Saturday, July 20, 2019

Crowded or Empty? Thoughts on a YouTube Video About Hell

This video from Word of Fire is interesting. Bishop Barron talks a lot about hell, but he never gets around to answering the question that is the title of his video: Is hell crowded or empty? To cut to the chase, he equivocates; he says that he doesn’t know. He doesn’t believe hell is a literal place (I suppose that would make it empty?), but rather a spiritual place where we, creatures having free will in spiritual matters, isolate ourselves from God by rejecting Him through our own free choice. He refers to hell as a metaphor for the deep loneliness and isolation one experiences after rejecting God. He does conclude that, “We may reasonably hope that all people are saved.”

There are some good things in the video, but how much arsenic do you want in your bottle of drinking water? The government sets limits for contaminants in drinking water based on the toxicity levels of various substances. The Environmental Protection Agency has set an arsenic maximum contaminant level for public water supplies at 0.010 mg/L (milligrams/Liter).[1] Sadly, we are unable to do the same with false teaching. Jesus wants us to teach all that He has commanded;[2] and just as a little leaven will work it’s way through the whole lump of dough,[3] a little heresy will work it’s way through the whole church, if we aren’t careful. I think Bishop Barron’s video about hell is a milligram too much arsenic in my doctrinal water bottle to swallow.

Bishop Barron summarizes several theologians, Roman and Evangelical, and their views on salvation. He summarizes Karl Barth as a Universalist using Barth’s quote, “All are saved in the cross of Christ.” I don’t know all there is to know about Karl Barth, or even agree with a lot of what I do know, but the statement, “All are saved in the cross of Christ," is true, even if it isn’t in the way Barth meant it. Jesus died for, and indeed saved, the whole world.[4] Some men resist and reject receiving that gift. It’s the old story of the million dollar check: Bill Gates can write you a $1 million check. The money is yours. You have $1 million. If, however, you refuse to cash the check when he offers it to you - or probably more accurately, you throw the envelope away when it comes in the mail - you don’t benefit from the gift that was freely given to you. Those who are saved are saved by God’s working alone; those who are not receive all the credit for their damnation themselves.

The Bishop agrees with Hans Urs von Balthasar, the final theologian he presents. Balthasar says that we can believe all people are saved, but we can’t know it for sure; the reason we can’t be certain, he explains, is because men have free will and can reject God. I wouldn’t say, as the Bishop explains, that human freedom can resist God’s act of love; rather, the Bible tells us that we have no freedom, as we are dead in trespasses and sins; we are, by nature, objects of wrath.[5] That’s why we resist, and we are able to reject. It is our natural inclination to pursue the desires of our flesh, sin, and to reject God. It is clear, however, that there is no free will in spiritual matters, in the common understanding of the term. We are either slaves to sin and enemies of God, or we are slaves to Christ and set free from sin.[6]

His position on hell seems to be that he believes it to be real, but not exactly a physical place, like Pocatello, Idaho, and God, being Love, doesn’t send people there. Billy Graham said things that sound similar. This shouldn’t be surprising, since Rome and American Evangelicalism often have a similar view of free will. Rev. Graham sometimes talked about hell being complete separation from God, rather than an actual physical place where fire burns you forever.

More important, the mature Graham steered away from hell in general, and when he did talk about it, all that he would affirm with certainty was that it meant separation from God... “The only thing I could say for sure is that hell means separation from God. We are separated from his light, from his fellowship. That is going to be hell. When it comes to a literal fire, I don’t preach it because I’m not sure about it.”[7]

Other evangelical teachers have said similar things. These evangelical teachers, however, were not necessarily denying the existence of a literal place called hell, wherein the actual physical people who were damned would be. It may be partly a case of trying to use words to describe the indescribable. I don’t know why Billy Graham would equivocate on hell, or why anyone who believes Scripture would say that it isn’t a literal place. Christ says,

“If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter into life maimed, rather than having two hands, to go to hell, into the fire that shall never be quenched—where ‘Their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.’”[8]

Jesus goes on to teach that it isn’t our hand that causes us to sin, but our corrupt heart, so don’t go chopping off your hand. But we will indeed enter into a literal eternal life with a resurrected body; what in the text would cause us to read the second part of Jesus’ quote as figurative? Of course, American Evangelicalism also denies Jesus’ words their literal meaning when He says, “Take, eat; this is My body, given for you,”[9] but I digress...

The Bible teaches that hell, like heaven, is a place. On the Last Day the dead will be raised. We will all be gathered before Him. [10] The righteous will inherit the kingdom prepared for them from the foundation of the world; to the wicked He will say,

“Depart from Me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”[11]

And these will go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.[12] This is not a parable. This is not figurative language. Jesus tells us how the Judgment will be, and it includes a hell with fire, and Him sending people to it. Jesus, with His new, perfect resurrected body, is in heaven (also a place) right now, ruling over the universe; He is seated at the right hand of God the Father.[13]

When He is speaking to His Apostles, Jesus teaches them about the true fear of God. He says:

“Whatever I tell you in the dark, speak in the light; and what you hear in the ear, preach on the housetops. And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. But rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.”[14]

Who is it who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell? God. When Christ returns to judge the world on the Last Day we will see from which side the door of hell is locked.

Just because something is “dark” doesn’t mean it is false. I get the impression that Bishop Barron doesn’t like the idea of hell as a physical place where people actually go as a result of God’s judgment because it seems dark, scary, and mean. There are, however, a lot of dark things which are true.

Bishop Barron condemns Origen for being a Universalist at the beginning of the video, but the big reveal of his own position is... universalism! It’s an equivocating kind, but it is universalism nonetheless. He says we can have reasonable hope that all will be saved, but we can’t know it. That’s just plain rubbish. Scripture tells us that not everyone will be saved. The number of the saved will be a great multitude which no one can count,[15] but that doesn’t mean it will be everyone. Jesus uses the illustration of men in a field and women grinding at a mill to depict the Judgment. He says two men will be in the field, one will be taken, the other will be left, etc. He then connects this illustration to the clearest type of the Day of the Lord, Judgment Day, in the Bible - the Flood, wherein eight people are saved in the ark from the flood waters, out of all of mankind.[16] Ultimately, I want everyone to be saved, but that is God’s work, which He does through the means of His Word. And we simply don’t know, this side of heaven, what the individual results are. We only know what God reveals to us in His Word, and He has revealed to us that

narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it.[17]

The bottom line is this: You may hope whatever you like, but that doesn’t change the fact that not all people will be saved. Bishop Barron isn’t simply saying here, “Gee, I hope everybody gets saved.” He’s trying to validate the heresy of universalism through the use of philosophy and reason. It’s the same old human story, different day. When he says we can hope all people are saved he is giving permission to believe this. What he doesn’t give is any proof from Holy Scripture. The Roman Catholic Church, on the other hand, teaches that the eternal death of hell is the consequence for mortal sin.[18] They also teach, rightly, that hell is the location of the damned.[19] The Roman Catholic Church and the Lutherans, regarding hell, agree as we confess in the Athanasian Creed together, “And those who have done good will enter into eternal life, and those who have done evil into eternal fire.”

God certainly is love; God certainly has the power to save everyone. He has indeed saved the whole world in the cross of Christ. Jesus, true God, begotten of the Father from eternity, and also true man, born of the Virgin Mary, my Lord, has redeemed me, a lost and condemned creature. He has purchased and won me from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil. He has purchased me, not with gold or silver, but with His holy, precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death. He has done this for all men. Many stiff-necked people, however, always resist the working of God’s Holy Spirit in the words of the gospel.[20] We can hope that all men are saved by God, in the sense that we would like for it to happen; we have no indication from Holy Scripture, however, that this is the case. Quite to the contrary: God demonstrates that He wishes to deal with us through the means of His Word, and not other special ways we don’t know about, even though He is quite capable of doing so.[21] God’s Word tells us that many will reject Jesus as the multitudes did in John chapter 6.[22] Families will be divided over faith in Christ.[23] The love of many will grow cold all through the time of the end, but he who endures to the end will be saved.[24] This implies that some men will not endure, and therefore not be saved. Those men will find themselves in a very real, physical place called hell. Since not all men will be saved, that means that hell is not/will not be empty.

This discussion reminds me of a conversation Jesus had with His disciples about tragedy, and people who suffer it.[25]

There were present at that season some who told Him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And Jesus answered and said to them, “Do you suppose that these Galileans were worse sinners than all other Galileans, because they suffered such things? I tell you, no; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them, do you think that they were worse sinners than all other men who dwelt in Jerusalem? I tell you, no; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish.”[26]

We spill all this ink, and spend all this time, talking about hell. Why? We are afraid of it. We’re looking for an out. We can rest a little easier if we can see that either those who end up in hell deserved it more than we do, or no one will ultimately go there at all. This is what the disciples thought about the Galileans in the passage above. They must’ve been worse sinners, for something so terrible to happen to them. Jesus says no. We all deserve punishment for our sin. Jesus says we shouldn’t focus on trying to figure out how some tragedy is the punishment for the sin of those who experienced it. We should repent. Tragic events we see and experience should cause us to reflect on our sinful state, repent, and be forgiven by Jesus. It is the same with hell. Rather than using philosophy and reason to think all the damned out of hell, or reason why we ourselves don’t deserve it in the first place, the descriptions Jesus gives us of hell should terrify us. It should cause us to think about our sinfulness and repent of our sin. Hearing this Word, we should reflect on the wondrous love of Christ, who would suffer physical pain and death, and the pains of hell itself, to pay the ransom for those who are His enemies.  We should hear God’s Word and believe what it says. We should trust in Our Lord Jesus, who promised that He went away to prepare a place for us with Him.[27] If we are worried about the eternal state of those around us, we should do as we are called to do, and scatter the seed of God’s Word as the sower in Jesus’ parable.[28]


Interdicasterial Commission for the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Cathechism of the Catholic Church. New Hope, KY: Urbi et Orbi Communications, 1994.

Luther, Martin. "The Smalcald Articles." The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Lutheran Church. Edited by F. Bente.

Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy. "Arsenic in Well Water." (accessed July 16, 2019).

Wacker, Grant. America's Pastor: Billy Graham and the Shaping of a Nation. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 2014.

[1] “Arsenic in Well Water,” Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy, Google, accessed July 16, 2019,
[2] Matthew 28:17-20
[3] Galatians 5:7-15
[4] John 1:29-34; 3:16
[5] Ephesians 2:1-10
[6] Romans 8:1-2
[8] Mark 9:43-44
[9] Matthew 26:26
[10] Matthew 25:31-46
[11] Matthew 25:41
[12] Matthew 25:46
[13] Luke 24:51; Acts 1:9-11; Psalm 110:1; Romans 8:34; Ephesians 1:20-23
[14] Matthew 10:27-28
[15] Revelation 7:9
[16] Matthew 24:36-44
[17] Matthew 7:13, emphasis added
[18] Libreria Editrice Vaticana, Catechism of the Catholic Church, (New Hope: Urbi Et Orbi Communications, 1994), 456.
[19] Libreria Editrice Vaticana, Catechism of the Catholic Church, (New Hope: Urbi Et Orbi Communications, 1994), 164-165.
[20] Acts 7:51
[21] Martin Luther, “Smalcald Articles,” accessed July 16, 2019, “In a word, enthusiasm inheres in Adam and his children from the beginning [from the first fall] to the end of the world, [its poison] having been implanted and infused into them by the old dragon, and is the origin, power [life], and strength of all heresy, especially of that of the Papacy and Mahomet. Therefore we ought and must constantly maintain this point, that God does not wish to deal with us otherwise than through the spoken Word and the Sacraments. It is the devil himself whatsoever is extolled as Spirit without the Word and Sacraments. For God wished to appear even to Moses through the burning bush and spoken Word; and no prophet neither Elijah nor Elisha, received the Spirit without the Ten Commandments [or spoken Word]. Neither was John the Baptist conceived without the preceding word of Gabriel, nor did he leap in his mother's womb without the voice of Mary. And Peter says, 2 Pet. 1:21: The prophecy came not by the will of man; but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost. Without the outward Word, however, they were not holy, much less would the Holy Ghost have moved them to speak when they still were unholy [or profane]; for they were holy, says he, since the Holy Ghost spake through them (SA III, 9-13).
[22] John 6:60-71
[23] Matthew 10:34-36
[24] Matthew 24:12-14
[25] Luke 13:1-5
[26] ibid.
[27] John 14:3
[28] Matthew 13:1-9

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