Is Hell Heavily Populated?
Father Dwight Longenecker – Having just finished Ralph Martin’s excellent study on universalism, Will Many Be Saved? it leads me to wonder about this thing we call speculative theology. It seems to me that theologians may well speculate when sacred Scripture and church teaching is unclear about something, but in the matter of heaven, hell and salvation there is not really very much room for speculation. The Scriptures are clear in their teaching that many will be damned and few will be saved. Furthermore, Ralph Martin shows that it has been the unanimous teaching of the church and the witness of saints and mystics that many are damned and few are saved.
Of course this is a “hard saying”. We don’t like the idea that anyone should be consigned to everlasting torment, but that’s what the Word of God teaches. Nevertheless, there is room for speculation. The problem I have with wannabe universalists like Balthasar and Rahner is not that they speculate, but that they do not speculate enough. They are busy speculating in ways that undermine the clear meaning of Scripture and contradict the timeless message of the gospel and the traditions of the church. To soften the harsh reality that many people will reject God’s love and go to hell forever they try to imagine how this might not be true and how God’s love will overcome all obstacles and reach down and save people even if they don’t want to be saved.
In their desire to uphold the universal redemption of the world and the everlasting love of God they over rule human freedom and the reality of human depravity and rebellion against God. In their naïve’ sentimentality they can’t imagine that anyone would reject God’s love, and yet every verifiable bit of evidence from history and yesterday’s newspaper reveal the total depravity of many men’s hearts and their spitting hatred of all that is beautiful, good and true.
Instead of speculating the truth of God away with their own imaginings why not speculate as to how people might be saved through unconventional ways of choosing God or what might happen to souls who reject God.
C.S.Lewis’ final Narnia book The Great Battle has a great scene where a pagan who always worshiped the God Tash–but did so in nobility, honor and virtue sees the Christ figure Aslan and recognizes him as the “Tash” he always worshipped whereas the follower of Aslan who was corrupt and deceitful sees Aslan and it is Tash who devours him. In other words, at the judgement all shall be revealed. All impediments will be taken away and perhaps each soul will see Christ and know him clearly and fully for who he is and what he has done. All doubt and misunderstanding will be erased. All true motives will be revealed and at that moment the summary of the soul’s choice will be finalized. We can speculate along those lines because it allows that many who have never known the gospel, but have followed the light they have been given may see Christ and be saved by him who is the only Way, Truth and Life.
But simply to speculate that hell is not real or that if it is real there is nobody there is to defy Scripture, tradition, the magisterium of the church, the witness of the saints and common sense, for do we really honestly believe that the most wicked souls on earth will desire to enter heaven?
We must accept hell and we must accept that many go there. But even then there is room for speculation. We know that hell exists and we must accept that it is a place of punishment and torment. Not because God is a sadistic monster, but because hell is separation from God and that must be torment for anyone. What are we to make of the torment? It may be fire and brimstone and monsters and pitchforks, but it may also be the torment of loneliness, the torment of regret, the torment of grief and loss, the torment of alienation from God forever. It may be darkness and fire and ice and all these things and more.
We can also speculate about the number who go to hell. Will there really be great multitudes who reject God’s love and hate him to the bitter end? My own opinion is that this is so because I see so many people in this life who hate all that is beautiful, good and true. It is so easy to suggest that the vast majority are poor, lost lemmings who don’t really know God or reject God and that they are good at heart and mean well and when they see Christ they will accept him joyfully. But is this the case? To be sure there are many who have just impediments to faith. They were shown a bad example, or they were abused by a Christian or they were never taught the true faith.
However, there are also a vast number of people who have no impediments. They live in a Christian society. There is a church on every street corner. There are signs of faith all around them. They are surrounded by Christian friends, family and neighbors. They have been to Sunday School and been catechized. They have Christian radio shows and television programs. They have religious books and websites. They have had plenty of time and plenty of chances to seek the truth, to find the Lord and to pursue their soul’s salvation and they have done nothing at all. They have not sought the Lord. They have not sought eternal life and they have not responded to any sign of religion or faith. Shall they not be held accountable for the fact that they did nothing? They did not care enough for their soul to even begin asking the questions?
Is it not patronizing and treating them with contempt to say, “Oh well, all you mediocre people–you will just be gathered up in God’s big loving embrace and welcomed home?” They have not done anything to respond to the love that was offered or the redemption won for them at great price. Shall we treat their choice with such disrespect and force them into a heaven they have no desire for and have done nothing to merit?
And what of the millions of pagan souls who have never heard of Christ? We hope that they may be saved by following faithfully the light they have been given, and we are taught that this is possible, but is there much evidence that many of those souls do, in fact, pursue the light they have been given with sincere hearts and with all their might? I hope that it is so, but I do not see evidence of such. It seems to me that most men are like me–they spend their lives thinking only of themselves and their pleasure and think very little about God and his Beauty and goodness. Furthermore, there is plenty of evidence that many of the pagans are not simply drifting in a haze of general niceness and goodness which will one day allow them to drift into heaven. Instead among the pagans we see true barbarism, cruelty, violence and the worship of demons.
The speculation can continue. Let us suppose that there are multitudes upon multitudes heading on the broad path to destruction. What becomes of them? We know that those who are saved are called to ‘grow up to the full humanity of Jesus Christ.’ They are called to be divinized. The redeemed become greater and greater in their growth in glory. Their progress to sanctification continues until they are full and completely radiant eternal beings. What if the damned are on an opposite trajectory? If the saved are getting bigger and bigger and being infused with more and more glory and goodness and the fullness of God in Christ Jesus in an ever widening gyre is it not logical to suppose that the damned are getting smaller and smaller and less and less significant and going down an ever decreasing spiral into the dark?
If the saved are becoming individual, radiant and unique beings eternal in the heavens perhaps the damned are becoming increasingly insignificant–mere ciphers of what they could have been–drones with empty souls and empty hearts. All glory has been withdrawn from them and they are dwindling into ash, falling into trash, descending into being mere shadows of the stars they were meant to be. If this is the case, then the Scriptures which talk about the wood, hay and stubble being burnt up make sense. This is the fire that purifies and burns up all that is trash. We do not hold to hell as obliteration of the eternal soul, but perhaps the eternal soul shrinks into so insignificant an identity as to be what ash is to a piece of wood?
The judgement therefore is not made on quantitative terms but qualitative. As harsh as it may sound, does it matter that the trash is thrown on the fire? This is actually the image the Christ uses when he speaks of Gehenna–which was the trash dump outside Jerusalem. The chaff will be thrown away and burned. The potter throws the broken pot onto the trash heap. The waste is a tragedy, but nature is prodigious. There are many acorns but from them few oak trees. There are many seeds and few flowers. There is much coal but few diamonds.
I realize in this egalitarian age where we judge by quantity not quality such a thought is horrendous, and my own heart is heavy at the thought of so many being damned. Indeed it is heavy at the thought of one soul being damned. I wish that all would come to salvation and hope that many will see Christ at that moment and say “yes” to Love, “yes” to Life “yes” to Goodness, Truth and Beauty, “yes” to Christ.
However, I cannot help but believe that there will also be many who will continue to hate Christ and reject his love. St Faustina saw that each soul would see Christ and he will ask each one three times if they love him and only those who reject his love three times will depart from him. That is the sort of speculation that inspires me for it combines hope and mercy with the reality of the everlasting consequences of human choice. This is truly a severe mercy, but the only one which grants man true dignity in the image of God for part of that image is that God has granted to each soul a portion of his own omnipotence–which we call free will–and this free will cannot be violated or man is no longer in God’s image.
It must therefore be respected, and for that free will to be respected it must receive the consequences of its choice.
Originally Posted at: Standing On My Head