Each disciple of Christ is called in some way to participate in the work of redemption. As a Lay Dominican, I take the persons of Saint Dominic and Saint Catherine of Siena as guiding lights in fulfilling my call. These saints were motivated to do this work by, among other reasons, the desire that souls be saved from the danger of hell. Saint Dominic would spend his nights in prayer, making reparation. “God gave him the singular gift of weeping for sinners, the wretched, and the afflicted, whose sufferings he felt within his compassionate heart, which poured out its hidden feelings in a shower of tears.”i He would pray, “O Lord, have mercy on Thy people … what is to become of sinners?”ii Saint Catherine, good daughter of Dominic that she was, taught that it is God who fills his servants with love and sadness “over the damnation of souls,” that they might intercede for their salvation.iii And both let the love and sorrow of their hearts overflow into their call to preach the gospel. Without complacency or hypocrisy, but burning with divine love, they were motivated by the Christian doctrine of hell.
This article is a response to Dr. Brett Salkeld’s article, “Hell is Good News,” published in Church Life Journal in November of 2020. In it, Salkeld makes an able defense of the doctrine of hell, and laudably situates it within the context of the purifying encounter with Christ. In Christ, the love of God frees us from judgmentalism, complacency, and self-justification, leading us to continual self-examination and repentance. Any truly Christian motivation to evangelize should proceed from this interiorly-renewed state.
So far, so good. But going further than this, Salkeld asserts that the New Testament and Catholic teaching do not provide grounds for considering the doctrine of hell a motivation for Christian mission, except insofar as it is a warning directed at ourselves, the evangelists. He makes this claim within the context of arguing against those who insist on affirming a “relatively full” hell.
My contention is threefold. First, Salkeld is incorrect to assert that the Scriptures and Catholic doctrine do not give us grounds for considering “hell for others” as a proper motivation for evangelization. Second, his assertion “proves too much,” undermining his hopeful approach to salvation. Third, I think that debates about the relative fullness or emptiness of hell should be considered entirely separate from this question of hell as a motivation for evangelization.
After I address these three contentions, I will make some final comments about Vatican II and our call to be instruments of salvation for others.
The Scriptures and Catholic Doctrine
First, the content of the Scriptures and Catholic doctrine. I will begin by quoting Salkeld here at length, from the section of his article, “Hell as Motivation for Mission?” He states,
Jesus, and with him the entire New Testament, is wholly innocent of [hell for others as a motive for evangelization]. When Jesus talks about hell, he never talks about mission, and when he talks about mission, he never talks about hell. … He only speaks to people who should be concerned about hell, never about other people who should be concerned about hell. … For his part, St. Paul gives no indication, in all his travails on behalf of the Gospel, that his motivation for mission derives from a fear that millions of souls are being damned. He does not say, “Woe to the world if I do not preach the gospel.” …
As it was for Jesus, the function of the doctrine of hell for St. John Paul II is not to motivate us to preach the Gospel because others are in danger. It is to force us to look at ourselves. If it relates to mission at all, it is to ask ourselves whether our own experience of Jesus is genuine if we are not impelled by a kind of inner necessity to share it. … The sights of any properly Catholic doctrine of hell are never set on anyone but me.
Again, Salkeld is totally on-target to insist that we should apply the doctrine of hell to ourselves. There is a strong emphasis in the New Testament upon examining the self first, working out our own salvation, and not judging others: “If you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall” (1 Corinthians 10:12). However, Salkeld’s statements on the content of the New Testament and Catholic teaching are on multiple counts false or only partially true.
First, it is not true that “When Jesus talks about hell, he never talks about mission, and when he talks about mission, he never talks about hell.” As He sends the Apostles out on mission, He says, “Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation. The one who believes and is baptized will be saved; but the one who does not believe will be condemned” (Mark 16:15-16). Salkeld would be correct, however, to say that this passage is not about the danger of hell (for others) motivating mission. Rather, the idea is that mission is the occasion of a judgment in which some will apparently be condemned to hell for their refusal to believe. Nevertheless, a connection between hell and mission is firmly established by this passage.
Other problematic claims of Salkeld include “Jesus, and with him the entire New Testament, is wholly innocent of [the idea of hell for others as a motive for evangelization],” and “the sights of any properly Catholic doctrine of hell are never set on anyone but me.” In making these statements, he fails to consider any New Testament references to the doctrine of hell that might detract from this thesis. There are plenty. Many times, in the New Testament, the doctrine of hell is referred to in connection with people other than those being addressed in the passage, including pagans, Jews, and other Christians. Consistent (but only partially) with Salkeld’s thesis, often these ‘other people’ are mentioned primarily as examples of what not to do, for the purpose of exhorting Christians to persevere and grow in the way of holiness, as in Philippians 3:17-20, or in the Letters of Jude and 2 Peter. Other times, particularly when pagans or Jews are the targeted group, there is no indication that the reference to final punishment has anything to do with exhorting the hearers to self-examination and repentance. Consider, for example, Saint Paul’s words:
To this very day whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their minds; but when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. … Even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. (2 Corinthians 3:15-16, 4:3-4, emphasis mine)
In another place, he says,
It is indeed just of God to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to give relief to the afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. These will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, separated from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, when he comes to be glorified by his saints. (2 Thessalonians 1:6-10, emphasis mine)
In the first case, the context is that Paul is instructing the Corinthian Christians on the nature of the new covenant ministry, and uses the example of the Jews to clarify certain elements. By mentioning “those who are perishing,” Paul alludes implicitly to the danger of hell. In the second case, Paul is encouraging the Thessalonian Christians and instructing them concerning the meaning of the persecutions they are enduring. This is a more explicit reference to the doctrine of hell, and it targets those unbelievers who are persecuting the Thessalonians. In neither case is the reality of hell leveraged as a tool for self-examination.
Since Salkeld also wrote, “[Jesus] only speaks to people who should be concerned about hell, never about other people who should be concerned about hell,” let’s turn also to the gospels. Consider, for example, the end of Christ’s explanation of the parable of the Weeds Among the Wheat, in the Gospel of Matthew. Though it is seems directed to believers, the context arguably suggests that it speaks primarily to the righteous among them:
Just as the weeds are gathered and burned with fire, so will it be at the close of the age. The Son of man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and throw them into the furnace of fire; there men will weep and gnash their teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears, let him hear. (Matthew 13:40-43)
The purpose of these words (and the parable it explains) seems to be to explain to Christians why God does not root out evildoers right away. The Lord’s words do not seem to be a warning, but an answer to anguished questioning like that of the Psalmist, Job, or Habakkuk: Why do the wicked prosper? Why are they not dealt with right away? Jesus’ parable teaches what is taught elsewhere in the Scriptures: that God will deal with the wicked according to His own timetable, and that He gives them time to repent. If this is accurate, then contra Salkeld’s claim, Jesus’s teaching about hell is sometimes, in fact, literally about the fate of people other than His audience. Of course, the parable and its explanation can and should serve to stir lukewarm or wicked Christians to repentance, insofar as the threat of the “furnace of fire” is directed at them. But is that the main point of the parable and its explanation? No, the context suggests that it is not. At the very least, that muddies the distinction Salkeld is trying to make.
Salkeld may counter this by saying that when he said, “[Jesus] only speaks to people who should be concerned about hell, never about other people who should be concerned about hell,” he spoke imprecisely, and simply meant that Jesus never uses the doctrine of hell as a way to motivate his hearers to evangelize. But this is not quite true, either. When the Lord “speaks to people who should be concerned about hell” he provides us an example to follow. Consider his teaching:
Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that 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 deeds of power in your name?” Then I will declare to them, “I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.” (Matthew 7:21-23)
While this is probably meant primarily to warn us and exhort us to repentance, it also bears witness to an internal motivation of the Lord to help us avoid hell. But Jesus also calls us to follow him. As we take up our share in His mission, we ought to “put on” the mind of Christ (cf. Philippians 2:2-8), and this includes taking His loving motivations as our own. While Salkeld brings disrepute upon the idea of the-danger-of-hell-for-others-as-a-motivation-for-evangelization by associating it with those “whose confidence in their own righteousness is the flip side of their easy condemnation of others,” the Catholic spiritual doctrine of ‘the imitation of Christ’ counters this narrative. Furthermore, Saints like Dominic and Catherine provide us with real-life counter-examples. Salkeld seems at least dimly aware of this objection in his article when he says that Jesus did not preach about hell “to motivate lukewarm Christians to preach the Gospel” — as if the Lord might have done it to motivate more mature Christians who are intent upon embracing the humble self-emptying that it takes to follow Him.
An even better example is when Jesus laments over Jerusalem. Here the Lord is not directly exhorting anyone, but only manifesting the internal thoughts of His heart:
Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you, desolate. For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” (Matthew 23:37-39; see parallel Luke 13:34-35)
One may object that this passage makes no reference to hell. But it follows closely upon Christ’s related condemnation of the scribes and Pharisees, in which he warns them of hell explicitly. Likewise, his lament makes clear reference to divine judgment (see Jeremiah 7:13-15, 12:7); but hell, in the logic of the Sacred Scriptures, is the extreme instance of that judgment. The people of Jerusalem are “not willing” to accept His offer of salvation until they say “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” In the meantime, the temporal judgment of God stands as a warning of the possibility of final condemnation, even as there is hope for restoration. It is in this spirit – of Christ’s anguished, but hopeful, lament – that the Church and her Saints have been motivated to evangelize by the danger of hell threatening sinners and unbelievers. Not in the spirit of self-righteous pride, but in the spirit of self-abasing charity.
This brings us to Salkeld’s use of the Magisterium on this question. He cites Redemptoris Missio in support of his argument that “the function of the doctrine of hell … is not to motivate us to preach the Gospel because others are in danger.” He quotes Saint John Paul II: “The Church’s mission derives not only from the Lord’s mandate but also from the profound demands of God’s life within us” (sec. 11). Salkeld comments, “In this same paragraph the Pope goes on to quote Lumen Gentium’s stern warning to Catholics (cf. Lumen Gentium, sec. 14) that it is they who risk damnation if they take their status in Christ for granted and do not respond to God’s grace in their lives by bearing witness to it.” This is of course, all true and extremely important for the Catholic evangelist to understand. What Salkeld does not mention however, is that a couple of paragraphs after this “stern warning,” Lumen Gentium gives unmistakable witness to the fact that the danger of hell, for others and not for ourselves alone, motivates the Church to evangelize:
Often men, deceived by the Evil One, have become vain in their reasonings and have exchanged the truth of God for a lie, serving the creature rather than the Creator. Or some there are who, living and dying in this world without God, are exposed to final despair. Wherefore to … procure the salvation of all of these, … the Church fosters the missions with care and attention. (LG, 16)
Bringing in the context of the scripture passages cited by the council fathers in connection with this text (which include Romans 1:21, 25; Mark 16:16), Ralph Martin explains: “Since ‘very often’ human beings do not respond to the communication that God gives through creation and conscience, it is imperative that ‘all these’ (those who reject the light of creation and conscience) be given a chance to hear the gospel, preached with the assistance of the Lord.”iv In other words, the council fathers were aware that human guilt puts many men and women in serious danger of being finally lost; and this fact serves as a motivation to share the gospel.
So does this mean that Saint John Paul II’s teaching is at odds with that of the fathers of Vatican II? Not at all! Redemptoris Missio continues the general hopefulness about salvation contained in the Vatican II documents; and that is sufficient to explain why it lacks any explicit mention of the hell-motivation. But neither does Redemptoris Missio exclude such motivation, especially since “the profound demands of God’s life within us” (RM, 11) is an apt way to describe how Christ’s various motivations become our own. Saint Catherine of Siena sees “love and … grief over the damnation of souls” as gifts of God, motivating His humble servants to intercede and strive for the salvation of souls.v Though St. Paul VI, not John Paul II, declared her a doctor of the Church, John Paul II held her in very high esteem, declaring her a patroness of Europe.
“Proving Too Much”
In case someone wants to deny that Jesus’ preaching was motivated by the desire to save us from hell, they must deal with certain consequences. Consider Jesus’ condemnation of the scribes and Pharisees, which preceded His lament over Jerusalem: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! … You snakes, you brood of vipers! How can you escape being sentenced to hell?” (Matthew 23:29, 33). If Jesus did not say this out of the desire for the salvation of these scribes and Pharisees, that they would avoid the hell He threatens them with, then it would seem that He views them as irrevocably lost. In this case, the “woes” He pronounces against them are equivalent to declarations of final reprobation, and hope for them is extinguished.
But perhaps Jesus preaches to save from hell, but our call to imitate Him is not meant to include this motivation. Perhaps Saints Dominic and Catherine and others were misled on this point. However, similar statements of judgment are found in the mouths of disciples in the New Testament, like when Saints Paul and Barnabas tell the Jews in Antioch of Pisidia that they have judged themselves “unworthy of eternal life” by their failure to believe their preaching (Acts 13:46). Imagine them saying this without any inner motivation to stir these Jews to repentance. The saying becomes nothing but a bare declaration of judgment, devoid of hope.
The fact is that there are many places in the Sacred Scriptures where servants of God declare the threat of hell for specific people, without any immediate reference to leveraging this in a hopeful way. This is where Salkeld’s argument “proves too much.” If the-danger-of-hell-for-others-as-a-motivation-for-evangelization is forbidden, various declarations of eternal judgment made by prophets and evangelists in the Bible are stripped of their saving purpose. Excluding hell as motivation for evangelization is supposed to be a hopeful gesture, suggesting openness to a “relatively empty hell,” and a generosity that refrains from making judgments regarding others, but it ends up unable to explain in a hopeful way the role of preaching divine judgment in the Bible.
Salkeld also “proves too much” by basing his case on the lack of explicit biblical instruction on the hell motivation. Though he’s right that Saint Paul does not say, “Woe to the world if I do not preach the gospel,” neither does Paul say, “Those who persecute you, whom I told you will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction: I exhort you to preach the gospel to them afresh, and intercede for them, that they might be delivered from this fate!” If he were to have done so, it would provide those of us who hope and strive for the salvation of grave and obstinate sinners with more extensive scriptural grounding for our efforts. But in the absence of that, we ground our efforts on what we do have: the example of Jesus who preached and suffered to save us from hell, and who cried out “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34) as He hung on the cross. We ground them on Scriptural teachings which give us hope that unbelievers and even great sinners may find salvation in the time before death, like the account of Jesus and ‘the good thief’ (Luke 23:39-43) and the parable of the workers in the vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16). We also ground them on the tradition of the Church, in the teaching and practice of saints like Dominic, Catherine, Therese, and Faustina.
The work of evangelization a work of salvation. The consistent logic of scripture connects eternal salvation with the righteousness of faith, declaring, “Every one who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved.” Then it connects the awakening of faith to mission: “But how are men to call upon him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without a preacher?” (Rom 10:13-14). If one has hope for a “relatively empty hell,” one should not build it upon stripping evangelization of this meaning, but upon hope that evangelization, together with the work of intercession (see 1 Tim 2:1-4) will perhaps bear unexpected fruit.
What does the population of hell have to do with it?
This brings us to my third contention. What does the population of hell really have to do with it? Salkeld frames his arguments concerning the inappropriateness of hell as a motivation for evangelization as part of his response to “the partisans of a full hell.” He says,
Recent debates on the doctrine of hell in popular Catholicism, often with reference to the work of Hans Urs von Balthasar, have focused on whether hell is relatively full or empty. Both sides are able to cherry-pick support from Scripture and the Tradition of the Church, but it soon becomes clear to anyone who wades into these waters that the debate is not actually about what Scripture and Tradition teach. It is about the utility of a doctrine of hell as a motive for evangelization.
Is that what it is about? I do not deny that for some people, it is. However, I am convinced that it need not be. Subsequently, I believe that debates about the relative fullness or emptiness of hell should be considered separate from this question of hell as a motivation for evangelization.
Ralph Martin, quoted above, is well known for grounding the urgency of evangelization upon the danger of divine judgment and hell. Though he is an opponent of von Balthsar’s view on hope for an empty hell and seems to be in favor of the traditional view that “many” will be lost, nevertheless Martin grounds the urgency of evangelization on the danger of hell, not on the presumption of a relatively full hell. Nowhere in his book Will Many Be Saved? does Martin give any indication of what he thinks the numbers, proportions, or percentages will be. In other words, he doesn’t answer the question posed in the very title of his book. In a private correspondence with this author, Martin indeed affirmed that this is intentional, and that he is not making any claim about relative numbers but underlining the very sobering warnings that Jesus and the apostles give about the “narrow road” that leads to salvation. He’s just trying to take these warnings seriously.
The fact is that having “hell as motivation for mission” does not require that we teach, as Salkeld puts it, that “most people are damned.” On the contrary, one need only admit that most people (not excluding ourselves) are under some danger of being damned. One need not consider the question of the final proportions at all. When Jesus is asked “Lord, will those who are saved be few?” in Luke 13:22-30, he doesn’t answer the question, but says, “Strive to enter the narrow door.” Saint Cyril of Alexandria comments:
Now our Lord does not seem to satisfy him who asked whether there are few that be saved, when He declares the way by which man may become righteous. But it must be observed, that it was our Savior’s custom to answer those who asked Him, not according as they might judge right, as often as they put to Him useless questions, but with regard to what might be profitable to His hearers. And what advantage would it have been to His hearers to know whether there should be many or few who would be saved[?] But it was more necessary to know the way by which man may come to salvation. Purposely then He says nothing in answer to the idle question, but turns His discourse to a more important subject.vi
Vatican II and Instruments of Salvation
The Church, in her theology, has gradually taken more seriously the universality of the offer of salvation, and the vehemence of the Lord’s desire that all would be saved. Continuing this trend, the fathers of the Second Vatican Council picked up on certain threads in the tradition and sparked a greater hopefulness regarding salvation. Their teaching asserts that God has means, known to Him alone, by which He draws people to participate in the paschal mystery of Christ and be saved (see Gaudium et Spes, 22; Ad Gentes, 7). While this suggests that the failure to effectively evangelize people should not simply be construed as a certain eternal death-sentence for them, in no way does it require us to completely erase one of our traditional motivations to evangelize. On the contrary, in Lumen Gentium 16, quoted above, the fathers of the Council affirm the hell-motivation.
Concerning the call to intercede for the salvation of sinners, God said to Saint Catherine, “The eye cannot see, nor the tongue tell, nor can the heart imagine how many paths and methods I have, soley for love and to lead them back to grace so that my truth may be realized in them!”vii And yet the motivation of such intercession includes compassionate “grief over the damnation of souls.”viii However many means God has to save souls from hell for heaven, our role as instruments of this work does not change.
God is drawing everyone to Himself in Christ (see John 12:32), by grace. As disciples of Christ, we are called to step into that stream of grace and share in the work of redemption. By doing so, we become real participants in Christ’s continuing work; really and truly to bring people from the slavery and death of sin, to the freedom and life of the children of God. It is not play-acting. Through our prayer and witness, people can be torn from the lifeless idols that destroy them, or brought from the brink of the darkest despair (see LG, 17). As Salkeld correctly indicates, hell is this “life without God,” worked out to its ultimate conclusion and made definitive. But if we are called to be instruments of grace to help deliver people from a real-life, hellish state that threatens to become permanent, then it is completely right that our motivations be oriented as such – provided that we do so according to the mind of Christ.
As Salkeld argues, “hell is good news.” One of the reasons for this is that it motivates Christians, imitating Christ’s loving compassion, to participate in His work of the redemption of the world.
ii William A. Hinnebusch, Dominican Spirituality: Principles and Practice (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock, 1965, 2014), 31. See also 1 Peter 4:18.
iii Catherine of Siena, The Dialogue, trans. Suzanne Noffke (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1980), no. 4.
iv Ralph Martin, Will Many Be Saved? What Vatican II Actually Teaches and Its Implications for the New Evangelization (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012), 89.
v See The Dialogue, no. 4.
vii The Dialogue, no. 4.
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