A Reader has a Question about Hell

She writes:

I enjoy reading both your work and Jimmy Akin's. I read this column of Jimmy's a little while back with much interest, because I have wondered this as well.

I thought Jimmy had a well reasoned answer, and honestly it made me feel better. Until I read the comments on the article, some of which I found very disturbing. I saw that you commented on it as well. The long list of someone's copied and pasted quotes from various saints about "the fewness of the saved" was upsetting to me. What do you make of those?

I approach these questions from a two sided perspective. I used to be something of a so-called "cafeteria Catholic," similar to the people mentioned in the column of Jimmy's. I was raised in the Church but some of its teachings were undermined for me at every turn. Most Catholics who are under 40 were raised by parents and even grandparents who flat out rejected the Church's encyclical on birth control, and had no problem telling their kids about their point of view. The Church's teachings about sexual matters and birth control were barely touched on in my middle school CCD (presented as "Don't do it" with no context or explanation), and then never brought up again. Sometimes it's brought up in Catholic pre-Cana classes, but by that time, it's usually too late. It's not hard to see why people, including myself, were able to be conned (for lack of a better word) by the media, their high school sex ed classes, their peers, their own family members, and in most cases even their fellow parishioners. Eventually, inexplicably, I "came around" and rejected all of that, went to Reconciliation, and am now living a pretty "by the book" Catholic life (using NFP, wouldn't think of skipping a Sunday or Holy Day Mass, etc.). Great, right? Yes. But I'm acutely aware that the majority of my Catholic brethren are still in the place that I was a few years ago, and may never "come around" as I did. I worry about them. However I can say this: The vast majority of those people are nothing like the "likely hell bound" people Pope Benedict described in Spe Salvi and quoted by Jimmy: "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 was never me, and I don't think it is the case for most of the rest of the Catholic population who is using birth control, skips the occasional Mass, etc. Even though I was doing something I knew the Church said was wrong, knowing a thing and truly understanding and internalizing it are different. I genuinely and truly never intended to reject God. I always loved Him and always strove to live a moral life as my internal conscience dictated. The only way I can explain it is to say that I had some type of defect in my faith, or understanding of it, which was caused by years of societal narrative and bad example, that allowed me to basically live under a delusion that it was OK to do something the Church said I couldn't. This seems to be what Pope Benedict was getting at in Spe Salvi when he talked about "compromises with evil" made by people (the vast majority) who were still basically good, and could be saved and purified in purgatory, unlike the truly evil ones who cannot be saved. All of this made me feel much better, until I read the combox on Jimmy's article, where some people said God accepts no excuses, and quoted saints who basically said almost everyone goes to hell, etc. What say you? I value your opinion (and Jimmy's).

The thing to always bear in mind in discussions about hell is that the New Testament and the Catholic tradition frequently present us with various truths in tension with one another. So the Tradition insists that Jesus is fully God and fully man, that all have sinned and that Mary is without sin, that God predestines and that we have free will, that God is all powerful and immortal and that Jesus was weak and mortal, that God is one and that God is three, etc. At various times and places, every one of these propositions has stuck in somebody’s craw and various zealots have refused to remain with the tension but have instead attempted to “resolve” the tension by simply abolishing one or the other poles of tension and settling on the easy solution of simply declaring the part of the Tradition they like to be the “truth” while the part they don't like is explained away as a "corruption" or "outdated" or in some other way subordinate to the "main thing"--that is, the part of the Tradition they like. This is what all heresy attempts to do.

Now another aspect of Catholic tradition that has plagued simplifiers down through the ages is the question of hell: Will many (or all) be saved or few? And there have always been Catholics who emphasize either the fewness or the manyness of the saved—and who cite various authorities in the Tradition itself as backup for their views. That’s not hard to do since the Tradition has, in fact, two irreconcilable (for human intellect) strains of teaching, both originating in Jesus himself and both faithfully transmitted by the apostles. They are summarized in the sayings of Jesus that, on the one hand, "broad is the way that leads to destruction and many there be that walk therein", and on the other hand, “When I am lifted up I will draw all men to me.” The apostles echo this, of course, warning of everlasting damnation for the wicked and, at the same time, insisting that God wills to save all. They don’t even attempt to reconcile these two aspects of the Tradition. They simply transmit them.

But, of course, Christians after them do try to reconcile them. And the way they try to resolve the tension reveals, not anything about the Tradition, but about the personalities and/or cultural priorities of the Christians trying to do the reconciling. Some Christians (including, yes, orthodox Fathers of the Church) have emphasized the manyness of the saved. Some the fewness (the preponderance have emphasized this). But (and here is the central point), while lots of figures have speculated on the manyness and the fewness, the Church herself has never made any formal comment on the matter, with one exception. The only thing the Church has ever done is condemn the claim that we can know all will be saved. (For obvious reasons, she has never had to address an opposing claim that we can know all will be damned since, if we knew that, there wouldn’t be much point to the Christian revelation at all, would there?  The Christian revelation is, at minimum, the claim that somebody will be saved.)

So: we cannot know all or most will be saved. On the other hand, we also can’t know that most or many will be damned. Why? Because we’re not God and we don’t know the end of the story. We do not have knowledge. We only have the virtue of hope. And the Church has never condemned the claim that we can hope many or even all will be saved.

There’s a very good reason for that: The Church herself, following the apostles, prays in her liturgy that all will be saved. You can’t pray for the impossible.You cannot pray for what God has revealed he will never ever do.  So, for instance, there are no prayers in the liturgy for the salvation of Satan.  Why?  Because it has been revealed to us that Satan is damned.  But we do pray--and have always prayed--for the salvation of all people.  Why?  Because the Church prays in the hope (not the knowledge) that all will be saved and always has, ever since Paul wrote "God has consigned all men to disobedience, that he may have mercy upon all" (Romans 11:32) and

First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all men, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life, godly and respectful in every way. This is good, and it is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. (1 Timothy 2:1-4)

So the Church prays for the salvation of all in hope.  But that’s all it is: hope, not knowledge. That’s because what we have are the virtues of faith and hope, not of knowledge and certitude. Indeed, in the Catholic tradition, the twin enemies of hope are two forms of certitude: presumption and despair.

Presumption claims to know the end of the story and says, “I know all will be saved, so let's blow off God’s commandments and do as we please without fear of consequences.”

Despair says, “I know that no matter what I do, I’ll be damned, so let's give up right now.”

Both are enemies of hope, which looks, not to the future with certitude of the end of the story, but to Christ in the sacrament of the present moment.

Now the tricky part about all this in the Church's intellectual tradition is that, so long as you don't claim knowledge or certitude, you can be all over the map in your speculations about the census statistics in hell.  So, for instance, when Augustine and various Fathers of the Church speculate on the manyness of the damned they are perfectly within their rights to do so.  However, we must also bear in mind that no matter how many Fathers and theologians offer their speculations on the fewness of the saved, what we still have, at the end of the day, is a lot of speculation.  We do not have "the teaching of the Church" because the Church, in fact, has never ventured an opinion, much less a doctrine, on the population of hell.  An idea does not become "the teaching of the Church" simply because a lot of Catholics speculate about it.  This is why, despite centuries of speculation about Limbo or the Great Monarch or the antichrist arising from the tribe of Dan, such speculations are not "the teaching of the Church" but simply the same guesses made by a lot of people--and never confirmed or denied by the Magisterium.

Because of this Magisterial agnosticism about the population of hell, when somebody offers a different speculation from common patristic and medieval opinion they are free to do so.  Thus, when Pope Benedict opines in Spe Salvi:

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).

...and a Fr. Robert Barron follows him in sharing this hopeful speculation that the bulk of the human race will not be lost, this does not represent a "departure from traditional teaching" for a very good reason: both schools of speculation are within the pale of traditional Church teaching since the traditional teaching of the Church has never forbidden either school of speculation.  It has only forbidden claims of knowledge that all or most will be saved.  If you are not claiming knowledge, but only expressing hope,that many will be saved you are as orthodox as, you know, Pope Benedict.

Some people, unnerved by the fact that Magisterium does not join them in the attempt to claim knowledge on this matter, will often try to wring super-duper divine trump card backup for their school of opinion from some private revelation such as Fatima (this is typically done by partisans of the "few will be saved" school).  The idea here is not that Mary is another god, but rather that she is another pope--filling in holes in public revelation with "secret knowledge" that will set the Church straight and put the smackdown on that irksome other pole of tension that is complicating everything.  So enthusiasts for the view that few will be saved love to point to the famous Vision of Hell in which the Fatima visionaries were shown souls falling into hell like snowflakes.  Case closed!

Or not.  Since the other thing the children are commanded to do is pray "lead all souls to heaven, especially those most in need of thy mercy".  So the private revelation does what authentic private revelations are supposed to do: point us back to the public revelation.  And the public revelation speaks of both the danger of damnation for each person and the hope of salvation for each person.  So we are left with that: the warning spurring us to act and the faith calling us to pray and act in hope for all.  That's all we've got: hope.