Hell Is Real—and It Isn’t Empty

Bishop Robert Barron, the auxiliary bishop of Los Angeles and a pioneer of online evangelism, is hardly prone to controversy. Yet the telegenic prelate stirred something of a firestorm back in June that continues to spill ink today. In fact, it isn’t a new debate at all. Commenting on the Gospel reading for June 25 (Matthew 7), Bishop Barron noted that, “from time immemorial,” people have asked who will be saved and who will be damned. In response, Barron argues:

The official answer of the Church is that we don’t know. We are clearly warned about the real possibility of damnation. We do indeed know that there are many in heaven, for the saints are formally declared to be so. But there are no anti-saints in the Church; there is no one whom the Church has formally declared to be a denizen of Hell.

Therefore, without succumbing for a moment to anything-goes presumption, we are permitted to hope that all people might be saved. Indeed, St. Paul writes to Timothy: “God wants all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.”

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Bishop Barron’s meditation was widely compared to a famed (or infamous) question posed by Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar: “Dare we hope that all men be saved?” (Barron is a well-known fan of von Balthasar’s.)

Barron is also by no means the first widely respected prelate to flirt with a kind of universalism. The great Avery Cardinal Dulles also claimed that orthodox Catholics may answer von Balthasar’s question in the affirmative. Before him, St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross—widely known by her secular name, Edith Stein—postulated something similar. Her argument goes like this: if God loves everyone (which we know he does), and if everyone can open themselves up to his love (which we know they can), then it’s possible to hope that God will find ways of outsmarting human resistance to him.

Yet, if one thinks that to “hope that all men be saved” means that everyone who has ever lived will evade hell, I would argue that this position is contrary to Holy Scripture, Holy Tradition, magisterial teaching, and personal revelations to saintly Catholics through the centuries.

First, Scripture. Jesus and the authors of the New Testament mention hell more than a few times, and some of these verses certainly seem to suggest it’s populated. Jesus tells us that the way to destruction is wide and easy. (Matthew 7:13-14) Elsewhere, he speaks of sheep and goats, the latter being destined for everlasting punishment. (Matthew 25:31-46) In Luke’s Gospel, he warns: “Depart from me, all you workers of iniquity. There you will weep and gnash your teeth.” (13:27-28) The Book of Revelation teaches: “But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars—they will be consigned to the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death.” (21:8) Are we to interpret all of these warnings as empty threats—as if, in this one case, our Lord will not follow through on his word?

There is also consensus among the early Church Fathers about hell being populated. St. Ignatius of Antioch declared that “corrupters of families will not inherit the kingdom of God… A man become so foul will depart into unquenchable fire: and so will anyone who listens to him.” The second epistle of Pope St. Clement I reads: “If we neglect his commandments, nothing will rescue us from eternal punishment.” St. Justin Martyr likewise taught that “we believe that they who live wickedly and do not repent will be punished in everlasting fire.” St. Irenaeus wrote that God will “send the spiritual forces of wickedness, and the angels who transgressed and became apostates, and the impious, unjust, lawless, and blasphemous among men into everlasting fire.”

Such consensus is also found in magisterial teaching. The Councils of Lyon I (1245), Lyon II (1274), and Florence (1439), as well as Pope Benedict XII’s bull Benedictus Deus (1336), teach that everyone who dies in a state of mortal sin suffers eternal punishment in Hell. Several local medieval councils also state that some who died in a state of sin have been punished by eternal damnation. The Catechism (CCC §1022, 1035) affirms this teaching.

Finally, many saints and other Catholics have received visions of hell as populated. Among these are St. Teresa of Avila, Servant of God Lucy of Fatima, Blessed Catherine Emmerich, St. John Bosco, and St. Faustina Kowalska. Lucy of Fatima described “a vast sea of fire. Plunged in this fire, we saw the demons and the souls” of the damned. St. Faustina meanwhile wrote of

the tortures suffered by all the damned together, but that is not the end of their sufferings. There are special tortures destined for particular souls. These are the torments of the senses. Each soul undergoes terrible and indescribable sufferings, related to the manner in which it has sinned.

The question “dare we hope…?” might best be classified as a useful theological exercise, but we simply lack the evidence to answer with a definite “Yes.” The famous phrase of the Fatima Prayer, “lead all souls to heaven,” should probably best be interpreted to mean all souls alive right now, who could certainly exhibit supernatural faith in Christ at any point prior to death. The challenge for every individual person, from first-century Palestine to 21st-century America remains the same: which path will you choose?


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