Hell and Evangelization

Hell and Evangelization December 11, 2012

Recently Ralph Martin has published what appears to be an important book entitled, Will Many be Saved? The majority of Martin’s book is spent arguing that we need to stop assuming that most people will be saved, and indeed Augustine and Aquinas would probably agree with him. The last chapter of the book argues that the Church needs restore a little hellfire and brimstone, as it were, into its preaching in order to successfully evangelize. He explains that thanks in part to the overly optimistic perspectives of influential theological giants like Karl Rahner and Hans Urs von Balthasar, Catholics have lost their missionary zeal because they seem to assume that most will end up in heaven anyway. Thus, fear of hell needs to be restored both among believers and unbelievers alike so that we can again remember from what Christ claims to save us.

Fr. Robert Barron has responded to Martin from his own Balthasarian-Ratzingerian perspective. He writes,

I found his central argument undermined by one of his own footnotes. In a note buried on page 284 of his text, Martin cites some “remarks” of Pope Benedict XVI that have contributed, in his judgment, to confusion on the point in question. He is referring to observations in sections 45-47 of the Pope’s 2007 encyclical Spe Salvi, which can be summarized as follows. There are a relative handful of truly wicked people in whom the love of God and neighbor has been totally extinguished through sin, and there are a relative handful of people whose lives are utterly pure, completely given over to the demands of love.

Those latter few will proceed, upon death, directly to Heaven, and those former few will, upon death, enter the state that the Church calls Hell. 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. Martin knows that the Pope stands athwart the position that he has taken throughout his study, for he says casually enough, “The argument of this book would suggest a need for clarification.”

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

For the moment though, I’m not as interested in the doctrinal question as in the pastoral question, and I tend to agree with the Pope and Fr. Barron and to disagree with Martin. While it is clear that an effort to restore a certain “holy fear” could be done well, the thought of any attempt to do so in the present social climate makes of me think of Kierkegaard’s allegory of the clown and the burning city cited by Ratzinger in Intro to Christianity. For our purposes we could compare the modern theologian attempting to restore a fear of hell and damnation to a clown who is part of a traveling circus. The circus caught fire, and the clown, in full clown garb, left for the nearby village to warn them of the impending danger and to ask for help. But the villagers took his warning to be a clever piece of advertising and responded with laughter rather than sending help to douse the flames. Ultimately the entire circus and most of the village was burnt to the ground. It is difficult to conceive of an evangelist warning people of the dangers of refusing to accept Christ getting a much better response.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Any preaching of the Gospel that does not include the possibility of judgment is certainly a false Gospel and bears little similarity to Jesus’ own preaching, but perhaps there is another way of communicating the urgency of evangelization and totality of the Gospel that goes with it without using fear as the agency of urgency.

Frankly I think Benedict may have some suggestions for us, but I’ll save that for next post. What do you all think?

(Note: Check out D.L. Jones’ post for more info on the doctrinal conversation.)

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