Things I Don’t Get

Things I Don’t Get December 12, 2012

Here is a perfectly orthodox explanation of the Church’s doctrine of hell by Fr. Robert Barron.

Compared with the whole “Hell went out with Vatican II” or “Sophisticated Christians now understand that hell was a medieval fear tactic” or sundry other attempts to say “Ain’t no such thang” what sticks out for me is simply that Fr. Barron affirms both the reality and eternity of hell. The only thing he doesn’t do–and with good reason in my view–is offer an opinion on how many–or if any–will go there.

And because of this, there is, I gather a Controversy.

I’ve never understood this.

There is, to be sure, a very dangerous presumption of Universalism among a lot of Catholics. The average Catholic tends to talk as though it’s automatic heaven for everybody except maybe Hitler or a pedophile priest somewhere. Partly that springs from a psychological habit of not presuming to judge others. Partly it springs from a conviction that, at the end of the day, most people are pretty good and the whole “need of salvation” thing is good for religious types and specially devoted folk, but as long as we keep our noses clean and pay our taxes, we’re pretty much a shoo-in. That mentality needs killin’ bad since the testimony of the Tradition is that the crucifixion not only is the payment for our sin, but a demonstration of what our species, apart from grace, really does. What is homo sapiens? Homo sapiens is the species that does *that* to God when he gets his hands on him. We really are quite vile apart from grace. And that means you, bub. You’re not a nice person. Neither am I. Without the fifty bazillion helps and supports of grace, you would be a disgusting thing indeed. And even with those helps and supports, God has his hands full keeping you out of trouble. You and I are, in the most cosmic sense of the word, jerks. So heaven is not a shoo-in and you need to get off your fat butt and cooperate with grace because you could still lose this battle of life, close your heart forever and wind up losing everything you ever desired most deeply.

That’s the warning of hell. The problem is, there is another sort of person: the one who is pretty sure he knows that there are lots of people in hell and (just between you and me) who quite a number of them are. The problem is simply this: we know no such thing. We don’t know the end of the story. So we are allowed neither presumption nor despair. We are only allowed hope. Fr. Barron seems to me to strike just that balance. He does not preach universalism. His whole point is that hell is a real possibility and he clearly warns of it. What he does not do is indulge the speculation about who or how many go there. That’s God’s job.

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