How wide is God’s mercy? The Holy Spirit in other religions

Could the Spirit's love be poured into the hearts of people untouched by the incarnation? Could non-Christians be lovers of the only God there is?

Year after year, as students of mine worked their way through the Divine Comedy, they found it strange—magnificently strange at times, at times disturbingly so. One feature of Dante’s poem that usually met with resistance is the exclusiveness of paradise. Apart from the Old Testament worthies, it is peopled with Christians only. Hell too has plenty of Christians, of course, but in their case beatitude was once a possibility, now sadly forfeited. Not so the rest of the damned. They never had even a chance. Blameless non-Christians like Virgil, Dante’s guide, may be assigned to one of the less hellish circles, but they are nonetheless shut out of heaven forever.

What is wrong with this picture? As one young woman put it, “That’s just not the sort of thing God would do.”

Hers is an understandable reaction, which would probably be shared by many thoughtful Christian people. Somehow, they feel sure, commitment to Christianity does not commit them to believing that in the judgment of the God they worship every other tradition of religious belief and practice is worthless. Somehow, heaven cannot be a gated enclave to which only Christians are ever given a key. Somehow, “there’s a wideness in God’s mercy” that reaches beyond the borders of Christendom.