McLaughlin describes a transition from the believer’s assurance of salvation in the early days of the Church to fearing God’s wrath in the medieval period.
“The departed faithful were always represented in the early medieval liturgy as the servants of God, as his devoted followers and the subjects of his tremendous power. They were very often represented as sinners, threatened with eternal damnation unless God forgave their faults. This had not been the case during the early Christian era. Early Christian apologetic writings and prayers had sometimes depicted humanity as sinful and lost without God’s mercy. However, in the first few centuries, while Christians remained a minority group within Roman society, the emphasis had been on redemption offered through faith in Christ and baptism. Those who remained faithful to the redeemer despite the threat of persecution, it had been argued, could anticipate an assured reward in heaven. Such assurance began to fade, however, in late antiquity, with the end of the persecutions and the growth in conversions. Gradually the focus shifted from the sinful unbeliever cleansed through baptism, to the sinful Christian, who must repent or forfeit the redemption Christ has offered.
In the early middle ages, it was no longer assumed that those who died in the faith deserved to be welcomed into heaven. Only if their faults were forgiven or purged away could they hope to enter the company of the elect. Thus, early medieval funerary prayers freely acknowledged the sins of the dead, even as they asked for those faults to be remitted:”
Do not enter into judgment with your servant N., Lord, for no one is justified before you, unless through you remission of all sins is granted. Therefore, we ask that your judicial sentence not bear hard on one whom the true supplication of Christian faith commends to you. Rather, with the help of your grace, let one who was marked in life with the sign of the Trinity deserve to evade avenging judgment.
McLaughlin says that the hope of the believer shifted from an assured salvation to group salvation – being united to the entire church as a means of right standing more or less. Here are a couple of prayers that exemplify this trend:
Grant this mercy, we pray, Lord, to your departed servant N., that the who upheld your will in his mind not receive in suffering the recompense of his deeds. Just as the true faith bound him here to the company of the faithful, so let your pity join him there with the angelic choirs.
God-who made your servant N. flourish with pontifical dignity among the apostolic priests-we ask that you join him to their perpetual fellowship.
You can see that the assurance of the believer had fled away in this schema of salvation. It seems to me that the modern Catholic Church deals with these fears via a soft universalism. Pretty much everybody will “get in” because God is Love. This is the flip side of the medieval error.