Knowing the Words But Not the Tune

So last week, Jimmy Akin writes a little post on the question of what we know about heaven/hell population statistics. (Short answer: nothing, so while recognizing and warning of the real possibility of Hell, we should hope in Christ Jesus and get on with the business of being his disciples and witnesses.) In the course of it, he mentions Benedict’s speculation in Spe Salvi:

45. With death, our life-choice becomes definitive—our life stands before the judge. Our choice, which in the course of an entire life takes on a certain shape, can have a variety of forms.

There can be people who have totally destroyed their desire for truth and readiness to love, people for whom everything has become a lie, people who have lived for hatred and have suppressed all love within themselves.

This is a terrifying thought, but alarming profiles of this type can be seen in certain figures of our own history.

In such people all would be beyond remedy and the destruction of good would be irrevocable: this is what we mean by the word Hell.

On the other hand there can be people who are utterly pure, completely permeated by God, and thus fully open to their neighbours—people for whom communion with God even now gives direction to their entire being and whose journey towards God only brings to fulfilment what they already are.

46. Yet we know from experience that neither case is normal in human life.

For the great majority of people—we may suppose—there remains in the depths of their being an ultimate interior openness to truth, to love, to God.

In the concrete choices of life, however, it is covered over by ever new compromises with evil—much filth covers purity, but the thirst for purity remains and it still constantly re-emerges from all that is base and remains present in the soul.

Result: An explosion of panic and outrage from a crowd of people who regard both Jimmy and Benedict as quasi-heretics for expressing the Hope that the bulk of people might be saved and who are quite certain that doing so constitutes an assault on both the Teaching of the Church and on the Church’s evangelistic project (since, apparently, only the fear of hell is what attracts people to Jesus and without the lash of terror driving us on we will never evangelize).

I told Jimmy I thought he did a good job and was immediately met with sneers from people who obviously regarded Jimmy and me (and, truth to tell, Benedict) as quasi-heretics, so I made a couple of attempts to talk people down off the ledge of panic over Benedict’s and Jimmy’s alleged betrayal of the Tradition.

What is overlooked here is that the same Jesus [who talks about the narrow way] also says he will “draw all men to me” and Paul says stuff like God has handed all over to sin so that he may have mercy on all and so forth. People who want to can, as here, construct confident scenarios from selected texts of Scripture which have The End all figured out and roughly estimate of the percentages of damned (lots of Them) and saved (themselves typically among the Few). The Calvinist impulse is ever with us. It’s technical name is Despair.

Meanwhile, Universalists can do the same thing, pretending they too know the End of the story and that there is nothing to worry about since God is going to save us all. The technical name for this is Presumption.

In reality, we are mortals who do not know the End of the Story, even for ourselves. So all we have is what the Faith recommends: Hope (note that the encyclical Jimmy quotes is Spe Salvi—from St. Paul’s remark “In hope we were saved.” Despair and presumption are both sins against hope. And despair tends to regard hope as the sin of presumption (since it says “We don’t know the End, so let’s hope!”) while presumption tends to regard hope as the sin of despair (since hope refuses to say, “I know for certain that all will be saved.”)

On this particular thread, most of the commentary comes from people inclined toward Calvinist despair, so Jimmy and I get it in the neck for saying “We don’t know the End, so let’s hope.”) But the reality remains, we don’t know the end. So I hope. Mysteriously, some people take my statement of hope as some sort of rejection of the Faith, declaring, “One could literally bury Akin and Shea with patristic quotes on this topic. I love you guys… But your just way wrong on this one.”

I’m wrong to say that I do not have divine foreknowledge of the End and therefore live in hope and refuse both presumption and despair? Because that, in the end, is all I’m saying.

It seems to me that, in the end, the *real* quarrel here is not with Jimmy or me, but with that passage from Pope Benedict’s encyclical that expresses hope. The subtext of an awful lot of the commentary here is that Pope Benedict went all squishy and universalist there, so we need to go grab a lot of commentary from the Fathers and various other theologians and saints to rebut him and get everybody back on track with the sure and certain knowledge that, you know, most people are most certainly damned (like we know that). In reality, Pope Benedict speaks from within the Tradition, just as the people being cited by the “Hell is packed” crowd do. Only, Pope Benedict is, you know, pope while us people in comboxes are just dudes with keyboards and big mouths.

My general recommendation on such matters is not to waste a lot of time doing the Protestant trick of harvesting proof texts for your Calvinist despair or Universalist presumption, but to try to understand what the Church says about hope, which boils down to “You’re not God and don’t know anything about the End, so keep your eyes on Jesus and not on some imaginary future, obey him, and do the commandments and the beatitudes. He’ll take care of the future.”

But the majority would have none of it and so, after much back and forth and copious quoting of the speculations of Fathers, saints, and theologians, we eventually wound up being treated to sublime acts of divine judgment like:

Now to answer the question. In my estimate, if everybody in America was to die today (God forbid such sudden death!) about 10% of all Catholics in America will go straight to heaven to the Lord Jesus. These are people that have united themselves to the Cross of Christ and were seeking perfection.

Then between 23% to 66% of Catholics in American will be headed for Purgatory. These are people not seeking perfection in their life time on earth but who when the push comes to the shove will always choose the Lord Jesus everytime. Then the remaining people (do the math) will be heading for where no Catholic should be. Now if that is the stastictics for Catholics your guess is as good as mine with regards to that for non-Christian Pagans.

I’m sorry, but after a spectacle like that (and there’s plenty more where that came from), I have to wonder: if heaven means spending eternity with people who talk this coolly about the eternal damnation of most of their friends, neighbors and family, what could possibly induce a non-believer to desire it? The reaction of the saints to the proposition that souls are falling like snowflakes into hell is to shout, “No! We have to stop that! We must pray harder and do more penance to save them!” The reaction in those comboxes is basically, “Oh well.” and even a sort of gloating sense of triumph that more or less leaves an impression of “See! Look at all these awesome speculative quotes from Father and saints about mass damnation!  So Benedict’s speculative hope is foolish. In your face, Akin! You lose! Most people are going to hell! Booyah!”

That’s what I call knowing the words, but not the tune. When God saw the terrible possibility of damnation for a single human being, he ran to undergo the cross rather than see it happen. The impression you get from most of the commentary is that the damnation of most of the human race is greeted with a sentiment that pretty much boils down to “Kinda sad but whaddaya gonna do? And look, we are talking about a bunch of abortion supporters and other vermin, so no big loss really“. There’s no emotional energy, no passion for those lost souls. Why waste the effort since most of ‘em are doomed. Instead, what does really bring out the passion and fury that something must be stopped at all costs?: The hope that salvation might in the end find most of the human race.

And that’s what troubles me about that thread: the combination of obvious and casual confidence about the damnation of most people, coupled with the strongly emotional repulsion at the “foolishness” of hope. Particularly since, despite the claimed fear that hoping for salvation for the bulk of our neighbors will harm evangelization, all the energy of the “Hell is packed” crowd goes into attacking three of the most devoted evangelists of our time–Jimmy, Fr. Barron, and Benedict–as “bad evangelists” while the attackers do absolutely no evangelism themselves but instead present a gospel no unbeliever would touch with a barge pole.

Why would anybody in their right mind find such a gospel as the one presented in those comboxes attractive and hopeful? The thread becomes one massive exercise that soon morphs into “I thank you O Lord that I am not like those doomed abortion supporters, contraceptors, liberals, and pagans”–a gigantic self-congratulation fest for the Elect to stand in judgmental prognostication about one’s neighbors while attacking those who have done most to try to reach them.  And if you say that (as some attempted to do) you get told that you are among the Impure who compromise the gospel (you know, like Pope Benedict) while the people attacking Benedict are among the Few who refuse to compromise.  A perfectly hermetically sealed system.

Look. I get that indifferentism and denial of the possibility of Hell is a problem. I get that an awful lot of Catholics are de facto universalists who assume everybody will make it. But what happened in that combox thread is emphatically not the solution to that problem. No unbeliever–heck, no believer–in his right mind would wish to embrace such a gospel of judgmental despair. I’ll take Benedict’s, Jimmy’s, and Fr. Barron’s hope–and their attractive call to discipleship and evangelization–any day over the “Let’s do nothing, attack those who are doing something, and say that Hope is foolish” approach to evangelization.

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