I am not a universalist. On the question of how many are saved, the thinking of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI as given in Spe Salvi serves me as a general guide. He states that there are some “who have totally [emphasis mine] destroyed their desire for truth and readiness to love.” These he says are beyond remedy and “the destruction of good would be irrevocable.” He also says there are people “who are utterly [emphasis mine] pure, completely permeated by God.” For these people their “journey towards God only brings to fulfillment what they already are.” (45) These two states on earth, however, only apply to a relatively small group of people. Benedict goes on to say,
Yet we know from experience that neither case is normal in human life. For the great majority of people—we may suppose—there remains in the depths of their being an ultimate interior openness to truth, to love, to God. In the concrete choices of life, however, it is covered over by ever new compromises with evil—much filth covers purity, but the thirst for purity remains and it still constantly re-emerges from all that is base and remains present in the soul. What happens to such individuals when they appear before the Judge? Will all the impurity they have amassed through life suddenly cease to matter? What else might occur? (46)
Now it should be stated that his thoughts following this question pertain to Christians. However, while different factors certainly come into play for non-Christians, his thoughts are not necessarily limited to Christians alone. Benedict does not explicitly say whether he thinks most people in this middle state go to hell or if they go to heaven, but he does make it clear that we can and should have a great hope for people in this state. In fact, our own hope depends on our hope for others: “Our hope is always essentially also hope for others; only thus is it truly hope for me too.” (47)
While at Tenebrae yesterday evening, the question of how many go to hell was brought to mind. Each of Jesus’s last words on the Cross had something to say about this question.
Father, forgive them, they know not what they do. (Luke 23:34 NAB)
My thoughts first turned to myself. I do know what I do. My background is in theology and the faith is what I teach. That, however, is all academic. It’s one thing to study theology; it is quite another to live it – and some how the study seems to make the living more difficult. What knowledge is Jesus talking about? The scribes of Israel knew where the Messiah was to be born; yet, it was three gentiles that went to adore Him. Before this on the night of his birth is was not the learned men and priests of Israel who adored the Lord, but uneducated illiterate shepherds. For all my learning and my pondering do I “know”? True knowledge is experienced. One of the common marks of a saint is their intense love for God. A love that brings a great horror of sin, of hurting the Lover. This love and the knowledge that accompanies it are not the fruit of study. How many truly know?
When Christ speaks these words it is also important to remember that He is not asking the Father to forgive only the soldiers, the members of the Sanhedrin, or the Jews who condemned Him. He died for every sin of every man in all the history of the world. He was asking forgiveness of all men of every place and of every time. I am one of those whom Jesus petitions for, saying, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.” There is no prayer as efficacious as that of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. It is not possible for us to fathom the magnitude of this prayer made on the Cross for all at all times.
Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise. (v. 43)
Spoken to a thief who had just admitted that he had been condemned justly and that his punishment of crucifixion corresponded to his crime. Why? Because he recognized Jesus as the Christ. This is salvation at the hour of one’s death. This hour is a great mystery to us. It is not possible for us to know what is happening at the moment of one’s death. It is not possible for us to know – even for ourselves! – how one will respond when they encounter the majesty and glory of the Benevolent One, the One who is Goodness, Truth, and Beauty itself, who is Judge and Merciful Father. Through the omnipotent solicitude of our God, death itself has become a grace. There is simply no telling how one’s heart may receive it.
Woman, behold, your son. (John 19:26)
As Jesus is the New Adam so Mary is the New Eve. She is not just the mother of St. John or of Christians, but the mother of all humanity. She is the true Mother of the Living. All humanity was redeemed through the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. The life He offers us though only comes through baptism. Mary as the one who bore that life within her and brought Him into the world is the mother of all who have that life. But she is also the great intercessor. There is no greater intercessor to the Son than His mother, and she intercedes for all humanity. She stands before the throne of her Son always interceding for us whether we acknowledge her as our mother or not. And for those who have not the life of Christ within them she works for them to receive that life. A striking example of this is the mass conversion of Aztecs and other tribes in Mexico through the appearance of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Knowing that she who is the most beautiful of all God’s creatures, the crowning jewel, Ark of the Covenant, Daughter of Zion, Mother of our Lord, and Spouse of the Spirit through her most pure and immaculate heart seeks our good makes my heart swell. What hope there is in the midst of all this dung when we have so great an advocate! Oh, Blessed Mother, so intimately entwined within the work of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – Holy Trinity, One God!
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? (Matthew 27:46)
These words of Christ more than any others show the depth of His passion. In bearing the weight of our sins and crucifying them on the Cross with Himself, He feels the enveloping darkness our sins bring upon us. He feels the abandonment of the Father – a true loneliness despite those who love Him being so close. He does not say this simply for Himself though. The One who says this is the Man, the Son of Man, the New Adam. In saying this, all humanity in Him says this as well. It is the cry of both Jesus and man to God. This cry of anguish, however, is not the end. It is the beginning. Christ’s cry was genuine. It was a cry that arose from His heart, a heart formed by the Holy Scriptures. (What a great mystery. The Word Incarnate formed by the Word inked). The Son of David cries out with a Psalm of David, Psalm 22. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” A psalm which further on petitions the Lord: “But you, Lord, do not stay far off; my strength, come quickly to help me…. Save me from the lion’s mouth, my poor life from the horns of wild bulls.” (Psalm 22:20, 22) And the petition is answered. The one forsaken is saved. He has not been abandoned. The psalm ends with great praise and in complete victory: “All the ends of the earth will remember and turn to the Lord [emphasis mine]… All who sleep in the earth will bow low before God; All who have gone down into the dust will kneel in homage.” (vv. 28, 30) The cry of man in Jesus Christ is also man’s answer in Him.
I thirst. (John 19:28)
His thirst indeed was great while He hung upon the Tree, but it has not the first time he had longed so strongly drink. His words go beyond the mere desire for drink and express a deeper thirst – the salvation of souls. As Benedict said above our hope must include hope for others. He thirsts for the ones He suffers for. He, the Lover, thirsts for His beloved who has turned from Him. He longs for her to turn her gaze back towards Him and to look in love upon His love, His face. He longs for us, and cries out in His desire for us. Is His thirst really only satiated by a few? This cry is a pray to His Father. Again, there is no prayer more efficacious than that of the Son. The power in it’s omnipotence of this power is utterly unfathomable to us. But this cry is also a cry to us. Just as the onlookers at the Cross brought wine to Him, which He took before breathing His last, so too are we to bring “common wine” to Him in response to His thirst. Our hope for the salvation of all is to be accompanied by our work for the salvation of all, a work that is wholly selfless, done not simply out of obligation, but out of true love and devotion for the Lover who calls all.
Father, into your hands I commend my spirit. (Luke 23:46) It is finished. (John 19:30)
Just as humanity is brought up into heaven in the humanity of Christ at the Ascension, so too here humanity is commended into the Father’s hands in the humanity of Christ. The offering has been made and the work is done. There is no place more secure to which man can be entrusted.
In the end, while it is only natural for us to wonder at this question, to wonder how many will go to heaven and how many will go to hell, to wonder which will gain more souls, one should also wonder why anyone would be so bold as to answer this question in a definitive manner. The simple fact of the matter is that we do not know nor can we know how many go to hell, whether it is a majority or a minority, and how much of either. It is a mystery not revealed to us. What is revealed to us is that Christ is our Redeemer and we, Christians, are co-redeemers with Him. We are called not to pass judgment on individuals or humanity as a whole. We are called to hope for the salvation of all others and to work for that salvation with fear and trembling. On this Holy Saturday let us rest in this mystery.