Will Many Be Saved?

…or how the sweet, but noxious atmosphere of universalism has undermined the Catholic Church’s mission to the world.

Ralph Martin is the Director of Graduate Theology Programs in the New Evangelization at Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit. He is also President of Renewal Ministries and a consulter to the Pontifical Council for the New Evangelization. In this prophetic yet scholarly book Martin charts the rise of universalism in the church (the idea that all will be saved) and the damage it has done to the church’s mission.

He begins by analyzing a key text from Lumen Gentium which allows that some may be saved who follow the light given them from natural revelation or from non Catholic and even non Christian religions, and he shows how influential Catholic theologians have embraced this open ness while ignoring the paragraphs of the document which insist that there are many who do not follow the light they are given and who therefore need to hear the gospel.

Martin discusses the Scriptural background and theological development which brought Catholic theologians to the position of admitting that some may be saved outside the formal ministries of the Catholic Church, then goes on to make a detailed explanation and analysis of the two most influential post-Vatican II theologians in this area: Karl Rahner and Hans Urs vonBalthasar.

Rahner is well known for his idea of the ‘anonymous Christian’–one who lives with goodwill and does not explicitly reject the gospel of Christ. He suggests that most people exist within a context of a ‘supernatural existential’ or a kind of atmosphere of grace, and that this will be enough to bring them to heaven because God’s mercy and love is everlasting and Christ’s redemption reaches all men. Balthasar’s universalist ideas were laid out most explicitly in his late work, Dare We Hope That All Be Saved? Balthasar speculates on the fate of those who reject God’s love, and comes up with various ingenious ideas about how all might be saved.

Martin shows how the thought of both theologians directly contradicts not just one verse of Sacred Scripture, but the entire witness of both the Old and New Testaments. Scripture after scripture is piled up showing that St Paul and the Lord Jesus Christ himself teach not only that hell is real, but that it is heavily populated. The Scriptures put before humanity a stark choice of life or death–heaven or hell, and speculative theologians like Rahner and Balthasar are shown not only to directly contradict Scripture, but also the unanimous and universal teaching of the Church down the ages. Martin shows how Balthasar also mis quotes, mis interprets and selectively chooses texts from the Fathers, the mystics and saints of the church to weight his argument for universalism.

Martin explains how the intentions of the fathers of the Second Vatican Council were noble. They wished to present the Catholic faith in a positive light and to draw people to the ‘abundant life’ in Christ rather than simply scare people out of hell. However, in  their optimism they have forgotten a key part of the gospel message. Christ does call us to an abundant and full human life, but he also teaches us that this new life is one of sacrifice and dying to self. Furthermore, should we reject this offer of his love we are choosing death not life, and there are eternal consequences.

Universalism is one of the cancers eating away at the Catholic Church in the modern age. If everyone is saved, why bother with evangelization? Indeed, why bother with becoming a saint if one’s entrance into heaven is guaranteed? Ralph Martin points out that universalism can also be blamed for the lukewarmness and lack of direction of the Catholic Church in the world today. Without any urgency to preach the need to repent or the need for the soul’s salvation, the church has become no more than a social club to further an ideological agenda of inclusion and social welfare.

Martin’s work is balanced, scholarly and calm in its approach, but the implications of his book are groundbreaking. To put it bluntly, we need to remember in all our attempts to be positive and affirming that souls are lost if they do not accept Christ as their savior. Catholics too, must not presume on God’s mercy. Mortal sin is a reality and choosing death over life is a real possibility.

Martin also shows how the affirmative, positive pastoral approach hasn’t worked. Instead of attracting people to Catholicism it has made them shrug and consider it irrelevant. People aren’t stupid. If everyone will be saved anyway, then why bother being a Christian? If being good is good enough, then why bother with church? If living in a congenial ‘atmosphere of grace’ is enough to get into heaven, then why make the effort?

Universalists, like all modernists, underestimate the reality of sin–in both individual lives and on the corporate level. Absurdly optimistic and blind to the reality of humanity’s depravity, they can read of genocide, corruption, immorality, violence, hatred, rape, murder and torture and yet still smile through it all and think that everyone will be saved? The naive optimism of such people is astounding, and the worst part of their betrayal of the Catholic faith is that they have done so giving the impression of faithfulness and of being theologians in good standing.

Ralph Martin’s excellent book should be required reading for all priests, theologians and teachers of religion. It should be bundled with Sherry Weddell’s Forming Intentional Disciples and George Weigel’s Evangelical Catholicism and provided as a textbook for all our seminarians. If we are to evangelize anew, then we must preach a full gospel. Along with the proclamation of the abundant life in Christ, along with the proclamation of the good news of healing and forgiveness we must also preach the truth that there is something to be forgiven, a heaven to be gained and a hell to be feared.

Anything less is a betrayal of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Go here to learn more about this book.


  • Joan

    Excellent writing Fr…
    “A Catholic Life” blog today posts something you might like along the lines that I read at “Kitchener Waterloo Traditional Catholic” who posted your writing today.

  • Christopher Range

    Heresies flourish because of some grain of compelling truth, however slight. Heretic Universalism appeals to detached reason because it seems rational. It appeals to the tender heart because it seems fair. Christ the Logos draws all things towards himself. So by dint of temperament, isolated aspects of revelation will draw various people closer to God. One will be drawn more by reason, another by the heart. The Christian life however, is not intended to be fragmented. The process of Divinization is multifaceted but whole. It is purposeful and goal-oriented. It is Christ centered and not vague. St. Augustine was wrestled to the altar by his intellect. Faith beyond reason brought him to his knees. I was drawn to Catholicism through

    • Eric

      Did you ever read the Bible? I don’t think so

  • johnnyc


    And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you (compassion). Go your way, and from now on do not sin again (conversion). John 8:11

    Many seem to focus on that first part and want to ignore the second.

    and it is an excellent book.

    • Hernán J. González

      Conversely, it would be interesting to make a recopilation of all mentions of that evangelical episode in the catholic blogs; my impression is that a most of those mentions focus on that “second part” (which is not really a “second part”, you know). Catholic bloggers seem, for the most part, very worried about catholics that ignore or forget that “second part”, and seem to take for granted that most catholics (including we, of course) do not need to be reminded once more of the “first part” (which is not a “first part”, considering the episode as a whole, but the core).

      • johnnyc

        I guess it depends what blogs you visit because I see the exact opposite but I am not just talking about Catholics. Society is looking for approval of ‘sin’ or not have it being called a sin at all. Hence we get labeled as hateful, intolerant and other catch words that society uses to bury Truth in relativism. we certainly don’t want that so we become cowards and fail to speak the Truth. And yes you are right the whole episode is spoken out of love. Compassion for this life, conversion for the afterlife.

  • Ray Palmer

    ” Without any urgency to preach the need to repent or the need for the soul’s salvation, the church has become no more than a social club to further an ideological agenda of inclusion and social welfare.”

    I would argue that is an excellent description of the modern Episcopal Church.

    One of the “moments of clarity” that started me on my path from Canterbury to Rome was when a priest in my Episcopal parish put forth his view that “Hell is real, but it’s empty,” because God saves everyone. That struck me as an odd point of view to hold. It wasn’t so much that I feared Hell as his assertion begged the question of why God would go through the trouble of giving us Jesus at all. If we’re all saved, then who cares if I show up on Sunday/feed the hunger/help the poor/etc?

    • http://xcatholic.yuku.com/ gerald nichols

      Sorry you went from “the frying pan into the fire” . Catholic priests have said infinitely worse!

  • Hernán J. González

    “Balthasar’s universalist ideas were laid out most explicitly in his late work, Dare We Hope That All Be Saved? Balthasar speculates on the fate of those who reject God’s love, and comes up with various ingenious ideas about how all might be saved.”

    If find this blatantly false and offensive to the memory of one the greatest (if not the greatest) catholic theologian of the past century. Balthasar doesn’t “speculate on the fate of those who reject God’s love”! Have you read Balthasar’s text?

    • frdlongenecker

      I think his ideas that a person’s ‘effigy’ might be in hell, but not the person is rather ingenious. Balthasar is no doubt a great theologian and has many good insights, but on this question he directly contradicts the Lord’s teaching and has done great damage to the church’s mission.

      • Hernán J. González

        A catholic theologian which “directly contradicts the Lord’s teaching” (even if it were a single question) would hardly be “a great theologian”, I’d say. Would you mind pointing out which thesis of von Balthasar “directly contradicts the Lord’s teaching” ?

        • frdlongenecker

          The disciples ask, “Lord will many be saved?” He replies, “Broad is the way that leads to destruction and there are many who are on it. Narrow is the way that leads to life and few there be who find it.” The idea therefore of many being saved and few (or none) being damned directly contradicts the Lord’s teaching.

          • Hernán J. González

            So in your reading Christ, to the question “Will many be saved?” answered “No, not many”?
            The disciples asked for some objective information (“data”). Did Jesus provide them (us) with that information?

          • frdlongenecker

            The plain understanding is that many are going to hell and few are going to heaven. This is corroborated by many other passages from the New Testament that teach the perdition of many and the salvation of few. Balthasar’s attempts to twist the Scriptures for sentimental reasons are shameful.

          • Hernán J. González

            “the Lord Jesus Christ himself teach not only that hell is real, but that it is heavily populated.”

            A pity that the Church -given that she “knows” it- doesn’t declare this as a dogma, no? Well, when she declares it (she won’t), I will believe it.

            “Balthasar’s attempts to twist the Scriptures for sentimental reasons are shameful.”

            And there it goes, the “great theologian”…

            Well, I rather deem his attempts to understand the Scriptures (“plain understanding!”) in this regard as courageous, if not heroic – given all the malevolence he has attracted, from the day of its publication until -literally- today.

            Anyway, I’ve read his book and I recommend any interested catholic to do so (with the same benevolence that Ratzinger asked for)
            As I read it, von Balthasar doesn’t twist the Scriptures, doesn’t appeal to sentimentalism, doesn’t fall into the optimistic-pesimistic or lax-rigorist dialectics, and, above all, he doesn’t pretend to “know” how many men are saved. He just argues (quite convincingly IMHO) that a christian can validly (i.e., without absurd or heresy) hope and pray for the salvation of all men. And to the obvious objection, that quoted in the first line of this comment (Can we pray for something that we know won’t happen? Don’t we christians know, and from Jesus’ mouth, that some men will NOT be saved?) he answers : no, we don’t know.
            The disciples asked him for information: Jesus gives them not an information but an exhortation. (this is quite characteristic of Jesus, notably with the parallel “when will be these things happen, when the kingdom be restored to Israel?”). Of course we always want to know, we want “objective data”, that gives confort -and ammunition; but Jesus doesn’t tell us “things are so and so” but instead “you do so and so”. We don’t know how many men will be saved, we are instead told that we cannot pretend to know it, even approximately, even as a minimum (“surely at least one percent? at leat one person?”), and that the desire to know it (and the illusion that if we knew that we will be better and would evangelize better) is like a concupiscence, a poison; it would be a knowledge incompatible with our freedom.
            C.S. Lewis put it nicely, and this deserves to be pondered in general -regardless of the “empty hell” theme:

          • Vijay

            Before reading Balthasar, when was the last time you read the Bible- the NT especially, and I don’t mean the readings for the day, but an actual book? For example the Gospel of John: “whoever does not believe in the Son is already condemned”, or “whoever does not remain in me, will be taken away and burned”, or “whoever does not have the Son does not have life” or “This is eternal life: to believe in God and the One He has sent, Jesus Christ.” What about Acts? The first Pope Peter declares: “there is no other name under heaven by which men shall be saved”.
            Why does something have to be a dogma for you to believe? The Church has only 2 declared dogmas: the immaculate conception and assumption of mary. Everything else the church asks us to believe is the teaching of Jesus and the apostles (I.e. the Scriptures), and the teaching tradition of the church such as binding councils and creeds. In fact, one of the earliest teaching of the fathers is: “outside the church there is no salvation” haven’t seen a council overturn that yet. In fact, neither can they, not great theologians such as Balthasar, because ones with much greater authority such as the apostles and one with even greater authority, The Lord Himself has already declared it. So my question again is: when did you last read the Bible?

  • Ron Turner

    So, the Pope was wrong when he said atheists can get in?

    • johnnyc

      What he said was all are redeemed. Redemption is not the same as salvation. Jesus Christ has redeemed everyone but some will not accept that redemption. God gave us free will and if we chose not to accept Him then He will give us what we want. Pope Francis also said that it is possible that an atheist can do good and we should meet them there. I take that to mean that they could be open to hear the full gospel.

    • michicatholic

      There is objective redemption won for everyone by Christ on the cross. And then there is subjective redemption that you much choose of your own free will. Both are necessary for salvation.

  • Sherry Weddell

    Fr. Dwight: “To put it bluntly, we need to remember in all our attempts to be positive and affirming that souls are lost if they do not accept Christ as their savior.” I think that the Church’s teaching does require that this sentence be nuanced a bit more. “Souls may be lost” more accurately portrays the Church’s teaching (in my experience, even a hint that this might be true can make Catholics of all strips react). As you know, I agree with Ralph’s basic thesis but I also have to point out that baptism and conscious knowledge of Christ is, in historical terms, the “road less taken”. The only intelligent estimate I’ve ever seen of how many human beings have actually had the chance to be baptized since the Incarnation (via the World Christian Encyclopedia ) put the number at about 36% percent. Only 24% of all men and women who have lived during the last 2,000 years have actually been baptized. The sacramental economy is “normative” for sure, but not “normal” in historical terms. Even today, only 33% of humans living on this planet are baptized. So the rather vague alternate sketched out in conciliar documents has to be a real alternate that can really result in the salvation of real people – many of whom live in cultures that make responding to God’s grace exceedingly difficult. They are both true – we are to strive to proclaim Christ meaningfully to every living person and we should be praying earnestly for those who have no “normal” access to knowledge of Christ as of yet. Recent studies show that huge numbers of non-Christians don’t know a single Christian so they are especially dependent solely on this mysterious “non-normative” way of responding to the grace of redemption without knowing the Redeemer.

    • frdlongenecker

      Of course how and when they accept Christ as their Savior is open to discussion, that the must accept Christ as Savior is not.

      • Sherry Weddell

        I presume that you mean when you say “by accepting Christ as Savior” that they will discover after the death that the grace of God with which they were steadfastly cooperating came from Christ and his redemptive work, that they were responding to him all along although they didn’t know it and may never have heard his name? That they were really following Christ whom they only knew under the name of “Tash”, ala C. S. Lewis? I’ve just never heard the term “accepting Christ as Savior” used in a post-death context.

        • frdlongenecker

          I think speculation along these lines is legitimate. However, I think the idea that vast numbers will be damned can also be argued with other forms of speculation. So, for instance, what if the damned are on a decreasing spiral of quality? If the saved are ascending and growing up the full statue of Christ Jesus and being divinized what if the damned are doing the opposite. If you like, they are becoming less and less–smaller and smaller–increasingly insignificant. Their damnation then may be the damnation of beings who are virtually worthless anyway. As they have descended into the darkness they have become no more than shadows or ciphers of what they could have been. Furthermore, nature is wasteful is it not? Many many acorns. Few oak trees. We do not like to imagine it, but what if many were wasted so that some may become children of light? This would seem to be consistent with Scripture although it is admittedly unpalatable in an egalitarian age.

      • Dan C

        We are not Evangelicals. This is not the Catholic baptismal formulation. Extra ecclesium nulla salus. Then…how does one have salvation if not in the Church?

        As I have posted before, His Holiness Benedict, American Conservative’s ignored papacy, wrote on this.

        You err. Your tone is exactly the tone that Benedict and now Francis has explicitly indicated is not part of the New Evangelization.

        The Church, in its old Baltimore Catechism, enunciated such things as Baptisms of water, desire, and fire. Benedict indicated he is not sure how non-Catholics are saved. He was clear, with that Bible quote you so longingly desire, that the saved are “the many.”

        You err in both substance and style of your teaching.

  • http://ashesfromburntroses.blogspot.com/ Manny

    Elsewhere I have said the following on Universalism:

    In my various discussions on Universalism it
    seems to me that the answers to these several questions decides the issue.

    1. Is the human will fixed once we have entered into the metaphysical sphere?

    2. Does God still draw souls to Him in that metephysical sphere?

    3. Is God’s love infinite, including for the damned?

    We believe the answer to the third question is yes.

    The answers to the first two is unknown or better put, unrevealed. However we
    have the example of purgatory where souls do change and they are still drawn to

    I see it this way. If God’s love is infinite, and our human wills can change
    and the pull of God is a persuasive voice toward love, then I lean toward
    universal salvation. Given infinite time and infinite love, God will persuade
    the most hardened soul to accept His love.

    That doesn’t mean hell doesn’t exist and that Christ was not telling the truth
    in the Gospels. It means that the full nature of the afterlife has not been
    revealed. Just as scientists discover more about the physical universe, and
    therefore expand their understanding of nature, so too there are more things in
    heaven and earth that are known to our current metaphysical understanding.

  • tg

    i thought all that balthasar was doing was just elaborating on what’s expressed by this popular prayer: “O my Jesus, forgive us our sins, save us from the fires of hell. Lead all souls into heaven, especially those in most need of your mercy.”

    see what cardinal avery dulles said: http://www.firstthings.com/article/2008/08/the-population-of-hell-23

  • Dan C

    As we have said before, that the “for you” in the Lucan-Pauline tradition does not constrict, but rather specifies, so we can now say that the dialectic of “many” – “all” has its own significance. “All” exists on the ontological level – the being and action of Jesus includes all of mankind, past, present and future. But factually, in the concrete community of those who celebrate the Eucharist, it involves only “many”. In this way one can see an threefold significance in the ordering of “many” and “all”. Firstly, it should mean for us, who may sit at His table, surprise, joy and gratitude, that he has called me, that I am with Him and can know Him. “Thanks to the Lord, who has called me out of mercy into His Church…” Then, secondly, this is also a responsibility.How the Lord reaches the other – “all” – in His own way remains a mystery. But without a doubt it is a responsibility to be called to Him and His table, so that I may hear: For you, for me has He suffered. The many carry a responsibility for all. The community of the many must be the light on the candles, the city on the hill, leaven for all. This is a calling that applies to everyone personally. The many, who we are, must consciously experience their mission in responsibility for the whole. Finally, a third aspect may be added.  In modern society we have the feeling that we are far from “many”, but very few – a small number that is continuously decreasing. But no – we are “many”: “After that I saw that there was a huge number, impossible for anyone to count, of people from every nation, race, tribe and language,” the Revelation of John tells us (Rev. 7:9). We are many and we stand for all. In this way both words, “many” and “all”, belong together and relate to each other in responsibility and promise.”

  • Dan C

    My last post is froM Conservative American Catholicism’s most neglected papal writings-those of Benedict 16th. His letter to the German bishops presents the proper posture a Catholic needs to take with regard to questions such as these. Fr. Longenecker does not just offend, he manages to lose the punchline of the whole New Testament- Revelations. And the teachings of Benedict demonstrate how we view this entire question. The question, the post, the teachings presented above are all the wrong emphasis. Bemedict instructs us about salvation.

  • Wiol

    I was taught that we do not know how many will be in heaven or hell. The view was that most people would end up in heaven due to the mercy of God. I will stick with that, which was taught to me in Catholic school in the 1950s and 1960s.


    Can you identify the text where Von Balthasar affirms that there is no one in Hell, Father?

  • Andre M

    Fr. Dwight, You may have to arm wrestle Fr. Robert Barron over this!

  • puddleglumswager

    The shepherd who finds the lost sheep is praiseworthy. We call him “good”. The shepherd who fails to find the lost sheep is unworthy of praise. We call him “lazy and incompetent”, and demand to know who left the gate open, who let the wolf in, and why were the sheep allowed to wander so far before decisive action was taken?

    A certain God (happy, free, needing nothing) knew that multitudes would end in eternal torment. Nonetheless, he created humanity… Such a God is unworthy of our deepest love and praise.

    A certain man (happy, free, needing nothing) fathered a large family knowing for certain that most of his children would end up tormented by criminal insanity. Who amongst us would praise this father for his great wisdom, mercy and love?

  • Sherman Nobles

    Regardless of one’s belief concerning infernalism, annihilationism, or universalism, lack in evangelism is due to a lack of love for God and love for others and a lack of faith in the power of the gospel to save. People naturally talk about what/whom they love, and they naturally share what they believe will truly help others with whom they love. And personally, I find Christian Universalism to be very motivating in sharing the Gospel with others. 1) It’s truly “Good News”. There is no “God loves you but…” It’s simply “God loves you.” 2) It recognizes that we are all in the same boat – needing a savior. 3) It recognizes that salvation is completely by grace. 4) It affirms the very real ramifications of sin – death and destruction of all we love. 5) It… Well, anyhow, I find Biblical Universalism to be very empowering. It fills me with faith in the cross. I do not limit either the Scope of the Atonement as with Augustinianism/Calvinism or the Effect/Power of the Atonement as in Arminianism. And yes, many tenderhearts do come to believe in Universal Reconciliation because they have faith in the power of the love of God and are motivated to have such faith because of their love for people and their faith in scripture that inspires them to have such faith.

    • Caleb Fogg

      This is also my experience. My Christian Universalism has energized and motivated me even further to share the news of God’s saving love.

    • Sherman Nobles

      Another factor that demotivates people in evangelism is a lack of faith in the power of the gospel. And those who believe Infernalism or Annihilationism, that Jesus either fails to save or chooses not to save most of humanity, would tend to be demotivated in sharing the gospel because, well, they’d believe it would do any good anyhow.
      Another factor that demotivates evangelism is the reality that Infernalism and Annihilationism both present “Bad News”, not “Good News”, for most people. “You’re not going to heaven unless you….” is Bad News, not Good – no matter how one spins it! And no one likes to be the bearer of bad news!

    • http://xcatholic.yuku.com/ gerald nichols

      I want to ask: What is the basis upon which you consider yourself “Universalist?”
      If your belief in the merits of the Cross, that they reconciled all mankind back to God, and all that is required is faith in Christ as *dying for your sins, are you not a believer with a heavenly citizenship? I consider “Universalism” as the view that all will enter heaven regardless of whether they believe the aforementioned gospel. (I Cor. 15:3)*

  • Alex C Smith

    I’ve meet almost 900 Evangelical Universalists over the past few years & honestly the majority are more passionate about evangelism now, than when they weren’t Universalists. The think people who use it as an excuse have failed to grasp the immensity of the blessing it is to have a relationship with Christ & to start to escape the chains of sin. Not only that, they are failing to love God & others as they ought.

    EUs don’t believe people “just go to heaven no matter what”, but they believe that everyone will repent & have faith in Christ – the sooner that happens, the better!

  • Eric

    what is the Good news? he told us to preach the Gospel about the KINGDOM!
    not just about his crucifixion for sins.

  • Alvin Kimel

    Fr L, just wanted to alert you that I have taken your name in vain over at my blog: http://goo.gl/2fxIUH. I hope you are well and flourishing in Greenville.

  • Sheena-Leader Of-the Fuzzheads

    I just ordered this book because so many friends seem to think everyone will be alright in the end, regardless of his beliefs or even behavior. The kind lady who volunteered to prepare me privately for Catholic confirmation as an adult warned me that I shouldn’t be so rigid. She insisted that faith is about as significant as one’s choice of ice-cream flavors. When I heard her say that it made me want to weep for the blood of all the martyrs and missionaries who pour themselves out to bring word of Christ and His Church to far corners of the world. We really need to quit being so schizo about the necessity of faith in Christ and His Church for salvation! If everyone is saved, then why was I even driving to Wilmington to be confirmed by our Bishop? What was the point?