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Do People Really Go To Hell?

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Modern Catholics have experienced a “creeping universalism,” with many now convinced that few people, if any, go to hell. Ralph Martin defends traditional Church teaching on hell, and explains why it is not going away.

Cy Kellett: Does anyone actually go to hell? Ralph Martin is here. Lets find out.

Cy Kellett: Hello, and welcome again to Catholic Answers Focus. Delighted to have you here with us. Thank you for joining us. I am Cy Kellett, your host. This week, we tackle the question of salvation. Not what it is, but to how many will it be, in the end, extended. Our guest is Ralph Martin, who is the president of Renewal Ministries. He’s a doctorate in theology, and he teaches the new evangelization at Sacred Heart Seminary in the archdiocese of New York. He was named-

Ralph Martin: Detroit.

Kellett: Excuse me, Detroit. I beg your pardon. You were named by Pope Benedict as a consultor to the Pontifical Council for the New Evangelization.

Martin: Yes.

Kellett: And you are also a peritus … I’ve never met a peritus before. This is my first time.

Martin: Yeah, they’re harmless.

Kellett: Are they? Okay.

Martin: Yeah, they’re okay.

Kellett: … To the Synod on the New Evangelization, in 2012. You wrote a book, actually, Will Many Be Saved? Bishop Robert Barron, who at the time was Father Barron, familiar to probably almost everybody in the Catholic world … wrote a review of that book. You wrote a reply, and the two of you carried on a conversation about salvation.

Martin: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Kellett: What was your concern in writing the book, Will Many Be Saved?

Martin: Yeah. I would say that over the last 50 or 60 years or so, there’s been a remarkable change of mentality and worldview amongst Catholics, that hasn’t really been paid too much attention to. I would say that the way many of our fellow Catholics look at the world today, would describe it like this: Broad and wide is the way that leads to Heaven. Almost everybody’s going there. Narrow is the door that leads to hell. Hardly anybody’s going there. Now, you might say, like, “What’s wrong with this picture?”

Kellett: I think I can hear the resonances of someone else, who used similar terminology.

Martin: Yes, yes. It’s exactly the opposite of what Jesus Himself said. In Matthew, chapter seven, he says, “Broad and wide is the way that’s leading to destruction. Many are traveling that way. Narrow is the door that leads to life, difficult is the road, and few there are who are finding it.” Now, Jesus didn’t say this because he was happy about the situation. He didn’t say it because this is how it has to be. But when you look out on the world as it is, many, many people are not honoring God. They’re not believing in Jesus. They’re not living righteous lives.

Kellett: Right.

Martin: And so, what Jesus is kind of trying to wake us up to is saying, “Hey. This isn’t a game. You know? If you don’t hold on to the bread of life, if you don’t really hold on to the one that the Father has sent to bring us to Heaven, you’re not gonna go there.” You know?

Kellett: Yeah. Right.

Martin: It’s just really, really serious, and this isn’t an isolated text. Like Luke, chapter 13. Imagine, people asked Jesus, “Will there be few in number who are saved?” Now, that’s a pretty interesting question, isn’t it?

Kellett: Yes.

Martin: And his answer isn’t like giving numbers, but then again, it’s not saying, “Oh, I’m sorry I upset you. I was just using Jewish hyperbole. Don’t you know about literary form? I mean, you know. Come on, guys. Chill.” You know? He didn’t say that.

Kellett: Right.

Martin: He said, “Try very hard to enter by the narrow door, because many will try to enter, but will not be able to.” And then it goes on to say … Well, people say, “Hey, wait a second, Jesus. We came to your preaching. We ate and drank with you in the streets. What do you mean?” He says, “I don’t know you. Depart from me.” So, people heard about Jesus. They knew about Jesus. They enjoyed his preaching. Maybe they even got healed. But they didn’t respond with faith and repentance, and change their lives. They didn’t become disciples. They didn’t enter into a relationship with Him, and pay attention to the instructions He’s trying to give us about how to end up in Heaven, rather than hell. That’s why I wrote the book.

Kellett: I think anybody who is familiar with the history of the church would say what you’re describing there is the standard belief of Christians down through the centuries. But here’s what I think many people would say. “Look. The Second Vatican Council cleared that up for us.”

Martin: Yeah. No. Yeah, people say it. They say, “Ralph, haven’t you heard that Vatican Two changed all that? I know we used to believe that, but haven’t you heard that that’s all been changed now, and it’s all about mercy and compassion, and all that kind of stuff?”

Kellett: Right.

Martin: I actually did my doctoral dissertation to study what exactly the Catholic Church is officially teaching in Vatican Two. The main text is, in the Constitution of the Church, chapter 16, where it says, “It is possible, under certain circumstances, for people who haven’t heard the Gospels to be saved.” And then it lists what the conditions are. People who are inculpably ignorant of the Gospel. People who are nevertheless trying to know who God is, because God reveals something of Himself to the whole human race, through the creation. People who are trying to live according to the light of conscience, because God gives everybody’s conscience a sense of right and wrong. And then it says, assisted by grace, it’s possible for these people to be saved.

Martin: So people hear that, and … You know, I say the same thing. I say, “I’m really glad to hear that God’s gonna give a chance to everybody, even if through no fault of their own, they don’t hear the Gospel.”

Kellett: Right.

Martin: But then, the last three sentences are almost completely ignored. Some of the most famous theologians in the Catholic Church who write on this issue kind of talk about salvation optimism. That’s a little bit what Father Barron was kind of talking about, too, based on von Balthasar. But, the last three sentences say, “However, very often, deceived by the evil one, human beings actually exchange the truth of God for a lie, and worship the creature rather than the Creator.”

Martin: Therefore, it’s really urgent that we preach the Gospel, because people aren’t naturally responding to God automatically. We hope they’re given the chance to, but hey, the world of the flesh and the devil are really powerful, and it’s really easy for people to give into disordered desires of original sin. It’s really easy for people to be brainwashed by the culture, but give themselves to the brainwashing, because it confirms them in their disordered desires. And it’s really easy to be deceived by the deception that the devil is sowing in people’s lives, and in the culture at large.

Martin: So, it’s really important that we preach the Gospel. And I don’t think the whole emphasis on new evangelization is going to last very long, unless people know that something’s really at stake. It’s just gonna be another passing kind of craze, another buzzword for a while. The only thing that’s really motivated people to persevere in preaching the Gospel is knowing that the eternal salvation of their souls are at stake.

Kellett: Certainly, we have seen that. I think most of the popes … I can remember Benedict the 16th, I think in an interview. One of those book linked interviews that he did talked about a dampening, a consequence of this kind of modern idea that the way is wide, and that’s the way. I’ve seen a dampening of enthusiasm for evangelization, and that’s very hard to overcome.

Martin: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Kellett: Now, so Bishop Barron, in his response then … Or his review, really, of the book.

Martin: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Kellett: He does talk about Karl Rahner and Hans Urs von Balthasar, and I think you both would agree, they were the two major 20th century proponents of this wide … What’d you call it? Salvation optimism?

Martin: Yeah, salvation optimism is what Karl Rahner described Vatican Two of bringing into the church.

Kellett: It doesn’t seem to me now that as many people are, that Rahner is invoked as much as von Balthasar.

Martin: Yeah.

Kellett: Maybe because his reputation hasn’t … I don’t know, but …

Martin: Yeah.

Kellett: So we can look at these theologians, and say that this optimism comes from them. And in his review, Bishop Barron says that … I think what he’s attempting to do is say, “Look, Pope Benedict the 16th is among these,” and he wants to say you’re dismissing the teaching of Pope Benedict the 16th in spaceality. Now, I know you responded to that-

Martin: Yeah.

Kellett: But, what is your response to that?

Martin: Well, there’s a certain phrase in Benedict’s encyclical spaceality where he says something like this. He says, “One may suppose that most people end up in purgatory.” You know?

Kellett: Yes. It’s a very striking turn of phrase, for an encyclical letter.

Martin: Yeah, yeah. So, he’s not like teaching authoritatively. He’s sort of like speculating, or supposing, or something like that.

Kellett: Yeah.

Martin: But actually, in the footnote he refers people to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, where it talks about the reality of hell and purgatory and Heaven, so he’s acknowledging the traditional teaching of the church. But he’s sort of like speculating, saying, “Gee. You know, one may suppose that most people end up in purgatory.” So, I said I felt like that was a misleading formulation, that could lead people to really think it’s actually a teaching of the church. That most people are gonna be saved, you know?

Kellett: Yes.

Martin: We just don’t know. So Bishop Barron accused me of being a dissenter, because of raising that as a question. Which, anyway.

Kellett: But it’s hard to dissent from a supposition.

Martin: Exactly. But also, in my response I pointed out a document that the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith published, about how to interpret Magisterial statements. And depending on how they’re formulated, depending about whether they’re repeated, depending on whether they’re given in a sort of formal, definitive way, there’s lots of room for development and for discussion and for dialogue, and for that type of thing.

Kellett: Maybe upon further reflection, Bishop Barron would agree. You’re not a dissenter. You’re not dissenting.

Martin: Well, I would hope that that would be his position, yeah.

Kellett: But he does … He argues that … He doesn’t flesh out the argument, but he does conclude by saying he actually thinks it’s a better tool of evangelization to have this idea of a more broad salvation.

Martin: I actually don’t think it is. I was just talking to the founder of Saint Paul Street Evangelization, Steve Dawson. What they do is they go out in the street and they hand out miraculous medals, and try to get into conversations with people. And my friend was just asking, “Have you ever seen anybody actually convert through that street evangelization?” And Steve said the only time he’s ever seen it happen, he’s seen it happen a number of times now, is when they talk about the final judgment, and the eternal consequences about not really surrendering your life to Jesus, and the reality of hell. And they said that’s the only thing that’s ever been effective in actually helping people right there on the spot, really turn to the Lord. There’s a reason why Jesus gave all those warnings. I mean-

Kellett: Yeah, he seemed to agree with that.

Martin: Yeah. In fact, he even said, “Don’t fear those who can kill the body, but fear the death of the soul.” So Jesus is saying, “Hey, it’s okay to be afraid of going to hell. In fact, you’re pretty smart if you’re afraid of going to hell.” It doesn’t end there. It grows in a relationship of love and honor and reverence. But, being afraid of going to hell is really helpful for people. It’s kept a lot of people out of hell.

Kellett: Right. Your position, however, is not that the vast majority of people are going to hell.

Martin: No, no. I don’t think we know the numbers. I mean, only God knows numbers, and probably the numbers are still to be decided by the decisions that people are gonna be making or not making.

Kellett: Right.

Martin: Jesus is giving us the indication that you don’t just drift into Heaven, that you gotta make some decisions. He says the Kingdom of God suffers violence, and the violent bear it away. You don’t just kind of hear Jesus saying nice things, and go on with your merry life. He says, “Let he who hears these things heed them.”

Kellett: Yeah.

Martin: You know. Don’t let these words fall on you, and not bear fruit in your life. So, repentance and conversion and faithfully following Jesus is absolutely essential. I mean, the Father has sent Jesus because eternal life is in Jesus, and if you want eternal life, get with Jesus. I mean, that’s where it is.

Kellett: Amen. Right.

Martin: You know? I mean, that’s where it is. It’s in Jesus. It’s in the church. It’s in Jesus’s sacraments. That’s where eternal life is. And if you want eternal life, come on. Get with it.

Kellett: Yeah, and as an evangelizer … We’re all meant to be evangelizers. I mean, I can’t imagine anything more motivating than the thought that this person can be damned, this person can be saved. There are two utterly distinct possibilities for this life.

Martin: There’s only two final destinations, and life isn’t a game. It’s a time to kind of get redeemed, or not to get redeemed. And Our Lady of Fatima, all her warnings. She showed the children a vision of hell, and it changed their life forever. They became so concerned about the salvation of the souls. You know, little Saint Jacinta, a day didn’t go by where she said, “Have you made any sacrifices today?” She said, “It’s so terrible that souls go to hell.” And Mary said, “Pray very much, because so many souls are going to hell because so few people are praying and offering sacrifice for them.”

Martin: So, my goodness. There’s never been a Marian apparition more highly accepted by the church. You know, Lourdes, Fatima, Guadalupe. And here we have the church saying, “This is a reliable prophetic warning from God, sent through His own mother.” You know, listen to what she’s saying.

Kellett: And again about the real possibility of damnation, how do I get to Heaven, then?

Martin: You get to Heaven by putting your faith in Jesus Christ, and doing what he says. Becoming part of His body of the church, eating His body, drinking His blood, obeying His word, and living the life that He’s gonna give us the power to live. First Corinthians, chapter six, Galatians five, Ephesians five, it says, “If you keep on committing serious sin, you will be excluded from the Kingdom of God.” We need to repent. We need to ask God to help us overcome our sins, and begin to live a life of holiness in the church.

Kellett: Ralph Martin, thank you very, very much.

Martin: Thank you, Cy.

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