Matt C. Abbott
December 7, 2014
Do a majority of souls go to hell?
By Matt C. Abbott

    'It is certain that few are saved.' – Saint Augustine, Father and Doctor of the Church

    'Out of one hundred thousand sinners who continue in sin until death, scarcely one will be saved.' – Saint Jerome, Father and Doctor of the Church

    'So vast a number of miserable souls perish, and so comparatively few are saved!' – Saint Philip Neri
Above are just three out of a number of alleged quotes by the great saints of the Church on the subject of hell. I say "alleged" because I can't be absolutely certain that those statements were made by the saints to which the statements have been attributed. I'd say they're likely accurate, though.

At any rate, we do know, based on Sacred Scripture and Church teaching, that hell exists and that the souls of those who die in the state of mortal sin go there.

But what about those rather frightening and depressing quotes from the great saints? It all sounds pretty darn bleak to me.

I asked Father Brian Harrison, O.S., a respected theologian, to comment on the subject.

Father Harrison's response is as follows:
    It does indeed seem probable, from the words of Jesus, that only a minority will be saved. But the saints who gave extreme and depressing statistical estimates – making that minority a tiny minority – did not have any privileged source of information. They didn't claim to have received private revelations regarding the percentage of those who reach salvation. They were making prudential judgments based on their practical and pastoral experience; but those judgments were of course quite fallible. Sometimes they were preached in sermons literally designed to 'scare the hell out of' people, and so should hence be seen as more rhetorical than strictly theological.

    The bottom line is that we simply do not know for sure, and it would not be good for us to know, whether the majority of souls are saved or lost. Also, it is worth remembering that at Fatima we were taught by Heaven itself to pray, 'Lead all souls to Heaven, especially those who most need thy mercy.'
Here's what the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches on the topic of hell (paragraphs 1033 to 1037):
    We cannot be united with God unless we freely choose to love him. But we cannot love God if we sin gravely against him, against our neighbor or against ourselves: 'He who does not love remains in death. Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.' Our Lord warns us that we shall be separated from him if we fail to meet the serious needs of the poor and the little ones who are his brethren. To die in mortal sin without repenting and accepting God's merciful love means remaining separated from him for ever by our own free choice. This state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed is called 'hell.'

    Jesus often speaks of 'Gehenna' of 'the unquenchable fire' reserved for those who to the end of their lives refuse to believe and be converted, where both soul and body can be lost. Jesus solemnly proclaims that he 'will send his angels, and they will gather . . . all evil doers, and throw them into the furnace of fire,' and that he will pronounce the condemnation: 'Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire!'

    The teaching of the Church affirms the existence of hell and its eternity. Immediately after death the souls of those who die in a state of mortal sin descend into hell, where they suffer the punishments of hell, 'eternal fire.' The chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God, in whom alone man can possess the life and happiness for which he was created and for which he longs.

    The affirmations of Sacred Scripture and the teachings of the Church on the subject of hell are a call to the responsibility incumbent upon man to make use of his freedom in view of his eternal destiny. They are at the same time an urgent call to conversion: 'Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few.'

    Since we know neither the day nor the hour, we should follow the advice of the Lord and watch constantly so that, when the single course of our earthly life is completed, we may merit to enter with him into the marriage feast and be numbered among the blessed, and not, like the wicked and slothful servants, be ordered to depart into the eternal fire, into the outer darkness where 'men will weep and gnash their teeth.'

    God predestines no one to go to hell; for this, a willful turning away from God (a mortal sin) is necessary, and persistence in it until the end. In the Eucharistic liturgy and in the daily prayers of her faithful, the Church implores the mercy of God, who does not want 'any to perish, but all to come to repentance':

    Father, accept this offering
    from your whole family.
    Grant us your peace in this life,
    save us from final damnation,
    and count us among those you have chosen.
Saint Maria Faustina Kowalska, pray for us.

© Matt C. Abbott

 

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Matt C. Abbott

Matt C. Abbott is a Catholic commentator with a Bachelor of Arts degree in communication, media and theatre from Northeastern Illinois University. He's been interviewed on MSNBC, NPR, WLS-TV (ABC) in Chicago, WMTV (NBC) in Madison, Wis., and has been quoted in The New York Times and the Chicago Tribune. He can be reached at mattcabbott@gmail.com.


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