I had been thinking of Dulles lately because of an article, The Population of Hell, that he wrote for the May 2003 issue of First Things. At our Saturday morning discussion a few weeks ago, we were discussing the parable of the sheep and the goats. One man among us confessed that he had a hard time believing that a merciful god would condemn any soul to an eternity of torment in hell. The only souls in hell would be those who choose to go to there. The obvious question would be how that choice is made: is it made during one’s lifetime in whether or not to love one’s neighbors, or is it an explicit choice made at the moment of, or even after the moment of, death? I happen to believe that you get to make the choice before death, and once you die, the choice has already been made.
In his essay, Dulles noted that there are two ultimate possibilities after death: everlasting happiness with God or everlasting torment without God. He then lays out the biblical evidence, noting the Gospel passages where Christ refers to hell, even suggesting that Judas is in hell, and the passages from St. Paul that indicate a division between those who are saved and those who are perishing. He notes that God’s desire is clearly for universal salvation, but that He will not override man’s free will.
Dulles then recounts how the continuous teaching of the Catholic Church supports the division of humanity into the saved and the damned. The Church continues to teach that everyone who dies in a state of mortal sin goes to hell. Relative numbers between the saved and the damned, however, are not treated in any Church documents. Many saints and doctors of the Church were convinced that most of the human race is lost.
There is a break with tradition in the middle of the twentieth century. Jacques Maritain, in a conjectural essay published after his death, contemplated that possibility that the damned escape the punishments of hell through the prayers of the saints and spend eternity not in hell or heaven, but in limbo. Karl Rahner argued that universal salvation was possible, if the Gospel passages in which Jesus refers to hell are read as admonitory (what could happen) rather than predictive (what will happen). Hans Urs von Balthazar argued that Christians have the right and the duty to hope for the salvation of all.
The traditional interpretation by the Church has been that explicit faith, reception of the sacraments (especially baptism), and obedience to the Church are the ordinary means through which men are saved. Vatican II softened the stance by noting that even those who are ignorant of Christ are given sufficient grace to make salvation possible, while still asserting that any who reject the Church, knowing that it is the ordinary means of salvation, cannot be saved. Dulles notes, “If we accept these teachings, we will find it unlikely that everyone fulfills the conditions for salvation.”
Today a kind of thoughtless optimism is the more prevalent error. Quite apart from what theologians teach, popular piety has become saccharine. Unable to grasp the rationale for eternal punishment, many Christians take it almost for granted that everyone, or practically everyone, must be saved. . . The search for numbers in the demography of hell is futile. God in His wisdom has seen fit not to disclose any statistics. . . .
All told, it is good that God has left us without exact information. If we knew that virtually everybody would be damned, we would be tempted to despair. If we knew that all, or nearly all, are saved, we might become presumptuous. If we knew that some fixed percent, say fifty, would be saved, we would be caught in an unholy rivalry. We would rejoice in every sign that others were among the lost, since our own chances of election would thereby be increased. Such a competitive spirit would hardly be compatible with the gospel. . . .
His conclusion seems to be that it's acceptably orthodox to hope for the salvation of all. This is after all, the will of God. However, it is also clear that we cannot accept universal salvation as a revealed doctrine. To the contrary, the evidence appears to support the contrary argument. We can hope that hell is empty, but it most likely is well populated.