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The Reality of Hell

by James Akin


In this article, James Akin deals with the "neo-universalists" who assert that we may confidently hope that all men will be saved. Although they do not claim, as the heretical universalists once did, that hell is definitely empty and all men are saved, such an assertion still falls under the condemnation of heresy. Akin explains that Scripture does not allow for such a "confident hope." Jesus repeatedly says that "Many, I tell you, will seek to enter [the narrow door of salvation] and will not be able."

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Catholic Answers, Inc., September 1998

In recent years there has arisen a movement that might be called "neo-universalism," according to which it may be that all men, without exception, go to heaven. Advocates of this movement often say things like, "The Church does not teach that anyone is in hell," and they cite statements from Church leaders and documents which sound—taken out of context—as if they teach this. If one reads the documents carefully, it is clear that the Church is not saying that no one at all is in hell but that it has not taught that any particular individual is in hell.

"How can anyone assert hell is empty?" one may ask. Scripture is full of declarations that people who commit particular sins will not go to heaven (e.g., I Cor. 6:9-10). Since some people unquestionably practice the sins mentioned until their dying day, how could hell be empty?

Neo-universalists do not challenge the fact that if someone died in mortal sin, he would go to hell. They simply assert that God invariably brings these people to repentance by the time they die, even if it is in their last, inaccessible, dying moment. All the warnings Scripture gives about going to hell are interpreted in a hypothetical manner—"If someone did this then he would go to hell; but in fact, nobody does that."

There are a number of things wrong with this argument. It strikes against God's truthfulness to suggest that Scripture is full of warnings—especially warnings concerning salvation—that are empty, since God never allows anyone to fulfill the requisite conditions. The "let's make major themes of Scripture purely hypothetical" hermeneutic is not convincing when it is used by Protestants to advocate their agendas; neither is it here. It would also seem cruel of God to warn people they may go to hell, and let them be afraid of this, when it has no chance of happening.

Since universalism already has been condemned by the Church as heretical, neo-universalists have tried to distinguish their position from the condemned version. Unlike prior universalists, they have not claimed that the devil will be reconciled with God (something Scripture and the Church have explicitly rejected). Instead, they simply have failed to discuss the fact that demons will be in hell (prompting one to wonder why, if God did not lift up all the angels who fell [2 Peter 2:4], he should do so for all men).

They also typically say that, although we cannot assert that hell is empty, we may hope, even confidently hope, that it is empty. If such a maneuver were able to deflect the charge of heresy, it still would be gravely suspect and perhaps proximate to heresy. To allow such a move would pose grave risks for theology generally, since one could take numerous dogmatic definitions and say, "While we cannot assert that this condemned proposition is true, we may confidently hope that it is true."

Most fundamentally, the idea that we may hope that hell is empty is against the teaching of Scripture. Even if one were to write off all of Scripture's warnings about hell as purely hypothetical, Scripture directly asserts that many will not be saved.

In Luke's Gospel, Jesus is asked, "Lord, will those who are saved be few?" He replies by stating, "Strive to enter by the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able" (Luke 13:23-24). Given the question that prompts it, Jesus' answer cannot be interpreted to mean anything other than that many will not be saved. There is nothing conditional about the question or Jesus' answer. He does not say, "If someone does this then he will be damned" or "Anyone who does this will be damned." He says that there are many who fail to enter—and the context is salvation.

The same is indicated elsewhere in the Gospels, such as when Jesus tells us that on the last day "many will say to me, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?' And then will I declare to them, I never knew you; depart from me, you evildoers'" (Matt. 7:22-23). Again, none of this is hypothetical. Jesus says "many will" be cast away from him.

Finally, although the Church does not teach that any particular individual is in hell, I believe that Scripture indicates that Judas Iscariot is in hell. (I acknowledge that other orthodox commentators may disagree on this point.) Jesus says, "The Son of man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that man by whom the Son of man is betrayed! It would have been better for that man if he had .not been born" (Matt. 26:24). If Judas ended up in heaven rather than hell, it would be difficult to see how it would have been better for him not to have been born. Going through any amount of temporal pain and disgrace is not worth comparing to the joys of heaven (Rom, 8:18), and, if Judas went to heaven, matters still came out infinitely to his benefit. Only if Judas went to hell, it seems to me, would it have been better for him not to have been born.

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