Recently, controversy has swirled around figures like Bishop Robert Barron and his affirmation of the hope that all shall be saved.
Bishop Barron’s website has posted a thorough defense of his position here, so there is no need to defend it here. It is biblical and in line with Church teachings. And, contrary to perception, that position doesn’t mean believing that all shall be saved, it doesn’t minimize the necessity of Christ for salvation, and it isn’t meant to diminish a real, healthy fear of hell and eternal damnation. (Again, read Bishop Barron’s defense if you want to know why.)
The aim here is to take a step back and examine the great truths that are behind Bishop Barron’s position. Below are six of them.
1. There are limits to what we know about salvation
Yes, we can be certain in the truths that have been revealed to us. We can be confident that everything we need to know in order to lead a virtuous life and be saved has been revealed to us. The Church really does have the Truth. God has truly and infallibly spoken through the Scriptures and His Spirit has guarded the infallibility of the Church. However, that doesn’t mean that we know that everything that will happen in the end times.
Christ, the head of the Church, is all-knowing but His members do not share in His omnipotence. The hand doesn’t know all the thoughts of the head—just the one the head discloses through nerve signals.
As Catholics we should be fierce in our love of the truth, but this should also be accompanied by a humble recognition that we don’t know everything. The Catechism of the Catholic Church acknowledges this when it comes to salvation:
The Church does not know of any means other than Baptism that assures entry into eternal beatitude; this is why she takes care not to neglect the mission she has received from the Lord to see that all who can be baptized are ‘reborn of water and the Spirit.’ God has bound salvation to the sacrament of Baptism, but he himself is not bound by his sacraments.
Because we don’t know of any other path to salvation apart from the sacraments, we ought to be zealous in our missionary spirit. But it is precisely that lack of knowledge that also leaves room for us to hope that ‘all might be saved,’ which is a quotation from 1 Timothy 2:4.
2. Hoping that all might be saved highlights the importance of this often-forgotten virtue
One of the errors of Bishop Barron’s critics is confusing believing with hoping. We need to cultivate hope in our souls, elevating this virtue to the high stature it merits in our interior life. The discussion about hoping for the salvation of all is an opportunity to do so.
Indeed, the Catechism posits the possibility in its section on the virtue of hope:
In every circumstance, each one of us should hope, with the grace of God, to persevere ‘to the end’ and to obtain the joy of heaven, as God’s eternal reward for the good works accomplished with the grace of Christ. In hope, the Church prays for ‘all men to be saved.’ She longs to be united with Christ, her Bridegroom, in the glory of heaven.
It should go without saying that hope is of tremendous importance. The Church, drawing upon Scripture, identifies it as one of three theological virtues. Hope is a vital part of our faith: Hebrews tells us faith is the substance of things we hope for and St. Paul tells us that we are ‘saved in hope’ (Hebrews 11:1; Romans 8:24). Other than the Catechism, cited above, a good place to start learning about hope is St. Thomas Aquinas’ treatment of the virtue in the Summa Theologica. Those longing for a deeper, contemporary dive into the topic should read Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical, Spe Salvi. To read my own summary of these sources, click here.
3. God’s mercy is greater than sin
The hope that all shall be saved is grounded in an unshakable conviction in the greatness of God’s mercy. In one of his communications with Sister Faustina, Jesus talks describes His divine mercy as an ocean-sized flood that will wash away all sins:
I desire that the Feast of Mercy be a refuge and shelter for all souls, and especially for poor sinners. On that day the very depths of My tender mercy are open. I pour out a whole ocean of graces upon those souls who approach the fount of My mercy. The soul that will go to Confession and receive Holy Communion shall obtain complete forgiveness of sins and punishment. On that day all the divine floodgates through which grace flow are opened (Diary 699, cited here).
The idea is repeated elsewhere. For example,
My daughter, write that the greater the misery of a soul, the greater its right to My mercy; [urge] all souls to trust in the unfathomable abyss of My mercy, because I want to save them all (Diary, 1182, cited here).
This is rooted in St. Paul’s teaching that “where sin abounded, grace abounded much more” (Romans 5:12).
4. Christ’s sacrifice was sufficient for the salvation of all
There is no limit to God’s mercy. Christ’s sacrificial offering had infinite value. Therefore, it is not possible to exhaust the supply of graces He poured out for us on the cross. To suggest otherwise is to question God’s greatness and the wonder of Christ’s sacrifice.
The sufficiency of Christ’s sacrifice is a rock-solid teaching of the Church. This is indicated in Hebrews 10:8-10,
First he says, ‘Sacrifices and offerings, holocausts and sin offerings, you neither desired nor delighted in.’ These are offered according to the law. Then he says, ‘Behold, I come to do your will.’ He takes away the first to establish the second. By this ‘will,’ we have been consecrated through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.
Aquinas affirms this in the Summa as well:
Christ’s Passion was not only a sufficient but a superabundant atonement for the sins of the human race; according to 1 John 2:2: ‘He is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world.’
This means that if everyone answered the call from Christ, there would be ‘enough grace’ to go around—and still more left over. It doesn’t mean that everyone will be saved, of course. But the hope that all shall be saved seems to be premised on this truth.
5. God doesn’t predestine anyone to hell
This is another core teaching of the Church. We canonize saints, not sinners. The Church won’t even say for sure whether Pilate ended up in hell (see the Catechism here). God has a plan for everyone and that plan involves communion with Him. God has also given us free will, so that we will choose Him out of love, which must be freely given to be authentic. But this also means that we have the option of rejecting God’s plan for us.
Despite this possibility, God’s whole plan for redemption is aimed at getting all of us into heaven. Thus, this is another motive for hoping that all will be saved.
6. We should not attempt to simplify the complexities of Scripture
But what about all the verses about hell? And the fate of the damned? No one is denying those. However, for every one of those verses, we could find another one that gives us grounds to hope for the salvation of all, including some of the ones cited above. The Church has a radical conviction in the truth of all Scripture, which means that it seeks to understand how both sets of texts can be valid. Her answer is to believe in the existence of hell and the real possibility of damnation, while also hoping that no one ends up there.
This is the way of the Church on all difficult Scriptural questions. For example, some verses could be interpreted to say that salvation is by faith. Others say it’s by love. Yet others emphasize good works.
How do we reconcile all of these texts? Some Protestant traditions just prioritize the verses on faith above the others. The Catholic approach is to accept them all. How do we do this? We recognize that salvation cannot be simplified into something that fits onto a bumper sticker. We understand that salvation is a journey, not a one-time moment. We say that salvation is based on both faith and love, the latter of which expresses itself in acts of charity.
The Church is taking a similar approach on the question of hell and who ends up there. It teaches that the answer is not as cut and dried as some would like it. Ultimately, there is only so much that we know. The rest is a mystery we see through a ‘glass darkly’ as St. Paul put it. And, in that darkness of not-knowing, there is room for radical hope.