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?