In honor of the of November's liturgical readings on the Last Things, we are devoting this entire month to looking at one important aspect of eschatology: the question of the population of Hell relative to the assertions by Fr. Barron, drawing on the theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar, that we can "hope" that Hell is empty. We have already examined this teaching in light of the Bible, Vatican I, the Catholic sensus fidelium
and from the point of view of the universal Ordinary Magisterium; in each case, Balthasar has nothing to stand on. In this article, we put the coup de grace
to the arguments of Fr. Barron by examining his appeal to Benedict XVI's encyclical Spe Salvi
In his encyclical on hope, the late Pontiff briefly takes up the question of our eternal destiny. Benedict leads into the conversation by discussing the theological development of the doctrine of Purgatory, but notes that even for those who go into this intermediate state, our "life-choice" becomes definitive at the moment of death. We will quote the next sections, paragraphs 45 and 46, at length:
46. With death, our life-choice becomes definitive—our life stands before the judge. Our choice, which in the course of an entire life takes on a certain shape, can have a variety of forms. 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. On the other hand there can be people who are utterly pure, completely permeated by God, and thus fully open to their neighbours—people for whom communion with God even now gives direction to their entire being and whose journey towards God only brings to fulfilment what they already are.
46. 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. In the concrete choices of life, however, it is covered over by ever new compromises with evil—much filth covers purity, but the thirst for purity remains and it still constantly re-emerges from all that is base and remains present in the soul. What happens to such individuals when they appear before the Judge? Will all the impurity they have amassed through life suddenly cease to matter? What else might occur? Saint Paul, in his First Letter to the Corinthians, gives us an idea of the differing impact of God's judgement according to each person's particular circumstances. He does this using images which in some way try to express the invisible, without it being possible for us to conceptualize these images—simply because we can neither see into the world beyond death nor do we have any experience of it. Paul begins by saying that Christian life is built upon a common foundation: Jesus Christ. This foundation endures. If we have stood firm on this foundation and built our life upon it, we know that it cannot be taken away from us even in death. Then Paul continues: “Now if any one builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw—each man's work will become manifest; for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work which any man has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If any man's work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire” (1 Cor 3:12-15). In this text, it is in any case evident that our salvation can take different forms, that some of what is built may be burned down, that in order to be saved we personally have to pass through “fire” so as to become fully open to receiving God and able to take our place at the table of the eternal marriage-feast.
The section in question is Benedict's comments about "the great majority of people" who remain fundamentally open to God and, after the Judgement and the fires of Purgatory, may take their place "at the table of the eternal marriage feast." Fr. Barron apparently equates Benedict's hope for "the great majority of people" with Balthasar's hope of universal salvation.
There are several things that can be said.
For one thing, Benedict does not agree that we can hope that all will be saved because this hope he expresses is not about all humanity universally but about "the great majority of people"; this may seem like a minor distinction, but it is enough to distinguish Fr. Barron from Benedict, since, returning to introductory logic, even one less than "All" is "Some." Benedict does not express hope that "all" will be saved because he specifically states that he is referring to a "majority" not a totality.
But this is a mere logical sophism. Let's get to the real problem. The real issue is that Benedict is not talking about our ultimate, eternal destiny for much of this passage, but rather the characteristics of human life that go on to shape our eternal destiny. The pope is talking about the disposition of people while they are still alive and on this earth. This is easily missed because the section begins with a comment on the definitive state of our soul at death; but Benedict in fact establishes this point by working backward to look at the variety of forms our response to God can take during this life. This is clear from several points:
- He speaks of the state of our soul being the product of "the course of an entire life"
- In speaking of the saints, he says they are "fully open to their neighbours" and that they experience union with God "even now", comments that would not make sense if he was speaking of the afterlife.
- These saints are on a "journey towards God", something that would terminate in the next life when we are no longer viators but comprehensors.
- He speaks of realities we know "from experience" "in human life".
- He talks about our deeds of good and evil "In the concrete choices of life."
All this makes it clear that the pope's foregoing comments about those who are on the way to Hell, those on the way to Heaven, and those whose end is indeterminate (as far as we are concerned) are all referring to the state of our souls in this life. What he appears to be saying is this: In this life, there are people whose rejection of God is so complete that, from a human point of view, reconciliation with God and the truth seems impossible. These people are on the path to Hell, and history has given us ample examples of such people. Similarly, there are saintly individuals on this earth whose love of God is so intense that "even now" they experience a foretaste of the beatific vision. Such people, from our point of view, are on the path to heaven. Nevertheless, the remains a great majority of people whose final destiny, from our point of view, is indeterminate. They remain fundamentally open to good, but through a series of compromises with evil, their disposition to goodness has been severely weakened. The pope then asks what will become of such people on judgment day, which leads into a conversation about the afterlife.
Ultimately, the message is that there are few humans who are irredeemably evil or blamelessly good. Most fall somewhere in the middle. This is all we can draw from the pope's statements.
But let us go further, because Ralph Martin notes in his book that this passage is in need of further clarification, and I agree with him here. Let us look at the fundamental difficulty of the passage.
The biggest problem, in my opinion, is whether the pope is speaking of all human beings or all Christians. The passage can be read either way. For example, at the beginning, he says "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", which seems to be a reference to all humanity. But then, in the very same paragraph, he uses this language:
"Saint Paul, in his First Letter to the Corinthians, gives us an idea of the differing impact of God's judgement according to each person's particular circumstances. He does this using images which in some way try to express the invisible, without it being possible for us to conceptualize these images—simply because we can neither see into the world beyond death nor do we have any experience of it. Paul begins by saying that Christian life is built upon a common foundation: Jesus Christ. This foundation endures. If we have stood firm on this foundation and built our life upon it, we know that it cannot be taken away from us even in death."
He is speaking of "each person's particular circumstances", but says also that the "each person" and "us" he is referring to are those who live the "Christian life" and whose identity is "built upon a common foundation: Jesus Christ." He then says that death does not deprive us of hope only to the extent that "we have stood firm on this foundation." So, in these passages, Benedict seems to be speaking only of Christians in particular. The language in paragraph 46 moves from "the great majority of people" to those living the "Christian life" without any interruption, leaving us to speculate on the identity of "the great majority of people."
If the pope meant to indicate that he was speaking about all humanity, specifying those whose lives are built on "a common foundation: Jesus Christ" is a bizarre way to do so. Martin is correct in stating this passage needs further clarification.
If the pope did mean to refer only to Christians, then he is doing nothing than engaging in the age-old speculation of whether or not most Christians would be saved, which is a legitimate topic of discussion. If he was talking about all humanity in general, then the explanation we offered above would be the most appropriate understanding of the pope's words.
Fr. Barron's accusation that the clarification of Spe Salvi sought by Ralph Martin is equivalent to the dissent of modernist theologians against Humanae Vitae is unfair. As we have seen above, there is an ambiguity in Spe Salvi 45-46 regarding whether Benedict is referring to the entirety of humanity or simply of the Christian people. Martin seeks a legitimate clarification of what is an admittedly confusing passage, which is completely different from those who challenge the authority of Humanae Vitae. In the case of Martin, he seeks a clearer explanation of the content of Spe Salvi; in the case of Humanae Vitae, the dissenting theologians understand the content plainly but deny its authority, which is entirely different. Fr. Barron ought to know the distinction.
To sum up the basics of the last four articles in this series: It is not consonant with Christian tradition to "hope" that Hell is empty. Of course we do not want people to go to Hell, but it is not a matter of what we will. As Benedict says in Spe Salvi, history presents us with too many examples of nefarious evil to realistically cherish this hope. Remember, people have free will, and many choose to reject God; to suggest that we can hope nobody goes to Hell is a denial of the reality of free will - as if men who had definitively rejected God will simply have their wills countermanded by God in opposition to their freedom. This is why Christian Tradition and Magisterial teaching (Syllabus of Errors) have presumed that some people at least are in Hell and hence there is no justification for hoping it is empty.
Furthermore, the Christian sensus fidelium attests to this, as Catholic piety throughout the ages not only presumed that real people were actually in Hell, but that fear of Hell was an effective motivation to right living. This is how Christians have always understood revelation, and attempts to introduce other interpretations of the data of revelation fundamentally undermine the universal Ordinary Magisterium of the Church, appealing to the tendentious argument that the whole edifice of Christian tradition can be discarded because something has not been formally defined. Attempts to enlist Benedict XVI's encyclical Spe Salvi to prove the Balthasarian theory further run aground due to ambiguities in the text of the document as well as the fact that Spe Salvi 45-46 is not saying what Fr. Barron suggests it says.