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How did we forget about hell?

Two theologians bear much of the blame, as a new book shows

By on Wednesday, 16 January 2013

El Greco depicts hell as an animal’s mouth (c 1570s)

El Greco depicts hell as an animal’s mouth (c 1570s)

In the late 1990s I wrote a history of the Knights Templar and, after a year or two immersed in the Crusades, was struck by how real was the fear of hell among Catholics at the time, and by what extreme measures they were prepared to take to save their souls. So central to their faith was this fear of damnation that present-day post-Vatican II Catholicism seemed in this respect like a different religion.

Six years later, I expressed my perplexity on the subject in an essay published together with other collected writings by Darton, Longman and Todd as Hell and Other Destinations. I asked how it was that the clear teaching of the Church (and of the monks at Ampleforth where I went to school) that those who die in a state of mortal sin would be damned, that many were called but few chosen, that the hard and narrow path leads to salvation and the broad and easy road to damnation, all now seemed to have been replaced by an assumption that salvation is a universal entitlement with hell either empty or reserved for world-historical monsters like Genghis Khan, Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot and, possibly, General Pinochet and Mrs Thatcher.

My essay was an amateur effort and the question I put received no answer. That is, until now. Dr Ralph Martin is an associate professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame, director of graduate theology programmes in the new evangelisation and a consultor for the Pontifical Council for the New Evangelisation. He is, in other words, a man at the cutting edge of the current drive to convert non-Catholics to the Catholic Faith. In this endeavour, however, he has clearly faced a problem. What is Catholicism’s unique selling point, other than the conviction of Catholics that what they believe happens to be true? What makes up for its inconveniences such as its strictures on sex and the obloquy Catholics must endure for their perceived misogyny, homophobia, indifference to Aids in Africa and so on if, in the long run, as we now seem to believe, everyone will end up in heaven?

Dr Martin’s book is called Will Many Be Saved? What Vatican II Actually Teaches and its Implications for the New Evangelisation. Theological cognoscenti will recognise the reference to Dare we Hope “That All Men Be Saved”? by Hans Urs von Balthasar, a book in which the Swiss theologian claims not just that we dare hope that no one is in hell but that we should hope that no one is in hell and, in fact, can assume that no one is in hell.

Dr Martin treads carefully with von Balthasar, said to be the favourite theologian of Blessed John Paul II, but his critique of his writing on the subject is devastating. In his book Balthasar “departs from the content of revelation and the mainstream theological tradition of the Church in a way that undermines the call to holiness and evangelisation and is pastorally damaging”. Martin is equally critical of the teaching of Karl Rahner, whose heavy tomes of theology, impenetrable to the lay Catholic, have done much to change our beliefs on the question of salvation. It is Rahner’s concept of the “anonymous Christian” that put the final nail in the coffin of extra Ecclesiam nulla salus – outside the Church there is no salvation.

Both Rahner and Balthasar make much of paragraph 16 of Gaudium et Spes, which teaches that members of other religions, and even atheists, may be saved; but here, says Martin, there is some cherry-picking and sleight of hand. “Rahner’s completely optimistic description of the conciliar teaching on the salvation of non-Christians is only possible when the complete text is ignored…” With great delicacy and repeated protestation of respect Martin shows how both Rahner and von Balthasar have allowed their wishful thinking to distort, even pervert, the teaching of the gospels and the Church.

Paragraph 16 of Lumen Gentium states that non-believers who “seek God with a sincere heart” and “do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience” will be saved. So far so good. But, as Martin points out (with the aid of other commentators), both theologians wilfully ignore what follows: “But very often, deceived by the Evil One, men have become vain in their reasonings, have exchanged the truth of God for a lie…” Note the “very often”. Note, too, Lumen Gentium’s reference at this point to St Paul’s First Letter to the Romans, in which he uses “unnatural intercourse” as an instance of where such vain reasoning can lead: “men doing shameless things with men and getting an appropriate reward for their perversion”.

Dr Martin is a specialist on evangelisation and at first sight his book is a merely a scholarly contribution to his area of expertise. But, of course, it is much more than that. Evangelising is at the heart of what it means to be a Catholic. Presenting the Catholic faith as “an optional enrichment opportunity”, instead of “a precious and urgent opportunity to find salvation and escape damnation”, is to distort both the gospels and the teaching of the Catholic Church.

A riddle remains. Why, if Martin’s critique is correct, has the teaching on salvation of Rahner and Balthasar not been condemned by the Church? Cardinal Avery Dulles described Balthasar’s position as “adventurous” and the then Cardinal Ratzinger talked of Rahner’s “astonishing optimism”: he also warned Catholics against reading Scripture “contrary to its own intentions”. But these are mild criticisms if the two theologians have got things so wrong. Dr Martin’s book is now endorsed by four cardinals and two archbishops but, given that the subject is of such paramount importance, should there not be a clear statement by Pope Benedict or Archbishop Gerhard Müller, the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, about what we must do, or not do, to be saved?

Piers Paul Read is a novelist, historian and biographer

  • Peter

    I’m waiting for evidence of why it’s heretical.

  • Peter

    “All the treasures of the Church, all the triumphs of Christian civilisation, even knowledge, faith, the gift of prophecy and martyrdom are utterly worthless as long as we deny God the love he expects in the least of his little ones.”

    (Werenfried van Straaten, founder of ACN)

  • JabbaPapa

    I’m waiting for evidence of why it’s heretical.

    You claim that the actions of the one can directly cause the damnation of the other. Whereas in fact, the relation between each individual and his salvation or damnation is personal :

    CCC 1706 By his reason, man recognizes the voice of God
    which urges him “to do what is good and avoid what is evil.”
    Everyone is obliged to follow this law, which makes itself heard in
    conscience and is fulfilled in the love of God and of neighbor. Living a
    moral life bears witness to the dignity of the person.

    There is your heresy.

    Second, you claim knowledge of who will suffer damnation. This is to arrogate to yourself a knowledge that is of God’s province alone ; whereas in reality, the damnation of these or those souls is a Mystery of our Faith.

    If you had simply claimed that the failure of any manifest duty towards the poor and needy was a mortal sin, and that mortal sins place our souls in direct peril of damnation, then we would not be having this discussion.

    It is one thing to make such claims as yours as a rhetorical device in Christian apologetics — it is quite another to lecture your Catholic brethren by making use of such devices in any more formally theological discussion, where the compromises of such figures of speech are not acceptable.

  • JabbaPapa

    That is a very true and beautiful quote, but ironically, it illustrates the nature of your own Error.

  • pablito

    Joe Zammit wrote ”
    Who are we to believe: Rahner and Balthasar or the Virgin Mary?” Von Balthasar never claimed that all will be saved. He just said that he hopes for it, and that hope has scriptural support. That is consistent with CCC1058, which starts with “The Church prays that no one should be lost.” It is also consistentwith the Fatima Prayer which asks Jesus to lead all souls to heaven. It would indeed be heresy to state categorically that all souls are saved, but we can, along with the Church, hope and pray for it. Only a psycho would want to see anybode in eternal torment.

  • Littlestsouls

    Good question. I have read many contradictory revelations about the number of the lost/saved, which is why I simply live with this in mind:
    “Woe to those who die in mortal sin.” – St. Francis of Assisi
    “If thou art lukewarm I will begin to vomit thee out of My Mouth.” (Rev 3:16)
    (All understood within the context of God’s infinite love, as expressed beautifully in the writings of many holy saints and mystics; and of course, in the Holy Scriptures themselves)

  • Littlestsouls

    Dear Kevin, the message of Fatima is a GREAT MERCY from Almighty God. In an age where the existence of Hell is ignored and souls remain slaves to sin, Our Saviour wishes to provide us with a powerful means for attaining peace, sanctity and salvation ie. prayer (esp. the Rosary), penance, Marian consecration. God bless.

    Sorrowful and Immaculate Heart of Mary, pray for us!

  • Antal Otto

     Yes, of course if you count the numbers, but we are 7 billion now.
    Europe, North America, huge part of Asia and other parts of the world can call themselves rich compared to the people of the middle age.
    Plus, even now the number of Christians are growing in the poor regions. Heaven and hell are much more important things there than in the “Western civilization”.
    However the idea of modern western lifestyle are everywhere in the world. You can see on the advertisements in Malaysia that tells you: if you drink a coke everything will be fine. These deceptive theories come everywhere around us: TV, internet, mobiles, from the people around us. You don`t need God, just drink the coffee what you deserve, but this would be part of an other topic…
    We are all (even Christians) in a trap of the western world-consuming lifestyle where you don`t need God, heaven or hell, just the modern technologies and brands what can give us everything we need.
    That is why this blame of the theologists is a mistake. This is similar to that concept when someone said that the Christians are to blame for the destruction of Earth because there is a sentence in the bible that God gives us the Earth (this part of the bible obviously also misunderstood).

  • Peter

    “You claim that the actions of the one can directly cause the damnation of the other. ”

    I claim that the inaction of the one can directly cause inaction in others which will lead to their damnation.  A pastor has the responsibility to lead his flock to salvation.  If the pastor completely ignores the poor, his flock will believe through their pastor that salvation is achievable without meeting the serious needs of the poor, which is a dreadful mistake. 

    “Second, you claim knowledge of who will suffer damnation.”

    The dangers of ignoring the poor are made very clear in the Gospels and in the Catechism.  There is nothing mysterious about it.  You can’t hide behind theology.

    As Archbishop Chaput of Philadelphia says (when he was Archbishop of Denver):

    “..if we ignore the poor we go to hell.  Repeat that with me:  If we ignore the poor we go to hell….if we ignore the poor – I don’t mean actively do harm to the poor but just simply ignore the poor – what’s going to happen to us?  We will go to hell.  We don’t like to hear or think things like that.”  (Sept 2004)

  • JabbaPapa

    I claim that the inaction of the one can directly cause inaction in others which will lead to their damnation.

    Which is to deny the doctrine of invincible ignorance.

    No matter which way you turn it, you are claiming things about damnation that you cannot possibly know — as well as denying their contraries. Those claims are erroneous, and these denials of yours are not consistent with Catholic teaching.

    Furthermore, you are directly contradicting St Paul and in general the Catholic doctrines of vocation.

    Vocations are provided by the Holy Spirit — NOT by applying one set of arbitrary man-made rules universally, such as the ones that you yourself are inventing.

    Your suggestions that only caring for the poor and needy will lead to salvation, and that failures to do so necessarily lead to damnation, are redolent of Liberation Theology — which has been formally condemned by the Catholic Church.

    You are implicitly claiming that only actions of political nature in this world can lead to salvation in the next.


    XI : 1. The warning against the serious deviations of some “theologies of liberation” must not be taken as some kind of approval, even indirect, of those who keep the poor in misery, who profit from that misery, who notice it while doing nothing about it, or who remain indifferent to it. The Church, guided by the Gospel of mercy and by the love for mankind, hears the cry for justice and intends to respond to it with all her might.

    2. Thus a great call goes out to all the Church: with boldness and courage, with far-sightedness and prudence, with zeal and strength of spirit, with a love for the poor which demands sacrifice, pastors will consider the response to this call a matter of the highest priority, as many already do.

    3. All priests, religious, and lay people who hear this call for justice and who want to work for evangelization and the advancement of mankind, will do so in communion with their bishop and with the Church, each in accord with his or her own specific ecclesial vocation


    8. The acute need for radical reforms of the structures which conceal poverty and which are themselves forms of violence, should not let us lose sight of the fact that the source of injustice is in the hearts of men.

    Therefore it is only by making an appeal to the ‘moral potential’ of the person and to the constant need for interior conversion, that social change will be brought about which will be truly in the service of man. For it will only be in the measure that they collaborate freely in these necessary changes through their own initiative and in solidarity, that people, awakened to a sense of their responsibility, will grow in humanity. The inversion of morality and structures is steeped in a materialist anthropology which is incompatible with the dignity of mankind.

    At a very deep spiritual level, you are placing some material concerns for the poor and needy above the proper spiritual concern for God, for true Christian charity, and for souls.

    You have no right to claim that those who, through their own vocation, may address some other needs than those of the poor and the hungry are heading for damnation, whilst even non-Christians unbaptised and mired in Original Sin will be saved if they take care of these purely material needs.

    Such attitudes as you express are quite plainly uncatholic.

  • Peter

    “Which is to deny the doctrine of invincible ignorance”
    There is no excuse for ignorance, as the goats at the last judgement found out: “When did we see you hungry, Lord?”

    This has nothing to do with the marxist doctrine of liberation theology and everything to do with individual salvation based on one’s individual compassion for the seriously poor.

    Love for the poor is love for Christ.  Lack of love for the poor is lack of love for Christ.   Whether one is aware of it or not is irrelevant, as the goats found out to their detriment.

  • Peter

    …and the sheep to their joy.

  • JabbaPapa

    There is no excuse for ignorance

    Heresy !!!

    Read, and meditate :


    1790 A human being must always obey the
    certain judgment of his conscience. If he were deliberately to act
    against it, he would condemn himself. Yet it can happen that moral
    conscience remains in ignorance and makes erroneous judgments about acts
    to be performed or already committed.

    This ignorance can often be imputed to personal responsibility. This is
    the case when a man “takes little trouble to find out what is true and
    good, or when conscience is by degrees almost blinded through the habit
    of committing sin.” In such cases, the person is culpable for the evil he commits.

    Ignorance of Christ and his Gospel, bad example given by others,
    enslavement to one’s passions, assertion of a mistaken notion of
    autonomy of conscience, rejection of the Church’s authority and her
    teaching, lack of conversion and of charity: these can be at the source
    of errors of judgment in moral conduct.

    If – on the contrary – the ignorance is invincible
    , or the moral
    subject is not responsible for his erroneous judgment, the evil
    committed by the person cannot be imputed to him
    . It remains no less an
    evil, a privation, a disorder. One must therefore work to correct the
    errors of moral conscience.

  • Jon Brownridge

     You seem to have it all worked out.

  • Peter

    Failing to love the poor – and to put that love into practice – is not a question of ignorance, because love of the poor comes from the heart not the head.

    Therefore ignorance is not, cannot be, an excuse.

    Genuine love and compassion for the poor comes from the heart not the head and, irrespective of whether the person is aware of it, it is love and compassion for Christ himself.

    A person who lacks compassion for the poor is lacking in their heart not their head, and for that there is no excuse.

    The only possible excuse one could have for not helping the poor is if one is ignorant of their existence, if one genuinely believes that the world is a utopia where nobody suffers from hunger, thirst, disease, homelessness, oppression persecution and conflict.

    But of course that is not reality, since we are bombarded daily through the media with images of suffering humanity, which means that there are no excuses whatsoever for ignoring the poor.

  • JabbaPapa

    Failing to love the poor – and to put that love into practice – is not a
    question of ignorance, because love of the poor comes from the heart
    not the head.

    You misunderstand my basic point.

    This is NOT a question about charity towards the poor — this is a question about your claims that failure of such charity is always a direct cause of damnation, and that the presence of such charity is always a direct cause of salvation.

    The only possible excuse one could have for not helping the poor is if
    one is ignorant of their existence, if one genuinely believes that the
    world is a utopia where nobody suffers from hunger, thirst, disease,
    homelessness, oppression persecution and conflict

    That’s a strawman.

    In fact, the Holy Spirit distributes charisms and graces to people so that they can focus their Christian lives around those particular charisms and graces — rather than those provided to some entirely different individuals instead.

    Second, when you have nothing to give, then you cannot give anything — this does not mean an absence of charity, but the very lack of means in discussion.

    Third, “helping the poor” can of course take a great many different forms, whereas you are reducing it down to a purely material activity — except that our work in this world as Christians and Catholics is towards the spirit, rather than just the flesh.

    Fourth, your statement above is incompatible with the teachings of our Catechism concerning Errors of Judgment, quoted hereabove — which lists all of the various causes for such errors, most of which you have totally ignored.

    But of course that is not reality, since we are bombarded daily through
    the media with images of suffering humanity, which means that there are
    no excuses whatsoever for ignoring the poor.

    You are very wrong to state this as if it were a universal reality — you may be subjected daily to such media bombardment (I’m not) ; you may have graces and material means allowing you to help the poor in the manner that you suggest, but NO, not everyone on this planet is in that state of affairs ; and as I live in a poorhouse myself, I find it rather difficult to “ignore” the poor, so that I have no idea how I would even go about doing so — stop looking at myself in the mirror ? Not talk to any of my neighbours ? Stop engaging in introspection, prayer, and worship ?

    Are you suggesting that if I fail to starve myself, then I’m heading for damnation ?

    My poverty is part of the Cross that I must bear, but it is also a place of spirituality and worship. Your claims that those who fail to thrust material goods into my hands, as if material goods provided salvation, will be damned to Hell is most offensive.

  • Burt ForMich

    Piers Paul Reid has addressed an issue which is the crux of the matter, in my opinion, examining the current crisis of the Church. The mystery of faith, the mystery of revealed faith, revealed especially to us by Our Lord, involves the fate of eternal, everlasting torment in Hell. Rejection from the company of Heaven by Our Lord Himself who will judge each one of us on how we as individuals used this mortal state we currently share to win Heaven successfully.
    It is a terrible dereliction of duty of our current theologians and Church leaders to fail in warning humanity of the dreadful fate of a wasted life. These leaders have surely placed their own eternal destiny at great risk. 

  • Danny

    Bernadette defined a sinner, she said, “ A sinner is someone who loves evil.”
    It would be better for the church to teach God’s infinite Love for creation, rather than preaching about hell.   It would bring more people into church, rather than leaving it.

  • Margaret Bianchi

    I am more inclined to agree with Dr.Ralph Martin.  His reasoning is closer to some saints’ writings, like the Dialogue of St Catherine of Siena and the Art of Dying Well by St Robert Bellamine.

  • Avila

    Dr Martin is incorrect.
    First of all, lumping Rahner and Balthasar together as thinkers isn’t productive. Secondly, I wish people would actually read what Balthasar wrote about Hell before they throw around heresy accusations. He is a complex and interesting theologian, whom the Pope deeply respects. Thirdly, we are required to believe in the existence of Hell as Catholics, but not to guess how many people end up there. Hope, and hope in God’s great mercy are virtues, however real and serious the possibility a soul will end up rejecting God is. Balthasar doesn’t ‘believe hell is empty’, he argues that we should HOPE that everyone will be saved, and is says more about our attitudes towards each other, and our life of prayer, than figuring out God’s business. This is completely in line with what Our Lady taught at Fatima, and Christ said to St Faustina etc etc. Right after affirming the existence of hell (as Balthasar does), in the words, “Hell’s principle punishment consists of eternal separation from God” (1057), the Catechism adds: “The Church prays that no one should be lost: ‘Lord, let me never be parted from you.’ If it is true that no one can save himself, it is also true that God ‘desires all men to be saved’ (1 Tim. 2:4), and that for him ‘all things are possible’ (Mt 19:26)” (1058).
    Please read Stratford Caldecott’s letter response in this week’s Herald.

  • St Donatus

    Why is there any question about this. Jesus himself talks about Hell a lot. One scripture describes how ones who don’t enter through the narrow gate, will go to Hell. As one reads the context, it is obvious that the narrow gate references the Church. The scripture is “Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (Matt. 7:13–14). Every other time when Jesus references ‘destruction’ he is talking about Hell. 

  • Danny

    Is it not possible Jesus was talking at a level understood by His listeners, and also Himself, as a Rabbi, (a teacher) He was not aware as we believe today that He’s the Son of God, second person of the Trinity.   He like us had a learning curve, which is clear in the Gospels; His message during the early part of His mission was to the Jewish people, only later did He address the Gentiles.   His parables indicate people have choices, to do good or bad, but mainly to love God and then their neighbour.   Unfortunately people use the fear of hell to control and have power over others, this is quite clear over the centuries how monarchs and politics have been manipulated.
    The one thing I find that makes it impossible for me to believe in hell is simple; if you have ever loved another, would you condemn them to hell?

  • Benedict Carter

    No, it is not possible.

  • Danny

    Well I bow to your strong and convincing argument.

  • Gregory Starkey

    As to the final question, “should
    there not be a clear statement by Pope Benedict or Archbishop Gerhard
    Müller… about what we must do, or not do, to be saved?” I always
    thought the question had already been clearly put to the Lord many
    times, one of which is given by Luke 18, 25-27.

    I thought we all learned that from our
    childhood, and perhaps too many of us also learned to foget it, just
    in case we had to do as Mt 19, 21, and so go away sad as did the Rich
    Young Man. Getting through the Eye of the Needle requires a lot of
    slimming, especially to purses, and dedicating their contents to the

    Mercifully, Luke does tend to be rather
    Balthasarian as he tells us that “Jesus replied, “What is
    impossible with men is possible with God.””

    Perhaps we might all do better
    forgetting about maniples, moral manuals and other manias – even “Is
    there a hell?” – and making this world a little less hellish at the
    same time as placing our trust in Luke’s words and in our Merciful
    Father Who art in Heaven!

  • No name Jane

    Catholics believe baptism is necessary for salvation.
    VATICAN II declared this in #7 of it’s decree Ad Gentes:
    “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. For Christ Himself “by stressing in express language the necessity of faith and baptism (cf. Mark 16:16; John 3:5), at the same time confirmed the necessity of the Church, into which men enter by baptism, as by a door. Therefore those men cannot be saved, who though aware that God, through Jesus Christ founded the Church as something necessary, still do not wish to enter into it, or to persevere in it.” (Dogmatic constitution by Vatican II: Lumen Gentium 14) 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. And hence missionary activity today as always retains its power and necessity.”

    Interesting right?