Back in 2011, then-Father Barron released the following video via his Word On Fire ministry, titled “Whether Hell Is Crowded Or Empty”. It’s about 10 minutes long, but if you haven’t seen it before, take the time to watch it. I’ll wait.
Barron professes a “reasonable hope” that Hell is empty, and at the time, his belief caused a bit of a tempest in a teapot, primarily with more traditionally-minded Catholics, who accused Bishop-elect Barron of advocating absolute “Universal Salvation”. A recent criticism of this video at another Catholic blog was an above-the-fold headline at a Catholic news aggregator last week. Must be a slow summer for some people. Anyway, in the comments on Barron’s YouTube page, he’s still being begged to “stop spreading this heresy of reasonable hope of hell being empty!” I know, right? Because the Church teaches that Hell is Standing Room Only or something.
Bishop-elect Barron’s belief makes sense to me. Reasonable hope in an empty Hell is not a rejection on the doctrine of Hell. He says in another video that since A) God is Love; and B) We have free will, then Hell has to be real and true (Fellow Patheos blogger Tom Zampino wrote on that here in a really good post – check it out). It is not a proclamation that all people will be saved. It doesn’t excuse anyone from the need of repentance and redemption, or our directive to spread the Gospel. It’s not denying the possibility that people may end up there – in fact, Bishop-elect Barron affirmed Church teaching in one reply: “Yes, it is objectively true that dying in the state of mortal sin conduces to Hell…”. And just last week, he responded to a disparaging comment this way:
Sigh… Friend, I’m not saying that all will be saved. I am saying that it is permitted to hope that all will be saved. There yawns an enormous gulf between those two claims. The first is rightly condemned as universalism; the second is required by the way we pray liturgically.
I think what has people’s piety panties in a twist is that they are confusing hope with expectation. For instance, I can certainly hope that the Detroit Lions will win a Super Bowl one of these years. However, I certainly don’t expect them to.
Similarly, we may certainly hope that all will be saved, while at the same time not expecting everyone to be saved. People have free will, and people do stupid, immoral things with it all the time. Mortal sins are committed around the clock, around the world – at best they can be called observable mortal sins (We can’t claim authoritatively that any individual meets all the requirements for a mortal sin having been committed, except when it comes to our own actions). So the possibility of ending up in Hell is very real. But if, for example, we “love our enemies, and pray for those who persecute us” as Jesus commands us – is it just lip service if we aren’t at the same time hoping that they will be saved? Isn’t that what our prayers are about?
Maybe the folks who disagree with Barron’s “reasonable hope” are hoping lots of folks go to Hell, and they expect to be one of the few who are saved. Do they have some grotesque desire, come Judgment Day, to see an uncountable herd of goats on the left, and a paltry flock of sheep on the right? Of which they are a member, naturally. Just as they fantasize of a smaller, purer Church on Earth, do they hope for a sparsely populated glorified Church in Heaven? That’s not the Heaven I hope for, but according to them, that’s the sort of Heaven I ought to expect.
To them, praying the Fatima prayer amounts to nothing more than “Oh my Jesus, forgive me my sins. Save me from the fires of Hell. Lead my soul into Heaven, and abandon those who I think don’t deserve your mercy, because Hell has to be filled up by somebody, right? Amen.”
That’s a disturbing mindset. And a joyless one. The Fatima prayer states “…lead ALL souls to Heaven.” We’re begging Christ to have mercy on those least deserving of it, and lead them to paradise. That’s a reasonable hope. It’s a powerful hope. The corollary to our plea – that Christ lead all souls to Heaven – is for every soul to respond to His mercy. Will they? I certainly hope so.
I’m reminded of a story Mother Angelica once told, where a widow recounted how her husband, after having been away from the Church for decades, and having been a jerk for most of their marriage, repented of his sins and received Viaticum on his death bed. And she was angry about it. Mother Angelica asked, why are you angry? You should be joyful that he’s very likely in Heaven!
“Because I want him to suffer for the hell he put me through, and it’s not fair if he’s gotten out of it.”
That’s the attitude I sense from those who dislike Barron’s beliefs.
Hell was created for Satan and the other fallen angels. Wouldn’t it be a fitting judgment that, come at the end of time, Satan is consigned to isolation for eternity, with no human souls to torture and torment, locked in Hell with rage his only consort?
It’s not a bad thing to hope for.
Image Source: “Hortus Delicarium” [Public Domain] via Wikimedia