Dialogue on Hell & the “Possibility” of Universalism

Dialogue on Hell & the “Possibility” of Universalism September 15, 2018

Geoffrey’s words will be in blue;  Kevin’s in green.


What does the Roman Catholic Church teach regarding the theologoumenon that at the moment before death, each unsaved individual encounters Christ who offers him one last chance at salvation?

I believe we teach that our fate is sealed before we die, which is why it is so important to “die a good death.” God can give much grace near the end, but once we die, the “chances” are done with. We are either saved or damned.

If that is a permissible doctrine for Catholics, then would it also be permissible to believe that no one ever rejects this last offer of salvation, thereby rendering Hell empty of human occupants?

That runs contrary to both Church teaching that we can accept or reject God, and biblical teaching concerning hell. Universalism is not possible under Catholic, Orthodox, or Protestant assumptions and the Bible’s teaching.

Hi Geoffrey,

I have no problem with Jesus appearing to someone right before they die. Whether it happens in every case, I don’t know. Since God knows everything, He would know whether a person would reject Him if He appeared, so He wouldn’t have to necessarily appear to everyone (as an act of mercy), since He knows if they would still reject Him anyway. And we know that some will, based on Luke 16:31, where we are told that some will not believe even if a person is raised from the dead. All I know is that God gives every human being sufficient chance and grace to be saved, and that they can reject or accept this grace.

As for a conditional hell and so forth, I don’t buy it, based on Scripture, Tradition, and reason. The Athanasian Creed declares: “But those who have done evil will go into eternal fire.” The Fourth Lateran Council (1215) stated: “Those (the rejected) will receive a perpetual punishment with the devil.” The Councils of Lyons and Florence taught that the souls of the damned are punished with unequal punishment. The Catechism teaches the reality of an eternal hell for the reprobate who reject God (#1033-1037, 1861).

Catholics are, therefore, not at liberty to reject this doctrine. It’s a dogma of the Church. If it weren’t true, there wouldn’t be so many warnings in the Bible to avoid this horrible destiny. What sense does it make for a governor to warn everyone about the horrors of prison, when he intends to pardon everyone and send them on a vacation in Hawaii from the beginning?

There are many unmistakable biblical teachings concerning hell. See my paper: Biblical Evidence for an Eternal Hell.

To give one example that is sufficient in and of itself, consider the judgment scene of Matthew 25:31-46. Jesus Himself says to the damned:

“Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” (25:411, RSV).

Matthew 25:46 summarizes: “And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

Now, if someone wants to do away with an eternal hell, the problem here is that the same word is used to describe the duration of both heaven and hell: aionios (“eternal,” “everlasting”). It is used in several places to describe eternal punishment (Mt 18:8, 25:41,46, Mk 3:29, 2 Thess 1:9, Heb 6:2, Jude 7).

Case closed. One has to either accept this, or deny that Scripture is inspired and infallible revelation. What need is there for further discussion? If you reject the Scripture, and don’t believe thatGod presented and preserved it, then that is another discussion, which has to take place before tackling any individual doctrine taught in the Bible (because selecting what we like in Scripture and rejecting the rest will simply be applied to any given doctrine). And I have rarely seen someone who is a higher critic of Scripture be convinced by traditional Christian arguments in favor of that doctrine. One believes these things in faith, but they are not contrary to reason at all.

Philosophical and moral objections to hell are another thing entirely, too. It may be highly difficult to comprehend, like many things of God, but it is clearly taught in revelation, so the Christian must accept it, and have faith that God knows what He is doing, and is merciful and just (as we see in the life of Jesus, the Passion, and His death for us on the cross). That all took place so no one has to GO to hell in the first place. It ain’t God’s fault that hell exists, but the fault of rebellious men and angels who have too much pride to acknowledge God as their Creator and Lord, and submit to Him.

Dave, thank you for taking so much time to discuss this issue.

You’re welcome. Thanks for participating in amiable discussion.

I fear I might not be getting my questions across clearly.

Or we simply disagree. I don’t think I have misunderstood you in the main, but I may have on particulars, certainly, which is always possible in complex discussions.

In your latest response you seem to suppose that I am asking if a Catholic is at liberty to deny the very existence of Hell. Clearly the existence of Hell is a dogmatic teaching of the Church. It is also a teaching of the Church that Satan and all the fallen angels are there. So Hell isn’t empty. The question I’m asking is this: Is it a truth of the Faith that some men will go to Hell? Is it CERTAIN that some men will go to Hell?

Yes. I don’t see much of a distinction between believing in a hell that the reprobate and damned go to and then turning around and saying that it is quite possible that no men go there and that the Church or the Bible has not pronounced otherwise. I find it a bit odd. As I said before: if no men go to hell, then why is so much of the NT devoted to warning men to not end up there by virtue of their rejection of God? Why would the Church tell us that all mortal sins place us in potential danger of hellfire, when in fact, that never occurs because no men end actually up in hell?

That makes no sense to me. It seems to me that if universalism were in fact the true state of affairs and that all men end up in heaven, then we would be informed of this in the Bible, as it is a wonderful truth. Instead, God plays a sort of game by scaring us half to death with all this business about hell and fire and torture and all, and then no one goes there anyway except the devil and his demons.

I find that as silly and implausible as a parent who constantly scares his children with threats of punishment, but never follows through with any of it. Just as the child would not believe the parent when they make such claims, after a few years of that, I wouldn’t trust God’s word, either, if He acted in such a weird, arbitrary fashion with us, involving virtual deception.

Lateran Council IV (1215) stated:

[Jesus will] come at the end of time, to judge the living and the dead, and to render to each according to his works, to the wicked as well as to the elect . . . the latter everlasting punishment with the devil, and the former everlasting glory with Christ. (Denzinger 429)

Now if universalism were true, this would be a deceptive statement, as no one would go to hell. It is senseless to talk of everlasting punishment for men if in fact this is never to occur. If all men were given the grace to freely choose God, then the Bible would simply tell us so and be done with it. But it does no such thing. Or, you could claim that there are no “wicked” and “evil” people; it is all just an illusion, and we are all equally righteous (and perhaps original sin is a falsehood). None of this is able to be harmonized with Scripture.

The Council of Lyons I (1245) proclaimed:

Moreover, if anyone without repentance dies in mortal sin, without a doubt he is tortured forever by the flames of eternal hell. (Denzinger 457)

There are only so many things you can do with such a clear statement, granting the universalistic possibilities you envision:

1. Deny that such councils are authoritative or binding.

2. Deny that anyone ever dies in a state of mortal sin.

3. Deny the plain meaning of the words and posit that everyone is given a last second chance, etc., and therefore might all be saved.

4. Deny that this rules out the possibility of all being saved, even though it doesn’t read that way at all.

The Council of Florence (1445):

Moreover, the souls of those who depart in actual mortal sin or in original sin only, descend immediately into hell but to undergo punishments of different kinds. (Denzinger 693)

I have indeed read your paper on Hell. It establishes clearly the existence of Hell. It doesn’t address the occupancy of Hell, however.

It does, as I will show shortly.

The quotations you give from several of the Ecumenical Councils (as well as from the Athanasian Creed and from the Catechism) do not seem to address this particular issue. They indeed dogmatically pronounce that Hell exists, that any who go there will not be subjected to equal punishments, and that it is a possibility for each and every man that he might end up in Hell. But I am not seeing anything that says something to this effect: “It is a truth handed down by our Savior and His holy Apostles that some among mankind will be eternally consigned to Hell. If anyone denies this, or if anyone thinks that Hell will be empty of human souls, then let him be anathema.” The closest I’ve seen to anything like this is the pronouncement of the Fifth Ecumenical Council. That pronouncement anathematized Origin’s doctrine of apokatastasis, which taught that there was a divine guarantee that every man would escape Hell. I recognize that this doctrine is clearly condemned by the Church.

This proposition is inherently, implicitly included already in the first, lest the language become nonsensical, as I have tried to demonstrate, through various logical analyses and analogies. But in the Bible (which Catholics are clearly bound to accept as authoritative and inspired), it is stated outright.

I am not asking about a guarantee. I’m asking about a hope and an opinion. Recognizing the Church’s teaching that Hell is a radical possibility for each and every one of us, would it not therefore be possible for no one to choose Hell? 

Philosophically, yes. But those of us who accept inspired revelation and infallible councils and popes cannot take such a view.

The Catechism condemns the teaching that God predestines anyone to Hell. Therefore there can be no certainty that some are in Hell, unless I am missing something.

It follows from the fact of original sin and mortal sin. There are people who fall into the latter, and we are all (except the Blessed Virgin) subject to the former. Therefore, there will be people in hell, because there are people in original sin and mortal sin, and we are taught that they both can cause eternal damnation. Only God’s mercy spares anyone.

Dave, I don’t understand the relevancy in this context of your quotation from Matthew 25. Clearly, if anyone chooses Hell, he will be there for all eternity. Perhaps you have misinterpreted my use of the word “conditional”? I’m not using it in the sense of “conditional immortality”, which teaches that the damned are simply annihilated. I’m using the word in a completely different context. I’m asking if it is possible to interpret what the Lord is saying in this chapter in this sense: “IF anyone chooses Hell, then he will be consigned there forever. Of course, all those who repent will escape Hell.” Yes, the teaching of the Church declares that Matthew 25 teaches the eternity of Hell. But does this passage say how many men will go to Hell? If any at all will go to Hell?

I haven’t misunderstood you. I have seen the Balthasar stuff discussed many times. If you want to get into Matthew 25, it again spells doom to your position, due to the simple fact that it is clearly not an instance of a conditional prophecy (such as Nineveh or Sodom and Gomorrah, or many such prophecies given to the Israelites, contingent upon their obedience to the Law). It is a description, by Jesus Himself, of what WILL happen at the judgment, not what “may” happen, or only one scenario, or in terms of “IF you do this, you’ll be saved; if not, you’ll be damned.” Nope. Jesus describes a scene that will actually happen.

He WILL come again (25:31). He WILL sit and judge all the nations and separate them as sheep and goats (25:32). He WILL say to the damned: “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (25:41). This is a fact of history that God already knows, even though it is future to us. Therefore, there WILL be people in hell. It is undeniable; unarguable (if one accepts Scripture). The only “conditional” here is whether you will accept the plain teaching of Scripture here or not.

You ask how many will go to hell. Indications are that there will be a lot, from verses such as “when the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on earth?” and speaking of the “few” who walk in the narrow way, etc.

You asked, “What sense does it make for a governor to warn everyone about the horrors of prison, when he intends to pardon everyone and send them on a vacation in Hawaii from the beginning?” In this scenario the horrors of prison are not a real possibility. In this scenario, it’s like the governor predestined everyone to Hawaii. That is the doctrine of apokatastasis condemned by the Fifth Ecumenical Council. Consider it this way: The governor warns everyone about the horrors of prison. Why? Because everyone who chooses a course of action that results in going to prison will experience the very real horrors of prison. Does this therefore mean that it is CERTAIN that some men will choose that course of action? Is it not possible that EVERYONE, precisely because of the horrendous warnings, avoids the path that ends in prison? In your scenario the governor sends everyone to Hawaii no matter what. In my scenario, the governor sends everyone to Hawaii based upon each person’s own actions.

Revelation doesn’t allow this scenario as an actuality, because it describes the judgment as definitely involving some being damned. Therefore, we know that not all freely chose to follow God and be saved. It’s a wonderful pipe-dream, but it can’t be harmonized with the Bible.

In short, I’m asking a question similar (but not identical) to Hans von Balthasar’s question, “Dare we hope that all men be saved?” He answered that question in the affirmative.

We may be able to hope it, but that doesn’t mean it will happen in fact. I can hope that I will convince all atheists, or anti-Catholic Protestants, or Mormons of the errors of their ways and that they will change their minds. But will it happen for all of them? No.

I’m asking, “Is the following a permissible opinion for a Catholic to hold: No man will ever choose Hell. Everyone will exercise his free will and choose Christ.”

I don’t think so.

If you say that the answer is no because we can’t possibly know that, then how can someone know the contrary opinion: that some men are in Hell?

By the fact that Jesus foretold that He will send some there.

It seems to me that the Church clearly teaches the existence of Hell and each man’s possibility of going there. The following two positions seem to be theologoumena:

1. No man will ever choose Hell.
2. Some men will choose Hell.

Why would the second theolohoumenon be acceptable for a Catholic to hold, but not the first? They each seem dogmatically permissible.

Because inspired Scripture does not permit them. The following passage explicitly states that certain people are damned and undergoing eternal punishment:

Jude 7 (RSV, as throughout) just as Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities, which likewise acted immorally and indulged in unnatural lust, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire.

By direct implication (Jude 5, considered in context), God also sent to hell the disobedient Hebrews in the wilderness (see Exodus 32:15-35). Exodus 15:33 refers to God blotting people out of His “book” (cf. Revelation 3:5). These people are damned! Nothing anywhere in the Bible suggests that they are given some chance to avoid their fate. In fact, in Revelation 13:8 we learn that some people’s names have “not been written before the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb that was slain” (cf. Rev 17:8). Again, by cross-referencing in this manner, the conclusion is unavoidable:

1. There is such a thing as a “book of life” which lists the elect and the saved.

2. Some people’s names are not listed there, or can be “blotted out.” Rev 21:27 informs us that no one who is not written in this book can enter heaven.

3. Therefore, those people are damned (and this is directly, expressly, explicitly stated in Rev 20:11-15).

4. Therefore, there are people in hell (these same people), because hell is described as the place of eternal punishment and separation from God (and you admit that the Bible teaches this).

5. The people of “Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities” are literally described as “undergoing a punishment of eternal fire.”

6. The disobedient Hebrews in the wilderness are placed in the same category, and by cross-referencing to Exodus we again encounter the concept of the “book of life.” So are those described in Rev 20:11-15.

7. Ergo, the proposition: “people are definitely in hell” is undeniably affirmed in Scripture in general terms (the above and Matthew 25) and in specific terms (Jude 5-7)

Forgive my prolixity. This question interests me more than any other. Thank you once again for all your consideration.

No problem. This question seems to keep coming up, so it was good to deal with it, and I do believe it has been decisively refuted from Holy Scripture. I can’t imagine how it could possibly be overcome, short of denying biblical inspiration, or denying that the Bible we have can be trusted as entirely infallible and inspired. If the Catholic Church teaches that Catholics must accept biblical teaching (as it does) and it can be shown that the Bible clearly teaches something, then it follows that the Catholic Church accepts that teaching as true. Therefore the Church teaches that there are people in hell, because it accepts the Scripture which undeniably teaches this.


There are many levels of authority (even infallibility) in the Church; de fide being the highest. But just because something hasn’t been defined at the very highest level doesn’t mean we aren’t bound to believe it. The authority of ecumenical councils and the ordinary magisterium is of this nature. The Bible has spoken clearly on this, and individual examples of men being damned have been demonstrated. I await counter-analysis of those passages.

I thought of another fairly direct proof of people being in hell: all those folks of whom it is said that they will not inherit the kingdom of God, or heaven:

1) Many Jews who have ceased to believe, sufficient unto salvation (it is specifically stated that they “will be thrown into the outer darkness”): Matthew 8:11-12.

2) The evil who are compared to bad fish in a catch. The angels “WILL” (not “may”) “throw them into the furnace of fire”: Matthew 13:47-50.

3) Jesus said it was “hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven”: Matt 19:23-24. Thus it stands to reason that many will NOT inherit heaven.

4) In the parable of the wedding feast, the man “who had no wedding garment” is “cast into the outer darkness.” Jesus ends by saying, “many are called, but few are chosen” (Matt 22:1-14)

5) Those who aren’t “born anew” cannot see the kingdom: John 3:3.

6) Various categories of unrepentant sinners “will NOT inherit the kingdom of God”: 1 Cor 6:9-10 and Gal 5:19-21, Eph 5:5.

7) “Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God” (i.e., unregenerate natural man without supernatural assistance and God’s grace): 1 Cor 15:49-50.

I was puzzled by Dave’s response to Geoffrey’s question. As Geoffrey notices, it misses the point of his question.

I don’t think so. We’ll now see if Geoffrey can “miss the point” of the abundance of Scripture I have produced which directly refutes (beyond any doubt, if the English language is what it is) the possibilities he refers to.

One particular point provoked me:

Since God knows everything, He would know whether a person would reject Him if He appeared, so He wouldn’t have to necessarily appear to everyone (as an act of mercy), since He knows if they would still reject Him anyway.

I have noted in my study of the material on Dave’s website that he subscribes to the Molinist side of the controversy about the relation between free will and grace. I have sympathized with the Molinist position, but, on further reflection, I find it doubtful. I am not sure in my own mind that Molinist Middle Knowledge, i.e., the kind of certainty of —scientia media— that Molina claimed God, being omniscient must have, is even theoretically possible.

We know that it is because in the Bible, Jesus says that certain ancient cities would have repented if they had heard the gospel. That is conditional knowledge: “x would have happened IF y.” It is a function of omniscience bcause it is not logically impossible, and omniscience includes all logically possible knowledge.

The great Existential Thomist metaphysician Fr. W. Norris Clarke has a very cogent objection to it on metaphysical grounds. It seems quite plausible to me that, apart from real beings and their actual choices, in time and eternity, there is nothing else for God to know,

But this does involve real beings (it only incorporates conditional choices they MAY have made in other circumstances). If one denies that God can know anything except actual choices, then that entails denying that God knows the future, and that is clearly a denial of the biblical record and God’s omniscience.

so even God cannot know with absolute certainty what any free agent “would” do in a particular situaiton or under specificed circumstances with exactly so much grace available, no more, and no less.

Than runs contrary to the biblical revelation and Church teaching:

Ludwig Ott writes in his Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma (Rockford, Illinois: TAN, 1974 [orig. 1952], 40-43:

While exhaustively knowing His creative causality He also knows therein all the operations which flow or can flow from this, and indeed, just as comprehensively as He knows Himself. 1 Jn 1:5: ‘God is light and in Him there is no darkness.’ . . .


. . . Holy Writ teaches that God knows all things and hence also the merely possible [cites Est 14:14, 1 Cor 2:10, S. Th. I, 14,9] . . .


By these are understood free actions of the future which indeed will never occur, but which would occur, if certain conditions were fulfilled. The Molinists call this Divine knowledge scientia media . . . The Thomists deny that this knowledge of the conditioned future is a special kind of Divine knowledge which precedes the decrees of the Divine Will.

That God possesses the certain knowledge of conditioned future free actions (futuribilia) may be positively proved from Scripture. Mt 11:21: ‘Woe to thee, Corozain! Woe to thee, Bethsaida! For if in Tyre and Sidon had been wrought the miracles that have been wrought in you, they had long ago done penance in sackcloth and ashes.’ Cf. 1 Sam 23:1-13; Wis 4:11.

The Fathers assert Divine foresight of conditioned future things when they teach that God does not always hear our prayer for temporal goods, in order to prevent their misuse; or that God allows a man to die at an early age in order to save him from eternal damnation [cites St. Gregory of Nyssa] . . .

Speculatively, the Divine foreknowing of conditioned future things is based on the infinite perfection of the Divine knowing, on the infallibility of the Divine providence, and on the practice of prayer in the Church . . .

Molinism, deriving from the Jesuit theologian Louis Molina (+ 1600) explains the infallible Divine prescience of future free actions by recourse to scientia media, which precedes the Divine decrees of will conceptually, not in time, and which is independent of them. Through scientia simplicis intelligentiae God knows from all eternity how every creature endowed with reason will act in all possible circumstances.

Through scientia media He knows how it would act in all possible conditions, in the case of new conditions being realised. In the light of scientia media He then resolves with the fullest freedom to realise certain determined conditions. Now He knows through scientia visionis with infallible certainty, how the person will, in fact, act in these conditions . . .

The mode of the scientia media, which is the basis of the whole system, remains unexplained.

Of course, one could also argue that if God had such knowledge, it would be redundant and even cruel for Him to create a being who He knew with absolute certainty of divine foreknowledge would choose eternal damnation. The Dominican Thomists would have no problem with such a notion, but I do, and I would argue that St. Thomas Aquinas would not agree with the Thomist position. St. Thomas says that God in eternity knows our choices and actions in time, not by simply foreknowing them, but by seeing them for Himself: All times and all decisions in time are perpetually present to God in His eternal Now.

Yes. The problem of evil is beyond our purview here. I have dealt with it (however inadequately) in a paper.

As I have admitted, I am not up to the task of arguing from Church teaching in support of the position that some souls are damned or shall be. I will take this opportunity to give an unsolicited opinion, though. I do not see how one can simultaenously hold both the position that damnation is radically possible for each and every soul before death, and that, as a matter of fact, none ever have or ever will be damned. It’s not even quite clear to me that one can hold that damnation is radically possible for each and every soul, and that, it is also —possible— for none to ever have been damned nor ever will be, not a single one. I think one can hold the latter along with the proposition that damnation is remotely, or theoretically possible, but it does not seem consistent with damnation’s radical possibility. If my memory is serving me well and not decieving me, the passage in the Catechism which affirms the radical possibility of damnation is specifically worded to deny the heretical position that damnation is radically difficult to fall into, because the conditions for committing mortal sin are very improbable and difficult to acheive.


I’m afraid that’s the best I can add to this discussion. I have more thoughts about middle knowledge, free will, and grace, and what I like to think of as a glimmer of the beginnings of a solution to the Thomist-Molinist controversy. But I cannot add more to the question about whether any human souls in all of eternity will, in fact, be in hell.

Hopefully, my biblical argumentation can help you clarify your opinion on that.

I cannot provide the kind of argument that Geoffrey’s very important and very thoughtful question deserves.

I await his reply with eagerness! This reminds me of the vegetarianism debates I engaged in on this blog. To really hold the “radical” position consistently, one has to deny the infallibility or textual accuracy of the Bible. I think that is the only “out” here, too, so let’s wait and see if Geoffrey takes that route.

Dave, is knowledge of people who have never been born but WOULD have been under so-and-so circumstances, and all the possibilities of every choice that they would have made given any possible condition also known with infallible certainty by God’s omniscience? Are there counterfactual persons who have never existed and never will, but God still knows whether they would have been saved or damned?

I don’t know the answers to all those fascinating questions! According to what I cited from Ludwig Ott, it seems that this might fall under the category of Church teaching but not de fide (the highest level of certainty. However one comes down on all this, it is cool to reflect upon the amazing, astonishing nature of what omniscience means.

I’ve exhausted my own arguments and don’t know what else to say about this. Cardinal Dulles has an excellent article on it in First Things (May 2003): “The Population of Hell.”

Dulles states:

The constant teaching of the Magisterium has been that unrepentant sinners are sent to eternal punishment. Judas must be in hell unless he repented.

It is unfair and incorrect to accuse either Balthasar or Neuhaus of teaching that no one goes to hell. They grant that it is probable that some or even many do go there, but they assert, on the ground that God is capable of bringing any sinner to repentance, that we have a right to hope and pray that all will be saved. The fact that something is highly improbable need not prevent us from hoping and praying that it will happen. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “In hope, the Church prays for ‘all men to be saved’ (1 Timothy 2:4)” (CCC §1821). At another point the Catechism declares: “The Church prays that no one should be lost” (CCC §1058).

I have no problem with the position if the above is the substance of it. But you go far beyond this and write:

I think that the case is overwhelming that no man is or ever will be damned . . . So it is not in spite of free will that Hell is empty of human souls, but precisely because of human free will. The only person who would choose Hell over Purgatory is someone who is insane (i. e., someone who is unable to exercise his free will). Can I be certain of this? Of course not. But I think the case approaches certainty.

This is either universalism or something so close to it that it is scarcely distinguishable from it. So if Dulles is correct in his description of Neuhaus’ and Balthasar’s views, you hold to something quite different than they do.

Here are more articles on the subject:

“On hope, heaven and hell,” Nick Healy, The University Concourse, Volume II, Issue 9. May 6, 1997.

Will All Be Saved?, Richard J. Neuhaus. First Things 115 (August/September 2001): 77-104.

The Inflated Reputation of Hans Urs von Balthasar, by Regis Scanlon, New Oxford Review March 2000.

Is Hell Closed Up & Boarded Over?, by David Watt, New Oxford Review Feb. 1999.

Von Balthasar and Salvation, by James T. O’Connor, Homiletic & Pastoral Review July 1989.

In the latter article. O’Connor states:

It is undeniably true that the Church has never done the opposite of canonization and consigned any individual human to hell. This is a fact. Whether this fact has any significance in the present discussion, however, is doubtful. The Church’s mission is to teach the truth, preach salvation, propose models for living the Christian life well, and warn against those actions and forms of living which will lead to eternal loss. It is to be questioned whether she has been given the knowledge of power to determine and proclaim the negative results of any individual human life. As a community, that knowledge is reserved for the final judgment. On the other hand, although she does not mention any individual as being among the damned, she, like her Master, does not use the conditional but the future indicative mode when speaking of the outcome of human history in respect to the damnation of some.

More (and more in-depth) discussion might be generated by folks here reading or scanning the above articles. There is certainly a lot of “meat” in them.

Lastly, the objection keeps coming up that Christ’s words in the Gospels are future indicative rather than conditional. But how is this different from Jonah’s words that in 40 days Nineveh would (not “might”) be destroyed? Yet Nineveh was not destroyed on the appointed day. This indicates that a prophecy can be conditional even if it doesn’t sound conditional.

This is an interesting argument, but I would say that there is an implied conditional insofar as this was an event in time, rather than at the end of the age at the final judgment, as in Matthew 25 and Rev 20:7-15. Described events in a prophetic mode which are literally dealing with the final judgment can hardly be conditional, because there is no further time left to repent. That’s the difference between them and the Nineveh scenario, that goes beyond the form of language used. It doesn’t say “. . . WILL be judged [with the further implication, I believe, of “IF they do not repent”]”. They simply describe the horrible events.

At the great white throne judgment, people were judged on the basis of “the book of life” (which I have already discussed). It is obviously a matter of differential eternal destinies. “Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire” (Rev 20:14). This clearly means that those in Hades (who hadn’t been taken to heaven with the advent of Jesus) were now sentenced to hell.

The same applies to Matthew 25. If it is not describing actual events of the end times, then it is a false prophecy (from Jesus Himself), trying to get across the notion that people will be damned by the express proclamation of our Lord, when in fact no such thing happens because all are saved. So I think this does violence to Scripture and the plain meaning of the English language.

I would like to see you counter-exegete the biblical data I have produced, rather than just pass it off as of no import or force. If you don’t agree with my interpretation, then please show us a better one. We need to grapple with these texts.

Here are the texts that have been referred to in this thread as teaching that Hell will certainly have human occupants:

Exodus 32:32-33—This passage mentions nothing about the afterlife. It can be taken in a number of ways. For example, those written in God’s book can be seen as those who have his favor in this life (and vice versa). Of course, Dave referenced this passage with various passages in the Apocalypse, for which see below.

This “book” (in light of cross-referencing) clearly has a relationship to who is saved and who isn’t.

Matthew 8:11-12—This passage I take to be conditional. I don’t think Christ says these sorts of things merely to satisfy our curiosity. To give a profane example, He’s not like a psychic at a fair foretelling your future for you. Instead, this passage is sharply existential. He is saying that before each of us lies Heaven and Hell. It’s that serious. Christ is not giving us statistics regarding the relative occupancy of Heaven and Hell. He’s saying, “Hey! Wake-up! You’re in danger of Hell!” Christ, in speaking of those being cast into outer darkness, is not saying, “Let me tell you what’s going to happen.” He’s saying, “I’m warning you lest this thing happen which must not happen!” Imagine a father telling his children right before he leaves for the day, “When I come home, those who have done their chores will get ice cream with their dinner. Those who have shirked their chores will get neither.” Is the father saying that there will in fact be shirkers? Obviously not. He’s not interested in predicting the future here. Instead, he’s describing rewards and punishments as motivations to correct behavior. Von Balthasar understood this sort of passage in this way. I’m comfortable resting on his authority.

Hell is only “serious” to the extent that there is a real possibility of going there. I continue to maintain that the language and the logical thrust of these passages do not allow an interpretation of near-universalism or universalism as you see it. Of course Jesus is warning of danger and not being frivolous. Who thinks otherwise? But if it weren’t a real possibility (as opposed to a charade and a scare tactic, which I find unworthy of God), then the warnings would be literally meaningless. I don’t think God plays games like this.

We know that there is such a thing as prophecy in Scripture. God tells us what will happen in the future (and also what may happen, if it is conditional). When events of the end times and judgment are being described, we can take them quite literally, just as something else eschatological, like the Second Coming will be a literal event. I read in these articles that Balthasar thought Scripture contradicted itself. So already he is denying infallibility and inspiration, because contradiction and error cannot exist under that faith-assumption.

Matthew 13:47-50—See my interpretation of Matthew 8:11-12.

What other way can He say this if indeed (for the sake of argument) He means it literally? It’s like denying the Real Presence based on John 6 or Paul’s reference to the Lord’s Supper, which are as plain as can be. So you tell me: if the truth is that many lost souls will go to hell, how could Jesus and other Bible writers express this fact without falling prey to the charge that they are only trying to scare folks into being righteous, in order to avoid what will never happen? This passage couldn’t be any more clear than it is:

13:48-50: “SO IT WILL BE AT THE CLOSE OF THE AGE. The angels WILL come out and separate the evil from the righteous, and throw them into the furnace of fire; there MEN WILL weep and gnash their teeth.”

What could be more straightforward than that? If this can’t be taken literally and at face value, then I say nothing in the Bible can, and it is a free-for-all of metaphorical and symbolic interpretation, with no guideline other than preexisting inclinations (in this instance, universalism and a philosophical objection to hell).

Matthew 19:23-24—It is indeed hard to enter Heaven. Most of us will have to pass through the Purgatorial fire, which many Saints have taught is more painful than any pains imaginable here on earth.

But you neglect the context, which is not talking about the difficulties of purgatory, but of being saved altogether (thus the disciples’ query in 19:25: “Who then can be saved?”). All the souls in purgatory are saved. But a difficulty in being saved clearly means a distinct possibility
of being damned. One in purgatory is in the “kingdom of heaven” because he is redeemed and saved and of the elect. But Jesus is talking about the difficulty of entering that kingdom itself (the society of the elect or redeemed or regenerate), not only heaven itself.

Matthew 22:1-14—See my interpretation of Matthew 8:11-12.

Matthew 25:31-46— See my interpretation of Matthew 8:11-12.

I don’t buy it. My challenge to you is to tell me how Jesus would speak if indeed many men went to hell. I contend that He could hardly be any more clear than He already is. People don’t accept it because they have a prior objection to hell and the notion of eternal damnation that is present before they even approach the text, and so they eisegete: they read their own preferences into the text. If Balthasar himself was doing that, it wouldn’t surprise me: he wouldn’t be the first theologian to do so.

Matthew 26:24—Jesus does not say that it would be a good thing for Judas were Judas never conceived. He says it would be good for Judas were he never born. If Judas had died in the womb before being born, undoubtedly he would not have to suffer nearly as much in Purgatory.

I don’t see how this overcomes the clear intent of the passage.

Matthew 26:28—The word “many” is sometimes used in the New Testament to denote “all”. See, for example, Romans 5:15 where it says that by Adam’s transgression “the many” died.

I agree. But this is no proof for universalism, because people still have to act upon the redemption that Jesus made possible for them, as they have a free will.

John 3:3—In my scenario (each unsaved dying man being granted a divine vision to which he favorably responds, resulting in his salvation),

First of all, do you have any proof of such a scenario in the Bible? If not, then it is very strange that there seems so much counter-evidence, yet you deny all that and accept the proposition which has little or no ostensible biblical evidence in favor of it. That is, again, putting philosophjy and personal opinions on what God should or shouldn’t or would or wouldn’t do, above revelation itself.

everybody entering Purgatory (and later Heaven) is indeed born from above.

Yes, but it is not at all clear that all men are born from above.

I Corinthians 6:9-10—This passage does not mean that anyone ever committing one of these sins is irrevocably doomed to Hell. It means that these sins can damn a man to Hell if he doesn’t repent of them. Again, in my scenario everyone entering Purgatory repented before he died.

If they remain in these sins, unrepentant, they will go to hell, because that is the only eternal alternative to the kingdom of heaven (and souls are eternal). You need to offer some proof for this universal redemption you believe in.

I Corinthians 15:49-50—Again, in my scenario everyone entering Purgatory accepted divine grace before he died. Nobody is escaping Hell without first freely accepting divine grace.

That’s fine and dandy, but it is not exegeting the text.

Galatians 5:19-21—See my interpretation of I Corinthians 6:9-10.

See my answer for that passage! LOL

Ephesians 5:5—See my interpretation of I Corinthians 6:9-10.

Ditto! Why is it that in these sorts of passages we are never informed that all men will actually repent in the end? That would be a tremendous comfort to everyone. If all are to be saved, God would certainly make that known, precisely because the doctrine of hell is so troubling to many, even those who fully accept it (I myself — speaking as an apologist who deals with this stuff constantly — consider the problem of evil, including the hell which punishes evil, the most serious objection to Christianity and what we believe about God’s nature).

If universalism were indeed true, I contend that it would be made crystal-clear, and these passages we are discussing would either be entirely absent or would read vastly differently. In other words, I am constructing piec-by-piece an argument for the implausibility of your position, vis-a-vis the biblical data that we have.

Jude 5-7—This is a puzzling passage. I would have to go to my betters to make sense of it. All I can say right now is that von Balthasar obviously was able to understand this passage in a sense that allowed for Hell being empty of human occupants.

Fair enough. Maybe that creates a little crack in your “near-certainty”? :-)

Apocalypse 3:5, 13:8, 17:8, 19:20, 20:11-15, and 21:27—I am not competent to enter into the exegesis of the Apocalypse. Many of the Church’s interpreters, men holier and more learned and intelligent than I’ll ever be, have given differing interpretations of this book. My personal favorite is Eugenio Corsini’s “The Apocalypse: The Perennial Revelation of Jesus Christ”. He interprets the Apocalypse in a non-eschatological manner. He holds that it is about Christ’s First Coming, not His Second Coming. He holds that its prophecies were fulfilled in Christ’s death and resurrection. (Parenthetically, let me note that it is not at all certain that the Beast and the False Prophet are human persons.) Perhaps Corsini is wrong. I don’t know. I’m not in a position to know. All I do know is that a number of Catholic interpreters have understood this book in a manner that allows for Hell being empty of human occupants.

I’d like to see how they do that. Whatever general take one has on this book, it is clear that the end refers to the actual final state of the elect in heaven. Otherwise, the notion of heaven itself would have to be spiritualized. Most of the rest of the book is amenable to different interpretations because of the symbolism. But other parts are clearly literal as well: such as Jesus’ warnings to the seven churches in the early sections. These were real churches with real problems. Likewise, the heaven and the lake of fire in the ending portions are both real places.

I think it interesting that apparently no dogmatic statement of the Church has ever declared that some men will in fact be damned to Hell. After 2,000 years, this has never been stated?

Why does it have to be? It’s quite clear in the Bible. But secondly, I think it is implicit anyway in statements that the Church has made.

Someone mentioned above that some wanted a statement to the effect that some men would certainly be in Hell included in the Vatican II documents, but such a statement was expressly excluded by the council fathers. If men really were in Hell right now, don’t you think that after two millennia there would be a dogmatic sentence affirming it? Doesn’t it seem that the absence of such a sentence is an indication that Hell is empty of human souls?

No, because of the many passages we have dealt with. In matters of such straightforward deduction, it is not necessary to state it explicitly in one place. The Holy Trinity itself works in much the same way, with regard to its explication in the Bible. Nothing remotely resembling the Athanasian Creed can be found in any given passage. But all of its contents can easily be deduced from much Scripture.

Secondly, Scripture IS part of Catholic dogma because it is not only infallible but also inspired. And Scripture includes Jude 5-7 and Revelation 20:7-15.

In all its pronouncements on Heaven, Hell, salvation, and damnation, the Church has been very careful to refrain from saying any men are in Hell.

The Church refrains from many proclamations. It doesn’t follow that the things are not believed.

The import of its statements is that, without being joined to Jesus as members of His body, the Catholic Church, no man can escape Hell. This rigorously excludes as sort of relativism or pluralism. Outside the Church there is no salvation. The question is, “Do we know if anyone has ever died outside the Church?”

Another topic. Thanks for the discussion.


(originally May 2004)

Photo credit: “Sovngarde Sky 1”: Scene in Skyrim: the Sky in Sovngarde (Nord Heaven). Image by Rain Love AMR (7-8-14) [Flickr / CC BY 2.0 license]


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