The Catholic Church and the Return of Hell

For the past couple of decades the hope that all will be saved has been on the ascendency in the Roman Catholic Church. This hope is powerfully stated by Hans Urs von Balthasar in his book Dare We Hope That All Men Be Saved? But the tide appears to be changing. Ralph Martin, lay theologian and evangelist, has recently published a book challenging the universalist hope: Will Many Be Saved?: What Vatican II Actually Teaches and Its Implications for the New Evangelization. It has generated a fair amount buzz on the internet and elsewhere. Given the number of blurb approvals, including Donald Cardinal Wuerl, Francis Cardinal George, and Archbishop J. Augustine DiNoia, it would appear that Catholics are beginning to reassess the role of hell in the proclamation of the good news of Jesus Christ.

I have not yet read Martin’s book, but based on the Amazon preview Martin’s thesis appears to be something along these lines: God normatively effects the salvation of individuals through explicit faith in Jesus Christ and baptism into holy Church, and we may not presume that God will effect salvation apart from these ordinary means. With Vatican II, Martin acknowledges the possibility that God might save those outside the Catholic Church, under specific conditions; but recognizing such a possibility that God might so act is not the same as saying that he will do so. Hence the imperative to evangelize—God has commissioned the Church to preach the gospel and make disciples. Martin’s fear is that the universalist hope severely undermines this evangelistic mission.

Fr Dwight Longenecker has recently published two blog articles on hell. He clearly agrees with the thrust of Martin’s book. “Universalism is one of the cancers eating away at the Catholic Church in the modern age,” he declares” (“Will Many Be Saved?“). Fr Longenecker opines that hell is indeed populated, and he suspects that the damned will be many, not few:

We must accept hell and we must accept that many go there. … Will there really be great multitudes who reject God’s love and hate him to the bitter end? My own opinion is that this is so because I see so many people in this life who hate all that is beautiful, good and true. It is so easy to suggest that the vast majority are poor, lost lemmings who don’t really know God or reject God and that they are good at heart and mean well and when they see Christ they will accept him joyfully. But is this the case? To be sure there are many who have just impediments to faith. They were shown a bad example, or they were abused by a Christian or they were never taught the true faith.

However, there are also a vast number of people who have no impediments. They live in a Christian society. There is a church on every street corner. There are signs of faith all around them. They are surrounded by Christian friends, family and neighbors. They have been to Sunday School and been catechized. They have Christian radio shows and television programs. They have religious books and websites. They have had plenty of time and plenty of chances to seek the truth, to find the Lord and to pursue their soul’s salvation and they have done nothing at all. They have not sought the Lord. They have not sought eternal life and they have not responded to any sign of religion or faith. Shall they not be held accountable for the fact that they did nothing? They did not care enough for their soul to even begin asking the questions? …

And what of the millions of pagan souls who have never heard of Christ? We hope that they may be saved by following faithfully the light they have been given, and we are taught that this is possible, but is there much evidence that many of those souls do, in fact, pursue the light they have been given with sincere hearts and with all their might? I hope that it is so, but I do not see evidence of such. It seems to me that most men are like me–they spend their lives thinking only of themselves and their pleasure and think very little about God and his Beauty and goodness. Furthermore, there is plenty of evidence that many of the pagans are not simply drifting in a haze of general niceness and goodness which will one day allow them to drift into heaven. Instead among the pagans we see true barbarism, cruelty, violence and the worship of demons. (“Is Hell Highly Populated?“)

Fr Longenecker is hardly alone in his assessment that hell will be “highly populated.” As Avery Cardinal Dulles has noted, throughout the history of the Church, theologians have conjectured that the majority of humanity will be consigned to hell. In the oft-quoted words of St John Chrysostom: “Among thousands of people there are not a hundred who will arrive at their salvation, and I am not even certain of that number, so much perversity is there among the young and so much negligence among the old” (“The Population of Hell“). St Augustine: “It is certain that few are saved.” St Thomas Aquinas: “Those who are saved are in the minority.” St Alphonsus Maria Liguori: “The greater number of men still say to God: ‘Lord, we would rather be slaves of the devil and condemned to Hell than be Thy servants.’ Alas, the greatest number—we may say nearly all—offend and despise Thee, my Jesus. How many countries there are in which there are scarcely any Catholics, and all the rest either infidels or heretics. And all of them are certainly on the way to being lost.” Blessed John Marie Vianney: “The number of the saved is as few as the number of grapes left after the pickers have passed.” St John Neuman: “Notwithstanding assurances that God did not create any man for Hell, and that He wishes all men to be saved, it remains equally true that only few will be saved; that only few will go to Heaven; and that the greater part of mankind will be lost forever.”

Cardinal Dulles bemoans the sentimental optimism now found among the Catholic faithful: “Today a kind of thoughtless optimism is the more prevalent error. Quite apart from what theologians teach, popular piety has become saccharine. Unable to grasp the rationale for eternal punishment, many Christians take it almost for granted that everyone, or practically everyone, must be saved.” With Martin and Longenecker perhaps we are witnessing a return to the pessimism (I’m sure they would prefer the world “realism”) of earlier generations.

I’d like to note an oddity about this pessimism. It is expressed by those who belong to a tradition that has long taught that God can, if he so chooses, effectively bring a human being to saving faith. This is known as efficacious grace, as distinct from sufficient grace. By efficacious grace God liberates a human being from the bondage of sin and “causes” him to freely surrender his heart to him; by sufficient grace God makes it possible for a human being to freely surrender his heart to him. In his book on grace, Fr Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange quotes St Augustine: “It is certain that we will when we will, but God causes us to will; it is certain that we act when we act, but God causes us to act, supplying most efficacious forces to the will.” He then comments: “Therefore God confers grace, efficacious of itself, by which the hard heart is overcome and made obedient, yielding consent.” I do not want to suggest that other voices have not also existed, and exist, within the Catholic Church on the question of efficacious grace—I’m thinking particularly of the Molinist school—but I believe (someone correct me if I’m wrong) that the Thomist view still remains the dominant teaching. Even if it’s not, it at least still remains a legitimate Catholic option.

So the question then becomes: if God can efficaciously bring one human being to faith and salvation, why doesn’t he do so for all? This is not a live question for Orthodoxy, given the absence of the notion of efficacious grace in Eastern theology. But we are talking here about the Church of Augustine and Aquinas. The Roman Catholic Church clearly teaches that God desires the salvation of every person, that he has objectively accomplished humanity’s redemption in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, that he bestows sufficient grace upon all for salvation. It also enjoys a long-standing conviction of an intrinsically efficacious grace that God can bestow to effectively and infallibly bring a human being to saving faith. So why the pessimism?

(Go to: “Accept Hell? Hell No!”)

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8 Responses to The Catholic Church and the Return of Hell

  1. john burnett says:

    why the pessimism? because if everybody can go to heaven free, that puts a church that earns its living by selling tickets to heaven out of business. Pure. and. simple!

    They’re right about the sentimentality, though— that’s what the new universalism is based on: just a ‘feeling’ that ‘she’s gone to a better place’. And that’s just Fifi the Chow! Problem is, though, their pessimistic sentimentality is no better; in fact worse, because it’s manipulative.

    Neither the universalists nor the pessimists nor the catholics nor the orthodox have it right. Jesus said *nothing* about ‘going to heaven when you die’. N-O-T-H-I-N-G-!!!. He had LOTS to say about ‘entering heaven’s reign’ or ‘dining in God’s regime’, or what ‘God’s regime is like’— but that was all something you either started doing *today*, and it took care of itself later, or it didn’t matter what you ‘believed’ or ‘felt’ about ‘life after death’— you were dead already and fit for gehenna, where they throw the corpses.

    We really have to get back to the Bible! Its understanding is so clear and sharp!


  2. Edward De Vita says:

    “why the pessimism? because if everybody can go to heaven free, that puts a church that earns its living by selling tickets to heaven out of business. Pure. and. simple!”

    To be fair to the “pessimists”, they often hold their views out of a real concern for their fellow man. They hold that, apart from such a pessimistic view of man’s state before God, there would be no incentive to proclaim the good news of salvation to the world. One of the main problems with this view, of course, is that the “good news” that they preach is not particularly good. It is news of a God who, whether permissively or actively, has willed from all eternity that the vast majority of those made in his image will suffer eternal penalties for their brief lives of wickedness here on earth. Moreover, one wonders why they would even bother with evangelism when they know ahead of time that the outcome of their efforts will be little more than nothing. Human nature is such that we rarely take on a task unless we have some hope of its being fulfilled. It would seem to me then, that hope of universal salvation, rather than pessimism would be a better driving force for evangelism.

    “They’re right about the sentimentality, though— that’s what the new universalism is based on: just a ‘feeling’ that ‘she’s gone to a better place’. And that’s just Fifi the Chow! ”

    I think this is true of your average man in the street. But the hope of universal salvation in the teaching of theologians such as Von Balthasar and saints such as Gregory of Nyssa and Isaac of Nineveh is not in any way sentimental.

    “Neither the universalists nor the pessimists nor the catholics nor the orthodox have it right. Jesus said *nothing* about ‘going to heaven when you die’. N-O-T-H-I-N-G-!!!. He had LOTS to say about ‘entering heaven’s reign’ or ‘dining in God’s regime’, or what ‘God’s regime is like’— but that was all something you either started doing *today*, and it took care of itself later, or it didn’t matter what you ‘believed’ or ‘felt’ about ‘life after death’— you were dead already and fit for gehenna, where they throw the corpses.”

    Am I correct in inferring that you take the “Gehenna” texts in the gospels to refer to this-worldly punishments? If so, I am in general agreement with you. It seems clear to me that Jesus preached from within the prophetic tradition. And in that tradition the often severe but very temporal chastisements that fell upon Israel were frequently enunciated in terms of “eternal destruction” and “unquenchable fire.” At the same time there does seem to have been a development in Second Temple Judaism whereby these terms came to be applied to what happens to individuals after the resurrection and final judgment.
    Also, how do you square your statement that Jesus said nothing about going to heaven when you die with His promise to the good thief on the cross?



  3. Edward says:

    For what it’s worth, I’d like to share the following rather lengthy passage from the book, “The One Purpose of God”, written by Jan Bonda. The passage concerns the apocryphal book 2 Esdras. Bonda writes:

    “It (the third vision in 2 Esdras) focuses on the fate of the many who will be lost: the many Israelites who have not lived according to the law, but also the many non-Israelites who were ignorant of the law. The writer, who has assumed the name Ezra, protests against that idea. He cannot bear the thought that God has destined the mass of humanity for perdition. For that is the fate that has been presented to him as God’s ultimate purpose:

    ‘The Most High shall be revealed upon the throne of judgment: and then cometh the end, and compassion shall pass away, and pity be far off, and long-suffering withdrawn…and recompense shall follow, and the reward be made manifest. Deeds of righteousness shall awake, and deeds of iniquity shall not sleep. And then shall the pit of torment appear, and over against it the place of refreshment. The furnace of Gehenna shall be made manifest, and over against it the Paradise of delight.’

    Here we find the clear conviction that the coming judgment is the end of God’s mercy. The author wrestles with a view of the judgment that was current in his time. He believes that God is indeed like this, but has great difficulty with it:

    ‘And I answered and said, if I have found favour in thy sight, show me, thy servant, this also: whether in the day of judgment the righteous shall also be able to intercede for the ungodly, or to entreat the Most High on their behalf: fathers for sons, sons for parents, brothers for brothers, kinsfolk for their nearest, friends for their dearest.’

    The answer is that this is feasible in the present world, since there is still grace, but in the future that will no longer be the case. “so shall no man then be able to have mercy on him who is condemned in the judgment” (2 Esdras 7:106-15). The majority will be lost forever. God has no problem with this teaching:

    ‘I will rejoice over the few that shall be saved…and I will not grieve over the multitude of them that perish… For indeed I will not concern myself about the creation of those who have sinned, or their death, judgment, or perdition…..’

    Ezra reminds God that this declaration does not square with what Scripture says about him — namely, that he is merciful, gracious, patient, bountiful, abundant in compassion, kind and forgiving. The response once again is that these attributes apply to the present and not to the future. The future world is not created for the many, but the few. “Many have been created, but only a few shall be saved” (8:3)
    But why were things created if God destroys his own creation: Would it not have been better if God had, when he was creating, stopped with the animals. For in bestowing reason upon human beings, he made it possible for them to sin against God:

    ‘And I answered and said, O Earth, what hast thou brought forth, if the mind is sprung from the dust as every other created thing? It had been better if the dust itself had even been unborn, that the mind might not have come into being from it … Let the human race lament, but the beasts of the field be glad! Let all the earth-born mourn, but let the cattle and the flocks rejoice! For it is far better with them than with us; for they have no judgment to look for, neither do they know of any torture or of any salvation promised to them after death. For what doth it profit us that we shall be preserved alive, but yet suffer great torment?’

    Ezra himself receives the assurance that he will not be among those who are to be tormented, for he has a treasure of good works. But this thought is of almost no comfort to him:

    ‘And I answered and said, This is my first and last word; better had it been that the earth had not produced Adam, or else, having once produced him to have restrained him from sinning. For how doth it profit us all that in the present we must live in grief and after death look for punishment? O thou Adam, what has thou done? For though it was thou that sinned, the fall was not thine alone, but also ours who are thy descendants! For how doth it profit us that the eternal age is promised to us, whereas we have done the works that bring death? And that there is foretold to us an imperishable hope, whereas we so miserably are brought to futility?’

    He is told that he should rather contemplate his own fate, and the glory he and his brothers will inherit. But he keeps insisting that the joy of the few does not make up for the misery of the many:

    ‘And I answered and said, I have already said, and say now, and shall say it again: There are more who perish than shall be saved, even as the flood is greater than a drop.’

    Repeatedly Ezra is told to remain silent. How could he, a mere mortal, ever comprehend the ways of the Most High? But this does not deter him. He protests: ‘Wherefore have I been endowed with an understanding to discern? For I meant not to ask about the ways above but of those things we daily experience.’ But the response, which sounds like the voice of God, refuses to give in. Ezra not only must accept it, but he is even told that it will be one of the joys of the saved to view the perplexity in which souls of the godless wander and to see the punishment that awaits them. Ezra finds it impossible to be happy about that. On the contrary, he can only conclude: if this is the final result of God’s creative activity, it would have been better if he had not created the world.”

    We are told that if we cannot accept that the vast majority of mankind will be damned then we are contradicting the consensus patrum. We are even told that our concern in this regard is due to our very modern, post-enlightenment sensibilities. And yet here is the very pre-modern writer of 2 Esdras agonizing over the very same thing. I am struck at once at the thinness of “God’s” responses to Ezra and at how they contradict Sacred Scripture. Whereas Scripture teaches that God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked, the God of 2 Esdras takes delight in their demise. Whereas Scripture teaches that God’s wrath lasts only for a moment, but his love and mercy are forever, the God of 2 Esdras says the exact opposite. Bonda says that this book of 2 Esdras was included at the back of the early Latin Bible. There is an eerie similarity between the doctrine of 2 Esdras and that of St. Augustine. Could this book have influenced him?


    • Yes. Esdras 2 isn’t the only Jewish or Christian apocalypse to have individuals – whether Ezra, Abraham, Peter, or even Mary – if I remember right – protest the fate of the damned. However, Esdras is not the last word. In other apocalypses, their entreaties do have effect, and the damned are given a Sabbath respite or, in one case, even saved.


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