Will Many Be Saved? What Vatican II Actually Teaches and Its Implications for the New Evangelization, published by Eerdmans, is an important and intriguing book by Ralph Martin, S.T.D., a lay theologian, professor at Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit, consultor to the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for the New Evangelization and author of books on the spiritual life. Many readers will recognize him as an early leader of the Charismatic Renewal in the U.S. Today, he serves as president of Renewal Ministries.

Rarely have I seen a book endorsed by so many cardinals, bishops, Vatican officials and outstanding theologians. And for good reason, as the book considers questions that interest all Christians, given our common mortality: Who will be saved, how many and how? And is there any hope for those who die unbaptized Christians or not in a state of grace?

The following extended quote is drawn from the end of Chapter 16 of the dogmatic constitution of the Church, which came out of the Second Vatican Council. This short passage lies at the heart of Martin’s book; however, I encourage the reader to consult the whole document.

(126) But the plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator as the one and merciful God, who on the last day will judge mankind and all things, (127) and as Our Savior wills that all men be saved. (128) Those also can attain to salvation who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, yet sincerely seek God and moved by grace strive by their deeds to do his will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience. (19*) Nor does divine Providence deny the helps necessary for salvation to those who, without blame on their part, have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God and with his grace strive to live a good life. ... But often men, deceived by the evil one, have become vain in their reasonings and have exchanged the truth of God for a lie, serving the creature rather than the Creator. (129) Or some there are who, living and dying in this world without God, are exposed to final despair. Wherefore to promote the glory of God and procure the salvation of all of these, and mindful of the command of the Lord, “Preach the Gospel to every creature,”(130) the Church fosters the missions with care and attention.

To the Church’s dismay, many of the faithful have taken this document to mean that perhaps many — maybe even a majority — are saved without any knowledge of Christ or his Church. However, if most people will be saved anyway, then why have missions and why evangelize?

Martin examines the proposals of two well-known deceased theologians who have perpetrated this mindset. One is the German Jesuit Karl Rahner, who proposed that all might be saved through God’s mercy, and the other is the Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, who raised the possibility of an “empty hell,” drawing on the early theologian Origen’s teaching that at the end of the world all are saved. You can see the wreckage produced by these two not necessarily ill-willed theories in the Church today.

If you have any interest in top-flight theology on a crucial topic, this is the book for you.

Father C. John McCloskey III is a Church historian and research fellow

at the Faith and Reason Institute in Washington.