John Zmirak received his B.A. from Yale University in 1986, then his M.F.A. in screenwriting and fiction and his Ph.D. in English in 1996 from Louisiana State University. He has taught at Catholic and secular colleges, including Tulane University. He has contributed to American Conservatism: An Encyclopedia and The Encyclopedia of Catholic Social Thought. He has served as Senior Editor of Faith & Family Magazine and a reporter at The National Catholic Register. His new book, The Bad Catholic’s Guide to the Catechism, is now available. Check his new blogs and archived columns at The Bad Catholic’s Bingo Hall.
One of the best popular theologians today, Father Robert Barron, wrote a highly useful piece at Catholic News Agency last week on a topic most rarely think about: The number of the saved. Father Barron’s column reviews a new book by Ralph Martin: Will Many Be Saved?
This issue percolates in the back of my mind as I write apologetics. When you’re trying to win people over to the teachings of the Church or help shore up their faith, one of the trickiest questions is hell. We preach a perfectly loving, gracious God, who came down to earth to suffer horribly at the hands of men because he wants the salvation of all. The obvious, comforting way to interpret this is to say that God gets what he wants, so all will be saved. This reading saves answering painful questions.
Of course we have all heard horror stories of catechists and priests who really do treat salvation as trivial, who lazily guess that a loving God would never sentence a soul to eternal punishment for merely temporal sins. Such talk, as Martin points out, undercuts most of the reasons for evangelizing anyone. Why bother preaching the Gospel if everybody is saved anyway?
On this reading, missionaries are doctors who spend and risk their lives to hand out not a vaccine but a placebo. And barring a rightly vivid fear of purgatory, why bother shunning sin?
The New Testament itself should be enough to dispose of this error. If Jesus’ words mean what they seem to, not all are saved. In fact, as Martin notes, in some places he seems to suggest that the number is small. Some dour acquaintances of mine like to forward around a bleak old sermon by St. Leonard of St. Maurice that announces the “fewness of the saved.” I got my copy from a devout New England Catholic who has become convinced not only that no non-Catholics are saved, but that very few Catholics are — and that he will not be one of them. Still, he trudges off to Mass, homeschools 10 kids and fiercely argues theology, all in service of a God in whom he has lost hope. When this fellow tries to evangelize, I wonder what on earth he has to say.
The God who blindly saves everybody does indeed seem like C.S. Lewis’ “senile grandfather in heaven.” It’s hard to believe that such a God exists, or if so, to take him seriously. Eternity with him is just another inexorable stage in the cosmic process, as out of our hands as other things that we’ve endured without our consent — like conception and birth.
But a God who saves very few raises other issues: It is hard to believe that he is good. And we begin to doubt his competence: First he creates a mankind prone to a sin that will damn the whole race; then he sends a Redeemer who can only manage to pull a tiny remnant from the pit of eternal fire toward which the teeming billions of souls slide on a conveyor belt.
Is this the all-powerful, all-loving God with whom we would even want to spend eternity? Why? (Perhaps because the alternative is so gruesome.) But why buy into such a system in the first place — when instead you could dare to hope that God does not exist?
The monstrousness of the Calvinist God (who saves whomever he chooses via irresistible grace, and damns the rest) drove most of New England down just this path in the 18th and 19th centuries — though some rescued God’s goodness and his power by asserting that all are predestined to be saved. The Yankees who decided this put the “Universalist” into “Universalist-Unitarianism.”
In preaching the faith, we must avoid the old salesman’s trick, the “bait-and-switch.” As apologists, we make hell understandable, and even perhaps acceptable, by pointing up the overwhelming mercy of God, the ocean of graces offered any soul, the relentlessness of a Love that hunts each sinner like a real-life Hound of Heaven.
Despite this mighty divine initiative to rescue every soul, God insists each soul accept his mercy. In this divine romance, no soul is raped. Those who really want to reject God are free to do so; His grace will take “No” for an answer.
The danger comes once someone has taken the “bait,” accepted the whole Catholic system, and granted that certain sinners may (and some surely have) rejected God’s offer. Then we are tempted to “switch” what we’re asking him to believe. We give him brochures on the fewness of the saved, we read him the very long list of mortal sins — with little talk of diminished culpability or purgatory — and show him the text of apparitions that suggest that hell is full and groaning at the seams. If he thinks things through, they completely undermine the arguments that convinced him that hell was reasonable in the first place.
Apologetics often do drive theology, since a theory that’s so repulsive that it keeps people from accepting the Faith is probably not true. Such arguments helped the Church reject Augustine’s belief that unbaptized babies were damned. Apologetical pressure also helped drive the Church’s development of the doctrine called “baptism of desire.” It simply became impossible to convince people that a just (much less a loving) God would be so sloppy as to create billions of souls whose eternal destiny depended on water baptism — centuries before anyone would actually show up and offer to baptize them. If every human being who reached the age of reason in, say, Burma, before the first missionary appeared, faced not purgatory or limbo but hell …
Such a God is hard to believe in, much less to fall in love with. It’s much easier to say, with Dostoevsky’s Ivan Karamazov, “I respectfully return my ticket.”
But as Christians we are called to freely distribute such saving tickets, not cash them in for refunds. And people rightly see through a bait and switch. So I am glad that Pope Benedict’s own Spe Salvi (On Christian Hope) — as Father Barron points out — offers a much more hopeful account of the number of those who will after purgation be saved, one that is consistent with the arguments for hell that can make sense to unbelievers, or believers who have not silenced their skeptical intellect.