It has rightly been said that in order to appreciate the “Good News” of salvation we first need to recognize the bad news of damnation. This point appears to have been lost on the likes of Bishop Robert Barron with his echoing of 20th century Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar’s suggestion that we might reasonably hope that all men are saved. In a recent Sunday sermon, Barron is careful to affirm that the “fullness of salvation” lies in Jesus alone, yet he immediately follows this with the observation that all the other major religions of the world can participate in this salvation offered by Christ.
The case which Barron develops is made on the basis of Lumen Gentium 16, as well as John Henry Newman’s description of conscience as the “aboriginal vicar of Christ in the soul.” What the good bishop neglects to mention, however, is that this same John Henry Newman was deeply pessimistic about the eternal prospects of those outside the Church. Like Augustine, Newman felt compelled on the basis of Scripture to believe in the massa damnata, a position which takes literally Christ’s words that only few will enter the gate to eternal life (see Matthew 7:14).
The soteriological realism of Augustine and Newman stands in stark contrast to the quasi-universalist view adopted by Bishop Barron. No doubt His Excellency’s gifts as a theologian and pastor are considerable and his contributions to the modern Church immense. But on this most sensitive of issues, his position remains deeply problematic for the way in which it impedes a proper sense of urgency in matters of evangelization. In suggesting that we can reasonably hope all men will be saved, Barron appears to be staking out a modest middle ground. But appearances can be deceiving, and a deeper analysis reveals the perilous nature of his position.
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From the outset, it is worth recognizing that the Balthasar-Barron approach gets a significant amount of mileage out of its ambiguous use of language. “Dare” and “hope” are both epistemically loaded terms open to various interpretations. This is problematic and liable to provoke confusion. In particular, issue should be taken as to their identification of hope with desire. Every sane person wishes that hell were empty, just as we might wish that original sin be eradicated. But the theological virtue of hope is much more substantive than mere desire. As Aquinas reminds us, “the object of hope is a future good, difficult but possible to obtain” (ST. II-II, 17.1).
The pertinent question, then, is not whether an empty hell is something desirable—which it obviously is—but rather whether it is something “possible to obtain,” given what we know about human freedom and man’s proclivity to sin. Considered in this light, from a theological perspective the answer to the question of whether hell might be empty is clearly no. For, despite all of its obvious emotive appeal, it is abundantly evident that the existence of an unpopulated hell is consonant neither with the clear teachings of Sacred Scripture nor with the overwhelming witness of Sacred Tradition.
Beginning with the biblical data, here one cannot help but sense that the dare-we-hope advocates are guilty of a rupturist reading of Scripture. On his website, for example, Bishop Barron cites approvingly von Balthasar’s suggestion that the New Testament contains two different sets of soteriological statements (i.e., putative universalist passages such as John 12:32 and anti-universalist passages such as Matthew 25:31-46), statements which “are in contradiction with each other” and “are not meant to be synthesized.”
This view does violence to the integrity of Sacred Scripture, and it clearly risks reducing one’s interpretation of the divine word to a “pick and choose” based on the reader’s prior ideological commitments. In phenomenological terms, Scripture on this paradigm ceases to be a saturated phenomenon, devolving instead into a crude mirror image of the reader’s intellectual presuppositions.
An intellectually honest reading of Scripture is that which allows one’s viewpoint to be formed by the text and not vice versa. We might think here of the way in which the New Testament talks about the goats being sent into hell (Matthew 25:41), or the wide gate to damnation that many will pass through (Matthew 7:13), or the eternal punishment of Sodom and Gomorrah (Jude 1:7), or the fate of those thrown into the lake of fire (Revelation 20:15). Or again, we might consider how on three separate occasions the evangelists presume Judas to be lost (cf. Matthew 26:24; Mark 14:21; John 17:12)—a point reaffirmed several times in the Roman Catechism instituted by the Council of Trent. Clearly, it cannot be correct to dismiss all these descriptions as peripheral merely on the grounds that they make us uncomfortable.
Looking to the Fathers and the Saints, one quickly observes that the overwhelming testimony of Scripture on this topic is matched only by the chorus of voices from Tradition. Figures as diverse as Ignatius of Antioch, John Chrysostom, Jerome, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Bridget of Sweden, Alphonsus Liguori, Louis de Montfort, John Vianney, John Henry Newman, and Faustina Kowalska all echo the New Testament in attesting to the existence of a populated hell. Presumably, the proponents of an empty hell would be forced to conclude that all these venerable personages were simply “lacking in hope.” But if that is the intellectual price tag of their position, one wonders if it is a position worth buying into!
Of course, none of this is to ignore the arguments which Hans Urs von Balthasar, Bishop Barron, and the like advance in favor of their position. It is instead to suggest that their arguments are fundamentally unconvincing, based as they are on a selective reading of Scripture. After all, many of their favorite verses simply do not say what they want them to say. In affirming that God “desires everyone to be saved,” for example, 1 Timothy 2:4 is obviously referring to God’s antecedent rather than consequent will. After all, the Bible also indicates in many places that, because of human freedom, God’s desire for universal salvation will not be fully realized.
By way of comparison, God might desire the abolition of sin, but we know that He does not bring this about precisely because He places such a premium on human freedom. Likewise, it is far from obvious that the scriptural passages which speak of Christ reconciling all things to himself (e.g., Ephesians 1:9-10; Colossians 1:19-20) must therefore entail that no human beings will choose hell. On the contrary, the vision of the final judgement presented in the book of Revelation would suggest that precisely the opposite is true.
It is right and just to wish for the salvation of everyone and even to pray for all men’s salvation. But to suppose that this prayer will be realized in each and every circumstance is not hope but presumption. Neither the New Testament texts nor the witness of Tradition offer grounds for such epistemic audacity—quite the contrary.
In pressing the case, moreover, one might challenge dare-we-hope advocates like Bishop Barron as to what would happen if we were to take their position to its logical conclusion. For instance, can we really hope that not a single human being will ever die in a state of unrepentant mortal sin? Or again, dare we hope that the Church has simply overblown this whole issue of salvation for the past two millennia? And finally, dare we go so far as to hope that purgatory, too, is empty? In each case, our answer remains the same: no, we daren’t.
[Photo Credit: Balthasar & Speyr/Catholic Distance University]