Are there people in Hell, now? The Big Dogs speak and a little puppy whimpers.

I just finished leading an 8 week Adult Faith Formation class called  ‘The Mystery of God’ by Bishop Robert Barron and Word on Fire ministries. I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to explore some tough questions about God such as His nature and providence, the problem of evil in our world, and the mystery of the Holy Trinity (to name a few). Since class time is very limited, I always encourage the participants to email me with any troubling questions they may have. I recently received a question about Hell that had such an interesting slant that I felt compelled to share the question, and my response, in an SCT blog post.

In the email, my friend (I’ll call him Joe) references a 2014 article by Tim Staples who is Director of Apologetics and Evangelization at Catholic Answers. Joe was surprised at the certainty expressed by Tim Staples and asked for my opinion.

In this article, Tim makes four points while taking exception to the claims by Bishop Barron and the brilliant 20th century Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar regarding salvation and those people possibly, or certainly, in hell.


At the end of the article, Tim goes so far as to say, “Greater minds than mine, like the aforementioned Hans Urs von Balthasar, and [then] Fr. Robert Barron, have posited the possibility that all men could well be saved. Indeed, Fr. Barron even claims that as Catholics we “must” hold this to be a real possibility.

[Tim Staples continues.] In a word, both of these great men are wrong.” [my emphasis]

Joe was obviously very puzzled to hear such strong disagreement between these three ‘Big Dogs’ of Catholic theology. He also included some thoughts on the revelations about hell at Fatima which I will address as well. Most important, however, he shared that his struggling with this entire issue in the first place was catalyzed by the fact that the convicted mass murderer Charles Manson seems to be on his death bed in California. Joe is sincerely conflicted with the idea of praying for the soul of this monster.

[If you wish, you can read the entire article, Are There Souls in Hell Right Now? by clicking this link.]

This question placed me a bit in a tough position. It’s often  dangerous to get in between the Big Dogs, especially when you are a lone little puppy. As a puppy I acknowledge that in my faith I rest on the back and shoulders of the Big Dogs in history. We owe such a debt to those Apostles, and Saints, and great thinkers. Throughout history they struggled with the concepts about God and His plan, and tried to find the words to explain it all to us little dogs. With that said, and with all respect for the Big Dogs, I offer my little whimper to my friend’s question.



Dear [Joe],

This is an interesting question. I’m a bit surprised that Tim Staples took
such a hard line stance against Bishop Barron and von Balthasar. He says
point blank that they are wrong. My first reaction is that there must be a
misunderstanding in terminology or at least emphasis. All of these men I
consider to be great scholars and Catholic teachers.
My first reaction is to exercise caution when reading a discussion regarding a concept – a possibility – and extending it too far to the point of hard cold fact.

Looking at the common ground first: It looks like everyone is in agreement
on the notion of heaven and hell, the existence of both and how we get to one or the other. So far so good.
It seems to me the Barron and von Balthasar were simply saying that only God knows the internals of someone’s heart and only God is the final judge. Therefore, we don’t know for sure the state of anyone unless God has revealed it to us. So it seems to boil down to whether or not God has revealed to us that anyone is in fact in hell or just that the possibility exists.

I looked into scripture and can’t seem to find any concrete examples of God revealing that someone is factually in hell. Perhaps Judas, and perhaps the enemies of Israel, or the Rich Man of Luke 16, but those are indirect. I’m open to other ideas in this regard.

Now let’s look at Tim’s 4 points he raises in the article:

1) He says “The First Constitution of the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 at
the very least alludes to the fact that folks then living in AD 1215 would
be in hell.” He then concludes… “The present tense indicates that some
folks then living-now wearing their bodies-would go to hell. Thus, the
Church is here teaching there are souls “in” hell.”
To me “alludes” is not definitive teaching. To me, Tim’s conclusion that the
council is in fact teaching there are souls in hell is a stretch.

2) Re: removing the words “whether or” from JohnPaul II’s L’Osservatore Romano does not seem like proof to me. It certainly is curious that JP2 would say one thing and the official transcript would be different but I don’t see how that is proof one way or the other.

3) Tim says about JP2:  “Thus, in Fr. Barron’s statement, “If there are any human beings in hell…” he seems to be confusing the idea that we don’t have definitive knowledge of an individual soul being in hell by name, and our not knowing whether there are any souls in hell. We don’t know the former; we do know the latter as a matter of Church teaching.”

Here Tim is making a distinction between knowing the individual vs knowing that anyone is in hell. Again, I think Tim is extending the conversation too far. Yes we certainly don’t know the individual, but that really doesn’t say anything about if anyone or not is in hell. As Tim acknowledges, the above is not a magisterial document so I caution about extending JP2’s thinking into doctrinal theology.

4) Here is my personal opinion regarding the idea of praying for everyone.  I feel praying for all souls is a reasonable Christian practice even though some of these people, such as Charlie Manson, might be seen as evil monsters that deserve eternal Hell. In praying in that manner we yield to the providence of God.

In addition, I looked up the CCC 1034 reference and Mt 25:41 that Tim included in his article. Yes, it certainly says that Jesus will proclaim to those on His left to depart and be off to hell. However, it seems to me that this entire section of Mt 25: 31-46 is teaching about the existence of a future general judgement at the time of Jesus’ second coming. It is describing a final revelation of God, the final judgement of God, the beatific vision given to the sheep and two eternal destinations that result. IMHO, it is not saying definitively that anyone is being damned.

Recalling the revelation of Hell to Sr. Lucy at Fatima: “…Plunged in this
fire, we saw the demons and the souls [of the damned]. The latter were like
transparent burning embers, all blackened or burnished bronze, having human forms… ”  Certainly, the consequences of turning from God and the idea of hell were clear. However, I’m not sure that she was describing a condition of ‘now’. Perhaps she was also describing the idea of the final judgement referred to in Mt 25. In any event I don’t think this proves anything as far as the number of people currently in hell. I can’t see that as proof that “now” there is at least one person in hell.

I also consulted Dr. Ludwig Ott’s ‘Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma’ p473-494, the sections of hell, the second coming and the general judgment. I can find in those pages no indication of formal Catholic doctrine or dogmatic
teaching on the issue of the number of, or existence of, people in hell
prior to the second coming.


If Bishop Barron was saying that no one ever will be in eternal hell I would tend to disagree, however, I don’t think he is saying that. I think he was simply saying that God’s love and justice demands that we at least allow for the possibility that all will be saved.
That said, it is theologically important to emphasize that hell exists and that through God’s justice, people can go to hell if they choose.
Without crossing the line I would even go so as to say that ‘it appears’
that in our society many have chosen to reject God and as I understand it,
it looks like their eternal salvation is at risk.
I think Barron is pretty smart and perhaps he is using an alternative to the
‘fire and brimstone’ approach with modern people. Beating the fear of hell
into people may not be the best approach, not matter how true it is.
Perhaps, he is trying to communicate the notion of God’s infinite
forgiveness and appeal to people’s desperate need for hope. That’s an okay approach as far as I’m concerned as long as the message of hell and justice is not lost along the way.

Therefore, without being able to talk to Tim, it seems to me that he
has gone just a little too far in saying that Barron and Von Balthasar are
wrong. As I said, I suspect (and hope) there is just a difference in
emphasis and style.


And that is the end of my humble whimper.

Please don’t hesitate to comment on Tim’s article or my response by clicking on ‘Leave a Comment’. That’s the great part of the SCT blog.

2 thoughts on “Are there people in Hell, now? The Big Dogs speak and a little puppy whimpers.”

  1. Thank you. This is well written and what I think also, or hope that’s what it is, merely a difference in style and emphasis.

    1. Susie,
      I’m glad you enjoyed the post. It is true that people often talk past each other, presenting a particular emphasis on a topic but sounding like an outright disagreement. Many times there is much in common and is cause to celebrate, yet we tend to focus on the differences and miss the major point. This is so sad.

      One such example that is dear to my heart is that of divided Christianity today. For example, both Protestants and Catholics present their particular point of view on issues such as Salvation, the need for Baptism (and the other Sacraments), Church authority, Sola Scriptura, the Priesthood etc etc. Much of the frenzied dialog is fueled and sustained by (at least) simple ignorance on one side or the other or both. Even more shameful is the fact that stubborn personal agendas prevent constructive dialog.
      The divisions within Christianity, both Protestant – Catholic, and Protestant – Protestant, is shameful and does disservice to the commands of Christ to the contrary. How in the world can we spread the Good News to the world when we Christians can’t even find common ground on what that Gospel message really is?

      The family bickering continues and the rest of the world looks in with disdain and rejection. So sad…


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