Being Precise About Catholic Church Teaching on Hell

COMMENTARY: The three most recent popes — St. John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis — have taken the optimistic view.

Pope Benedict XVI signs “Spe Salvi,” the second encyclical of his pontificate, Nov. 30, 2007, at the Vatican.
Pope Benedict XVI signs “Spe Salvi,” the second encyclical of his pontificate, Nov. 30, 2007, at the Vatican. (photo: L’Osservatore Romano / Vatican Pool / Getty Images)

Pope Francis recently sparked a discussion when he told an Italian television program, “What I am going to say is not a dogma of faith but my own personal view: I like to think of hell as empty; I hope it is.”

I was not surprised he would have this view. It is common in some ecclesiastical circles and was proposed by theologian and priest Hans Urs von Balthasar in his book Dare We Hope That All Men Be Saved?

Given how Pope Francis’ comments often function as a lightning rod, I was not surprised by the discussion that followed, and one contribution was a recent article by Ralph Martin.

Although framed as a piece about what the Church teaches on hell, Martin spent much of it arguing for his own view, which is the traditional one, that hell is both a real possibility and an actual reality for many people. He explores this further in his book Will Many Be Saved?

I wish Martin well in arguing his case — and arguing it vigorously. The thought that hell might be a real but unrealized possibility is a comforting one that can be attractive to many today. However, Scripture contains serious warnings about hell that do not sound hypothetical.

As a result, the theological field should not simply be ceded to what we moderns find comfortable and reassuring. If there is to be any reassessment of the traditional view of hell as an actual reality for many, Scripture’s statements need to be taken seriously and both sides need to be argued vigorously.

(I’d note, in particular, that in his book von Balthasar never even addresses Luke 13:23-24, where in response to the question, “Lord, will those who are saved be few?” Jesus responds, “Strive to enter by the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able.”)

My sympathies are thus with Martin, but I would refine a few things about his article.

First, regarding Pope Francis’ statement that what he was about to say was “not a dogma of faith,” Martin offers a definition of dogma that could suggest it is restricted to revealed truths connected with salvation. I would point out, by contrast, that in current theological jargon, a dogma is any truth that the Catholic Church has infallibly defined to be divinely revealed, whether or not it has any direct connection with salvation. (Culpably rejecting a dogma is a mortal sin; but the truth itself doesn’t have to have a direct connection with salvation.)

Second, there is a passage where Martin conveys a misleading impression about the views of Cardinal Avery Dulles. First, he says that “the traditional interpretation ... by the Church’s greatest theologians is that it is very likely that many people go [to hell],” then he identifies Cardinal Dulles as “perhaps the leading American theologian of the 20th century,” and then he cites a 2003 article that Dulles wrote in First Things.

The problem is that Martin quotes a part of the article in which Cardinal Dulles refers to several passages of Scripture and says, “Taken in their obvious meaning, passages such as these give the impression that there is a hell, and that many go there; more in fact, than are saved.” The impression is thus that Cardinal Dulles is firmly in the line of “the Church’s greatest theologians” who believe that “many go there; more in fact, than are saved.”

However, this is not Cardinal Dulles’s view. He notes the obvious interpretation of various Bible passages without asserting that the obvious one is the only possible one. In fact, he concludes:

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.

Martin’s article thus conveys a misleading impression of Dulles.

What does the Church actually teach? This is found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which says, in part, “The teaching of the Church affirms the existence of hell and its eternity. Immediately after death the souls of those who die in a state of mortal sin descend into hell” (1035).

The Church thus teaches that hell is a real possibility. If you die in mortal sin, you go there. But does the Church leave room for the idea that God might rescue all from mortal sin — even at the last moment?

The Catechism states, “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 Timothy 2:4), and that for him ‘all things are possible’ (Matthew 19:26)” (Catechism, 1058).

The Catechism thus seems open to the possibility that God — for whom “all things are possible” — might be able to rescue all from mortal sin and thus hell might be empty.

This view seems to be permitted on other grounds. After von Balthasar proposed it in Dare We Hope, Pope St. John Paul II named him a cardinal — specifically for his theological contributions — though Father von Balthasar died before the consistory.

Further, as Cardinal Dulles notes in his 2003 article, John Paul II seemed to have a change of view on this subject. The cardinal notes that in his non-magisterial 1995 interview book Crossing the Threshold of Hope, the Pope raised Father von Balthasar’s view and says, “yet the words of Christ are unequivocal. In Matthew’s Gospel he speaks clearly of those who will go to eternal punishment.”

However, as the cardinal notes, in a magisterial text in 1999, Pope John Paul seemed to have shifted, saying, “Damnation remains a possibility, but we are not granted, without special divine revelation, the knowledge of whether or which human beings are effectively involved in it” (General Audience, July 28, 1999, emphasis added).

Based on what he said, John Paul was open on the question of “whether” human beings actually go to hell, and Cardinal Dulles concludes that “the Pope may have abandoned his criticism of Balthasar.”

It should be noted that in the version of the audience currently on the Vatican website, the words “whether or” have been deleted. However, this does not alter what John Paul II apparently said, and we cannot know why the words were deleted or whether John Paul II gave his approval to this edit.

For his part, Pope Benedict XVI also took an optimistic view regarding hell in his 2007 encyclical Spe Salvi. He states:

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 (45).

He then contrasts these with people who are so pure they go straight to heaven and then concludes:

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 (46).

This latter category goes to purgatory to be purified. Pope Benedict thus thought that “we may suppose” that few go to hell, few go directly to heaven, and “the great majority of people” go to purgatory before heaven.

We thus see the three most recent popes taking optimistic views of hell, with the later John Paul II seemingly open to the idea it may be empty, Benedict holding that we may suppose those who go there are few, and Francis hoping that it is empty.

I’m firmly convinced of the value for theological discussion of vigorously arguing the traditional view that some and even many go to hell — and hearing what the optimists have to say in response. 

At the same time, when presenting the teaching of the Church, we should be aware of the flexibility that is being displayed on this matter, including by the recent popes.

Edward Okuń, “Judas,” 1901

Hell Is Real (Jan. 27)

Pope Francis recently called on the international community to ban surrogate pregnancy. His words are a welcome source of support for pro-life advocates in Michigan, which is about to become ‘one of the most surrogacy-friendly jurisdictions in the world.’ That’s what Genevieve Marnon, legislative director of Right to Life of Michigan, told the Register. Genevieve joins us today. But first, we turn to another topic Pope Francis recently talked about, and one that most of us don’t like to think about: the reality of Hell. Father Jeffery Kirby joins us now.