"It's not about being good, it's about accepting Jesus Christ as your personal saviour" declared a student of mine who belonged to an evangelical fellowship. She was voicing a view that there is a belief requirement for heaven. As evangelicals believe only in heaven and hell, by implication she believed that non-Christians fry in Hell. She is not alone in this commonly held belief. But it is not belief universally held by Christians. The Catholic Church has for a long time thought about non-Christians who live righteously. Without Christian faith can they go to heaven? But must not a just and good God recognize their virtues?
Catholics came up with the doctrine of limbo. Convinced that baptism and faith in Christ were necessary for salvation, they were reluctant to condemn good-living non-believers to Hell, so an intermediate state for virtuous non-Christians was postulated. Some thinkers regarded limbo as a less miserable version of Hell, but later thinkers regarded it as a lesser version of heaven.
However, more recently Pope Francis reminded us that heaven is a gift of God. As Christians who have accepted Christ we have already accepted God's offer, but this does not exclude God's being able to extend his gift to virtuous non-Christians. Our view of the afterlife must do justice to the goodness of God and to the freedom that he has given humans. God's goodness implies that he offers eternal life to all, but humans are free to accept or reject his love.
Now here comes the reason for my disagreeing with my student. Yes, she and I both accept Jesus as our personal saviour, but I do not confine acceptance of Christ to acceptance of a specific formula. There is a distinction between acceptance of a conceptual formula, a set of words, and acceptance of a person. Verbal formulae are aids to accepting a person, but alone they are not enough. It is possible to have expert knowledge of theology and world religions, but have no personal acceptance of God. Deep academic knowledge can sadly be combined with a shallow prayer life. We need to accept the person of God. This means turning mind and heart to him.
As we are saved by turning heart and mind to God there is no place in Catholicism for reliance on sacred rituals and places. While Catholicism is rich in ritual and sacred sites, they are aids to religious life and are pointless unless they aid the proper direction of heart and mind to God.
I have addressed this fundamental question through the lens of my Catholic faith. I cannot do otherwise, for there are no neutral standpoints in religion or philosophy. Readers may disagree from their own standpoints. Feel free to do so. I hope for vigorous discussion.