Part 8: This Doctrine Makes 'A Hell of a Difference!'

The following is the eighth installment of a 15-part series on Divine Mercy and Divine Justice. Read the series to date.

Let's begin by summing up what we have said so far in this series on the divinely revealed truth about hell.

To argue for the sobering reality of everlasting loss is not, it seems to me, to undermine or contradict Divine Mercy. Quite the contrary: The Lord is merciful even to the damned, for He eternally respects their freedom to say "no" to Him. In fact, their irreversible decision to "turn their backs" on His light and love, and their resulting just punishment in hell, is actually less miserable to them than having to look into the eyes of Divine Love for all eternity - a love that they cannot stand, that they even despise. These souls are actually better off in the outer darkness than in the full light of heaven! Thus, God's mercy extends even to the depths of hell itself, for His mercy and His justice can never be separated in the "infinite simplicity" of the divine nature (a defined doctrine of the Church). Furthermore, God's merciful love is so great that He even suffered and died for us on the Cross, in the person of His Son, to save us from the misery of rejecting His Love forever - if only we will repent and believe.

Many people wonder whether the majority of mankind will end up in heaven or in hell. After all, many great saints have speculated that most souls will be lost in the end and only a few will be saved. To name a few: St. Augustine, St. Albert the Great, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Theresa of Avila, and St. Alphonsus Liguori. This opinion was largely based on our Lord's words in the gospels:

Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it. For the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it (Mt 7:13-14).

And someone said to Him, "Lord, are there just a few who are being saved?" And He said to them, "Strive to enter through the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able" (Lk 13:23-24).

However, these saints and doctors of the Church did not claim to know for sure the proportion of humanity that will be saved, and the Church has never issued a doctrinal definition on the subject. So there is room for alternative opinions here. After all, it does not seem to fit very well with our belief in the infinite power and wisdom of God's merciful love to believe that His plan of salvation was so poorly conceived, and so poorly executed, that the solid majority of humanity will miss out on its eternal benefits!

Moreover, in centuries past theologians may have been reading more into our Lord's words here than He really intended. Jesus said that only a "few" will travel the hard path to eternal "life." By that, perhaps He means that only a few will go straight to heaven when they die while "many" will follow the path that leads to eternal "destruction" - meaning, perhaps, that many more are following the direct road to hell. But for neither group does He use the word "most," and He does not mention purgatory here at all. Thus, it does not contradict Christ's teaching to believe that while "few" attain eternal life upon their death, and "many" eternal loss, "most" will actually go to purgatory for a time of painful purification and spiritual healing - and then, after that, attain heaven at the last.

In his encyclical "Saved in Hope" (Spe Salvi), Pope Benedict XVI encouraged this perspective. Father Robert Barron has written in defense of Pope Benedict's teaching. For instance, in an article entitled "Saving the Hell out of You" posted on his website, he writes:

Sections 45-47 of the Pope's 2007 encyclical ... can be summarized as follows. There is a relative handful of truly wicked people in whom the love of God and neighbor has been totally extinguished through sin, and there is a relative handful of people whose lives are utterly pure, completely given over to the demands of love.

Those latter few will proceed, upon death, directly to Heaven, while those former few, will, upon death, enter the state the Church calls Hell. But the Pope concludes that "the great majority of people," who, though sinners, still retain a fundamental ordering to God, can and will be brought to Heaven after the necessary purification of Purgatory. ...

It seems to me that Pope Benedict's position - affirming the reality of Hell but seriously questioning whether the vast majority of human beings ends up there - is the most tenable and actually the most evangelically promising.

Well, I am almost in full agreement with the speculations offered by Fr. Barron and Pope Benedict here ("speculations," because the Holy Father clearly did not intend to make a definitive doctrinal statement on this subject in his encyclical; he prefaced his remarks on the matter with the words, "We may suppose ... "). I am not quite in full agreement with their view, because our Lord did not say that only a "few" or only a "handful" will be eternally lost, but "many." That surely implies at least a substantial minority of the human race. It was certainly way too "many" for His merciful Heart to bear without blood, sweat, and tears in the Garden of Gethsemane, a crushing sorrow caused by His foresight of the multitudes who would be lost, despite His loving Passion and Death for them.

This debate is not merely an "academic exercise." For unless "many" are in a real and present danger of eternal loss, the Church's historic task of evangelism does not make much sense. In a recent and influential book on the subject, Will Many Be Saved?, Dr. Ralph Martin argues that if salvation is guaranteed to virtually everyone, Catholics are not likely to be filled with a passion to spread the faith around the world with any urgency - much less to make the kind of personal sacrifices often needed to bring unbelievers to Christ. (Think, for example, of the sufferings endured by the Jesuit Martyrs of North America!) If the New Evangelization is really to get off the ground, therefore, it needs to be propelled by teaching about heaven and hell that recognizes the real dangers we all face from our stubborn lack of repentance and faith.

The widespread lack of clear, Catholic teaching on the doctrine of hell (as well as the doctrine of the Cross (see articles 1-5 of this series) is one of the main reasons I wrote this set of articles on Divine Mercy and Divine Justice in the first place.

There are some theologians who worry that if people really believe in Divine Justice and Final Judgment, this can lead them to commit acts of vengeance and social violence. As Timothy Keller puts it in his book The Reason for God, "If you believe in a God who smites evildoers, you may think it perfectly justified to do some smiting yourself." But the New Testament clearly teaches that the job of meting out commutative justice in its fullness can rightly be done only by God. He alone knows the secrets of all hearts. He alone knows who is truly guilty of what: "'Vengeance is mine, I will repay,' says the Lord" (Rom 12:19). Besides, as Keller reminds us, it was the noted Croatian theologian Miroslav Wolf, a man who had personally witnessed the horrible violence of ethnic cleansing in the Balkans, who argued that more often it is lack of belief in a God of judgment that "secretly nourishes violence":

The human impulse to make perpetrators of violence pay for their crimes is almost an overwhelming one [remember Dostoevsky's novel Crime and Punishment, discussed earlier in this series]. It cannot possibly be overcome with platitudes like "Now don't you see that violence will not solve anything?" If you have seen your home burned down and your relatives killed and raped, such talk is laughable - and it shows no real concern for justice. ...

Can our passion for justice be honored in a way that does not nurture our desire for blood vengeance? ... The best resource for this is belief in the concept of God's divine justice. If I don't believe that there is a God who will eventually put all things right, I will take up the sword and will be sucked into the endless vortex of retaliation. Only if I am sure that there is a God who will right all wrongs and settle all accounts perfectly do I have the power to refrain(Keller, p. 77).

In addition, Keller quotes Czeslaw Milosz, the Nobel Prize winning poet from Poland, who had this retort to Karl Marx's famous statement that religion is merely "the opiate of the masses":

A true opium of the people is a belief in nothingness after death - the huge solace of thinking that our betrayals, greed, cowardice, and murders are not going to be judged. ...

In other words, the true opiate of the masses is the comforting delusion that the wicked cling to - that in the end, no one is really answerable to anyone for anything. Keller writes:

Many people complain that belief in a God of judgment will lead to a more brutal society. Milosz had personally seen, in both Nazism and Communism, that a loss of belief in a God of judgment can lead to brutality. If we are free to shape life and morals any way we choose without ultimate accountability, it can lead to violence. Both Volf and Milosz argue that the doctrine of God's final judgment is a necessary undergirding for human ... peacemaking. (Keller, p. 78)

Sadly, as we have seen in this series so far, even mainstream Catholic writers and theologians today tend to press the "mute" button when it comes to the revealed truths of final judgment and the commutative justice of God. Again, as we have seen, this truncates and distorts our understanding the doctrines of Christ's saving work on the Cross and the eternal loss from which He has rescued us. And now we can see that it even has destructive social consequences! Paradoxically, I think, by trying to magnify God's mercy at the expense of His justice, we only end up watering down our appreciation of the depth and power of His merciful Love itself.

Next week: "Get With the Program: He's a God of 'Social Justice' Too!"

Read the series to date.

Robert Stackpole, STD, is director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy, an apostolate of the Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception.

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