As most of you know, there has been a rather vivid discussion recently in the blogosphere on the subject of hell. As one who has written rather substantially, on the topic of hell, and our need to recover a more biblical notion regarding judgment and hell, I pray that you will tolerate me adding my own voice to the recent discussions.
Those who read this blog regularly, will know that I have spoken on the topic of Hell on any number of occasions. For example:
In all these posts, over the past several years I have argued, that our modern notion that Hell is a remote possibility, and a sentence likely incurred by only a very tiny number, is an unbiblical notion, and one that also runs contrary to almost the whole of Christian Tradition, beginning with the early Fathers of the Church, all the way forward until about 50 years ago.
I was thus very excited and pleased when Dr. Ralph Martin, a great teacher of mine over the years, published his recent book, Will Many be Saved? In this book, as I have already detailed, there is a great survey of the Church’s teaching, and traditional understanding of the topic of judgment and Hell. Ralph Martin also details in a respectful way recent trends, which have influenced a great many Catholics, and others to discount the biblical teaching, as well as the Christian Tradition of over 1900 years, prior to modern reconsideration.
I will not rewrite all the articles that I have referenced above, and re-defend the teaching on Hell, as I have done before, and Ralph Martin has done ably and thoroughly in his book.
But permit just a few summary bullet points:
- The biblical teaching, that there is a Hell, and that many go there is in no way ambiguous. When asked directly whether many would be saved Jesus answers soberly, and I would suppose with great sadness, that “many” were on the wide road that led to perdition, and that the road that led to salvation, was narrow, and difficult and that “few” found it.
- Jesus the main source – No one loves us more than Jesus Christ, and no one has worked more to save us than Jesus Christ. Yet no one spoke of Hell more than Jesus Christ, or warned of judgment with greater sobriety.
- Words mean things – However one may wish to interpret the biblical data, “many” does not mean few, and “few” does not mean many.
- Hell is, in a sense, necessary if human freedom is to have any meaning. All while Hell has mysterious aspects, understanding its existence must be rooted in the fact that God respects the freedom he has given us, even if he may regret the choices we make. But we are summoned to love, and love requires freedom, and freedom requires that our choices be about real things.
- That hell is an eternal reality is also mysterious, but is caught up in the mystery of the eternity itself. It would seem that as we move from this temporal world toward eternity, our decisions become forever fixed and final.
- Devastating – It does not require an advanced degree in sociology to understand that, to remove the unambiguous biblical teaching on the very real and possible outcome of Hell, is to remove strong motivation to seek a Savior and salvation. It is therefore no surprise that as the teaching on Hell has been largely set aside by the modern world, that recourse to the sacraments, prayer, Church attendance and any number of spiritual remedies have suffered significant declines during the same period.
- More can be read, if you wish, in the articles I have written elsewhere, referenced above.
In the current discussion taking place in the blog is here, I have this particular regret. Namely, that a man and a priest I admire greatly, Father Robert Barron holds the position he currently does on this topic.
To some extent, I have seen an evolution, on the part of Father Barron, on this topic in the past few years. One of my early blog posts on the topic of Hell, and why it is a reasonable teaching, actually made use of a video by Father Barron wherein he articulates quite well the reasonableness of the Biblical teaching. It is true, that at the end of the video he does brook the notion that we don’t know if anyone is specifically in Hell, but he does not dismiss the notion either, and leaves the matter sufficiently vague, such that his vigorous defense of the reasonableness of Hell is not undermined. (I have posted that earlier video below).
But in more recent years Father Barron has seem to move more steadily toward the notion, that Hell is largely unpopulated and that the Lord’s teaching that many go there is largely to be set aside in favor of other notions relating to His mercy.
In his recent critique of Ralph Martin’s book, Fr. Barron states his fundamental objection to Martin’s reiteration of Church teaching and of Lumen Gentium 16. In effect Barron references Spe Salvi, 45-47 wherein Pope Benedict seems to suppose that few are in Hell and that the great majority of humanity will ultimately be saved.
Father Barron concludes,
It seems to me that Pope Benedict’s position — affirming the reality of Hell but seriously questioning whether that the vast majority of human beings end up there — is the most tenable and actually the most evangelically promising.
Ralph Martin ably answers father Barron’s critique, HERE, but the heart of his answer is that the Pope’s reflections are in the form of a supposition. Pope Benedict says in effect, that we “may suppose” that the great majority of people end up eventually in heaven. Hence, the Holy Father does not formally or solemnly teach contrary to either the biblical teaching, or to Lumen Gentium 16, but simply permits us to suppose that many in fact will be ultimately saved. In this context, Martin writes in his book that he hopes that the Pope can further clarify his remarks at some point in the future. But Martin in no way simply sets aside the Pope’s remarks.
But Here’s the Problem: In this regard, the fact that Father Barron then consigns Ralph Martins position as analogous to dissent directed against Humanae Vitae, is, I would argue, unnecessary, excessive and hurtful. It is far from the kind of balanced and careful analysis I have come to admire about Father Barron. Father Barron’s exact quote that most troubles me is,
….but one of the most theologically accomplished popes in history, writing at a very high level of authority, has declared that we oughtn’t to hold that Hell is densely populated. To write this off as “remarks” that require “clarification” is precisely analogous to a liberal theologian saying the same thing about Paul VI’s teaching on artificial contraception in the encyclical Humanae Vitae.
I don’t think this is a carefully thought-out quote by Father Barron. And it surprises me greatly. I personally hope the Father Barron would consider the excessiveness of his judgment here, and issue his own clarification. Ralph Martin is merely requesting clarification regarding the “supposition” of the Pope. He is not a dissenter and to suggest that he is this such, is unjust
Frankly, it pains me to have to write this. I have been, and remain a great fan of Father Barron. I have used almost every one of his video productions, and I podcast his homilies. I hope for a more balanced critique, and clarification of his remarks in the near future.
Ralph Martin is a good Catholic, a great man of the Church. His book, written many years ago, entitled Crisis of Truth, was a great instrument of my own rediscovery of the need for orthodoxy and clarity in an age of confusion and true dissent.
I realize that I am not of the caliber of either one of these men, and perhaps my remarks here should, and will go largely unobserved. I write more as a great admirer of both these men.
Perhaps, in the end, Michael Vorris has the best take on this Internet debate. In his view is that, thanks be to God that Catholics are even talking about Hell anymore. The topic, even the word, has largely been off the Catholic radar for far too long. As one who was written more than a few times on the topic in the past four years, a common response I get, is, “Are you crazy? No one believes in hell anymore.” And thus, that we can even be discussing the topic is, of itself, some progress. I have included forces video below as well.
I do pray for clarification, from Father Barron. I also, with Ralph Martin, hope for greater clarification from the Pope, regarding his “supposition” in Spe Salvi 45–47. I with Martin, ask this only in greatest respect. I too am a loyal son of the Church and I seek to be taught, that I may come to greater understanding of what the Pope’s supposition means in the light of Scripture, Tradition, and Lumen Gentium 16.