Most of you, most likely. So implies warnings attributed to Christ. So suggests the beliefs of saints Gregory, Anselm, Augustine, Jerome, and many others. So implies Patheos writer Fr. Dwight Longenecker, who writes that “it has been the unanimous teaching of the church and the witness of saints and mystics that many are damned and few are saved.”
When juxtaposed with the “hard saying” of Christ and big name teachers in the early church, the hope for universal salvation, characteristic of some modern and contemporary theologians, our more egalitarian sentiments, and me, looks foolish and false.
Fr. Longenecker concludes that there’s little room for speculation where heaven and hell are concerned because Scripture, Tradition, and the saints and the mystics are clear on the matter. Many are damned and few are saved. Where the church is ambiguous, there’s plenty of room for faithful speculation; but this space diminishes as clarity increases. While some particular aspects of hell remain clouded in unknowing, the words “many” and “few” are more than clear to the eyes and ears.
Personally, I find the notion that few are saved and many are damned to be incompatible with the image of a God as love itself. I don’t mean this in some God-is-my-big-teddy-bear kind of way. If you say, as much of Christianity does, that God created the universe and specifically human beings–creatures made in his image and likeness–for the purpose of participation in the love life that is God, and you also say that most people will refuse this destiny, then logically you’re led to say that, overall, creation won’t achieve its purpose. Overall, it is a failure. Overall, the purpose for which God created goes unrealized. Overall, God’s desire and will are not done. This would seem to make God, as Creator, something of a failure, even if you can, through some dexterous theodicy, get God off the hook for the damning decisions of his hellbound creatures. The orthodox position on God, coupled with the traditional belief that many are damned, leads to a rather unorthodox conclusion. Fr. Longnecker appeals to the unanimity and clarity of Scripture and Tradition, but these supports are less than stable.
Clarity of meaning, in itself, is no measure of truth. Just because we can be clear on the meaning of a biblical passage doesn’t mean that what it expresses is literally true. Moreover, clarity can arise due to a means of interpretation rather than the meaning of the text. Taken literally, many passages of Scripture clearly say things that no champion of Christian orthodoxy would today defend. Depending on how you interpret the bible, God can be a pretty perverse deity, clearly commanding all manner of evils. Besides, speaking clearly doesn’t seem to have been much on the Almighty’s mind when inspiring the sacred authors. I mean, really, if clear communication is important to you, then you don’t produce the world of ambiguity that is the bible.
Even if we assume that sacred Scripture reveals to us truth God wanted us to know, we remain limited in our vision and understanding, looking through a glass, darkly, making sense from within a cloud. We can read the words, but we cannot see the hidden realities to which they supposedly refer. We can’t see the whole of reality to make complete sense of the whole of Scripture and its parts, and without complete sense of these parts, we’re in the dark about the whole of Scripture. Truth has classically been defined as a correspondence, but there’s no way to assess the correspondence of the scriptures with the divine reality it reveals to us. Is God analogous to a father, as Scripture says? There’s no way to assess this. No way to measure it. Even God doesn’t get us out of the hermeneutic circle. Catholics and Protestants can argue about the meaning of what Christ said and did, as recorded in the bible, but neither has any sight of God apart from what human authors and interpreters have spoken.
In support of his belief that few are saved and many are damned, Fr. Longenecker also appeals to the unanimity and constancy of this belief by church authorities, saints, and mystics; but unanimity and constancy are not in themselves indicative of truth. Falsehoods have had widespread agreement over time, and constancy is relative. After how long does constancy of belief by the faithful indicate its truth? Seven years? Seventy years? Seventy times seven years? The church has let go of beliefs it held for hundreds of years. The Catholic Church’s stance on religious freedom is a famous example. Only lately has the Magisterium emphasized the interpretation that people outside the visible church can be saved. It used to say that there could be no right to religious freedom because error has no rights. Pope Eugene IV was as clear as a sunny day: “No one, let his almsgiving be as great as it may, no one, even if he pour out his blood for the Name of Christ, can be saved, unless he remain within the bosom and the unity of the Catholic Church.” Popes nowadays praise people of other faiths in the practice of their faith and atheists in their pursuit of the good and true.
In the religious circles I frequent, preaching hellfire and damnation is no longer high on the agenda, although any religion that preaches the existence of hell and the possibility that you might go there promotes a message of fear. And, obviously, the idea that many will be damned still has its vocal defenders who keep to the old ways. I understand their adherence to tradition. You start questioning the logic of longstanding doctrines and pretty soon you’re wondering about the whole edifice. Considering the whole history of my own religious faith, my take on hell is definitely in the minority. It’s not heretical, officially, but nor is it in keeping with the tradition starting with a literal reading of the words of Christ. From my own place, the doctrine that many are doomed to fire and brimstone and endless replays of One Direction hits just makes no sense. My own senses lead me to deny the observation of Fr. Longenecker that “every verifiable bit of evidence from history and yesterday’s newspaper reveal the total depravity of many men’s hearts and their spitting hatred of all that is beautiful, good and true.” I can’t think of one person who, in total depravity and rightness of mind, hates all that is beautiful, good, and true. Not one. Even the worst of sinners are motivated by something they value. That many people’s hearts are totally depraved and hateful of every swell thing just doesn’t correspond to reality.
In conclusion, where the divine author is concerned, there’s always room for speculative discernment, and lots of it, even if we can be relatively sure, by exhausting all interpretive methods and accounting for the specific genres, what the human author meant to convey. In the space before God, there’s more room for speculation that all of humanity could ever use. We don’t know what we’re talking about when we talk about God or angels or heaven or hell or any other hidden reality. We try to make sense of them in relation to people we know and places we’ve been and feelings we’ve had. This sense-making gives us a starting vocabulary and some directions in which to think about these things, but it leaves us without any clear vision of them by which we could judge the truth of our beliefs.