by Fr Alvin Kimel
How many souls will be lost? How many saved? As Avery Cardinal Dulles observes in his article “The Population of Hell,” this question has fascinated and haunted Christians from the earliest days of the Church. Will all be saved? many? few? An answer is not given in the divine revelation, yet theologians and preachers have not been able to restrain themselves from speculating. “Among thousands of people,” St John Chrysostom declared, “there are not a hundred who will arrive at their salvation, and I am not even certain of that number, so much perversity is there among the young and so much negligence among the old.” We look out at the world and assess the lives of those we see—and we count. We count to warn ourselves and each other. We count to encourage ourselves and each other. But we count. Even Popes count.
In his recent encyclical the Holy Father states his personal hope that the damned will be few. At the moment of death our decision for or against God is definitively set. This decision can take many different forms. At one end of the spectrum are those who have destroyed within themselves all love—these are the damned; at the other end are those who are utterly permeated by love and given to love—these are the saints. But in between are those who possess an ultimate interior openness to God yet an openness imperfectly realized. Like the saints, these individuals too are saved, yet they still need to undergo further purification in order to perfect their capacity to enjoy and love God. “We may suppose,” opines Benedict, that this group constitutes “the great majority of people.” And if most will be saved, then we may therefore infer that the damned will be few. Though Benedict does not in fact explicitly claim to know that any specific individual is damned, he acknowledges that “alarming profiles of this type can be seen in certain figures of our own history.” Names such as Hitler, Stalin, and Pol Pot immediately come to mind. Unlike his predecessor John Paul II, who left open the possibility that God might save all, Benedict appears to believe that Hell is probably populated; but hopefully it will be a relatively small community. In a recent question and answer session with the priests of Rome, Benedict elaborated:
I tried to say: perhaps there are not so many who have destroyed themselves so completely, who are irreparable forever, who no longer have any element upon which the love of God can rest, who no longer have the slightest capacity to love within themselves. This would be hell.
On the other hand, they are certainly few—or at least not very many—who are so pure that they can immediately enter into communion with God.
Very many of us hope that there might be something salvageable within us, a final willingness to serve God and to serve men, to live according to God. But there are so many, many wounds, so much filth. We need to be prepared, to be purified. This is our hope: even with so much filth in our soul, in the end the Lord gives us the possibility, He washes us finally with his goodness that comes from his cross. He thus makes us capable of living for Him forever.
I was, I must admit, surprised to find Benedict speculating, even tentatively, in this way and must respectfully submit my disagreement. I believe all such speculating on the numbers of the saved and the damned to be unhelpful, both to the spiritual growth of the faithful and to the evangelistic mission of the Church.
How does Benedict know, how can anyone know, what percentage of humanity will be saved? We believe with the Church that the Blessed Virgin Mary and the canonical saints are saved and now enjoying the beatific vision; but what about the rest of humanity? How does Benedict know about them? In fact, he doesn’t. No one does. Perhaps the Lord has privately revealed such information to someone, but the Pope is not relying on private revelation.
Given that I do not have the opportunity to ask the Holy Father about the grounds of his conjecture, I have asked myself: If I were to propose that the large majority of humanity will be saved, on what grounds would I do so? I would do so, I think, on the basis of my personal experience of other people, both Christian and non-Christian, then extrapolating to the whole of humanity. In my experience, most people are decent folk. They work hard for a living. They try to live moral lives. They sacrifice for family and friends. They avoid hurting others, at least until desire, passion, or need strongly asserts itself in their lives. Most people are decent. Most people are nice. Most people certainly do not appear to be evil, when compared to the truly wicked few. And most of the people I know are open, in some way or another, to transcendence. They do not appear to have definitively closed their hearts to God. Of course, my experience of people is fairly limited. I have spent most of the past thirty years in the company of practicing Christians. But as far as I can tell, most Christians are not significantly more decent than non-Christians.
But does this natural goodness allow me to infer that they are saved or will be saved? Does this decency in fact amount to being supernaturally oriented to God, i.e., in a state of grace? Surely not.
I have omitted one important fact: as decent as most people I know may be, I have to admit that every person I know is also selfish, even the nicest ones. My experience, in other words, confirms a fundamental teaching of the Catholic Church—the doctrine of original sin.
According to magisterial teaching, every human being is born into a state of spiritual death and alienation from God. Every human being is born into a world dominated by Satan and corrupted by death and sin. And in a mysterious way which I at least cannot explain, these three elements—spiritual alienation from God, oppression by Satan, and deformation by a sinful world—coincide. To put it simply, every human being begins his life heading away from God, with Satan and the world conspiring to keep it that way. Every person thus needs to be regenerated by a sovereign act of grace and incorporated into the divine life of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Against the reality of original sin is the commitment of the Holy Trinity to restore mankind to himself through Jesus Christ. God desires the salvation of every human being and provides sufficient grace for each person to find him and turn to him. Catholic Christians confess that God’s saving grace is communicated through the preaching of the gospel and the sacraments of the Church. The Church is the ordinary means of salvation, and on this basis she commits herself to the vigorous evangelization of all peoples; but we also believe that God does not restrict his grace to the ministry of the visible Church. In the words of Vatican II:
This missionary activity derives its reason from the will of God, “who wishes all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, Himself a man, Jesus Christ, who gave Himself as a ransom for all” (1 Tim. 2:45), “neither is there salvation in any other” (Acts 4:12). Therefore, all must be converted to Him, made known by the Church’s preaching, and all must be incorporated into Him by baptism and into the Church which is His body. … Therefore though God in ways known to Himself can lead those inculpably ignorant of the Gospel to find that faith without which it is impossible to please Him (Heb. 11:6), yet a necessity lies upon the Church (1 Cor. 9:16), and at the same time a sacred duty, to preach the Gospel. (Ad gentes 7)
Nor is God far distant from those who in shadows and images seek the unknown God, for it is He who gives to all men life and breath and all things, and as Saviour wills that all men be saved. Those also can attain to salvation who through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church, yet sincerely seek God and moved by grace strive by their deeds to do His will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience. Nor does Divine Providence deny the helps necessary for salvation to those who, without blame on their part, have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God and with His grace strive to live a good life. (Lumen gentium 16; cf. Gaudium et spes 22)
Original sin, the necessity of gospel and Church, and the universality of God’s salvific will—how do we coordinate these teachings? Their coordination has been the task of Catholic theologians since Vatican II. It is beyond my competence to assess the theories advanced, but such an assessment is unnecessary for present purposes. However we may articulate the interior self-communication of God to sinners, we are not permitted to assert as fact that by his Spirit God has regenerated, and thus overcome original sin in, every unbaptized human being. This would reduce the Sacrament of Holy Baptism to symbolic announcement. We may and must proclaim, with John Paul II, that “man—every man without any exception whatever—has been redeemed by Christ” and that therefore “with man—with each man without exception whatever—Christ is in a way united, even when man is unaware of it” (Redemptor hominis 14); and again: “We are dealing with ‘each’ man, for each one is included in the mystery of the Redemption and with each one Christ has united himself for ever through this mystery” (13). We may and must proclaim the work of salvation objectively accomplished in the incarnate Word, who has regenerated human nature by sufferings, death, and resurrection. Yet divine revelation does not allow us to take that further step and announce that the work of salvation is subjectively accomplished in every human being or even most human beings. There is mystery here that must be respected.
In other words, we are not permitted to count either the damned or the saved. As Dulles writes, “The search for numbers in the demography of hell is futile. God in His wisdom has seen fit not to disclose any statistics.” I would add that searching for numbers in the demography of purgatory is equally futile.
Jesus was once asked the question, “Lord, will those who are saved be few?” Our Lord’s answer is instructive: “Strive to enter through the narrow door. For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able” (Luke 13:23-24). Jesus refuses to answer the question and instead turns it back on the head of the questioner. He will not entertain the speculation, because it draws attention from the only thing that matters, namely, the call to faith that is spoken to us by Christ at this very moment. Why are you worried about all the others? Jesus asks. Look at me. Listen to my words. Heed my summons. Convert. The time for decision is now.
All conjecture on the number of the saved and the damned directs us away from Christ. Look at everyone else, we say. Most are pretty good people, are they not? They do not appear to have damned themselves by a definitive destruction of love and denial of truth. Yes, they aren’t saints. Yes, they will probably need to undergo purgatorial purification. But isn’t it encouraging that most will be saved? And if the majority, perhaps the large majority, of folks will be saved, then odds are I am included in their number! After all, I’m not nearly as wicked as Adolf Hitler or Joseph Stalin. And thus I decline, without even realizing it, the summons to faith.
In a letter to Dom Bede Griffiths (19 November 1950), C. S. Lewis wrote of the need for spiritual regeneration and warned against inferring a state of regeneration based on behavior and moral goodness:
The bad (material) tree cannot produce good fruit. But oddly, it can produce fruits that by all external tests are indistinguishable from the good ones: the act done from one’s own separate and unredeemed, tho’ “moral” will, looks exactly like the act done by Christ in us. And oddly enough it is the tree’s real duty to go on producing these imitation fruits till it recognizes this futility and despairs and is made a new (spiritual) tree. (Quoted in Leanne Payne, Real Presence , p. 100)
Lewis, I am sure, would agree that true sanctity is discernible in others, for those who have eyes to see; yet as Pope Benedict states, the saints are few. For the rest of us, it is all too easy to confuse moral decency and goodness, or at least absence of grievous sin, with spiritual life. Christians presume a state of grace for those involved in the sacramental life of the Church, yet the Church has always warned her members of the mortality of sin and the need for continual conversion to Christ. We may not presume that others are saved or in the process of being saved because they are decent or at least not truly wicked people. We may not presume that we are saved or in the process of being saved because we are decent or at least not truly wicked people. There is no substitute for gospel, repentance, and prayer. We must cast ourselves upon the mercy of Christ and pray for the anointing of the Spirit. We must seek to be found in Christ, for he alone is the assurance that we are on the right path.
It is thus unhelpful and indeed misleading to think of damnation in terms of the alarming profiles that always come to mind. The Hitlers and Stalins remind us of the frightening conclusion of damnation, but what is important is the road we are on. We are each headed in one of two directions. We are each becoming either a person of Heaven or a person of Hell.
In George MacDonald’s fairy tale The Princess and Curdie, Curdie is given a great gift. He is instructed to place his hands into a fire of roses. Upon withdrawing his hands, the Princess explains that people are either traveling humanward or beastward, and which direction they are moving is not easily discerned. “Two people may be at the same spot in manners and behaviour,” she says, “and yet one may be getting better and the other worse, which is just the greatest of all differences that could possibly exist between them.” The kind of person they are becoming is always first evident in their hands, in their “inside hands” of which the outside hands are but the gloves. Sadly, those who are becoming beasts are unaware of their fate:
Now listen. Since it is always what they do, whether in their minds or their bodies, that makes men go down to be less than men, that is, beasts, the change always comes first in their hands—and first of all in the inside hands, to which the outside ones are but as the gloves. They do not know it of course; for a beast does not know that he is a beast, and the nearer a man gets to being a beast the less he knows it. Neither can their best friends, or their worst enemies indeed, see any difference in their hands, for they see only the living gloves of them.
The Princess then tells Curdie that he has been given the magical gift of discerning by a handshake whether a person is becoming a beast and if so what kind of beast he is becoming. Curdie asks if it will be his job then to warn everyone “whose hand tells me that he is growing a beast.” Alas, replies the Princess, most will not listen to the truth, for they are ceasing to be human.
This is the great danger that lies before us, and that danger is exponentially magnified if we begin to think we are safe because we are not like the truly wicked. Perhaps we do not boast of our virtues, as did the Pharisee after comparing himself to the publican. We rely instead on our relative lack of wickedness. “I thank thee, O Lord, that I have not committed as many mortal sins as Osama bin Ladin.” But as Uncle Screwtape tells his nephew Wormwood: “It does not matter how small the sins are, provided that their cumulative effect is to edge the man away from the Light and out into the Nothing. Murder is no better than cards if cards can do the trick. Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one—the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts” (The Screwtape Letters, XII).
Strive to enter through the narrow door!
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