Mother Teresa, or Teresa of Calcutta (1910—1997), was born Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu in Macedonia. Mother Teresa was a Catholic nun and missionary and certainly stands out among the world’s most famous and beloved religious humanitarians of the 20th century. Laying aside the recent rumors of skeptics who say Mother Teresa’s beautiful charitable story was exaggerated and, at times, fabricated by the media and the Catholic Church, and just assuming her to be every bit of the benevolent spirit she was known to be, we see a woman that set the bar very high in humanitarian efforts. She is known for developing international organizations of missionaries; establishing an orphanage; launching a nursing home, health clinics, and a family clinic; and giving herself to various other charities. Perhaps Mother Teresa is most celebrated for her choice to personally sacrifice common luxuries and comforts in order to care for the most destitute people in the most destitute places. Her famous humanitarian efforts and sacrificial living earned her various honors, awards, and distinctions worldwide—and, because of all of this and her devout religious beliefs, many people of various faiths believe she has undoubtedly entered into eternal rest in heaven.
If one could get to heaven by noble humanitarian acts, and if one could get to heaven by being devoutly religious, then it would be easy to conclude that Mother Teresa now dwells in heaven with the Lord. However, the Bible, contrary to Catholic teaching, is clear that good works and religiosity do not merit grace or earn salvation. God clarifies that we are only saved from eternal hell when we are born again through repentance and belief in Christ Jesus (see John 3:3; Matthew 4:17; Mark 1:14–15; Luke 13:3; 23:39–43; Romans 10:9–11; Acts 4:12). Perhaps the most terrifying passage in the Bible regarding people who must have seemed righteous to the world yet were rejected by God is Matthew 7:21–24, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’”
Regarding salvation and eternity in heaven, the will of God is simple and clear in His Word; we must have the righteousness of God imputed to us. This imputation of righteousness does not come because of our good works but through the finished work of Christ. “God will credit righteousness—for us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification” (Romans 4:24–25).
Is not Mother Teresa included in Romans 3:12, “All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one”? Isaiah 64:6 says that all of our righteous deeds are like “filthy rags.” Apart from Christ’s work in us, no one pleases God and no amount of “good” we do will ever grant us entrance to heaven, not even for Mother Teresa. It’s true that saving faith produces good works, but good works can never produce salvation (see Romans 3:27–28; Matthew 7:21–23.)
Mother Teresa’s humanitarian efforts were respectable, commendable, and undoubtedly could have been and could still be used today by God in His perfect will. When it comes to entering heaven, however, her sincere works could never get her there. “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8–9, NASB).
Mother Teresa once wrote in a letter to a confidant, “Where is my faith? Even deep down . . . there is nothing but emptiness and darkness. . . . If there be God—please forgive me.” And, eight years later, “Such deep longing for God . . . Repulsed, empty, no faith, no love, no zeal” (Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light, Doubleday, 2007). According to the letters compiled by the Vatican, Mother Teresa’s doubts continued until her death. This perhaps gives the clearest and most sobering picture of where she really stood with the Lord, at least at those particular points in her life. No one can say for sure whether or not Mother Teresa is in heaven. Her espousal of Catholic doctrine and its works-based system of salvation is certainly troubling. We can only hope that at some point before her last breath Teresa received saving faith in Christ and no longer trusted in Catholicism or her admirable accomplishments as the way to heaven. “Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through me’” (John 14:6).