what Christ says in John 14:6 true? For me, a literal acceptor of God’s Word, I remain at peace. It’s only when man attempts to interpret God’s inspired Holy Word with man’s limited everything that these type questions emerge. Blessings.

    2. Sharon at |

      I thought you had to confess Jesus as Lord before getting saved and also is the church still saying today that only Catholics going to heaven

    3. Janice Elaine McKelroy at |

      You are correct no one can be good enough. The only way to the Father is thru acceptance of Jesus as their Lord and savior

    4. Stefan at |

      You don’t get there by simply leading a good life. The doors are open because of his sacrifice, that is why he died. Previously if you were good you would go to limbo. But just because he died does not mean that you do not have to do your part. I’d argue that Martin Luther and his “Love God and Sin Boldly” quote is more likely to be from the pit of hell. If someone is able to live such a good life as to be in accordance with Christ they are such in spite of their respective religions not because of them. The Catholic church is the one true church of Christ founded by him. What is the point of this life if you are not to be tested, and labour for heaven? Face it, Protestantism started with Luther being unable to conquer a set of sins that plagued him and then deduced that it is beyond the power of us to fight our sins, which gave rise to his “read the bible and make your own religion” 10s of thousands of protestant denominations. The catechism of Saint Pope Pius X is a good place to start for basics, and St Thomas Aquinas for more details. You are not required to live a sinless life but one without mortal sin, and if commited to confess and receive the absolution of sin on Earth, if unable to do so to be perfectly contrite of heart, that is to regret having sinned because you regret offending God by this, and not solely out of fear of damnation.


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