One of the most spectacular religious developments of the past century was the complete upending of traditional Catholic theology on Hell. Before Vatican II, there was a centuries-long consensus that Hell not only existed, but was the final destination of very many people. It was never officially declared that any specific individual was in Hell, but the tradition (Augustine, Aquinas, and so on) assumed that there was a massa damnata who for whatever reason did not accept the Christian faith and ended up there. (There was a similar consensus among Protestants of the Reformation era, shared by, e.g., John Calvin.) There were loopholes, to be sure; it was recognized that God might bring some righteous people to salvation through extraordinary means, such as the Thomistic “baptism of desire.” But since the Vatican Council of the 1960s, the exception has become the rule; and a general, genial spirit of universalism has prevailed.
Father Robert Barron — one of today’s most prominent apologists for orthodox, Vatican-approved theology; not a “dissident” in any sense of the word — speaks for the current consensus in this video. He basically agrees with theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar (who was named a cardinal by Pope John Paul II, but who died before the official installation ceremony). We know that Hell must exist, says Father Barron, because human beings have free will and we need therefore to leave open the possibility that some will finally reject God; “but [von Balthasar’s] keen sensitivity to the dramatic power of the cross convinced him that we may entertain the lively and realistic hope that all people will eventually be drawn into the divine love. . . . Given what God has accomplished in Christ, we may reasonably hope that all people will be saved.”
This is, in my view, quite reasonable, and I believe that it is true. But it is vulnerable to the criticism that it is basically the same universalist thesis that was always previously rejected — only articulated more politely, to avoid what in traditional theology is called the sin of presumption. (“We don’t know that God will save everyone, but He is a decent chap, after all, and so . . .”) If this is now to be the accepted teaching, asks Ralph Martin — director of Graduate Theology Programs in the New Evangelization at Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit — what incentive is there for evangelization?
In his new book, Will Many Be Saved? What Vatican II Actually Teaches and Its Implications for the New Evangelization, Martin contends that Balthasar “departs from the content of revelation and the mainstream theological tradition of the Church in a way that undermines the call to holiness and evangelization and is pastorally damaging . . . [and] undermines the traditional motivation for preaching the gospel to all creatures, namely that their salvation is in real jeopardy.” Now, understand what the phrase “the content of revelation and the mainstream theological tradition” means, in a Catholic context; it has roughly the same force as an assertion that something is “un-Biblical” would have in a fundamentalist or Bible-literalist context, or an assertion that something is “unscientific” would have in a physics lab. It is, basically, another way of saying “wrong-o.”
Martin’s book is a well-put-together brief for his position. A slew of high-profile Catholic clerics have endorsed it. The first page is devoted to blurbs from no fewer than four cardinals, including one, Peter Turkson, who is a serious papal candidate to succeed Benedict XVI; the following four pages print the endorsements of other prominent Catholic luminaries. Strangely, though, the book has been issued not by a Catholic publisher, but by an Evangelical one (Eerdmans). Perhaps this is because Hell is a subject of lively discussion among Evangelicals, in a way in which it is not among Catholics? A couple of years ago, Evangelical pastor Rob Bell published a book called Love Wins, asserting a universal-salvation position; there was a massive controversy about it in the Evangelical community.
I cannot help thinking now about our late friend, Father Richard John Neuhaus, whose great book Death on a Friday Afternoon: Meditations on the Last Words of Jesus from the Cross served as my own introduction to the work of Balthasar. In that book — which I recommend to anyone who wishes to understand the fundamentals of Christianity — Father Neuhaus phrased his hope as follows:
When I come before the judgment throne, I will plead the promise of God in the shed blood of Jesus Christ. . . . In seeking entry to that heavenly kingdom, I will, with Dysmas [the repentant thief of Luke 23], look to Christ and Christ alone.
Then I hope to hear him say, “Today you will be with me in paradise,” as I hope with all my being — because, although looking to him alone, I am not alone — he will say to all.
In a 2001 essay in First Things, Father Neuhaus also addressed a number of the concerns we have been discussing here, notably the disincentive that the possibility of an empty Hell poses for evangelization. (“The command and impulse to evangelize is premised not on the bad news that we do not know but on the good news (i.e., ‘gospel’) that we do know. To be sure, good news may be good in relation to the bad, but there is enough bad news that we know for sure that we do not need to pretend to know more bad news than we do in order to make the good news good.”)
These are dark mysteries, involving questions that will not be settled online. On the Internet, writers can’t even agree on how many people are on the unemployment line this month, much less how many people will be in Hell when the Kingdom comes. In the meantime, let us hope and pray, and try to find out the truth as best we can.