Bishop-elect Barron’s “Reasonable Hope” Isn’t Unreasonable At All

Bishop-elect Barron’s “Reasonable Hope” Isn’t Unreasonable At All August 19, 2015


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.

Welcome back.

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

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  • In a world of short attention spans, dominated by sound-bites, I very strongly suspect that not many but MOST people hearing Fr. Barron will come away with a Universalist understanding of what he said. That is dangerous.

    I am a huge fan of his but on this topic, on which he has repeated his view several times, I strongly disagree. It is not good catechesis IMHO. If one wants to say that “given the certain reality of hell, pray for all people to turn away from sin” then that is the sound-bite that should given.

    • DianaFeb

      But, we’re not looking for Fr. Barron’s “view.”

      We are looking for the doctrine and dogma of Holy Mother Church.

      • I agree completely. The Catechism covers the topic well in paragraphs 1020 through 1060.

        By “view”, I am referring to the approach of presenting this teaching and how people will understand that explanation. My assertion is that most will come away with an understanding which is quite contrary to the infallible teaching of the Church.

  • I suppose if I have any argument with Barron’s thoughts, it’s with the word “reasonable”. Going back to your Detroit Lions comparison – you can hope they win the Super Bowl, but is it a “reasonable hope”? I think we can agree that it’s not.
    I agree with the comment by Convert Journal – “In a world of short attention spans, dominated by sound-bites, I very strongly suspect that not many but MOST people hearing Fr. Barron will come away with a Universalist understanding of what he said.”

  • Michael C. McFarland

    Matt. 7:14–Because stait is the gate, and narrow is the way. which leadeth unto life, and FEW there be that find it.

  • Athelstane

    Similarly, we may certainly hope that all will be saved, while at the same time not expecting everyone to be saved.

    It would be better to say that we may certainly hope that *any* person will be saved, not that *every* man will be saved. While it may be true that God’s plan is to reconcile all things in Christ (Ephesians 1:10; Colossians 1:19-20), He does not override the freedom that enables men and women to resist His holy will. So while we work and pray for the salvation of each person, some will not be saved, which is the unavoidable message of numerous statements of Christ himself (John 5:28-29, Luke 13:23-24, Matthew 7:13-14, Luke 13:27-28, Matthew 22:14) – which is also affirmed by the Magisterium in numerous dogmatic statements (Lyons, Florence, Benedictus Deus, etc.). But it is the mission of the Church to act as the vehicle for the salvation of each person just the same: we are not Calvinists.

  • Cindy

    The thing that’s difficult about using the Fatima prayer is that in those very same appearances, Our Lady said MANY souls go to hell. True there is a difference between All men are saved and we have a “reasonable” hope that all men are saved. That word, reasonable is what is very confusing to a culture that is already extremely narcisistic and high on itself. Our culture readily accepts that God is love and mercy, and therefore, they say, I do not need to worry about being punished and going to hell. We all know Catholics who live in mortal sin while attending weekly Mass for years, even commit sacrilege with Holy Communion because they have a very distorted understanding of what the Church means when she says love and mercy, and that understanding leads them to believe a loving and merciful God would never let them end up in hell and therefore they continue in mortal sin.

    I think perhaps being on the internet and exchanging that way with other Catholics leads to an inaccurate picture of them and it is affecting many bloggers who frequently take it upon themselves to rashly judge the intentions and even souls (other blogger) of other Catholics. Sure we should judge behaviors and we all do all the time, but Larry shouldn’t you extend the benefit of the doubt to your brothers and sisters in Christ and assume that if they oppose this idea of a “reasonable hope”, they do so out of charity and a real and maybe even valid concern? Why is it okay to conclude they simply desire others to go to hell? What does that say about you and how you think about them? That is essentially what you stated with that comment about the widow being mad her husband converted before death.

    • DianaFeb

      Fatima is private revelation. We are under no obligation to believe private revelation.

      • Cindy

        How right you are! You have no disagreement from me on that. For the sake of clarity, the opening to my comment did not imply the contrary to your reply. It was merely in response to Larry’s use of the Fatima prayer to defend Fr. Barron’s position.

        “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.”…

        I’m saying that specific prayer does not really support the “reasonable hope” theory because Our Lady also said in those apparitions that MANY souls go to hell. I’m saying that IF one is going to talk about this private revelation, it’s unwise to pick and choose particular parts out of context while ignoring others that contradict your position.

  • Thinkling

    This incident demonstrates how the skill of thinking with the Church is becoming a lost art. Of course that hope is not one of probability, but rather one of appropriateness, or even virtuousness.

    “That’s the attitude I sense from those who dislike Barron’s beliefs.” – I have reasonable hope that no one actually has this attitude. But I certainly do not expect no one to have it.

  • tj.nelson

    I think Barron’s critics want to find him guilty of Indifferentism – and supportive of one of the errors mentioned in the Syllabus: “Good hope at least is to be entertained of the eternal salvation of all those who are not at all in the true Church of Christ.”

    It is clear – to me at least – Barron is not saying that or even implying that.

  • BobA

    I have liked Bishop-elect Barron for many years, but on this issue I must disagree with him. As Robert Simms posted below, there isn’t a reasonable hope that hell is empty. We know from Scripture that the road to Heaven is narrow and there are few who find it. Of course, Bishop-elect Barron dismisses this as Augustinian pessimism.

    • I believe the good Bishop-elect used the word PERMISSABLE rather than REASONABLE. Unreasonable hope is indeed permissable.

      • BobA

        See his statement in the above video starting at 6:26.

  • Scott W.

    I get where he’s coming from and I’m not entirely unsympathetic, but the larger problem is that Fr. Barron has jumped into Celebrity Catholic status and that he should take this bite in the buttocks as a signal to abandon it.

  • Dave Armstrong

    I think it would be helpful to use the terminology of “desiring that all men be saved” (as the Bible says about God) or “praying for all men to be saved” or “Jesus made it possible on the cross for any and all men to be saved.” I.e., universal atonement rather than universalism. Those shouldn’t be controversial.

    Saying that we “hope hell is empty” does seem to at least possibly imply (or to be misunderstood as saying) that there is a real possibility that it is or may be, which is simply not biblical. Some of the needless controversies can, I think, be avoided by using different (I would say, a built more precise) language.

    I have defended Bishop-elect Barron, by the way, against the charge of universalism, even while I have critiqued his questionable views about the biblical Adam and Eve of Genesis as the historical, primal human pair.

    If I recall correctly, I don’t think that the Bible itself ever uses the phraseology of “hope all men will be saved” or similar. Perhaps I’m mistaken. I just did a search on the online Bible that I use for “hope / saved” and “hope / salvation” appearing together, and came up with nothing along these lines. If anyone can produce that connection, please do.

    But the Bible does definitely teach (in many passages) the three ways of expressing a similar but different idea (praying for all, desiring, universal atonement), above.

    • DianaFeb

      Only the Magisterium can interpret Sacred Scripture. I think you are not Catholic?

      That’s fine, but the conversation and the article are regarding the doctrine and dogma of Holy Mother Church.

      • Dave Armstrong

        I’m a Catholic apologist (came into the Church in 1990), with ten books published by Catholic publishers, imprimaturs, and a Foreword by Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ, for my first book. I write for the newspaper of the archdiocese of Detroit every two weeks.

        Is that credentialed enough for you?

    • Peter G.

      You’re right for touching upon the idea of imprecise language from Bishop Barron. If you consider that under the legal system you can only be convicted of a crime from a jury “beyond a reasonable doubt”, does not mean ANY doubt, yet many see it that way. The same comes with Barron’s slopisim. A “reasonable” hope that all Men are saved presupposes in the minds of many that ‘no one’ or ‘few’ are in Hell. The Bible makes clear, as well as mystic Saints (whose visions we are not required to affirm), that most go to Hell and the passage to Heaven is narrow. Certainly it is the hope that no one goes to Hell and that we must constantly pray for the souls of all; but hope notwithstanding , reality, teaching and Tradition tell us otherwise.

  • Thank you, this helps me in ways unexpected.

    I have zero expectation left that the US Government will see the light on marriage, family, life, or even mere material financial usury issues. But you have given me back the Hope that one day heterosexual monogamy leading to parenthood will once again be the normal law of the land, supported even when it harms the profit motive to do so.

    There is indeed a vast difference between hope and expectation. And I had lost that difference, causing great despair over the last few months.

  • Ken

    This whole debate is caused by people not watching the video. He clearly says that we know hell is not empty because of free will. It couldn’t be clearer. It really speaks more about people flying off the handle by other people who also didn’t watch the video and making things up. Unfortunately, this is an issue not only with Bishop Elect Barron but also Pope Francis. Bearing false witness is a sin and it’s magnified on the internet. It’s really not something Catholics should be doing at all but especially against a Priest/Bishop Elect and Pope.

    • DianaFeb

      Where does it say we know Hell is not empty?

      We don’t know it, and there’s a possibility Hell might be empty. This is what I learned from Benedictine nuns in the Vatican I era.

      • Dave Armstrong

        Revelation 20:13-15 (RSV)

        And the sea gave up the dead in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead in them, and all were judged by what they had done.
        [14] Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire;
        [15] and if any one’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.

        The lake of fire is hell. “Hades” is the netherworld where the dead await final judgment. Those who are damned will go from Hades to hell.

        And those not written in the Book of Life will go there. This is not speculation. This is biblical prophecy and a description of what occurs in the end times.

      • Ken

        You are correct that a person can believe that hell is empty. A person can believe that Jesus’ redemptive act is so great that it gives everyone enough grace to avoid hell. Sorry that my post wasn’t clear. Bishop Elect Baron comments on this that it is possible to believe this. He doesn’t hold this view because of free will.
        I was only commenting on what he said not the concept one way or the other. If you’re not aware this was a huge Catholic blog argument where various websites commented on this. Many of the people, not watching the video, were going bonkers that this was a sure sign that the Catholic Church was becoming super liberal and allowing anything to go since none of us are going to hell. It was amazing that almost no one watched the video or bothered to research the actual teaching of the church. It was a low moment in Catholic Blog history and there have been a number of them.

  • Captain_America

    So, how many went to Mass and heard the Gospel reading of the parable of the laborers I the vineyard? How many thought the workers who bore the brunt of the work and the heat of the day were justified in their complaining? Same difference.

  • bear

    Good post, Larry.

  • Sophia Sadek

    There is a story in the metacanonical literature about Jesus descending into Hell and calling its inhabitants to follow him to Heaven. The pre-Nicene Church contained the notion of universal salvation. The idea of eternal torment is pretty brutal. It is an undesirable invention.

    • LM

      The way I have understood that story from the Hebrew Bible, is that Hell was a place called Sheol where all the dead went, righteous and unrighteous alike, before the advent of Christ, His earthly life, and His resurrection. The resurrected Christ descended there, and brought those righteous souls with Him when He ascended into Heaven (those people who lived good lives and died before Jesus came).

      • Sophia Sadek

        The Pagan Greeks had an underworld that included different treatments for the good and bad. I think only heroes made it to their heaven.

  • Sparrow

    Father Barron’s position is in my view not heretical but it is like standing in the Church and looking out the door rather than toward the altar. It flirts with a well defined heresy and fails to recognize a few important things. Minimizing the risk of hell minimizes the Church. Those who are predisposed to not take difficult teaching (contraception for example ) seriously are comforted and potentially misled. One warning sign is this is the doctrine we want to hear. The second is this is not the doctrine as presented by Christ. In my opinion the surest way to know you are on the right or wrong tack is to look to Jesus , His words and actions. If your view diminishes Him then it is likely false. Van Baltassar minimizes the teaching of Jesus. Note how Father Barron minimized Christ, calling him Jesus of Nazareth not Christ our Lord when speaking of His warning about Hell. He just lists Him along with others philosophers as if he were just another teacher. That is the mode by which Christ’s words are downplayed saying that at that stage in His ministry Jesus wasn’t speaking with divine authority. Jesus knew we needed to take Hell seriously and while I believe His mercy is available to all and the way is open to all, millions reject Him outright. Some will repent and end well, but how many? Likely few. The Bible and Christ should not be taken lightly. Thus is a lax age, where most reject all difficult or discomforting teaching. How different from Paul ” work out your salvation in fear and trembling”. It’s not for us to taken salvation for granted. Father Barron is not a heretic but his view may not be helpful either.

  • Leo

    “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, I think, is not correct, or fair, to say. It is a judgement couched in the word “maybe.” It is telling people what they “are hoping” or “desiring.” Who in their right minds would hope or desire for people to go to hell. His example does not justify his judgement.