Again and again as of late, we see Catholic bishops and the pope making statements that seem to call into question the basic attributes of Hell, particularly the insistence of the Church that Hell is a place of eternal punishment and separation from God, and that it is not empty of human souls. Most of us remember the Bishop Robert Barron controversy when he told Ben Shapiro in an interview that Jesus Christ is the “privileged route to Salvation,” failing to inform Shapiro in charity that no one comes to the Father except through Christ, which the Scriptures clearly state. Pope Francis has again and again made scandalous and baffling comments about the Four Last Things.
Recently, I got into a bit of a debate on Twitter with a certain priest with regard to the merits of reading (and particularly laypeople with no training in theology) Hans Urs von Balthasar, whose body of work heavily influences Bishop Barron’s theological views, including his position on Hell. I am not intending to pick on this priest, Bishop Barron, Pope Francis, or even necessarily von Balthasar, though I am perfectly comfortable in stating that he did teach several things that are heretical and advising that in light of this fact, it would likely not be prudent for the average layperson to read his works, myself included.
This viewpoint may have become more popular thanks to von Balthasar (and other acclaimed-by-supposed-conservatives Vatican II–era theologians), but it’s far from a recent innovation. Origen, St. Gregory of Nyssa, and Clement of Alexandria held views ranging from explicit universalism to the more tentative neo-universalism of von Balthasar, which seeks to avoid falling beneath the purview of the Fifth Ecumenical Council’s condemnation of Origen’s belief in apokatastasis.
However, in the fifth century, Saint Augustine’s concept of the massa damnata rose to prominence, especially in the West. To put it simply, he taught that due to original sin and then actual sin, the majority of the human race will be damned. Later, Saint Thomas Aquinas largely adopted — and expounded upon — Augustine’s eschatology, a fact that self-proclaimed Thomists such as Bishop Barron are forced to grapple with.
Saint Thomas Aquinas is not infallible in everything he says (for example, his imperfect understanding of the Immaculate Conception of Our Lady), but that does not mean we should be quick to dismiss his teachings on something as vital as how we should view the reality of Hell. Aquinas’s influence on the Church cannot be overstated. The 1917 Code of Canon Law has this to say:
Professors shall treat studies in rational theology and philosophy and the instruction of students in these disciplines according to the system, teaching, and principles of the Angelic Doctor [St. Thomas Aquinas] and hold to them religiously. (1917 Code of Canon Law, C. 1366 §2)
I’m not a theologian, but that’s as close as we’re going to get to an official declaration that Thomism is the Church’s philosophical framework, and it’s enough for me, especially in light of the general acclaim the Church holds for Saint Thomas Aquinas. The so-called “merciful” view of salvation-for-basically-everyone-except-Jeffrey-Dahmer that has come into vogue in recent years has no similar endorsement beyond its popularity. This leads me to wariness, considering that “wide is the gate, and broad is the way that leadeth to destruction, and many there are who go in thereat.” Popularity is no more the barometer of truth today than it was when most of the disciples abandoned Jesus in John 6.
These debates on just how many souls are in Hell have been taking place since the early days of the Church, and they will continue long after I’m gone, particularly since no one can know with certainty. However, it is within even my competence to state that the general Augustinian-Thomistic view of Hell has borne great fruit and that the “lighter” view of Hell and consequent lack of emphasis on avoiding Hell has contributed to mass apostasy, in the West, at the very least (the topic of Eastern emphases in eschatology is beyond the purview of this article), and a nearly extinguished missionary spirit in the Church.
I wrote back in November about the grave importance of correctly defining the baseline in any debate with Protestants. The basic principles apply to any topic. It seems that if we strip away the theological complexities, we’re faced with two basic stances: A — most people don’t go to Hell, or B — most people do go to Hell. These simplifications lead us to grapple with important, related consequences.
If position B is true, then the concept of original sin makes sense on its face. We are born in sin, we later commit sin, and therefore we most certainly need a Savior — Jesus Christ — and we need to be baptized, because that is the way in which we are incorporated into the Body of Christ. We evangelize those of other lands and of false religions because we know that their souls are in peril as long as they remain unbaptized. We frequent the sacraments, especially the Sacrament of Penance, because even if we are not very far on the path of rooting out our venial sins, we know that even one unabsolved mortal sin is enough to send us to Hell. Abortion becomes all the more intolerable because instead of an unborn child being denied earthly life, he is denied the Beatific Vision. (I note that this doctrine itself is controversial.) We are able to guide those “little ones” in the Church from an imperfect fear of Hell to the greater motivation of pure love of God in perfect contrition for their sins. We are inclined to earnestly pray for the dead, because if most people, in general, are in Hell for their mortal sins, most who die in a state of grace are in Purgatory for their venial sins, to put it as concisely as possible. And so on.
Now let’s look at position A. If position A is true, Original Sin becomes a lot less clear. “We are born into sin and need a Savior” becomes “We are born into sin, in a sense, and need a Savior, in a sense.” Baptism becomes somewhat optional, so we are able to seek ecumenical dialogue instead of having to offend members of other religions with our insistence that the Catholic faith is the true faith. We go to confession from time to time, but seeing as our subjective culpability for mortal sin can’t be known, we don’t fuss over it. Certainly, unborn babies could never be separated from a merciful God, so while abortion is bad, there are worse issues pertaining to the children who are already here. We don’t fear Hell, so, theoretically, we do things out of pure love of God, and as for those who have not yet moved beyond the fear of God that is the beginning of wisdom…well, who knows? We pray for the dead, but Purgatory isn’t really a big deal, because everyone there is probably going to be in Heaven soon anyway if it even needs to exist at all. And so on.
I’m not saying everyone who takes position A will automatically believe these related errors. However, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that so many people who have never been catechized on Hell and sin so often do. It’s far too easy to calumniate those with a “harsh” view of Hell as somehow cheering at the idea of most of humanity being tormented forever. You may disagree with the theological reasoning of Augustine and Aquinas to some extent (as imprudent as I believe it is to stray very far) as to just how full Hell is, but it is utterly wrong to attribute evil motivations to these saints and to those who agree with what they taught.
I believe that viewing Hell as the “baseline” — the default for human beings without Christ, due to the reality of sin entering the world — makes the most theological sense within the defined dogmas of our faith. I also believe that the good fruits of this view of Hell are obvious. Truly working out my salvation with fear and trembling helps me to have the courage to speak the truth about what our faith teaches in other areas, even when it means facing severe criticism and even hatred. It’s worth it. Helping to lead one soul away from the utter horror of eternal Hell is worth anything this world can dish out.
Image: Christ in Limbo by a follower of Hieronymus Bosch (circa 1450 –1516).
Stefanie Nicholas is an unexpected Catholic convert from a (very lapsed) Greek Orthodox background. The history of the Crusades played a positive role in her faith journey, and she believes firmly that the Rosary will save the world. Readers can connect with her on Facebook and follow her on Twitter @StefMNicholas.