Who will go to hell and who will be saved? Answers to these “hot” questions have divided biblical scholars and theologians for centuries. In his Fall McGinley Lecture titled “The Population of Hell,” Avery Cardinal Dulles, S.J., noted that although Vatican II countered an early pessimistic view that the majority will spend eternity in torment, many Christians today are overly optimistic about what eternity holds in store for them. “Today a kind of thoughtless optimism is the more prevalent error,” said Dulles, Fordham’s Laurence J. McGinley Professor of Religion and Society, to a crowd of nearly 500 in Fordham Prep’s Leonard Theater on Nov. 20.
“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 More education is needed to convince people that they ought to fear God who, as Jesus taught, can punish soul and body together in hell.” According to Dulles, the middle of the 20th century marked a break in tradition. While St. Thomas Aquinas and other voices of the church deduced from Scripture that the damned will outnumber the saved, contemporary theologians like Hans Urs von Balthasar point out that people have a right to hope they will achieve salvation because even the worst of sinners can repent through the grace of God.
Dulles said early theological pessimism came from a rigid interpretation of the conditions for salvation outlined within the New Testament. However, he noted how these conditions could be interpreted more broadly than one might expect, and therefore counteract such a grim outlook. He also said God has deliberately remained vague about this topic in his revelations for one very important reason. “If we knew that virtually all were damned, we would be tempted to despair,” said Dulles. “If we knew that everyone, or nearly everyone is saved, we might become presumptuous. If we knew that some fixed percent, say fifty, would be saved, we would be caught in a kind of 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.”
In concluding, Dulles reassured the crowd that those who have faith in God and make use of His generosity for forgiveness by repenting should fully expect to receive His grace. “We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, and that if we persevere in that love, nothing whatever can separate us from Christ,” said Dulles. “That is all the assurance we can have, and it should be enough.”