The Hell You Say?

The Hell You Say? December 13, 2012

The vagaries of conservative Catholic opinion are hard to chart.  The other day, I remarked that I didn’t know what the big deal was about Fr. Barron’s views on hell (since then people have clarified for me that I was looking in the wrong place and the controversial remarks are elsewhere–of which more anon). 

Anyway, in the video I posted, part of what Fr. Barron noted was the same point that von Balthasar did: that we don’t have any idea who–or if–anybody is in hell.  A reader responded:

It’s ridiculous to say that we don’t know if anyone is in hell. All of the saints, the apparitions and let’s not forget JESUS say that there are people in hell. Why would Jesus warn and warn and say flat out that the way is narrow and FEW PEOPLE FIND IT??? It’s things like this that make people indifferent and apathetic, because people like Fr. Barron and you make them think that there isn’t any reason not to be. Jesus knows human nature better than you. And He thought it was for the best to warn and warn and warn people about hell. Not act like it was all gonna be ok. If you want to imitate Jesus you should talk about the great danger of hell A LOT like he did. He was the one who warned about hell the most and you should follow his lead.

Saying “we do not know if anyone is in hell” is not the same as saying “it’s all gonna be okay”.  It amazes me the incredibly short memories there are in cyberspace. Some readers may cast their minds waaaaaaaaay back to slightly over a month ago when I was reiterating one of the countless warnings I had given about the dangers of hell.  Some folks may recall my refusal to vote for candidates who advocate sin worthy of the everlasting fires of hell, such as abortion, euthanasia, torture, and unjust war.  When I did that, I was told (countless times) by “faithful conservative Catholics”[TM] that I was a fussy perfectionist and that advocacy of mortal sin–-when done by a Republican–-was a minor peccadillo and that people like me were self-regarding narcissists and even spiritual masturbators for declining to support GOP candidates who advocate grave intrinsic evil any more than Democrats who do so.  Indeed, I was told I had a moral *obligation* to support the Right Sort of people when they are advocating mortal sin. A month ago, a mere month ago, this was the very definition of “Faithful Conservative” Catholic[TM] and I was roundly condemned for failing to sign off on it.

Now, suddenly, we’re worried about hell and Fr. Barron is taking hell too lightly while Faithful Conservative[TM} Catholics are bravely holding the line?

Well, okay. But here’s the thing: It’s perfectly possible to warn against the extremely real possibility that one could choose Hell (because one *can* choose Hell) and yet remain agnostic about whether anyone has done so (for the very good reason that we have no idea if anyone has done so). Can we *guess* that some have chosen Hell? Sure. And my guess plus five bucks will get you a cup of coffee. What do I know? What do you know? Nothing. And despite my reader’s claim, the reality is that the Church has never definitively stated that there is anybody in Hell. That’s why von Balthasar could write as he did and not receive ecclesiastical censure.

Von Balthasar’s point is not “We know everybody will be saved”. It is “We don’t know anything”. The New Testament presents us with two strains of thought in tension (a very typical Catholic habit). It tells us Jesus came to save “all” (“I will draw all men to me”) and it warns of the possibility of damnation. No attempt is made to reconcile these strains of revelation just as no attempt is made to reconcile “God is one” with “Jesus is the Son of God” or “God is absolutely sovereign” with “We have free will”. It falls to the Church to hold such points of revelation in tension and the Church has always held them both. Von B’s point is that we are under judgment, not over it, and we simply do not know the end of the story. We can make guesses, but we can’t *know*. So we are left with neither presumption (that all will be saved), nor with despair (that most, including me and my loved ones) will be damned. Both presumption and despair are sins: the twin enemies of hope.

It is significant that hope is the subject of the encyclical Fr. Barron is commenting on. Here is what Benedict writes that is the subject of Fr. Barron’s commentary:

45. This early Jewish idea of an intermediate state includes the view that these souls are not simply in a sort of temporary custody but, as the parable of the rich man illustrates, are already being punished or are experiencing a provisional form of bliss. There is also the idea that this state can involve purification and healing which mature the soul for communion with God. The early Church took up these concepts, and in the Western Church they gradually developed into the doctrine of Purgatory. We do not need to examine here the complex historical paths of this development; it is enough to ask what it actually means. With death, our life-choice becomes definitive—our life stands before the judge. Our choice, which in the course of an entire life takes on a certain shape, can have a variety of forms. There can be people who have totally destroyed their desire for truth and readiness to love, people for whom everything has become a lie, people who have lived for hatred and have suppressed all love within themselves. This is a terrifying thought, but alarming profiles of this type can be seen in certain figures of our own history. In such people all would be beyond remedy and the destruction of good would be irrevocable: this is what we mean by the word Hell[37]. On the other hand there can be people who are utterly pure, completely permeated by God, and thus fully open to their neighbours—people for whom communion with God even now gives direction to their entire being and whose journey towards God only brings to fulfilment what they already are[38].

46. Yet we know from experience that neither case is normal in human life. For the great majority of people—we may suppose—there remains in the depths of their being an ultimate interior openness to truth, to love, to God. In the concrete choices of life, however, it is covered over by ever new compromises with evil—much filth covers purity, but the thirst for purity remains and it still constantly re-emerges from all that is base and remains present in the soul. What happens to such individuals when they appear before the Judge? Will all the impurity they have amassed through life suddenly cease to matter? What else might occur? Saint Paul, in his First Letter to the Corinthians, gives us an idea of the differing impact of God’s judgement according to each person’s particular circumstances. He does this using images which in some way try to express the invisible, without it being possible for us to conceptualize these images—simply because we can neither see into the world beyond death nor do we have any experience of it. Paul begins by saying that Christian life is built upon a common foundation: Jesus Christ. This foundation endures. If we have stood firm on this foundation and built our life upon it, we know that it cannot be taken away from us even in death. Then Paul continues: “Now if any one builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw—each man’s work will become manifest; for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work which any man has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire” (1 Cor 3:12-15). In this text, it is in any case evident that our salvation can take different forms, that some of what is built may be burned down, that in order to be saved we personally have to pass through “fire” so as to become fully open to receiving God and able to take our place at the table of the eternal marriage-feast.

47. Some recent theologians are of the opinion that the fire which both burns and saves is Christ himself, the Judge and Saviour. The encounter with him is the decisive act of judgement. Before his gaze all falsehood melts away. This encounter with him, as it burns us, transforms and frees us, allowing us to become truly ourselves. All that we build during our lives can prove to be mere straw, pure bluster, and it collapses. Yet in the pain of this encounter, when the impurity and sickness of our lives become evident to us, there lies salvation. His gaze, the touch of his heart heals us through an undeniably painful transformation “as through fire”. But it is a blessed pain, in which the holy power of his love sears through us like a flame, enabling us to become totally ourselves and thus totally of God. In this way the inter-relation between justice and grace also becomes clear: the way we live our lives is not immaterial, but our defilement does not stain us for ever if we have at least continued to reach out towards Christ, towards truth and towards love. Indeed, it has already been burned away through Christ’s Passion. At the moment of judgement we experience and we absorb the overwhelming power of his love over all the evil in the world and in ourselves. The pain of love becomes our salvation and our joy. It is clear that we cannot calculate the “duration” of this transforming burning in terms of the chronological measurements of this world. The transforming “moment” of this encounter eludes earthly time-reckoning—it is the heart’s time, it is the time of “passage” to communion with God in the Body of Christ[39]. The judgement of God is hope, both because it is justice and because it is grace. If it were merely grace, making all earthly things cease to matter, God would still owe us an answer to the question about justice—the crucial question that we ask of history and of God. If it were merely justice, in the end it could bring only fear to us all. The incarnation of God in Christ has so closely linked the two together—judgement and grace—that justice is firmly established: we all work out our salvation “with fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12). Nevertheless grace allows us all to hope, and to go trustfully to meet the Judge whom we know as our “advocate”, or parakletos (cf. 1 Jn 2:1).

The highlighted part is the bone of contention. Fr. Barron remarks concerning Ralph Martin’s recent book on the matter, Will Many Be Saved?:

Obviously, there is no easy answer to the question of who or how many will be saved, but one of the most theologically accomplished popes in history, writing at a very high level of authority, has declared that we oughtn’t to hold that Hell is densely populated. To write this off as “remarks” that require “clarification” is precisely analogous to a liberal theologian saying the same thing about Paul VI’s teaching on artificial contraception in the encyclical “Humanae Vitae.” It seems to me that Pope Benedict’s position – affirming the reality of Hell but seriously questioning whether that the vast majority of human beings end up there – is the most tenable and actually the most evangelically promising.

I’m not so convinced that the Pope has “declared” that we oughtn’t to hold that Hell is densely populated. “We may suppose” doesn’t quite have the same ring as “we declare, pronounce, and define”. But certainly it *does* seem to me that Benedict is putting squarely in the center of the table a certain incredulity at the idea that most will be damned and most definitely lending aid and comfort to Fr. Barron’s basic assumption that the vast majority of human beings will not wind up there. I don’t think–and I suspect Fr. Barron doesn’t think either–that Dr. Martin is really in the same moral category as a theologian who resolutely dissents from Humanae Vitae. At the same time, I do think that there is not a whole lot for the Pope to clarify here: He doubts many will be lost and has a higher degree of confidence that the grace of Christ will penetrate hearts and minds than many Catholics in the past have had. Fr. Barron is perfectly right to note that this is the case about what Benedict is expressing in Spe Salvi, and perfectly within his rights to both agree with the Pope and think this is helpful for evangelization, since it sacrifices nothing of the core teaching of the Church, retains the truth of the reality of hell, and helps confused post-moderns grasp the point that God has sacrificed all in Christ to save us from hell, not to delectate over sending us there.

The great fear, of course (expressed, for instance, by my reader above), is that without hell, nobody will be motivated to believe. I would suggest that this is a poor understanding of what it means to be a disciple. A real disciple is one out of love for Jesus, not terror of hell. At the same time, as Sherry Weddell has pointed out, most Catholics are de facto universalists, practicing a cheap sort of presumption that does indeed often amount to “I don’t need to tell anybody about the gospel because it’s automatic heaven for all anyway.” I think having a better idea of what Hell is, rather than simply a dreadful terror of somehow accidently going there due to membership in a statistical bloc, is the ticket for catechesis on Hell. And when it comes to catechesis on the nature of Hell, I think Fr. Barron does a bang-up job.

""people seem willing to make exceptions to excuse their behavior."Oh yeah. And when it's socially ..."

Of Dogs, Fleas, and Jordan Peterson
"I'm not a fan of authoritarians, either."

Of Dogs, Fleas, and Jordan Peterson
"That's it on one level for sure. That explanation either doesn't make sense to some, ..."

Of Dogs, Fleas, and Jordan Peterson
"That's not really true. Peterson has repeatedly claimed that economic inequality is actually a WORSE ..."

Of Dogs, Fleas, and Jordan Peterson

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • mama of many nerdlings

    It seems to me more and more that we live in an age that MUST BE OFFENDED our OUTRAGED by something. Even when the something amounts to nothing in reality. If here isn’t anything to be OUTRAGEd about we’ll find somthing and make it outrageous until someone is really outraged.

    The Age of Annoyig Opinion pushing is wha it is. and you can be outraged that I said so. :p Somone is bound to be.

  • mama of many nerdlings

    you can also be outraged that my stroke affectedleft hand has decided not to typ most of the letters I tell it to type. Grammar and spelling offences. Now that is something about which to rage.

  • One thing I still don’t understand, and maybe someone can clear this up for me. In Barron’s article he states “But the Pope concludes that “the great majority of people” who, though sinners, still retain a fundamental ordering to God, can and will be brought to heaven after the necessary purification of Purgatory.” I don’t see anywhere in the encyclical or the paragraphs quoted where the pope says this. The first sentence in paragraph 46 does not say what Barron says it does. Or am I missing something.

  • FrMichael

    From the Books of the Macabees to Matthew 25 to the Epistles to the Book of Revelation, there is plenty of Scriptural evidence that Hell exists and that it has numerous occupants, demonic and human. This modern conceit of a lightly or unoccupied Hell is a negation of Divine Revelation and deserves the condemnation of faithful Catholics everywhere. If ivory tower geeks like Fr. Barron can not see the brutality of sin in this world and the righteous hatred of God toward sin, they need to get out into the real world– two weeks in any shanty town, from Manila to Zimbabwe, will do– to see the brutalization of human beings at the hands of others and the appropriateness of Hell as punishment.

    • Mark Shea

      You’ve been popping in from time to time “Father” Michael and something has always seemed “off” about you. With this note, you persuade me: you are no priest. I don’t appreciate people who masquerade as priests. Goodbye. You’re outta here.

    • All too often, when I really contemplate evil, it is overwhelming. There is no denying that there is an abundance of it at work in the world. It’s easy enough to look around–or to read history–and to come up with quite a list of hell-bound folks.

      I read about the truly horrible things the regime in North Korea does to its people, and I think: yep, those people surely must be in danger of hell. I stop myself, from going further, because I was raised, very firmly, not to wish anyone into hell or to give up on anyone.

      But oh yes, lots and lots and lots of evil. It’s overwhelming. Most of us, I suspect, get past it, simply by not contemplating it. Perhaps that is how it should be. But it’s not a secret, all the horrors we’ve visited on one another all these centuries.

      But none of that outweighs the power of God and his grace!

      About the sacrament of confession I speak circumspectly, but I will say this: there are folks who, even after being absolved, fear they are not forgiven. It’s heart-breaking! I think to myself, what more can I say than I’ve said in the words of absolution? Shall I shout them? I can’t make them more efficacious than they are by God’s power! I think of the great–yes, Protestant–hymn that says, “What more can He say than to you He hath said, You, who to Jesus for refuge have fled?”

      My point is, sin doesn’t have the final word. The great catalogue of human sin is great indeed–it only serves to emphasize we really do need a Savior, and what a Savior He is!

  • Haha, Ralph Martin is a long time (I believe original) member of the charismatic renewal in the Ann Arbor area and attends Christ the King where I went for pretty much all of high school (one of the only charismatic parishes with episcopal permission to be so in the world). It doesn’t surprise me that something like that would come from him. Nothing against Charismatics, but this parish is rife with the type of thinking that the only way to be Catholic is to be more Catholic than everyone around you.

    • Christ the King is one of the best parishes in the country! I believe you have misunderstood the parish. It is true that to be truly Catholic today is to be more Catholic than (pretty much) everyone around you. Ralph Martin is a great Catholic man, as is Fr. Barron. Dr. Martin was appointed as one of five experts from the United States to participate in the recent synod on the New Evangelization, and was chosen to be the final editor of the propositions coming out of that synod to be presented to the Pope.

  • Marthe Lépine

    To Steve: Mark is only quoting parts of what the Pope wrote. Space would not allow to reproduce the Encyclical letter in its entirety; maybe the answer you need is in some other parts of the encyclical – however I have not read all of it myself, so I am only making a suggestion.

  • Harry Piper

    Ralph Martin’s asking for a clarification did strike me as a little disengenous (though certainly not in the same way dissent from Humanae Vitae would be) because of how blatantly obvious the Pope was being. There’s nothing that needs clarifying- it’s quite obvious Martin is asking for a retraction.
    And that is a little barmy. The Pope is a big fan of Balthasar, and the Pope’s work on the Church before Vatican II was critical of its stance on Hell – noting for many people that was literally the only reason why they were Catholic’; the terror of Hell. Not a bad reason, but if you go to Church only out of fear and not love for Christ then something’s gone wrong. I don’t think it likely that Benedict will go into a reversal of his views.
    Now with that said, let us all retire to our internet bunkers and let the inevitable coming flame wars fight themselves out.

    • ppeter

      Why is it disingenuous to ask the pope for clarification?
      Balthasar is what this whole controversy is about, not Benedict. Why are we not free to question this theologian?

      • Harry Piper

        It’ disingenuous to say “clarification” when what you mean is “retraction.” The Pope’s words were perfectly obvious.

    • Harry, while you are right that if the only reason many people go to Church is because of the fear of Hell, that is a great deficiency, how does that compare to the current fact that the similar “many people” do not go to Church because they do not fear Hell?

      • Harry Piper

        Did I say I was happy about the current situation? I did not, and I am not. I’m paraphrasing the Pope. And it is quite obvious that he doesn’t share the same views as Ralph Martin – and I wish people could just accept that without treating it as a mystery that will be eventually be solved by the Pope revealing himself to *actually* agree totally with the opinions of a fairly minor subset of the Church.

        • Yes, it’s quite obvious that there is a slightly different view. The clarification is whether his view is to be taken as a shift in Church teaching, as Fr. Barron seems to think.

  • Bill

    The Holy Father’s encyclical is all about Hope and he emphasizes legitimate hope. I love Fr Barron’s enthusiasm.

    I certainly don’t think he’s an “ivory tower geek”

    • Andy, Bad Person

      Nor is, say Pope John Paul II, who said we may hope that hell is empty. I suppose he “deserves the condemnation of faithful Catholics everywhere.”

  • For the record, even Father Garrigou-Lagrange (who I doubt anyone would consider a liberal theologian) says in his work, Life Everlasting, in his chapter on “The Number of the Elect”:

    “some insist on the mercy of God, others on the justice of God. Neither one side nor the other gives us certitude. And the reasons of appropriateness which each invokes differ very much from the reasons of appropriateness invoked in favor of a dogma which is already certain by revelation, whereas here we are so treating of a truth that is not certain.

    “Restricting the question to Catholics, we find the doctrine generally held especially since Suarez, that, if we consider merely adults, the number of the elect surpasses the number of the reprobate…

    “But if we are treating of all Christians, of all who have been baptized, Catholic, schismatic, Protestant, it is more probable, theologians generally say, that the greater number is saved…

    “If the question is of the entire human race, the answer must remain uncertain, for the reasons given above. But even if, absolutely, the number of the elect is less great, the glory of God’s government cannot suffer…” – Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, Life Everlasting, Chapter 32: The Number of the Elect

    Hence, there should clearly be no issue of rejecting a theologian or condemning him when he has the opinion of a less densely populated Hell. However, I do disagree with von Balthasar on one point. It does seem to me that we can be certain that – on the last day – there will be souls in Hell. We just pray that they are not those people with whom we interact: we pray for the grace of final perseverance for all whom we know. [For the record, I’m not sure where I come down on the issue of densely populated or lightly populated Hell; I just recognize that both are legitimate opinions for orthodox theologians.]

    • Subsistent

      Once it’s understood that God, the “Hound of Heaven”, earnestly desires each human to be saved, and that no one frustrates this divine desire except by his own final and utterly freely chosen obstinacy in sin, — once this is understood, it’s simply absurd to think in terms of Catholics (or for that matter of non-Catholics) being more *likely* to be saved. Self-evidently, free choice is simply not in the least a matter of statistical probability.
      What, then, does motivate a person to be Catholic, or to evangelize others toward being Catholic? Well, several things. For one, every human naturally wants to know how things really are. Now (for instance) Jesus of Nazareth is at once perfect God and — out of extravagant love for us — perfect man. So it’s good in any human to know this important and wonderful fact, and a deficiency in any human to be ignorant of it. And so too with other great facts that go to make up the “grandeur and glory of Catholic truth” of which Frédéric Ozanam spoke.
      Then there’s the balanced and broad “both/and” of Catholic truth and of healthy Catholic living, wherein (in disciplined moderation), in a culture freed of irrational inhibitions, there can be “dancing, and laughter, and good red wine”. It’s better for a human to be part of such a culture than of either a puritanical or a licentious culture.
      Then there are the Sacraments, thru which more abundant life even here on earth can be had, where “good things” can “run wild” (Chesterton).
      And none of these motives for being Catholic have anything to do, I submit, with any statistical probability either of having the absolutely perfect happiness for which we each were made, or of having the everlasting unhappiness we can freely choose in order that, head unbowed, we can each (sort of) “do it our own way”.

  • BXVI: “. . .we may suppose. . .”

    Suppose, n. to assume that something is the case on the basis of evidence or probability but without proof or certain knowledge.

    Fr. Philip Neri, OP

    • Also:
      may, v. be allowed to do something

      So….we MAY suppose means we are free to hold that position. It is more or less clear that Pope Benedict XVI himself holds that position, but by phrasing it the way he does, he makes clear that he does not have certain knowledge, and is not proposing a development of doctrine.

      It’s quite clear to me, on its face. We are allowed to believe that the great majority are ultimately saved.

  • Dan C

    Fr. Michael’s assertions are predicated on his judgement of others-those who he feels assigns the desperate poor to their fate (a list of suspects I would find interesting, since I concede that my life in America and support of American capitalistic consumption and militarism is a direct cause of this disequity). Making this judgement is something one should be wary of. I presume Fr. Michael would be actually incorrect in who is the culprit in the tragic and despicable state of these families.

    I would also like to make an appeal for respect for the Ivory Tower, considering that the most impressive encyclicals in 50 years have come from one of the most Ivory Tower of all popes, Benedict. This assessment of unjust judgement, the declaration that because of an Ivory Tower label, one can ignore the theology of such a person.

    These two judgements are asserted with a paucity of evidence and a lot of indignity. Indignity does not account for logic and reason.

    • Marion (Mael Muire)

      In many countries in which the poorest folks live in Third World conditions, (and I know something about the Phillipines, being the wife of someone who attended grad school there,) a few wealthy families own the preponderance of arable land, businesses, and other wealth-producing assets. They also pretty much own the government, and so very little regulation checks their power, and very little in the way of training, jobs, education, or assistance is directed to these poor folks.

      We may disagree with many aspects of unrelulated capitalism in general and with U.S. policy in particular, but U.S. businesses are creating jobs and wealth overseas like gangbusters, especially in formerly Third World countries. Meanwhile, the biggest nutritional problem among the underclass here in the U.S. is obesity – too many calories, and an unhealthy diet. In the Phillipines and other Third World places, the poorest of the poor are at risk for perishing of malnourishment – not enough calories.

      U.S policy does not prevent the wealthy oligarchs in the Phillipines and other Third World countries from doing more to assist their own poor fellow citizens. U.S. policy probably help does prevent Communist insurgents from gaining a foothold and taking over in Third World countries, where they would ostensibly set up a Workers’ Paradise, full of happy shiny proletarians in jumpsuits, everyone equal, but where in reality, everyone would be desperately poor, but equally so, and anyone who complains or opposes the new regime would be summarily shot. (Oh, and all Catholics faithful to the Vatican would need to go underground or be shot, too.)

      I support U.S. policies that prevent Communist take-overs, and I support U.S. domestic and foreign policies that would promote freedom of religion. (I just hope we can get back some of our freedoms from government intrusion in matters of conscience here in this country.)

  • Dan C

    Neuhaus was someone who thought Hell was empty.

    Not a liberal.

  • Brandon Jaloway

    Jesus does say that there will be many people in hell.

    • Claire

      Something Peter Kreeft wrote helped me to understand this (and I’m paraphrasing). He wrote that we have to understand Jesus’ assertion that the road to hell is wide and that many will end up on it in the context of a God of perfect mercy and infinite love…so for Him, even a handful of people ending up in Hell is too many and even if 99.9% of humanity is saved, that’s too few.

      • Noe

        …Which has me like “yay, I’m not all that bad, just say ‘I’m sorry’, mean it, get absolved; rock!”, but then I wonder about the whole concept of “Godly measurements vs. mortal measurements”. He sees the big picture – always – we see our little picture that, however big, are always very little pictures. He forgets our sins – at least the repented ones, which is to say…the repented ones. So to me, the sense that my sins are the smallest grains of sand in the big picture may be just the most solid foundation for building a well-paved Roman road that leads away from the City of God, and may tragically prove of use to others after thousand years;
        “Man’s sense of injustice is a poor analogy to God’s sense of injustice. The exploitation of the poor is to us a misdemeanor; to God, it is a disaster. Our reaction, disapproval; God’s reaction is something no language can convey”
        -Abraham Joshua Heschel, Unpublished manuscript.

  • ivan_the_mad

    In such a discussion, let’s not forget about perfect and imperfect contrition. If one is concerned that the supposition that few damn themselves will weaken an exhortation to avoid sin because of punishment, then remember that there is still an infinitely large reason to avoid sin out of love for God.

  • Thinkling

    There seems to be a 500 pound gorilla missing from these discussions, even if its breath can be smelled in the OP and in many comments.

    The arguments of von B, BXVI, Frs M and B are basically theological ones, about the nature of devine justice, mercy, the last things etc. As soon as we entertain anything regarding the actual occupancy rate of Hell (or Heaven for that matter), we enter into the realm of the emprirical. It would be possible, at least in principle, for any proportion of humanity to end up in Hell, zero to one inclusive, depending on the cumulative choices made by all of humanity. No parsing of any of the participant’s statements could preclude this, even if the empirical likelihood might be remote (as Scriptures allude to oftem). One runs into trouble here only when one precludes absolutely some of these options.

    I did like Fr Martin’s clarification, he was more diplomatic (and perhaps charitable) than I would have been, kudos for him. I suspect it orders of magnitude more likely that Fr Barron misread Fr Martin or BXVI, or chose words poorly, than actually seeing a moral equivalence between Fr Martin’s arguments and (say) Fr Roy Bourgeous.

    This is yet another sad piece of tribal litmus paper. I read a commentary calling the Fr Barron video “tragically wrong”. Some folks really need our prayers…while we all know “God assumed Mary into Heaven”, there are those who would call you a heretic if you said “Mary was assumed into heaven by God”.

    Great point about tension and paradox.

  • I thought we knew of only one man in hell, the rich man who ignored Lazarus.

    (Don’t bother telling me that the story is a parable because it isn’t presented as a parable and contains what no parable in the Gospels contains–a real, named human person.)

    • Mark Shea

      Doesn’t mean it’s history. My own suspicion is that Jesus is making a topical reference to his friend Lazarus in order to drive home the point of the parable. I can well imagine it being told at the feast to celebrate Lazarus’ resurrection.

      • I was taught it may well be purgatory that Lazarus was in (though I do like your thought on it being a topical reference Mark). It seems unlikely that anyone in hell would have compassion for those on earth but it does make sense that those in purgatory would.

  • To those who insist that public Revelation (note well: I am not including various visions and writings of saints–for reasons I’ll explain in a moment) describes people in hell, may I ask those who say that to name one creature–other than the devil and his fallen angels–who are named by public Revelation as being in hell?

    Hell certainly exists and the danger is going there is real. But for those who say that our Lord asserts that many are in hell, do not–to my mind–pay enough attention to what Scripture actually says.

    Consider the famous exchange between the Apostles and the Lord, beginning with the question: are there few who are saved? Our Lord does not directly respond; his response is to the question they ought to have asked (he often does that in the Gospels): you seek to enter by the narrow gate. He then says, many there are who try to enter the wrong way, etc. Well, I wasn’t going to make this post too long with a quotation, but I think there’ll be a needless argument otherwise. Here’s the passage I mean, from the Gospel of Luke, chapter 13:

    He passed through towns and villages, teaching as he went and making his way to Jerusalem. Someone asked him, “Lord, will only a few people be saved?” He answered them, “Strive to enter through the narrow door, for many, I tell you, will attempt to enter but will not be strong enough. After the master of the house has arisen and locked the door, then will you stand outside knocking and saying, ‘Lord, open the door for us.’ He will say to you in reply, ‘I do not know where you are from.’ And you will say, ‘We ate and drank in your company and you taught in our streets.’ Then he will say to you, ‘I do not know where [you] are from. Depart from me, all you evildoers!’ And there will be wailing and grinding of teeth when you see Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God and you yourselves cast out. And people will come from the east and the west and from the north and the south and will recline at table in the kingdom of God. For behold, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.”

    Now, there are other passages that we could look at, including Matthew 7–but in the end, however you interpret one has to be reconciled with the rest, or else one does what many Protestants do–set text against text.

    So let’s look at this.

    Note closely: in the end, did he say whether it would be “few”–or “many”? He describe many who wouldn’t be “strong enough” (is anyone “strong enough”? Can we save ourselves?) yet he described people coming from all directions–does that sound like few–or many? What did he say on the night before he died? “For many.” The Book of Revelation says uncountable multitudes.

    I would argue that the Lord wanted to answer a different question: not how many, but HOW. And the answer is, “through Me.” And it is quite correct to say that many will try to enter on their own terms–and they will fail. Indeed, EVERYONE who tries to enter on their own terms will fail. EVERYONE. Yet we don’t teach that everyone goes to hell, do we?

    I think if one very carefully–note, “carefully,” not casually–examines Scripture, it seems very reasonable to take these passages as warnings, not predictions, along the lines of something a mother might say: “If you don’t change your ways, you’re going to end up in jail.” Our Lord’s purpose was not to predict the final result but to warn.

    Note also that we are still making the same mistake as the person in the Gospel passage above. We are still asking, how many? That’s not a question our Lord is interested in answering for us. Why should he? What business is it of ours? It’s like wanting to know what the weather will be next month, or–more Scripturally–when the world will end. Information is control, and we want control. The Lord chuckles at our pretensions. (And recall, he never answered the “when will the end come” question directly either–again he turned it to being prepared.)

    I have no idea how many will be damned. It’s everyone’s job to prevent it. But I have yet to see anyone present a convincing argument–from PUBLIC Revelation–to demonstrate the thesis that hell is certainly filled with human beings.

    So what’s wrong with private revelation? Am I saying I don’t believe the various visions or writings have merit? Not at all. But they were intended as private revelation. Their purpose or value is bound up with the particular situation of the people to whom they were given. And in any case, when you have a vision describing hell full of people, I ask again: is that a prediction or a warning?

    Thought-experiment. Fast-forward untold eons, and we all arrive at heaven, Deo gratias! And then we find out hell is pretty much empty. And one of us, who was such a hard-case on this, and said, no, no, the matter is certain!–goes to the children at Fatima, or to the Blessed Mother, and says, “wait, you said…” And Mary says, “that was intended as a warning–if scaring the hell out of people is what it takes, our heavenly Father stoops to that. And hallelujah! Look around–it worked!”

    On that occasion, will you complain that you were ill-used? Please explain.

    • Actually, that is a very Protestant take on things, at least in terms of the ‘once saved, always saved’ crowd. How do they reconcile the multiple warnings scattered throughout the New Testament about those ‘who do such things’? Easy. They weren’t real. They were warning shots. The authors of Divine Scripture always knew that once Christians were saved, they were ever and eternally saved. Those warning passages were just trying to scare the hell out of the new believers so they behaved.

      • I think Fr. Martin is saying something slightly different. He is saying that THEY COULD BE “warning shots.” I think this is exactly right. He is saying that we don’t know anything as far as the relative populations of Hell and Heaven. We, however, would be very foolish indeed to presume that they are only warning shots.

        I personally believe, for what it’s worth (which is nothing), that there is a population of Hell, somewhere between 0% and 33% (the proportion of angelic spirits there.) Even if it is only 0.00001%, though, Hell is so horrific that it is worth spending every effort here on Earth to avoid it. Also, there are levels of Heaven and it is worth spending every effort to reduce or eliminate Purgatory time and gain a higher “position” in Heaven.

      • As you say: they are “warnings.”

        Scripture is filled with warnings: if you do X, you can go to hell. I believe that is true.
        Scripture is also filled with promises: if you repent of doing X, you will be forgiven. I believe that is true.

        How many people will do X, but fail to repent? I don’t know. Do you?

        • No, but I’ll assume someone will. Just like I’ll assume Jesus meant it when He said take and eat, this is My Body. Of course, there are some who say He really didn’t mean that either. A very, very popular approach to things. Allows a lot of leeway. Now, it’s probably a healthy approach to say we don’t know who is in hell. But to imagine that nobody is in hell changes things. Changes a lot of things. Sure, I’d love to think nobody is in hell. But if not, then we have one rascally Savior who was willing to strongly suggest things, and allow us to believe things, He knew full well to be false. Or did He? And that’s the main question from folks I’m catching here. Not who or how many are in Hell or not. Who are we to say? But hope nobody is in hell? Suggesting it may have been a ruse on Jesus’ part? Those are what folks are reacting to. My gut reaction is to hope nobody is in hell. But I’m not sure that’s as great a hope as it seems at face value, my gut reactions having been wrong in the past.

    • Matthew

      Just curious, Father, are you saying that God and the Saints lie? Or do they just lie for a good cause – our salvation? If God in fact knows that at the end of it all Hell will have no human inhabitants, then how is it that these visions, from God, show the opposite?

      • Oh come on now, we’re not going to have much of a conversation if you take that approach. (Pretending) “Why, yes, you got me. I think the saints, and God, lie, cheat, steal, kill…it’s all a big hoax. But don’t tell anyone!”

        Seriously now. Give me some credit OK, or else there’s no point in talking if you think so ill of me.

        To your question. Is it really so hard to understand that God would paint pictures of what awful things await us — note what comes next! — IF…WE…DO…NOT…REPENT!

        Remember “A Christmas Carol”? When the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come shows Scrooge his own grave? What does Scrooge say? Something like, what is the point of showing this to me, if I am beyond hope?

        Consider the possibility I’m correct–just consider it. When you get to heaven, as I hope and pray–will you then go to God, and the saints you have in mind, and complain of the deceit they pulled on you? If so, please explain that to me, because I’m not seeing any reason for you to complain, but then I’m not you.

        • To be honest, that’s a problem with the ‘warning shot’ approach to Biblical interpretation. You compared it to a mother warning a child about impending jail time if the child doesn’t change his ways. That would only compare if the mother knew for a fact that nobody ever goes to jail in our world. Then it would be the same. She would be warning the child based on something she knew to be false. And so would Jesus, as well as the rest of the New Testament witness. And that does create a problem, just as it does when applied to other teachings in Scripture.

          • The mother can’t know the future, but God can and does.

            But I get your point, but it doesn’t solve the problem; it creates problems.

            As I see it, it plays out like this. God knows what will happen, and if he plans for the ultimate salvation of nearly everyone, he’s being “dishonest” if he then issues dire warnings about the danger of hell–because he knows, what we don’t–that he’s got that covered.

            So, rather than be dishonest in such warnings, he has to go ahead and let folks go to hell, saving fewer than he might, so that he won’t be dishonest–and so that he won’t have to paint too rosy a picture.

            My point is that hell is real, and the things God warns about can happen to people. If, by telling us so, he convinces us to avoid them, I don’t see what the problem is?

            • “My point is that hell is real, and the things God warns about can happen to people. If, by telling us so, he convinces us to avoid them, I don’t see what the problem is?”

              But how can that be the case, today, when probably half of American Christians don’t even believe in Hell?

              • That’s not a hard question to answer. Between this instant in which I’m writing this sentence, and the particular judgment for each of those people of whom you speak, they may well come to believe in hell, and be motivated to avoid it. That’s my point: that God is always at work to save people. I am simply supposing he will be spectacularly successful, and hoping so.

            • I see no problem at all if, as the Faith has traditionally taught, hell is real. I’m the first to say the fewer people in hell the better. And personally, I’d love a hell-less universe. Gets me and everyone I’ve ever known off the hook. If that means spending eternity with Hitler and the fellow who invented reality TV, I can handle that as a side effect. But there are problems with saying that suddenly the Church was either wrong, or not fully revealed, or whatever about such a fundamental doctrine. This isn’t some obscure back corner nitpick teaching. This is crucial. This is one of the primary things from which Jesus came to save us. And Jesus, being fully God, would – unlike the mother who may or may not know – have an inside track on the reality of anyone being in hell or not. If not, then you’re presented with the same deficiency that the ‘assurance of salvation’ crowd in Protestantism struggled with when in comes to the multiple warnings and statements about those who will be cast into the outer darkness. True, do they say in one quotable verse ‘Verily, verily I tell you hell exists and under these conditions I guarantee that people will be in hell’? No. Jesus never uses the word homosexuality either. And that’s a point through which entire fleets of modern theology has sailed. Again, I’d love for hell to be empty, or a ruse, or whatever. But it opens up some other questions (is it wrong or not to say something you know is false for the greater good of scaring people into right behavior?). But it requires such an overhaul of almost 2000 years of consistently accepted teaching that suddenly, as mainline Protestants discovered, there is simply nothing that anything can be anchored to once things so universally accepted are re-imagined.

  • David, OK, I won’t bother telling you, but I will tell others: I don’t think the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus need be taken as a prediction; it may indeed be; but it may also be a warning. And I don’t know where the rule is written down that if our Lord uses someone’s name, certain rules apply. I’ve never seen that rule-book, I hope David will share it with everyone else. In any case, the “Lazarus” in the passage may indeed be a real person–we don’t know–but he doesn’t seem to match the other Lazarus who is mentioned in Scripture. So that is a puzzle. Meanwhile, the one who David says certainly went to hell is not named.

    I might point to a passage in 1st Kings, describing a meeting between the king of Israel and the King of Judah, and they are consulting prophets. When the king of Israel consults his prophets, the King of Judah asks, isn’t there anyone else? There is, says the King of Israel, but he never says things I like. He is summoned. And he tells a funny yet poignant story of how God sent a lying spirit to deceive the king, and that’s what guided all the other prophets.

    Now, some people seriously insist that because it’s in the Bible, it means God actually wanted all those prophets to lie to the king–isn’t that what it said? But the point becomes clear, insofar as this prophet is revealing this so-called plot of heaven: God is trying to warn the kings against the plan, as well as warn them that the other prophets are false–something the King of Judah perhaps sensed–else why wasn’t he satisfied with what they said? In other words, the point was warning–salvation–not prediction of disaster.

    It is a human agenda to turn the Bible into a book of predictions. We crave control and thus as much certain knowledge as we can get. God isn’t interested in that agenda of ours. He is interested in our salvation. Everything in the Bible is aimed at inducing us to place our trust in him and no one else. He is always ready to forgive when asked. It seems absolutely obvious that he would like hell to be as empty as possible. And he would seem to have quite a lot of tools at the ready to ensure that outcome–including ways to win us without denying our free will.

    So it’s a problem. I can’t solve it, I don’t claim to. But I do push back on the certainty many claim to have about who is in hell.

  • The Deuce

    I certainly agree that we don’t know if any particular person is in hell, but it seems to be too clever by half to say that we have no idea if there is anybody there or not. For one thing, that seems akin to rolling a die 10,000 times without looking at the results, and then claiming to have “no idea” whether or not you rolled any 6’s. There might technically be a bare logical possibility that you didn’t, so you can legitimately say that you aren’t *absolutely, infallibly certain* that you rolled any 6’s, but given that rolling a 6 is a real possibility each time, it’s just silly to say that you’ve got no idea whether it happened at all after rolling that many times.

    Also, like some have said, Jesus appears to say outright that hell is a real place that has real people in it. While we don’t know what proportion of the human race that is, I think it should weigh heavily against the claim that we have absolutely no idea if it’s empty or not.

  • Deuce:

    Yes, our Lord said hell is real. And Scripture says the devils are there.

    But I ask again: if anyone claims public Revelation says specific people are there, I’d like to know who they mean.

    Now, I will say this: the hardest case–in terms of what Scripture says–is obviously Judas. It sure seems like our Lord is saying he went to hell–“it would have been better for him never to have been born” or words very like that. And if that turns out to be the case, I’ll be sorry for his soul, but not surprised. And yet…even there, our Lord’s comment is not direct. He didn’t come right out and say Judas went to hell.

    • The Deuce

      “But I ask again: if anyone claims public Revelation says specific people are there, I’d like to know who they mean.”

      It doesn’t as far as I know (with the probable exception of Judas that you reminded me of). That’s why I started with “I certainly agree that we don’t know if any particular person is in hell.”

    • Rosemarie


      A pretty strong case can be made from Scripture for Judas Iscariot being in hell. Our Lord makes some rather chilling statements about him:

      ‘Jesus answered them, “Did I not choose you, the twelve, and one of you is a devil?”” (St. John 6:70-71)

      “For the Son of man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that man by whom the Son of man is betrayed! It would have been better for that man if he had not been born.” (St. Mark 14:21)

      “While I was with them, I kept them in your name, which you have given me; I have guarded them, and none of them is lost but the son of perdition….” (St. John 17:12)

      Also, in Acts 1:25, the Apostles make an ominous statement about Judas going “to his own place.” The Haydock Bible explains in a footnote that this means “To his own place of perdition, which he brought himself to.”

      These statements don’t leave much room for the notion that Judas was somehow saved in the end. So even if the Bible doesn’t come right out and say in so many words, “Judas went to hell,” it is strongly implied.

      Is anyone else in hell? I think it’s likely, given how fallen human nature abuses free will, though I don’t cherish the thought. Damnation is a terrible tragedy which I don’t wish on anyone. Can I name a particular person who I think may be in hell? Well, it sure doesn’t look good for Hitler and some other very evil people in history. But I think others here have pointed out that the Church doesn’t positively declare someone to be damned the way it proclaims some people to be in heaven in canonizations. So I don’t claim to know anything for certain; God knows and that’s enough for me.

      As for the number of people in hell, whether it’s more or less than the saved in heaven, I don’t bother myself much with that question. Like I once heard someone (Fr. Pacwa?) say about the date of the end of the world, that’s a managerial matter and I’m in sales. If I preoccupy myself with managerial matters then I’m not doing my job. I feel the same way about the number of the saved and damned.

      • Rosemarie


        Another point about Judas Iscariot: True, the Church hasn’t officially declared him reprobate (which She doesn’t do anyway so we shouldn’t expect it). Yet he is the only Apostle who is not considered a saint. The other eleven Apostles, St. Matthias, St. Paul – all saints, but Judas – nope. No feast day, no patronages, no churches named after him… nothing. Had the traitor who turned Christ over to the authorities sincerely asked forgiveness and made it to heaven, would that not have been the greatest example of penitence? And the Church presents the saints to us as examples for us to emulate. Yet Her silence on Judas is deafening. Again, this fact doesn’t bode well for him.

        I don’t argue this with any glee or relish. Even Judas’s damnation would be a horrible tragedy, especially since he was so privileged to be so close to Our Lord for three years. Precious few humans have enjoyed that privilege.

  • Dear Mr. Shea:
    Before you or any of your faithful bloggers dismisses Mr. Martin for his “conservative” leanings or because of some other label, I suggest Father Barron’s article, Mr. Martin’s response and Msgr. Charles Pope’s commentary be read attentively first. I assume, as should we all, that both Father Barron and Mr. Martin are faithful Catholics loyal to the magisterium. Many of us are fans of Father Barron for his wonderful evangelical work, including the Catholicism series, and now as rector of Mundelien seminary. But Mr. Martin is no lightweight either. He is a professor of theology at a major seminary and was selected by the Holy Father to participate in the recent synod of bishops. On the merits, asFfather Barron notes, Martin has some “heavy-hitters’ on his side–including Lumen Gentium, the Cathechism and St. Augustine. To conclude as Father Barron does that the Holy Father might be contradicting Lumen Gentium, the Cathechism, scripture and years of Tradition should not be lightly done. There appear to be reasonable arguments on the issue, and Martin’s call for clarification makes a lot of sense as we move into the year of faith.
    What I find most distressing about Father Barron’s comments are his uncharitable comparison of Martin to a “dissenter” from a solid teaching such as humane vitae. I think this flippant treatment of Martin’s serious book falls below the level of engagement that we have come to expect from Father Barron. I hope he will reconsider his disrespectful comments and engage Martin, as Martin has requested of him, in an appropriate manner on this important issue.

    • Mark Shea

      I’m not dismissing Mr. Martin. He’s written a good book that does a good faith effort at surveying the tradition.

    • Sherry Weddell

      We could always actually READ Martin’s book, you know. Cause it was the Martin’s book that Fr. Barron was responding to. If we are going to be part of the discussion, we should read the original document.

      Ralph Martin is no lightweight just cause you haven’t heard of him in the blogosphere. He not only attended the recent Synod on the New Evangelization, he was invited there as one of 40 theological experts on the topic (his book is his STD dissertation revised a bit for publication) and was part of the very small team that assembled the proposals that came out of the various working groups. Heavy weights wrote blurbs for his book like Cardinal Dolan ” a profound doctrinal foundation for understanding and implementing the ‘new evangelization.” Dominican Archbishop Augustine diNoia (lately of the CDF, now head of the reconciliation effort with the SSPX) “These penetrating reflections will compel us to reassess our pastoral approach to the preaching of the gospel in our present circumstances. An important book.” and Cardinal George of Chicago “Martin clarifies a doctrinal point that has been often obscured but must be recovered as a necessary foundation for the ‘new evangelization'”. It is a very carefully researched and thought out book written by one of the few Catholic practitioner-scholars in this area (Fr. Barron is certainly a gifted practitioner but his academic work was focused on other areas, I believe.) and it brings together research that I have never found anywhere else – like the history of the theological debate on this very topic. TAKE UP AND READ.

  • Jonathan Waldburger

    How do you square “Fr. Barron’s basic assumption that the vast majority of human beings will not wind up [in hell]” with “We don’t [know] anything”?

    Jesus said that many take the way that leads to destruction and few find the way that leads to life. He said that he will tell many who call him “Lord” to depart from him on Judgement Day. We may hope for the salvation of every single individual human [except perhaps for Judas–Jesus said that it would be better for him not to have been born) but can we hope that God was wrong when He declared that many find destruction and few find life?

    • Mark Shea

      Okay. If you don’t like “assumption” try “working hypothesis” or “pious opinion”.

    • “He said that he will tell many who call him “Lord” to depart from him on Judgement Day. ”

      Did he? He said that “not everyone” who calls him “Lord, Lord” will enter. So that, to me, indicates that there is at least one person in Hell, but not much else.

      • Also, just because many are on the PATH to destruction doesn’t mean they actually get there. There is also Purgatory, remember. But I do have to clarify, because Jesus did say that he would say to THEM, “Depart from me, you evildoers”….so I guess there must be at least two people in Hell.

        • Rosemarie


          The antichrist and the false prophet at the end of time would make at least three:

          “And the beast was taken, and with him the false prophet, who wrought signs before him, wherewith he seduced them who received the character of the beast, and who adored his image. These two were cast alive into the pool of fire, burning with brimstone” (Apocalypse 19:20)

      • Jonathan Waldburger

        Yes, Jesus did say that to them: “On that day *many* will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord.” … And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you evildoers.’” If you think by “many” Jesus means “at least two people”, then I guess we could just go ahead and make the words ‘few’ and ‘many’ mean whatever we want them to.

        Those who go to purgatory are on the path to life, not the path to destruction.

        • You are right. I read only Matthew 7:21 and not verses 22 and 23. So, I guess it means at least the minimum number of people that could be considered “many”.

          I’m not sure that I’d consider those who go to Purgatory must necessarily be on the path to life rather than destruction. It may be that some are on the path to destruction, but are taken before faith is totally extinguished.

    • Jonathan:

      Be careful that you don’t make Scripture say more than it does. Yes: our Lord describes the choices mortals make–bad ones. God makes no further response?

      I’ll say it again: if upon arrival in heaven, you find out that indeed, our Lord meant all those things as warnings–not predictions–will you say he misled you?

      • Jonathan Waldburger

        Thank you for replying to my comment, Father. As far as I understand God indeed offers his mercy to us while we are still sinners, but once we die, or Jesus returns, our decision to accept or reject that mercy is final. (“Immediately after death the souls of those who die in a state of mortal sin descend into hell” ~ CCC 1035.)

        I know that us sinners will often tell a falsehood to motivate someone else (usually children) to behave in a certain way, but can we really expect that of God himself? As a high school teacher who has in the past warned his students with baseless and sometimes made-up-on-the-spot threats, I can attest to how this undermines the students’ faith in me when they find out that my warning was knowingly based on a falsehood, even if they appreciate my motives. Can we expect our all-knowing Lord to also warn us with a falsehood?

        For the common, non-theologian types like me who have read the Bible and what Jesus says about judgement and hell, it really does seem that it is Fr. Barron who is not only making Scripture mean more than it does, but even the opposite. In speculating the possible salvation of at least the majority of all humans, it sounds as though they are saying that the gate is narrow that leads to destruction, and there are few who take it, and that the gate is wide that leads to life, and there are many who find it. Is this not exactly the opposite of Divine Revelation has taught us? How else am I to understand what Mr. Shea calls “Fr. Barron’s basic assumption that the vast majority of human beings will not wind up [in hell]”?

  • Sherry Weddell

    Re: the “Multitudes” issue The scholars behind the World Christian Encyclopedia have attempted to estimate the number of human beings born since 33AD and came up with the rough figure of 36.8 billion . That’s a whole lot of people. And it doesn’t even include the millions born before 33 AD. It means that we would easily have “multitudes” in heaven and hell and purgatory all at the same time.

    Basically, the use of the word “multitudes” with regard to either hell or heaven, does not mean “all” or even a majority. Cause even 1% of 36.8 billion – a mere 368 million – is still a “multitude”.

    • Sherry Weddell

      Actually having a sense of the numbers involved should make come to a complete stop and think again. Cause even if 99% of the human race does make it to heaven, it still means that hundreds of millions of human beings didn’t – and that should grieve us deeply. To contemplate hundreds of millions of immortals, intended to real perfect happiness with God, who didn’t make it. Perhaps because many of them didn’t have access to the fulness of the means of grace (remember only about 36% of all the human beings who have ever lived even had the opportunity to hear about Jesus Christ and be baptized and only about 24% have been baptized) and the non-normative path of responding intentionally to mysterious internal graces of God was too difficult, too obscure, too isolated. When we stop proclaiming Christ and inviting people into his Church because we don’t believe that evangelization makes a real world difference, we are saying “you’ll be fine” – making a life-long journey of a million miles on foot, without any map, GPS, Google, or any information about your destination from family or friends, without any money, any knowledge that there is food or shelter along the way and where to find them, and in a cold, dense fog.” “You’ll be fine”,we say as we speed by in our heated, chartered bus on our guided tour where someone else transfers our bags for us into our reserved hotel room and invites us into a splendid banquet prepared just for us. We are all on the same journey to the same destination, right?

      • Exactly! Sometimes I wonder how much of this new “theological viewpoint” is just a rationalization to excuse our laziness and lack of courage. (I am most definitely including myself when I say “our”)

    • Subsistent

      Revelation 7:9’s “a great multitude, which no man could count” admittedly does not in and of itself exclude the notion of an even greater multitude in hell. But how is such a notion of a majority of humans finally in hell compatible with Luke 2:10? “… behold, I evangelize to you great joy, euangelizomai humin kharan megalēn, which WILL BE TO ALL THE PEOPLE, hētis ESTAI PANTI TŌI LAŌI: that there was born to you today a savior, ….”
      Notice, it’s not a matter of joy just for the present, but of great joy which will exist in the future; and which will belong to “all the people”. How could future joy be to all the people, if the majority of them will be in hell?

  • Matt

    Here’s the thing- Everyone is willing to say, “Jesus came to save…” But in order to save, there must be something to be saved from. And that would be hell.

    My experience as a Lutheran pastor showed me that God condemns no one to hell. But it is sure as shootin’ certain that a lot folks pack their own bags.

  • MikeTheGeek

    I find it very easy to picture myself choosing hell over heaven. In a thousand tiny ways, I do it every day. Having been a human being my entire life (though some might argue the point!), I suspect I’m not terribly exceptional.

    • For some great examples of people who talk themselves out of heaven to choose hell, I recommend C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce. C.S. Lewis admits to his readers that they shouldn’t accept his description of heaven/purgatory/hell as a legitimate theological theory. It is a work of fiction. But the great truth that Lewis points out in this novel is how we can deceive ourselves into believing we’re headed for heaven when we’re actually headed for hell.

  • MI Will

    Based on many pre-election posts on this blog, is everyone who voted for the Democrat or Republican for president in the last election headed towards hell?

    • Mark Shea

      Can it really be possible you never read this any of the 50 bazillion times I linked it. Or are you always just asking disingenuous gotcha questions?

      • MI Will

        I (being a normal American with a short attention span) usually do not read blogs messages more than three medium paragraphs long. I did read your linked message this time, though. Thank you.

    • Stacy

      Mark never said such a thing, of course. He said that HE could not in good conscience vote for either of them, because it seemed to him that both were asking him to condone one mortally sinful policy or another. He granted that others might legitimately have weighed things differently and come to a “hold your nose and vote for the lesser evil” decision, and he never charged anyone with sin for doing so. The closest I can recall him coming would be his elaborate revenge fantasies aimed at those policy-makers who were cutting out aid for the very veterans they had placed in the situation of becoming veterans, and even then I don’t think he raised the specter of eternal damnation, just horrifically apropos worldly punishments.

      • Mark Shea

        I don’t think having ill-gotten gains given back to people from whom they were taken, nor cleaning toilets, is horrific. I suppose being spat upon might be a trial for people used to living in limos, but it’s not near as bad as having their legs blown off.

  • Fr. Martin,

    I feel like you are attacking a straw man. I don’t read anyone saying that any particular person is in hell. The main issue here is Matthew 7:13-14. Jesus says, “and many enter through it.” Jesus doesn’t say who they are or exactly how many. However, he uses the word “many” which would seem to assert that it is more than “some” and less than “all.” I usually use “many” in my speech when it’s more than , or at least close to, 50%. And, that is how I read Jesus’ words.

    When Jesus says, “many” at the last super, he is using New Exodus language, in reference to the “many” in Exodus 1:8. But, in Matthew 7:13-14, Jesus is talking about “many” on the road to destruction, which does not seem to me a New Exodus reference. I think we should take it at face value. He’s saying that there are going to be many in hell.

    In Spe Salvi, the Pope was talking about those whose “Chrsitian life is built upon a common foundation: Jesus Christ.” Beautiful, the Pope is acknowledging that to build one’s life upon Jesus Christ is at the core of salvation. It’s a hat-tip to evangelicals who build their lives upon Jesus Christ. He’s not in any way stating that the majority of people’s will go to heaven via purgatory.

    • Bill:

      As far as a “straw man”–you may be right. I was keying off something Fr. Michael wrote above, but perhaps I misunderstood him.

      Let me try to be very plain in my purposes. I’m simply trying to push back against the notion that the question is a simple one, and folks like Balthasar and others are obviously, manifestly wrong. And when someone cites a particular scripture and says, “see!” I find that a little frustrating.

      Let’s apply Saint Ignatius of Loyola’s injunction and be generous in our assumptions toward those with whom we disagree. When someone pulls out this or that passage as an obvious refutation of Balthasar’s supposition, do you think Balthasar is aware of that passage? Do you think he read it? Thought about it? I think one must concede he did. How does he answer? I don’t know; I tried to read him but abandoned all hope around page 100. (Well, not all hope; I kept the volume and may try again someday.) But I’m pretty sure he could give a pretty good answer, perhaps not a brief one, to those who think they’ve got him with this or that verse.

      I’ve given my far less scholarly answer: I think those passages serve as warnings, not necessarily as predictions–or, let me say this; as conditional predictions of what might be, not what certainly will be.

      After all, what would be the point of God giving us predictions of a non-conditional sort? “A bunch of you are going to hell, no matter what.” What is the point of that? On the other hand, the point of a conditional prediction–in other words, a warning–seems clear: “A bunch of you are going to hell…unless…”

      There’s another problem which I can’t slide past: what about God’s determination to deploy all his power, all his “wiles” if you will permit the word, to win people over? I’m not denying free will; but God has ways to work on people, to “hound” them, to “corner” them, bringing them around. Is God so bereft of tools in his toolbox that he can be flummoxed by so many?

      Another question: God doesn’t have to create any individual. And God can determine the moment of every person’s death. Suppose–yes, I’m being fanciful–but suppose God, in planning the entirety of human history, did something like this. He foresaw all those who were going to get off track, and follow a path to perdition, but who might be saved through an intervention. Perhaps quite a lot of folks who died in utero would have gone to hell–but were saved be having their lives shortened?

      I’m certainly not denying people can reject God in a final way. But I can’t find any good reason to reject the hypothesis that God is more clever than we are, and has figured out chinks in our armor. But there’s no way we can know what that is like for anyone but ourselves–assuming we can even fathom the mysteries of grace at work in our own lives, which I think we probably cannot.

      So I remain open to the possibility that, when we arrive in heaven (which I do NOT assume I will, trust me on this)–hoping that I get there, and we all do–then we discover, to our endless marvel and joy, just how very clever God was. Won’t it be a grand joke? “Ah, you thought you had Me outfoxed, didn’t you? But I outfoxed you, didn’t I?” “Yes, Lord you did, thank You!” said _____ (fill in the name of the worst sinner ever).

      • “How does he answer?”

        I dared to hope I could find my copy in my office, and my hope was realized.

        Very briefly: “What we have here are two series of statements” — i.e., “the threatening remarks…made predominately by the pre-Easter Jesus, and the universalist statements (above all in Paul and John)” — “that, in the end, because we are *under* judgment, we neither can nor may bring into synthesis.”

        Balthasar goes on, without apparent irony, to state, “It is not for man… to construct syntheses here, and above all none of such a kind as to subsume one series of statements under the other.”

        Following which, one could argue, he goes on to construct a synthesis of a kind to subsume the former series of statements under the other.

        • The Deuce

          That sounds a lot like the Muslim approach to their “revelation” in the Koran, where it is acknowledged that Allah can and does contradict himself, and when he does, the old “truth” simply becomes inoperative and is subsumed under the more recent “truth.”

          • Well, Balthasar’s position isn’t quite as hopeless as I make it sound.

            He doesn’t say there are two mutually incompatible truths, one of which holds before the Resurrection and the other of which holds after. He says there are two very different views of divine judgment, which we in this life “neither can nor may” fully integrate into one picture. No expert myself, I think he’s saying the reason we can’t do the integration is because we ourselves are undergoing the very process of which Scripture provides the two different views. (I don’t see how the one necessarily follows from the other, but then I’m no expert.)

            My tendentious suggestion that Balthasar (I should probably write “Cardinal Balthasar,” but that doesn’t sound right) himself subsumes the “threatening remarks” series (I’ll just note in passing the question begging involved in characterizing the passages in this way) under the “universalist statements” series is based on my [inexpert] opinion that he interprets the second series literalistically (“all” is, apparently, to be understood here in the mathematical sense), while rejecting by assertion anti-universalist interpretations of the first series.

          • In short, to Fr. Fox’s point:

            Yes, Balthasar addresses the passages being brought forward to refute him. No, I don’t find him particularly convincing in his treatment of them.

      • “Won’t it be a grand joke?”

        If universal salvation implies that the salvation of the worst sinner is a grand joke, then universal salvation is a monstrous doctrine.

        • You might try being more generous.

          I was keying off several comments here that the reading of Scripture that I think is possible–that our Lord’s threats or descriptions of damnation are meant to warn us away from a path that will lead us there, are deceptive. Get that? Deceptive. That’s the claim several have made here, even so far as to say that, under my theory, I think God “lies.”–quote.

          Get that?

          Now….hold that thought…

          If you arrive in heaven, and you are filled with bluster–how dare God “deceive” us! We were so worried about hell! We thought we were in peril! We got our act together! We went to confession!

          God fooled us! Harumph! Bluster!

          In my fantasy, THAT is when God says, what a grand joke.

          Because anyone who is in the middle of Paradise, and is “mad” because God somehow “tricked” them into seeking his mercy, and thus saving them from hell…

          That person needs to lighten up.

          Get it now?

          • “Get it now?”

            Yes. I got it then, too.

            As I said, God saying “what a grand joke” is a monstrous thought.

            • I see. So God instead should apologize to those who are offended that he saved more people then they could imagine? For successfully inducing people to conversion through fear of hell? That those who would complain–in heaven–about such efforts by God, are right–and it would be “monstrous” for God to say they are wrong?

        • And, I might add:

          Please do not tie “universal salvation” to my comments. That’s a libel.

          • ‘Please do not tie “universal salvation” to my comments. That’s a libel.’

            Speaking of people who need to lighten up, if you don’t want “universal salvation” tied to your comments, you shouldn’t fantasize about universal salvation:

            “Suppose–yes, I’m being fanciful–but suppose God, in planning the entirety of human history, did something like this. He foresaw all those who were going to get off track, and follow a path to perdition, but who might be saved through an intervention.”

            And the possibility of “the worst sinner ever” being saved is only an argument against a large percentage of men being damned if a person has to be a worse sinner than the worst sinner ever to be damned.

            • Well, then, apparently you can’t read, or you choose to misrepresent.

              I don’t know how many times I’ve said in this thread that hell certainly has the fallen angels in it, and Judas is a hard case, and for the rest I don’t know. That’s not “universal salvation.”

              I don’t know how many will go to hell. Do you? You don’t? Then you’re as much a “universalist” as you accuse me of being. I hope and pray for every human soul to be saved. Am I wrong? Please explain why.

              And my point about the “worst sinner ever” was meant to be whoever the reader thinks of the hardest hard case. Because that’s part of this discussion–we often have our own ideas of who, surely, will roast in hell, and I think–heretic that I am–that such assumptions are dubious in their relationship to God’s own standards of justice. My point was to challenge the reader to imagine something hard to imagine. Now, I can accept that what I hoped to accomplish was not as clear as it could have been. In which case? Ask. Don’t impugn my orthodoxy (which is what you do when you associate me with “universal salvation”), when my other comments were clear enough.

              But, yes, I plead guilty to having high hopes for many more people to be saved than you, apparently do.

              I think it would be quite wonderful if more, and more, and more people are rescued from the torments of hell. I don’t consider that “monstrous” at all.

        • It occurs to me you simply misunderstand what I meant by a “joke.”

          The “joke” is on those who think God is wrong to be generous and to save more than they expected. Salvation is not a joke; but the pretensions of those who would complain that God is unjust in finding ways to save more than they anticipated, are to be laughed at. If God were simply to laugh at them–and invite to laugh at themselves, that would be a happy outcome.

          I fail to see anything “monstrous” in either God’s success at saving more than we can imagine, or in God laughing at human objections to his efforts.

    • Sorry to blather on, but I hope this is helpful.

      When our Lord speaks of “many” seeking the wrong path, I think that’s quite true. But how does that translate into “they go to hell”?

      Saint Augustine tells us, movingly, about how much of his life he resolutely pursued the wrong path. Yet to say he made it to heaven doesn’t make that untrue. So it goes with so many saints.

      In other words, its one thing to speak, as our Lord does, of many many making unwise and potentially damnable choices; all the more reason for him to intervene in the human scene. In short, it’s a warning.

  • Sam Schmitt

    Am I the only one who thinks it a bit odd that Christ tells us a parable with some on his right and others on his left – some go to heaven, some to hell – if it turns out there’s no one in hell? “The king will say: Depart from me . . . ” There’s no conditional clause here.

    I understand it’s a parable, but the Christian tradition seems to take for granted that some souls actually make it to hell. Take, for example, the Roman Catechism, issued by the Holy See after the Council of Trent: “Hell, then, here signifies those secret abodes in which are detained the souls that have not obtained the happiness of heaven. In this sense the word is frequently used in Scripture.”

    More recently, John Paul II wrote in Crossing the Threshold of Hope (pp. 185-86): “[T]he words of Christ are unequivocal. In Matthew’s Gospel he speaks clearly of those who will go to eternal punishment (cf. Matt. 25:46). [But] who will these be? The Church has never made any pronouncement in this regard.” So for JPII, the unanswered question is not “Is anyone in hell?” but “Who is there?” Though we don’t know the answer to the second, we do to the first. I understand that this is in no way definitive papal teaching, but it’s interesting that the pope does not even bring up the question of whether or not people are in hell or not. The only unanswered question is who those people might be.

    See: this Catholic Answers tract.

    • Sam:

      Sorry to be a broken record: but if the Lord was saying those things in order to induce repentance and conversion, then why is that odd? If you get to heaven, and find out that’s what he was about, will you complain? Will you think you were ill-used because you took it as you did?

      My question remains: suppose it wasn’t to warn people onto the path of life. What is the point of saying, “a bunch of you are going to hell, no matter what”? How does that advance salvation of souls–unless, as I keep saying, it’s meant as a warning: “repent and believe in the Gospel, the kingdom of heaven is at hand”?

      • Sam Schmitt

        I understand that the purpose of Christ’s words is to move us to repentance, but our first job is to try to understand what Our Lord is telling us. I am very sympathetic to what you are saying – and in fact would prefer that this be the meaning of Christ’s words – but I don’t think we should jump too quickly to the notion that since we don’t see the point of Christ saying that people are actually in hell, then he must not be asserting that.

        I can’t get away from the sense that it’s confusing and even misleading for Christ to say these things IF, in fact, no human soul is in hell and no one will end up there. At the very least, a strong current in the tradition understands these words in the way I have suggested. Evidently centuries of believers considered that Christ asserting that people are actually in hell was a strong inducement to repentance and a way to advance the salvation of souls . (I’m not sure where you go the idea of people going to hell “no matter what.”) My basic question was how to reconcile this with an interpretation such as yours.

        I will be very happy to learn that I’m wrong in my interpretation!

  • Theo Student

    I don’t like pulling the ”I have an education card” very often, but sometimes I gotta. I just completed my 3rd (and penultimate) semester of schooling at a Catholic institution that is also a seminary. After taking a moral theology course in college and then another one here at the graduate level, I can say that while it is very, very easy for humans to do the most horrible and despicable things imaginable, it seems very difficult for the majority of humans to understand how horrible they are. Yes, many of us, sometimes daily, choose several hell-worthy options…but the sad fact is that the average perso – even the average Catholic – has know understanding of how terrible they are. Basically, the condition for making the conscience effort to outrightly reject God and choose damnation is missing from their decision making process. As all the Experts on Sin here in the Combox know, full knowledge of what one is doing + the consequences, and will to sin, in addition to grave matter, are needed to commit hell-deserving mortal sins. From what my understanding is of people in today’s culture, extremely few are educated enough about what God actually wants of them to consciously choose to sin mortally. Too few understand the gravity of what they are doing because of how cultural norms and societal norms have done a fantastic job of drowning out the voice of Christ in the world to untrained ears. As the professor noted, the average Catholic even only spends 1 hour at church a week versus 167 hours a week out in the secularized world we live in where TV, books, magazines, the radio, movies, the news, their peers, their own family, and Lord knows what else are bombarding them with suggestions that all that God stuff is a load of crap, because look, everyone else KNOWS better and is doing X, Y, Z. I guess my point is that, after knowing a little more about the complexities of sin as a choice For God or Not For God, it seems that most people are ignorantly and sometimes inculpably choosing Not For God…and because of this, we can always hope that there are not very many people in hell, if any at all. I bet Purgatory is busting at the seams, however, and that’s the beauty of it. I’ll let you know when I get there.

    • “Basically, the condition for making the conscience effort to outrightly reject God and choose damnation is missing from their decision making process.”

      Yes, the transition of majority opinion from “it is very difficult to avoid mortal sin” to “it is very difficult to commit mortal sin” is part of the overall shift toward quasi-universalism.

      • Sherry Weddell

        Per Tom’s illuminating quote (from someone else) above: “Basically, the condition for making the conscience effort to outrightly reject God and choose damnation is missing from their decision making process.”

        The Gospels, St. Paul, the early Church Father, the saints ,the catechism, all speak as though we are required to exercise our will and make a choice FOR God. Now we seem to be saying that God does save us without us, that that choice was already made FOR US (by God presumably) and that our only opt out is to explicitly choose damnation?

        • Matthew

          Theo Student:
          For the guilt of mortal sin to attach it is sufficient that one knows that the act is wrong. One does NOT need to know it is a mortal sin.
          And to pull the “education card” – I’m working on an STL and have taught moral theology.

          • Mike Petrik

            Not sure if that is quite right. I suspect appreciation of the level of gravity must be relevant. In any case we know this is not true for sins grounded in Church law, such as Mass obligations.

          • Theo Student

            Right, you have to have knowledge that the act is wrong.

            My point that that most people don’t realize that they are acting wrongly. The average American Teen does not believe or know that pre-marital sex is wrong. They think it’s ok. Absolutely it is wrong! Unfortunately most Americans have their morality shaped by popular media and their peers, not by the Church.

            I assist in teaching 5th and 7th grade Religious Ed to children who do not go to Catholic school (and whose parents barely bring them to mass). The 5th graders argue with me about Jesus being God, but I’d hardly call them Arians…they just don’t know better. We’re trying to fix that. The 7th graders told me I was wrong when I said marriage was between one man and one woman, because the message they get from their public schooling, friends, and ”family” shows like The New Normal is that marriage is whatever you want it to be. Are they being little dissenters and heretics? Of course not. They just don’t understand the faith. We’re working on that too.

            The unfortunate reality is that once these kids get confirmed, if they remain in faith formation that long, their parents are not going to force them to go to mass, and I doubt they’ll choose too…I also doubt they are going to do anything to form their Catholic consciences. They are going to live out in the world, instead, as sinning adults without much more than a Middle School level of understanding of what the Church teaches and believes – at best.

            Only 1/3 of the kids we have in faith formation actually show up for mass because their parents don’t bring them. I have little reason to believe the other 2/3 or going to be making thoughtful, prayerful, or considerate decisions about sin in the future. My fellow catechists and I try our damnedest to instill the faith in them, but they aren’t the most willing pupils. Thanks to relativism and radical individualism running rampet in society, what we’re saying to them is just our opinion, and has little weight in what they actually believe or understand about life in general.

            I hope to God things will change, but until they do, I know there are Catholic children out there growing up to be Catholic adults who don’t really understand the nature of right and wrong, or that what they think is right is actually wrong, and therefore cannot be making adequately informed decisions enough to commit mortal sins in every instance of wrong-doing.

            If they are saved, it will be because of the great mercy of our all-forgiving God and their own blatant stupidity.

          • The Deuce

            The idea that you have to acknowledge that you’re committing mortal sin in order to commit it strikes me as crazy. *Everyone* tells themselves that what they’re doing is OK when they do it. That’s Jesus’ whole point when he says “And you will say, ‘We ate and drank in your company and you taught in our streets.’ Then he will say to you, ‘I do not know where [you] are from. Depart from me, all you evildoers!’” The requirement that you acknowledge it would mean that those who were most dishonest with themselves would be the ones who would be most likely to be saved!

            Now, whether someone *should* have known better surely must have some bearing on things, but let me remind you that everyone has access to natural law.

            I think Tom K very perceptively noticed that beneath the surface debate of just how populated hell is or isn’t, there is for a lot of people a more serious, and more insidious, issue of defining down the gravity of sin.

            • About gravity of sin and culpability–I don’t see the problem you do.

              The Church’s teaching clearly distinguishes between the gravity of a sin, and the culpability of the sinner. If, as you seem to say, one is not less culpable for failing to know how gravely wrong the sin is, then that means one be culpable for a mortal sin without even knowing one committed a mortal sin.

              I can tell you as a confessor, that’s a dangerous, slippery slope on which to put someone.

              But let’s get back to what the Church actually teaches. From the Catechism (bolding added by me):

              1857. For a sin to be mortal, three conditions must together be met: “Mortal sin is sin whose object is grave matter and which is also committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent.”131

              1858. Grave matter is specified by the Ten Commandments, corresponding to the answer of Jesus to the rich young man: “Do not kill, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and your mother.”132 The gravity of sins is more or less great: murder is graver than theft. One must also take into account who is wronged: violence against parents is in itself graver than violence against a stranger.

              1859. Mortal sin requires full knowledge and complete consent. It presupposes knowledge of the sinful character of the act, of its opposition to God’s law. It also implies a consent sufficiently deliberate to be a personal choice. Feigned ignorance and hardness of heart133 do not diminish, but rather increase, the voluntary character of a sin.

              Unintentional ignorance can diminish or even remove the imputability of a grave offense. But no one is deemed to be ignorant of the principles of the moral law, which are written in the conscience of every man. The promptings of feelings and passions can also diminish the voluntary and free character of the offense, as can external pressures or pathological disorders. Sin committed through malice, by deliberate choice of evil, is the gravest.

              Now, if you want, you can follow the footnotes, which will take you to papal documents, Scripture, and the decrees of the Council of Trent.

              It might be a worthy discussion to pursue: is “unintentional ignorance” the relative gravity of an offense itself something that can mitigate the culpability of a sin? I think so. I would argue that it also impinges on the question of consent: would you consent to a sin more readily if you think it is “venial” versus “mortal”? It seems commonsensical to suppose that even upright people will find consenting to a venial sin easier than a mortal one.

              But in any case, how can one describe knowledge as “full”–if it doesn’t include the exact nature of the act? In civil law, we make distinctions between murder, voluntary and involuntary manslaughter–they aren’t all “the same”; these distinctions, even if they are fine, have good reason behind them. One may be guilty of one of these, yet innocent of the other, precisely because of what distinguishes them.

              By definition, knowledge is is partial is not full–and as the Catechism makes clear, if you have partial–but not full–knowledge of a sin, however grave the sin itself is, it is not “mortal.”

              • The Deuce

                I was responding to Theo Student, who was quite plainly defining sin down in order to reach the “hell has a small population” thesis. The idea that you have to knowingly accept that you are committing mortal sin, and yet do it anyway in order for the sin to be mortal, is an attempt to “demote” the sins that we actually commit by defining down the gravity of them.

                • Yes, I understand. But the Church has included, in her teachings, the modifier “full” before “knowledge” as a necessary element in a mortal sin. So why is not reasonable to say that part of “full” knowledge pertains to the gravity of a sin?

  • Theo Student

    And, I too apologize for my many, many spelling and gramatical errors. I study theology, not English, and finals week has indeed taken its toll!!

  • Stacy

    From the Scriptural evidence and what we can know by reason about human nature, it does seem highly unlikely (from our time-bound perspective) and perhaps even simply untrue (from God’s eternal perspective) that the human population of Hell is zero or vanishingly small. Even so, though, surely the GOAL (ours as evangelists and God’s as loving creator of every human soul) is to have that population end up as small as possible. An inspired writer wrote “God wills that all men be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth” some time after Jesus had already made His statements about the wide and narrow ways and the sheep and goats, after all. Yes, some people will use these speculations to build up a squishy near-universalism that effectively denies Hell, but I think the commenters here (and the Pope and Fr. Barron) are more trying to keep alive the hope that God’s will in this matter might actually come closer to being achieved than we have historically assumed. Conversely, pondering the little number of the saved may light a fire (ahem) under some people, but can cripple others with scruples, so we must be careful whichever way we look at things. (I recently listened to the famous homily of that very name, “On the Little Number of Those Saved,” and even that guy, who places the proportion of the damned among ADULT CATHOLICS at greater than 50%, still spends the end of the talk reminding everyone who hears his words that whatever the likely number of the damned, they can all still choose to be among the saved by taking hold of the grace that God continues to offer every soul.)

  • MasterThief

    I think Avery Cardinal Dulles had the best take on this question…

    “The search for numbers in the demography of hell is futile. God in His wisdom has seen fit not to disclose any statistics. Several sayings of Jesus in the Gospels give the impression that the majority are lost. Paul, without denying the likelihood that some sinners will die without sufficient repentance, teaches that the grace of Christ is more powerful than sin: “Where sin increased, grace abounded all the more” (Romans 5:20). Passages such as these permit us to hope that very many, if not all, will be saved.

    All told, it is good that God has left us without exact information. If we knew that virtually everybody would be damned, we would be tempted to despair. If we knew that all, or nearly all, are saved, we might become presumptuous. If we knew that some fixed percent, say fifty, would be saved, we would be caught in an unholy rivalry. We would rejoice in every sign that others were among the lost, since our own chances of election would thereby be increased. Such a competitive spirit would hardly be compatible with the gospel.

    We are forbidden to seek our own salvation in a selfish and egotistical way. We are keepers of our brothers and sisters. The more we work for their salvation, the more of God’s favor we can expect for ourselves. Those of us who believe and make use of the means that God has provided for the forgiveness of sins and the reform of life have no reason to fear. We can be sure that Christ, who died on the Cross for us, will not fail to give us the grace we need. We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, and that if we persevere in that love, nothing whatever can separate us from Christ (cf. Romans 8:28-39). That is all the assurance we can have, and it should be enough.”

    • The Deuce

      Totally off-topic, but are you by any chance a fan of the Thief: The Dark Project games?

  • Brother Cadfael

    It has been a while since I read Von Balthasar’s book, but his essential point seemed to me to be that we not only can hope that each man is saved, a Christian is bound in charity to hope that each man is saved. In other words, you cannot on the one hand profess to be a Christian and on the other hand hope that any particular person is eternally damned. If I can hope that each particular man is saved, I can certainly hope that all of them are.

    He was very careful in the book to affirm the reality of hell. In other words, it is not a mere possibility — it is real, and Satan and his crew are real and they do occupy it. Moreover, it is a real and definite possibility for any person to choose hell, and it is possible that some number, be it great or small, have done so and will do so.

    My first reaction to Von Balthasar’s book was that it is incredibly nuanced, and he certainly knew that it would it would be subject to intense criticism and even condemnation. Fr. Barron, in my opinion, does his usual excellent job of making a complex topic readily accessible, and is certainly to be commended for that. But I don’t see how any serious Christian can really take issue with Von Balthasar’s main point: we have an obligation to pray for the salvation of all souls, and we must hope for whatever we pray for. Prayer without hope, it seems obvious enough, is not really prayer.

    As to arguments based on the private revelations of many great saints, St. John of the Cross emphasized that the grace accompanying the revelation is the real point. We get into dangerous territory when we start placing too much emphasis on, or try to interpret or validate, the subject matter of the revelation. A vision is as likely to be given as a warning as it is to verify historical fact.

    • I wasn’t struck by the nuance of declaring that the Scriptural passages that are contrary to the book’s thesis are fundamentally irreconcilable with the Scriptural passages that can be invoked to support the thesis, and therefore lie outside the scope of the book.

      And some of Balthasar’s followers — including Fr. Neuhaus — have settled for the nuance of saying that, while there is a real possibility of damnation, there’s no real possibility that God will allow anyone to be damned.

      My own objection to the thesis that “a Christian is bound in charity to hope that each man is saved” is this: Hope — Christian hope — is certain. “That each man is saved” is not part of the Christian faith, therefore it can’t be hoped with Christian hope.

      And if someone says, “Well, I don’t exactly mean *Christian* hope, qua theological virtue, but more the common or garden hope that expresses the desire for a certain outcome,” that’s fine, and even laudable — though it’d be pretty sloppy coming from a professional theologian.

      • Brother Cadfael

        Tom K.,

        It should be obvious that I am not a professional theologian, and I am only paraphrasing my recollection of what Von Balthasar said, so it would not be fair to call his position as sloppy based on my undoubtedly poor characterization of it.

        With respect to the distinction you make between between “common or garden hope” and hope as a theological virtue, I would point you to sections 1817-21 of the Catechism, which are dedicated to hope as one of the theological virtues. In particular, section 1821 states the following: “In hope, the Church prays for ‘all men to be saved.'” If Von Balthasar’s point can be fairly summarized in one sentence, I think that would be it.

        • I’m not a professional theologian, either. Balthasar was, and he titled his book “Was Dürfen Wir Hoffen?” (“What May We Hope?”)

          I think “In hope, the Church prays for ‘all men to be saved,'” is quite a different statement than, “The Church hopes that no one is damned.”

      • Allan

        So to clarify, are you saying you hope there are people in hell?

        • I have little hope of being able to clarify anything for anyone who would ask that question.

    • The Deuce

      “If I can hope that each particular man is saved, I can certainly hope that all of them are.”

      That does not follow. Let me give you an analogy: I think that each of my opinions are correct, as do you (otherwise, they wouldn’t be our opinions, by definition). However, I very strongly doubt that *all* of my opinions are correct, and I’d have to be extremely arrogant to think otherwise.

      • Brother Cadfael

        I hope that all of my opinions are correct, even if my reason tells me that is extremely unlikely.

  • Tom R

    I think you can make a catechetical case for requiring Catholics to at least hope that no one is in hell.
    1058 The Church prays that no one should be lost: “Lord, let me never be parted from you.” If it is true that no one can save himself, it is also true that God “desires all men to be saved” (1 Tim 2:4), and that for him “all things are possible” (Mt 19:26).
    If we are required to believe that someone is in hell, then the prayer that no one should be lost is vain.

  • I might point out something that may seem obvious, but I wonder. For those who insist that a particular Scripture must be taken a certain way: have you noticed that the Magisterium doesn’t approach Scripture that way? There may be examples of Scripture passages for which the Church has specified a specific interpretation, but I can’t think of any at the moment–by which I mean only that doing so is pretty unusual. It’s not how the Catholic Church approaches these matters. The Church proposes doctrines and definitions, setting the bounds for what is in communion and out; within those bounds we have lots of leeway in how we approach various matters. Including how we read particular Scriptures.

    That includes me. I may be badly wrong. My consolation is that I’m not suggesting anyone not repent.

  • Just a laity with limited understanding, but it seems to me we want Heaven to be densely populated and we want Hell to be without residents. It is a hope we hold in part to eliminate our own fear of judgement after death, and in part, because if we love God and we love others as ourselves, we will not be able to bear the idea of one of those we love, not being present. It would be like not having all of the family home at Christmas or not everyone you hold dear come to your wedding. The reality is there will be souls that refuse God because they do not Want a relationship with God, not because God does not WANT a relationship with them. God’s deep mysterious love of us (unworthy as we are) however takes our will, our wishes into account. If you do not wish to go to the perpetual wedding feast, you will be taken at your word. If you do not care enough to come to God, to love God enough to be alert, you will find the doors shut. God’s mercy is what grants us even the invitation to Heaven. God’s mercy shields us from our own failures to approximate even a half a teaspoon’s worth of His love. But God’s justice demands that we willingly accept /seek His mercy. We have to avoid predisposition error (We’ve all got a ticket to ride, just don’t be an axe murderer), and despair (I am unworthy of God’s forgiveness). We’re the people of both and, we’re to pray/fast/act as we would as adopted children of God, as we would in Heaven and know that we are always capable of losing that gift/that grace because we can at any moment, fall away, fall into sin, be led to the moment of saying Crucify Him. The number of residents of Hell, speculated upon or envisioned, is not relevant to the reality of Hell, or to our obligations to act in order to stay steeped in God’s grace.

  • Matthew

    A primary theological source that seems to be missing from this conversation is the consensus of the Fathers. What did all the great theologians of the first millenium have to say on this issue? Can anyone cite a Father of the Church who supported the idea that Hell held no human inhabitants? (Yes, Origen, did but he was condemned for it – arguably for saying that the demons were also ‘redeemed’.)

    • Brother Cadfael

      According to Fr. Barron:

      “To be sure, the conviction that Hell is a crowded place has been contested from the earliest days of the Church, and Martin fully acknowledges this. Origen, St. Gregory of Nyssa and St. Maximus the Confessor all held to some form of universalism, that is to say, the belief that, at the end of the day, all people would be gathered to the Lord.”

    • Dante Aligheri

      All these – and not all of them are strictly Fathers of the Church – may or may not have been universalists but to my knowledge they were at least “majoritarian.”
      Bl. John of Ruysbroeck
      Bl. Julian of Norwich
      St. Clement of Alexandria (?)
      St. Maximus the Confessor
      St. Gregory Nazianzus
      St. Gregory of Nyssa
      St. Seraphim of Sarov
      St. Isaac of Nineveh
      St. Ephrem the Syrian
      I don’t know if these would count since they are not saints, but they were influential medieval theologians. But I believe John Scotus Eriugena might have been, too. Finally, and I don’t know if he counts but as far as I understand he was never declared heretical (but has been unfortunately badly distorted by the New Age Movement) is Meister Eckhart.

  • Mark S. (not for Shea)

    One thing I am very confident of, so much so that I assert without hesitation that I KNOW it: The Holy Father and Father Robert Barron are way smarter than me on these matters.

    And another thing I’m also pretty confident of: No one will be in Hell who doesn’t deserve to be there. And no one will be in Heaven who does deserve to be there, except for One, and it is only by His grace that we’re going to make it.

  • Rebecca

    “The great fear, of course (expressed, for instance, by my reader above), is that without hell, nobody will be motivated to believe. I would suggest that this is a poor understanding of what it means to be a disciple. A real disciple is one out of love for Jesus, not terror of hell.”

    I can only say again that Jesus knew better than you or me and He was the one who warned about Hell the most. If that is the case then obviously Jesus thought it was a good and important motivator to wake up and repent. It doesn’t seem like Jesus had any problem with people being terrified of hell…he seemed to encourage it. He always gave very graphic, scary descriptions and metaphors of hell. Also, I think Jimmy Akin has made a very good case that Judas is in Hell since Jesus said it was better for him not to have been born.

  • Rebecca

    ‘Lord, are they few that are saved? But he said to them: Strive to enter by the narrow gate; for many, I say to you, shall seek to enter, and SHALL NOT BE ABLE.’ Luke 13:23-24
    ‘Not all, nor even a majority, are saved. . . They are indeed many, if regarded by themselves, but they are few in comparison with the far larger number of those who shall be punished with the devil.’
    St. Augustine, Doctor and Father of the Church
    ‘The greater part of men choose to be damned rather than to love Almighty God.’
    St. Alphonsus Maria de Liguori, Doctor of the Church
    ‘What do you think? How many of the inhabitants of this city may perhaps be saved? What I am about to tell you is very terrible, yet I will not conceal it from you. Out of this thickly populated city with its thousands of inhabitants not one hundred people will be saved. I even doubt whether there will be as many as that!’
    St. John Chrysostom, Doctor and Father of the Church
    ‘Ah, how many souls lose Heaven and are cast into Hell!’
    St. Francis Xavier
    ‘Those who are saved are in the minority.’
    St. Thomas Aquinas, Doctor of the Church

    ‘. . . a greater number is lost through false confidence than through excessive fear.’

    Ven. Louis de Granada

    Are there any Saints who say that most are saved? I’ve never read any that say that. All I’ve ever read is that the saints say that most are damned.

  • Subsistent

    “Are there any Saints who say that most are saved?”
    You may wish to check out Padre Pio’s view on this matter. I admit it’s only hearsay — and I’m not even sure he’s actually yet canonized, but I think I remember a Catholic priest during a weekday homily mention in passing that Padre Pio opined that most humans will end up saved.

    • Rosemarie


      St. Pio was canonized in 2002. I’d be interested in reading what he said on this matter.

  • Balin

    St. John Chrysostom, a saint who held the Hell is crowded position, when asked who and/or how many are in Hell replied that we should not concern ourselves with who is in Hell, how many are in Hell or where Hell actually is. All we need to do is make sure we don’t end up there. Many are in Hell if I’m there and few are in heaven if I’m not there. If I’m the only one in Hell that’s too many. If every one is in Heaven except me that’s too few.

    If I have a reasonable hope that all may be saved that would include me and I hope that the Lord will appreciate my selfless hope that everybody will be given the same mercy I ask for myself. And yet my reasonable hope that all may be saved doesn’t in any way deny that in the end Hell will be SRO. And the residents SOL.

    The reasonable hope adherents do not deny that Hell may be crowded, only that we reasonably hope that Our Lord will lead all souls to Heaven especially those most in need of His Mercy.

    The Hell is crowded crowd are in no way being denied their right to hold the view they hold. Why do those who hold this view deny others the right to charitably hope and pray that God may in His Mercy lead all souls to Heaven? What’s it gonna hurt them to reasonably hope that all may be saved? Wouldn’t they want all souls to be saved? They may be right but why would they want to be right? Wouldn’t they reasonably hope they are wrong? Wouldn’t they want to be wrong? They may in fact be right. The fact that they seem to want to be right is what is so disturbing.

    • Balin

      “Hell will be SRO” should read “Hell may be SRO”. Hell may very well be crowded with souls with manual typewriters and no White Out.

  • sandy

    Oh Mark, you can never let go of your little mental hobgoblins. Chief among them your absurd and false claim that Romney “advocated” mortal sin. You have backed yourself so far into this corner that it’s clear that you aren’t coming out. too bad.

    • Mark Shea

      Yes. He advocated abortion for any reason. He advocated drone strikes on civilians. He advocated torture. He advocated gay adoption. Get out of your bubble and face reality.

  • Stu

    Where in the wide, wide world of sports do you drink coffee?

    Five bucks?

    • Mark Shea

      I don’t drink coffee. Never liked it. But I live in the Land of Starbucks.

  • Elaine S.

    I know “The Great Divorce” by C. S. Lewis is fiction, but I think there is an aspect of the story that could be relevant to this topic.


    “Divorce” opens with the narrator wandering through a drab gray city (Hell, though not everyone in it realizes that it is Hell) waiting for a bus that will take him and other residents on an excursion to Heaven. The people boarding the bus say that the city extends for thousands of miles in every direction and that many of its residents live too far away from the bus stop to ever consider going because it would take decades or centuries for them to get there. (The reason the city is so large, they add, is because its residents constantly quarrel with their neighbors and move farther and farther out to get away from them!) When the bus finally reaches Heaven it emerges through a gigantic canyon with huge cliffs on either side.
    Near the end of the book, after the author George McDonald (a major influence upon Lewis) has shown the unnamed narrator around Heaven, McDonald shows him a tiny, nearly invisible crack in the ground and explains that this tiny crack was the great chasm through which the bus from Hell entered. “All Hell is smaller than one pebble of your world; but it is smaller than one atom of this, the Real World,” McDonald says.
    The point that Lewis was trying to make here, I believe, is that good is greater and more “real” than evil, so logically Heaven has to be greater and more “real” than Hell, or even than earth. If that’s the case, then I would suspect that in the end there will be more, perhaps far more, souls in Heaven than in Hell. But as a previous poster pointed out, even if only 1% of the estimated 36 billion people who have lived on earth since Christ went to Hell, that would still total 360 million people — more than the current population of the entire United States.
    I agree that it’s best not to speculate too much on numbers or percentages of saved vs. lost because doing so tends to lead to either presumption or despair. I do believe that when we (hopefully) arrive in Heaven (or Purgatory, which is really an extension of Heaven since souls in it are saved), we will be surprised to discover who is there — and who isn’t.

  • Brother Cadfael

    “Then faith in the unboundedness of divine love and grace also justifies hope for the universality of redemption, although through the possibility of resistance to grace that remains open in principle, the possibility of eternal damnation also persists.”

    — St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein)

  • Jonathan Waldburger

    Is “Fr. Barron’s [pious opinion] that the vast majority of human beings will not wind up [in hell]” akin to opining that the gate is narrow that leads to destruction, and there are few who take it, and that the gate is wide that leads to life, and there are many who find it?

    • Subsistent

      No, they’re not closely akin. For Our Lord’s statement — in which He left unanswered His disciples’ question — has to do with how things are for the great majority of discombobulated people leading seriously disordered lives here and now on earth; whereas Fr. Barron’s “pious opinion” has to do rather with how things may well be hereafter, when Jesus, having answered the Fatima prayer, will have led “souls to heaven, especially those who have most need of Thy mercy”.

      • Jonathan Waldburger

        So basically to see Fr. Barron’s view as not directly contradicting our Lord, one needs to hold that the life only a few find (according to Jesus) is not eternal life, and the destruction that many find is the here and now (temporal) consequences of sin and not final judgement?

        • Subsistent

          It’s possible to find even eternal life here below on earth, in the sense that eternal life can begin even here below; for example, at Baptism; for another example, a second beginning at the sacrament of Reconciliation, when with even “imperfect contrition”, a penitent’s soul can pass from a state of mortal sin to the state of Sanctifying Grace.

  • Tom R

    I think Fr. Barron’s opinion that the vast majority of human beings will not wind up in hell is in agreement with Mark’s post. We have no idea. That’s it. Jesus spoke in parables, and it’s quite possible that what he meant was, “A lot of you, in fact most of you, are going to commit grievous sin in your life, and you don’t even realize how much it will harm you.” Nowhere is anyone saying that purgation of sin is not necessary. We just don’t know what purgation means!

  • Tom R

    To amplify the point, I find it extremely interesting that, in Spe Salvi, Pope Benedict says the following:
    “Some recent theologians are of the opinion that the fire which both burns and saves is Christ himself, the Judge and Saviour. The encounter with him is the decisive act of judgement. Before his gaze all falsehood melts away. This encounter with him, as it burns us, transforms and frees us, allowing us to become truly ourselves. All that we build during our lives can prove to be mere straw, pure bluster, and it collapses. Yet in the pain of this encounter, when the impurity and sickness of our lives become evident to us, there lies salvation. His gaze, the touch of his heart heals us through an undeniably painful transformation “as through fire”. But it is a blessed pain, in which the holy power of his love sears through us like a flame, enabling us to become totally ourselves and thus totally of God. ”
    I’m no theologian, but this statement is revolutionary in the sense that Benedict even acknowledges that the fire and Christ’s light may be one and the same. I encourage you to read the rest of that paragraph (47), because it also discusses a lack of understanding of eternity, and the viewpoint that GOD HIMSELF IS OUR ADVOCATE at the time of death. These are not my words, but those of Benedict. The point of what I’m saying is that we don’t know what Hell is, and we don’t know what eternity is. They are human constructs for events that are not part of this world.

    • Jonathan Waldburger

      But I think those who read Jesus’ words at face value would argue that those who enter purgatory are of the few that have taken the path to life. Purgatory has never been understood as the path to or of destruction. That what purges away our sinfulness could be Christ Himself only makes this even harder to understand as the gate entered by many that leads to destruction.

  • IB Bill

    Recognizing that Jesus specifically didn’t give us an answer as to how many are saved and told us not to, but to worry about our own salvation, I still speculate. I know what I want in my heart — that everyone should eventually be brought to a place of love and truth that they fess up, forgive and be forgiven, and be reconciled to God and one another. What I don’t know is if that’s just a nice sentiment.

    I look at the irrevocable nature of many of our choices on this earth, choices that make us suffer, choices that make others suffer, choices that others make that make us suffer, and it could easily follow that we make eternal choices, too. Yet I just can’t accept it. I must hope for universal salvation.