De Lubac: Social Salvation and the Afterlife

Last week we talked about social salvation – the idea that salvation is experienced collectively, as a reunification of all people. We talked about Cardinal Henri de Lubac and his book Catholicism, where he makes this argument for social salvation – in his words, sin is a “breaking up, an individualisation,” and salvation is the bringing of all people back into harmony. Salvation, in this view, is achieved on a collective (and not individual) level. That is, according to this theory, it’s not about you as one person being made righteous before God, it’s about the human race united as one people under God – made righteous together. Individual salvation is no salvation at all – we are not made perfect apart from each other.

And that’s all well and good, but it does raise some logistical questions. For instance, what happens when you die? We have this common idea in society that when you die, you go to heaven, and you get to meet God and the apostles, and you all hang out together and wait for the other suckers down on Earth to come join you. But that’s a very individualistic view of salvation. It’s not about the whole human race coming together as one – it’s a piecemeal, atomized process. If salvation is truly social, if it doesn’t happen until we’ve all come together, then, logically, dead people can’t yet be perfect. They can’t be perfect until everyone’s perfect – and a bunch of us are still partway through the process. We’re living out our lives on earth, or we’re yet to be born. If we are not made perfect apart from each other, the divide between the living and the dead is just another layer of separation. From that perspective, social salvation has some problems. Either salvation is better described with an individualistic framework – where each person dies and is reconciled or damned independently – or there has to be some sort of delay put on the salvation of the already dead. Maybe they have to wait for the end days, for the final judgement, so that human beings from across all time and space can finally, properly be called one.

Anyway, apparently this has been something of a long-term debate within Catholicism. In Chapter IV of Catholicism, de Lubac sums up this debate, describing the church – or humanity more fully – as the nascent body of Christ. “As long as Redemption continues, as long as the Body is not fully grown, how shall one member of it realise his full stature?” He quotes Origen on the same topic: “What perfection will there be if the body has neither hands nor feet, or wants for other limbs?” Again, individual salvation in this view is no salvation at all. The Body of Christ cannot be perfect in parts. On an immediate level, this move orients us towards the end of time rather than towards the individual moment of death. When you die, nothing’s necessarily going to happen – at best, you might be left sitting on God’s front door step until Judgement Day. It also, de Lubac argues, emphasises the importance of bodily resurrection. If we’re waiting for the end of time, he says, that’s when we’ll be resurrected in our new immortal bodies:

“If this resurrection can only take place at the end of time it is because the penalty which is the result of original sin, extending as it does to the whole of that nature in which all men are one, cannot be finally lifted from one without being lifted all also from the others. Thus the saints in heaven must await together both the salvation of those still on earth and their own resurrection.”

This is actually a subtle bit of argument – let’s take a moment with it. In Christian thought, the penalty of sin is death. You sin, you die. Again, in Catholicism that’s not an individual mechanism – it applies collectively. All of humanity exists under the same curse. Once you’re dead, then, your soul can’t immediately be put into its new eternal immortal body – because as a human, you still exist under the curse of death. If you did get put in a body, it wouldn’t be immortal. But once the end of the world comes, the penalty of original sin will be collectively lifted from the whole of humanity, death will end, and everyone can get resurrected into their immortal form.

Hang on though. If the penalty of sin is lifted from the whole of humanity, doesn’t that mean everyone gets saved? Regardless of whether or not they were Catholic? If the penalty of original sin cannot be lifted from one person without being lifted from all – then nobody’s punished, right? If salvation is the bringing together of all people under God, then all people have to be brought together. Partial salvation is no salvation at all – so everyone goes to heaven, or no-one does. Isn’t that what de Lubac’s arguing? Well – not quite. He doesn’t argue for universal salvation – but some of his points can be bent that way. More broadly, the implication of his argument is that the unrepentant sinner is in some sense sub-human. In Chapter VIII, he writes that “the church will not enter maimed into the Kingdom.” The damned are not a necessary part of the fabric of the human race, of the body of Christ. Humanity is complete without them – they are, in the final analysis, not really human. “So it is with humanity itself: no falling away will leave any gap in it. It is as nothing in the face of her fullness.” De Lubac goes on in a footnote to argue that “those who cut themselves off from this body were therefore not truly members; they must be compared to vicious humours which the body must reject for its own health.” This is the sharp edge of social salvation – if you want a theory of salvation to claim that all people will be unified, you either extend that unity to everyone, or you shift the boundaries on who counts as a person. You exclude outsiders from your theoretical category of human being. To be clear, De Lubac does warn against gatekeeping, suggesting that “if many are inside who seem to be outside, some may be outside who pose as keepers of the gate.” But his theological system is built on the idea that some of the people walking around in the world today are, in the long view, not a necessary part of the fabric of humanity. It’s built on the idea that some people won’t be missed. Gatekeeping isn’t an incidental abuse of that system – it’s part of the core premise. It’s the practical outworking of a system of theological xenophobia.

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