Sunday, November 03, 2013

Is it possible for all people to be saved?

The admirable Father Robert Barron has recently come under attack by the energetic Michael Voris, who -- among other things -- produces a series videos under the title of "The Vortex": in which he proposes to expose "lies and falsehoods." The equally energetic and voluble Catholic writer Mark Shea recently posted something on this, sparking lots of commentary.  It started with Father Barron offering some meandering comments about whether we might hope for all human beings to be saved in the end; then Mr. Voris attacked that "wrong" claim with his Vortex; and then Mr. Shea decided Mr. Voris's  criticisms were a "smear" of Father Barron.

Well, I think that's too strong. I think Mr. Shea heard more in what Mr. Voris said, than he actually said; just as I think Mr. Voris heard more in Father Barron's comments than were there.*

So I think I'll disturb this hornets' nest and see what happens!

In seeing the discussion that ensued at Mr. Shea's site, it's clear that people get worked up--and like both Mr. Voris and Mr. Shea seem to have done, they don't quite get what others are saying. For example, many people seem to take Father Barron as either (a) denying hell exists or (b) claiming that everyone will, in fact, be saved, or (c), that hell is "empty." As far as I could tell, he said none of those things.

What I heard him say was that it's possible that God will find a way to touch every human heart, and convert each one.

Which means that people (like Mr. Voris) who assert he's wrong, are saying, no, it's not possible God will do that. Which strikes me as simply wrong.

Let's be clear here. No one but God knows how many will, on Judgment Day, end up in heaven or in hell. But I think is fundamentally mistaken to deny even the possibility of God saving all human beings.

Now, I think many are arguing against this possibility because they don't understand what they are arguing against. They seem to think that if you allow for the possibility of God's saving plan being so hugely successful, that it either invalidates sources of Divine Revelation, or else it means going to heaven is easy. But neither is true, if you think about it.

Suppose I were an advanced English teacher, and I told you everyone in my class passed.  Does that somehow prove passing was easy? No, of course not.

Suppose I also told you that, at the beginning of the year, I warned those students of their grave peril of flunking. I really laid it on. And I wasn't exaggerating: they really were in danger of failure.

So now that I have told you they all passed, is there a logical inconsistency here? What is it?

It seems to me the explanation is easy:

1. They were on the road to academic doom.
2.  I warned them in vivid terms.
3. They took it to heart.
4. I worked hard to prod and pull them, giving them help every step of the way.
5. It all combined to produce a change of heart and destiny.
6. They all passed.

Please: show me the problem here?

In the case of salvation, of course, it's not about "passing a course" but about repentance and faith. And what many will argue is that Divine Revelation--Scripture and Tradition--has already told us that some human beings (the fallen angels are a separate matter) will certainly be damned.

And, ultimately, the debate comes down to that question: does anything in Divine Revelation assert this unequivocally?

I would say that there are a lot of passages taken that way that need not be. The story of Lazarus and the Rich Man or the parable of the sheep and the goats. Note well, I said "need not be." They can be taken that way; you may be correct in taking them that way; but that's not the same as saying anyone must take them that way.

How else would anyone take them? As a warning: this terrible doom is hanging over your head, and you actually are headed for it...unless you repent.

Someone might ask, but if all human beings end up making it to heaven, what was hell for?

Well, first, for the devil and his fellow fallen angels. It is fairly clear they cannot be saved.

And that means hell is real, and not an empty threat.

At any rate, let me repeat myself. I have no idea of whether few or many will, ultimately, be saved. I will admit that there are some passages of Scripture that make it hard to suppose there won't at least be some human beings in hell. Judas Iscariot, for one, and there are others.

That said, all I would argue for is the possibility of all human beings being saved -- not certainty. And just as with the English class example I gave, a highly successful outcome -- even an entirely successful one -- does not mean the outcome was ever a sure thing, or even an easy thing.

Even if you believe that quite a lot of people end up being damned -- which is very possible -- I don't know how anyone can simply rule out the alternative scenario: few, or even none, are damned. Again, I said, "rule out."

Let's put it this way.  Do you pray the Rosary?  Do you add the "Fatima Prayer"? What does it say:

"O my Jesus, forgive us our sins, save us from the fires of hell; lead all souls to heaven, especially those most in need of thy mercy."

See that? "Lead all souls to heaven." Are we praying for something that Scripture tells us is impossible? Why do that? We don't pray for the salvation of the damned angels. That is impossible.
And lest you say, that's just one prayer: I would suggest listening closely at Mass. Many of our prayers in Mass express the hope of salvation for all sinners, all the wayward. We pray for these things rather solemnly every Good Friday.

Hell is real. Everyone, but for the grace of God, is in grave danger of hell. Only grace can save us--both in the offering of salvation, and in prompting our response to the invitation, and in assisting us in the ongoing conversion, and in completing our purification in purgatory.

We have free will. We can choose to reject the invitation. It seems many have. But I can't see anyone's heart, or know what transpires between a soul and God, at that last moment. I do know how far God will go to save sinners: pretty far indeed.

So hell might be crowded; but for the grace of God it will be. But it might not be, thanks to God's work.

Why is it wrong to hope God is hugely successful? And how can one hope for what is impossible?

*Update: It didn't take long for what I  described in this prior paragraph, to happen again! My first commenter on this post thinks I said something I did not say. How many times must I say this? No one (but God) knows who or how many will be saved; thus, no one, including me, can say whether everyone will be saved.

Got that?

I'm raising a much narrower question: is it even possible for all human beings to be saved.

If you don't understand the distinction, say so, and we'll go into that, OK!


MichaelP said...

I think it is silly and down right unbiblical to think ALL will be saved or we have any "hope" that ALL will be saved. If we do, then you have to explain to me who the "goats" are at Final Judgment. Hope is a theological virtue and one cannot "hope" another gets to heaven. One can only ask, pray or wish for it. Hoping on a mere natural level is no better then wishing someone well, and there is no grace involved in it. A prayer that asks Jesus to "lead ALL souls to heaven" is merely a petition. To base a "hope" that ALL will be saved on a prayer request is a little reaching.


Fr Martin Fox said...


Thanks for visiting.

You said, "I think it is silly and down right unbiblical to think ALL will be saved..."

First, let's get something very clear.

I never said everyone "will" be saved.

So if that's what you think I said, you might want to read my post again. Because I made the point, above, that in this discussion, people read more than is there. Looks like you did that.

If I understand you correctly, you hold that no, it not possible for all human beings to be saved. Am I correct in that?

If so, then why does the Church pray for the impossible?

I'm not talking about a "prayer request"--I'm talking about the Church's liturgy. Through and through, the Sacred Liturgy asks God to save all humanity. Why do that if it's impossible?

As far as explaining the sheep and goats, I already have in my original post. The passage tells us that people are in danger of being sent to hell.

Tell me: why did Jesus even give the parable? What did he come to do? (Hint: look at the words at the conclusion of today's Gospel, in the Ordinary Form: "the son of man came to seek and to save what was lost."

How hard is this?

Jesus gives a vivid, frightening--and TRUE--picture of what fate befalls those who do not repent, do not care for the least of his brethren.

What is wrong with saying that the parable was given as a warning?
On what basis do you reject that understanding of the passage?

And if it's a warning (which it clearly is): then why do you chafe at the idea of the warning being heeded? Isn't that what God wants?

See the Book of Jonah. The prophet is mad because no fire and brimstone falls on Nineveh; but that's exactly what God wanted to happen. Did that outcome invalidate the truth of Jonah's preaching?

Of course not. That's part of the artistry of that book.

In a similar way, I don't see any problem if lots of would-be goats decide to change their ways because of that parable.

MichaelP said...

Fr. Fox,

Thank you for responding. You are correct in thinking that I think it is impossible for all to be saved. I think it is a prayer made in vain if it is made with the thought that all will actually be saved. I understand our liturgical prayers for all to be saved in meaning that we "hope" for all to turn to God and accept the salvation he has given to us. I do not think our Blessed Mother would give us a prayer that asks for ALL to be saved, while at the same time telling us that sexual immorality is sending more souls to hell than any other sin.

Also, I think the parable (I don't think it was a parable) about the rich man and Lazarus has a lesson in it for this question at hand. Abraham would not allow Lazarus to visit the still alive relatives of the rich man. Abraham said they have the Law and the Prophets and that even a man raised from the dead would not convince them. If all we have now is what is revealed to us in the Law and the Prophets, and Christ's passion, death and resurrection, can we really expect Christ to touch the unrepentant at death and cause his heart to soften. This would mean the Church teaches incorrectly when She teaches that there is such a sin against the Holy Spirit, which as you know boils down to an unrepentant sinner that dies in such a state of disgrace.

God bless,

rcg said...

I think it is possible that everyone could be saved; we are talking about the power of God, here. We choose not to to be saved, we sin, on purpose! and abuse the Holy Spirit and the Son by thinking we can bargain and time our moment of salvation to coincide with the moment WE want to stop sinning. We can all be saved, but we won't all be saved, because we are nearly all fools.

bill bannon said...

Distinguish between past humans and non past humans.
You and God can hypothetically save all non past humans through prayer.
Past humans is a radically different problem because we know that hundreds of thousands of people have died in the act of piracy, in the act of suicide, in the acts of attempted murder, some in the act of adultery, some while cursing God. It is bizarre to think that in every one of those cases, either God converted them all in their last few breaths or that many were not in mortal sin because they lacked full consent or sufficient reflection about being a pirate. enter purgatory at all, you must be in sanctifying grace. Purgatory is not the default setting; it requires not material but formal innocence. How does a pirate get that innocence while slitting throats.
I'm not a Voris fan but in this area, he is quite good. Fr. Barron's recent Origin based metaphoric outlook on the massacres of the OT would have predicted his emphasis on this hell issue. Benedict also liked Origin and stated that the Church has not declared on Judas which avoids the question....didn't Christ try several times to tell you where Judas is: once using past tense prophecy which St. Justin Martyr noted was certain ( Isaiah 53:2 etc.) not conditional like Jonah predicting Nineveh had 40 days left. " Those whom thou gavest me I guarded and not one of them perished except the son of perdition"... was said by Christ prior to Judas' despair in God's mercy and resultant suicide.

Jero Ro said...

As part of the formation for priesthood: would it help to have seminarians going to confession to a woman, prior to going to confession to a man-priest? Just to experience the feelings of confession to the opposite gender….

Fr Martin Fox said...


I don't really see what your comment has to do with this post.

But to the substance of your idea, my response is to say, no, that strikes me as a very odd idea.

What good does it do to have seminarians experience confessing sins to a woman? It doesn't tell them what it feels like, being a woman, confessing to a man. So what does it accomplish?