One of the biggest areas of conflict in the modern Church continues to be about the proper view of the Final Judgment—whether one should fear that most are doomed to Hell or hope that most are headed to Heaven (maybe after an extended stay in purgatory for some). Crisis editor Eric Sammons, in his recent piece “Dare We Fear That Most Men Be Damned?,” described it as not “exactly a theological debate as much as an attitude debate.”
I think this is the right way to frame it, since one can accept the same dogmas but see them in ways that more favor one or the other perspective. But what if these two attitudes can be held together, rather than as two competing attitudes? Is it possible they should be?
Sammons is correct that until fairly recently, the Church has largely assumed the more pessimistic view. Because of that, the hopeful crowd has to look for support from figures before St. Augustine’s Massa Damnata view came to dominate. They look to the period of the Early Church Fathers, to those like Gregory of Nyssa, Maximus the Confessor, Gregory of Nazianzus, Isaac the Syrian, Clement of Alexandria, Origen of Alexandria, and a few others.
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It has become common to even claim that all of these early figures were universalists and that Augustine’s harsher Manichaean background caused him to change the course of theology away from its original, more hopeful view. But reading virtually any of these men’s teachings, one notices statements that warn of eternal separation from God mixed in with the statements that say all rational beings will one day be restored to purity.
In response to this, scholars in each camp often dismiss the inconvenient writings as falsely attributed or say that the father may have changed position, which appears to be the case for St. Jerome. Another theory on the conflicting views, called the “honorable silence,” is that these fathers preached hellfire to the novice while saving the universalism for those more advanced in their faith.
But instead of assigning duplicity, contradiction, or fickleness to so many early heroes of the Church, could it be that they simply were able to hold both our “hopeful” and our “fearful” attitudes in their mind simultaneously? What if, instead of hiding the “real truth” of universalism from novices to scare them away from their sins, they believed both were potential realities, and that the morally weak novice needed one message to flee evil and the advanced Christian needed the other to avoid despair?
What if they had hope, and even confidence, that God’s plan to save humanity would one day be achieved, while also taking Jesus’ prophecy seriously when He suggested that many will try to enter by the narrow gate but will fail?
It may seem impossible to us that one could hold both those ideas in their mind simultaneously. But these figures were not too far removed from the Jewish context of Jesus and the Apostles, and their views of prophecy were likely far more Jewish than Greek.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the recently deceased chief rabbi of the Orthodox Jewish population of Britain, often spoke about the difference between the Greek and Jewish views of prophecy. He said that if the Oracle at Delphi told a Greek the future, it was certain—their “fate.” But when a Jewish prophet told someone their future, they could still repent or negotiate with God. The prayers and petitions of others may even be able to change the outcome.
“If a prediction comes true, it has succeeded. If a prophecy comes true, it has failed,” Sacks said on this difference. “A prophet delivers not a prediction but a warning. He or she does not simply say, ‘This will happen,’ but rather, ‘This will happen unless you change.’”
He gives the example of Isaiah, who tells King Hezekiah, “This is what the Lord says: Put your house in order, because you are going to die; you will not recover.” But then Hezekiah later repents, so God says, “Go back and tell Hezekiah, the ruler of my people: This is what the Lord, God of your father David, says: I have heard your prayer and seen your tears; I will heal you.”
God was not lying. He was just telling Isaiah to present one potential future as a warning. Very similar language can be seen in other prophecies of the Old Testament. Jonah tells Nineveh, “40 days more and Nineveh will be overthrown.” But they repent and are not destroyed.
The role of the prophet is not just to deliver the warning of a possible doom—like the Ghost of Christmas Future from “A Christmas Carol.” They are also meant to beg God for mercy on the sinner’s behalf and negotiate better terms. Jews saw prophets who did not push back on God’s judgments as failing part of their job. The identity of Israel is literally a people “who wrestles with God.”
In Amos 7, the prophet says, “This is what the Sovereign Lord showed me: The Sovereign Lord was calling for judgment by fire; it dried up the great deep and devoured the land. Then I cried out, ‘Sovereign Lord, I beg you, stop! How can Jacob survive? He is so small!’ So the Lord relented.”
Moses even offers to have himself blotted out of the book of life if God will forgive the people. St. Paul offers the same in Romans 9. As the new Israel, we are not meant to just accept Jesus’ prophecy that few will find the way to life. We are meant to wrestle with God on their behalf, pray for them, call for repentance, and trust in God’s mercy until the last moment.
He desires that all shall be saved, and His work toward that end didn’t stop with the Incarnation or the Crucifixion. We have a part to play in that plan as well. As the Body of Christ, it appears we will even have a role in Christ’s judgment, as 1 Corinthians 6:2 says, “Do you not know that the Lord’s people will judge the world?” Will we use this role to grant mercy or condemn?
If, instead, we simply accept the prophecy as fate, it could lead to despair and inaction. In his book Faith, Hope, Love, German Catholic philosopher Josef Pieper says that hope tells us everything “will turn out well for mankind; or even more characteristically: It will turn out well for us, for me myself,” and that despair says, “It will turn out badly for us and for me myself.”
Fear, as outlined by Sammons, does not have to lead to this despair. On the contrary, a fear of God and of eternal separation from Him is a constant drum beat in Scripture and Tradition. What can, and does, lead to despair is when that fear passes over into a certainty that “it will turn out badly” for mankind and for oneself.
One of the cruel ironies of this certainty is that the more a Christian grows in love for their neighbor, as Christ directs us to, the more despair they are likely to feel for this damned mass. Truly valuing them as you value yourself can only lead to a view of life that is beyond tragic. Some may be moved to energetic, frantic evangelism to save a few more at the margins, but many others despair at the reality that the fate of mankind has been set, with most being lost. Does that mean that to counter that despair one should instead develop a presumptuous certainty of our own salvation and that of all mankind? Not at all.
I believe G.K. Chesterton strikes about the right balance in Chapter 8 of his classic Orthodoxy. He said that “To hope for all souls is imperative [CCC 1821]; and it is quite tenable that their salvation is inevitable. It is tenable, but it is not specially favourable to activity or progress.”
Those who stray from God need that reminder of what eternity could be like without Him. Many hardened sinners, myself included, were shoved toward repentance after dwelling on this potential future. To say that it’s wrong to even threaten such a thing cannot be the case, since Our Lord clearly does so repeatedly.
Chesterton added that Christians should view their existence, and that of mankind, as a story that could end in either triumph or tragedy: “In a thrilling novel (that purely Christian product) the hero is not eaten by cannibals; but it is essential to the existence of the thrill that he might be eaten by cannibals.”
If Frodo believes that the great majority of Middle Earth will undoubtedly become slaves to the Dark Lord, no matter what he does, then he will quickly despair of his mission. On the other hand, if he thinks he will succeed no matter what, he will likely not even leave the Shire.
The Christian should be able to, with equal sincerity, tell a reckless young man that he is risking his eternal soul and, if his recklessness brings him an early end, tell his grieving mother that there is a very real hope that he, and all sinners, will eventually be saved.
Both of these attitudes—fear that most men could be lost and hope that none will be—appear essential to the Christian, often at different times. Dare we embrace both?
[Image: “The Last Judgment” by Michelangelo]