BBW Commenter Joe Agnost and I were discussing the role of faith and reason, and the subject turned to heaven and hell in the Catholic Faith. He asked some pertinent questions, and I thought I'd blog the answer for the benefit of anyone who might want to know and get in on the discussion.
Is it true that in order to get into heaven you have to accept jesus christ and (for catholics) be baptised?? Without these things we're doomed to hell??
Those are actually two separate questions. The answer can seem a little surprising and contradictory.
Is it true that in order to get into heaven you have to accept jesus christ and (for catholics) be baptised??
Without these things we're doomed to hell??
How do the humans that have never been introduced to JC/christianity etc. fit in? How is an amazonian bush tribe, having lived for thousands of years in the forests of the amazon, supposed to get into heaven? The've never heard of christianity - much less been baptized - so is god abandoning them?
Of course no one who is ignorant of Christianity will be punished for his ignorance. That being said, it doesn't mean he can't merit hell for his own, actions, either.
Jesus Christ (who is God) is the way to heaven. All people who attain heaven do so based on his merits. Those who were ignorant of Christ on Earth can still attain heaven, because they, in substance, accept what Christ represents, and are repentant of all their serious sins. God knows the disposition of all souls and he knows who is well-disposed to God and the message of Christ, and those who do not.
"Okay then, " the skeptic says "why bother with believing in Jesus? Just live a good life and be sorry for the bad things you've done and you won't go to hell."
It doesn't quite work that way.
The reason to believe is because it's for our own good. Yes, an ignorant bushman can make it to heaven, but he will not have the advantage of divine guidance to get them there, and the ability to reap a larger reward in heaven.
Being without faith deprives people of the chance to grow in holiness. Anyone can be morally decent. However, it is impossible to grow significantly in holiness without faith. Holiness is basically union with God, which is the source of all happiness and the source of moral strength. If you do not have a personal relationship with God, i.e. faith, you cannot grow closer to him, and reap the benefits of that union.
If a person, knowing what Christ represents rejects it, he cannot attain heaven, because he's basically rejecting heaven represents.
The mission of Jesus Christ was not to make morally decent people. Christ himself said in the Gospel: even pagans love people who love them first. That level of moral decency is available to anyone with a rational mind.The mission of Christ was to destroy the alienation between God and humankind, the alienation caused by sin and hatred through Original Sin. It is Christ's message and sacrifice that does away with Original Sin and allows us to grow closer to God in spite of our flaws.
That holiness is necessary to enjoy heaven: the greater one's holiness on earth, the greater one's joy in heaven. That's why it's necessary to evangelize everyone: because without faith in Christ, the ignorant person will not have as great a reward in the next life.
I hope that answers some of your questions about salvation in the Catholic Church.