Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Bishop Barron Talks Nonsense About Hell

It doesn't look empty to me

This is a follow-up to Friday's more general post on Bishop Robert Barron's apologetics. Here I want to specifically evaluate one aspect of Barron's views on Hell.

Before beginning, I want to head off one possible misunderstanding. In the following, I talk about the chances or "odds" that an individual person or a group of people may be saved. In doing so, I don't mean to imply that those chances may ever be known in any particular case, nor even that they are chances in the conventional sense - that eternal salvation is metaphysically equivalent to, say, a coin flip. What I do want to do, among other things, is to point out the logical consequences of language. You can't claim both X and Not X. If A implies B and B implies C, then you can't claim both A and Not C. And so on.

Or to anticipate, if you claim there's a "realistic hope" of X happening, that means something. For example, among other things, it doesn't mean "there's virtually no chance" of X happening or "there's only a minuscule possibility" of X happening, etc.

In a number of well-known videos and articles (see here, here, here and here), Catholic apologist Bishop Barron argues that while
Catholic doctrine (claims) that Hell exists . . . the Church has never claimed to know if any human being is actually in Hell.
Barron, cites the views of Hans Urs von Balthasar:
Balthasar argued that . . . we may reasonably hope that all people will be saved . . . we may entertain the lively and realistic hope that all people will eventually be drawn into the divine love.
And then writes:
My own conviction is that Balthasar has this more or less right.
But Barron adamantly claims that the Balthasar/Barron view is not universalism - the view that everyone will be saved, or the view that we know in the case of each person that he will be saved. Instead:
When the Church says that Hell exists, it means that the definitive rejection of God’s love is a real possibility.
All of this is of course utter obscurantist nonsense.

Let's put Hell aside for a moment and ask a series of abstract questions having to do with odds.

When you flip a coin, is it realistic to hope that it might come up heads?


When you flip a different coin, is it realistic to hope that it might come up heads?


Is it realistic to hope that both coins will come up heads?

Probably. It depends what is meant by "realistic."

Okay, what about flipping 106 billion coins and getting heads on all of them?

The answer to the last question is No. At some point between 1 to 1 odds and 105,999,999,999 to 1 odds our hope becomes unrealistic.

The previous answers assume that there's a 50% chance on any flip of getting heads. But what if we're using a "trick" coin that, say gives a 99% chance of heads? In that case, we might have a realistic hope of getting all heads if we flipped 10, 20, 50, 100 or even 200 coins.

But we would still have no realistic hope for that 106 billion. The odds of getting 106 billion heads even with a coin that came up heads 99% of the time are over a billion to one.

Indeed, even if we define "realistic" conservatively as having, say, at least a 1% chance (which might be "realistic" but is still pretty small), then to have a realistic hope of getting heads on all 106 billion flips, the chance of getting heads for one coin would have to be on the order of 99.9999999%, give or take a few nines. That's not certainty, of course, but it's as close to certainty as virtually anything ever gets.

If I (being the ingenious and clever sinner that I am) use a magnet on a slot machine, giving me a 99.9999999% chance that I will come up a winner, in common-sense language, I would be perfectly within my rights to say that I know or I'm certain that I will win.

I would.

On one estimate, there have been approximately 106 billion human beings born on earth since 6,000 BC.

To say that we have a realistic hope that all of those were or will be saved, then (see above) there would have to be at least a 99.99999999% chance for each one of us, considered individually, to be saved.

It follows that there would be only a .00000001% chance (if that) for each one of us to go to Hell. To claim that that amounts to a "real possibility" is an abuse of common-sense language.

The main point is that the "realistic hope" of universal salvation contradicts the "real possibility" of individual damnation. You just can't assert both things at the same time. Or, rather, if you do, you're talking nonsense.

A subsidiary point is that Barron's "realistic hope" makes him for all extents and purposes a universalist. Or if he is not technically a universalist - for each person, there's a whopping .000000001% chance that he will not be saved - then he's a watered-down universalist. His giant frothing mug of universalism contains one atom of water.

Lastly, of course, those incredibly low "odds" for damnation are in complete contradiction to the words of Jesus, the opinions of the Church Fathers and the traditional formulations of the doctrine of hell by the Church.

I hope I'll be saved. I hope you'll be saved. I hope that that drunken, abusive guy who had a fatal heart-attack while in bed with his mistress will be saved. If I am a true Catholic and a magnanimous fellow, then I hope (or should hope) that Napoleon, Stalin, Hitler and Pol Pot will be saved. Perhaps in some sense it is "realistic" to hope for Napoleon, etc. After all, God will forgive anyone if they sincerely repent.

But it isn't realistic to hope for all of them to be saved in sum. If Christianity is true, then they won't be. Not all of them.

Maybe Barron should have taken a statistics course.

Why does all of this matter? Well, obviously, logic matters and the truth matters, whatever one's purpose.

But beyond that, I think what we might call Barron's trickery is obvious. And I do mean trickery. It is incomprehensible to me that a man of at least middling intelligence, such as Barron, cannot see what he is doing. Obviously, Barron thinks scaring people with Hell is medieval or low-class or fundamentalist or whatever. Respected contemporary theologians or apologists just don't do it. And you know how much he wants to be respected.

Or to be more charitable, perhaps he thinks scaring people with Hell just won't work to convert them or get them to stay. (As I argued a few days ago, there's no evidence for that, whatsoever. Indeed, the opposite is much more likely.)

But he can't explicitly ditch Hell since it's such an obvious Church teaching. Hence, the bait and switch.

Traditional Catholicism is often criticized for putting inordinate importance on being Catholic. But of course, for the Church, being Catholic has always been a means to an end. The end (or at least one of the primary ends) is the salvation of one's soul. Or as the Church used to put it for the first 98% of its existence before people like Barron came along, the salvation of as many souls as possible.

The irony is that it's the anti-traditionalist Barron who really seems to have the fetish for being Catholic, without really telling us what it's for. By strongly implying that everyone will be saved, he's jettisoned the practical importance of saving people, and thus eliminated at a stroke what the Church historically affirmed as its most important mission.

And he calls himself an evangelist?        

*Post heading picture: The damned being cast in to Hell by Frans Francken II, Oil on oak – 1605-10


  1. This reminds me of the talk of how small of a target it is to fire a rocket and arrive perfectly at another planet. It's not like firing an arrow, it's more like driving a car. There's tons of small corrections and changes that happen along the way. And AFAIK, that is the same idea behind the "reasonable hope". Basically, that even after we die, God will keep working on us and an all powerful God cannot be restricted in his abilities. So eventually, human will loses out to God's persistence. Or in your analogy, God keeps flipping the coin until he gets the answer he wants. This always struck me as a cheating and an end run around free will.

    1. “This always struck me as a cheating and an end run around free will.”

      By that reasoning, grace itself would be an end run around free will. “He hath mercy on whom he will; and whom he will, he hardeneth.”

      If I’m not mistaken we must admit that God could save anyone, that God could have saved everyone, and that God could even have preempted all sin so that we would still be in the garden, without doing any more violence to men’s free will than he does to the saints’.

  2. Bishop Barron's argument is the same as the devil's and Luther's. Sin and be saved. God is all forgiving. Hell is a myth, etc.

    The whole point of the Catholic Church is to save us from this kind of thinking. Robert Barron is undermining the reason for being of the Catholic Church. What a devilish idea!

  3. That is a very good and convincing article...time to shift those odds with greater prayer and penance.

  4. He should've just stuck to movie reviews and old bob Dylan songs.

  5. "...he's a watered-down universalist."

    Or as I have sometimes said, he's a universalist by the back door. As is Balthasar, of course.

    But you can really get the fur to fly when you make that proposition to a Balthasarian.

    Balthasar was an extraordinarily erudite man, and he had some interesting theological things to say about beauty. But whenever the subject involves hell, he's just profoundly wrong-headed - and worse, repeatedly uses his source materials in disingenuous ways to support his argument.

  6. This piece is interesting, but the stats are unimportant. The words of Jesus which you mention ARE. The simple fact is that the Church {here we go again...} taught of the dangers of a REAL hell populated by real people for 1965 years. Shedid. No, maybe she never technically stated that This Guy or That Guy are THERE, but the notion that hell is a vacant house is as foreign to the teaching of the Church as are, well...several other pop-post-V2 notions, one of which is related, like...EENS no longer applies.....

  7. One of the most obvious reasons for anyone on the globe to convert to Catholicism or follow it at all, is to avoid Hell. Not all of us are motivated by the other more noble reasons, but avoiding eternal suffering and damnation is a pretty good reason to do anything. But this man would rather take the air out of that tire, and drive around on a flat. It makes no sense to me, but then again, I'm no Evangelist.

  8. Okay, you have convinced the Bear. Since Barron cannot stop talking nonsense, the Bear will help him through the traditional Bear method of tearing his lower jawbone off. (What?! I'm a Bear! What do you expect? A debate?)

  9. "The irony is that it's the anti-traditionalist Barron who really seems to have the fetish for being Catholic, without really telling us what it's for. "

    That's one for ages. This is one of the most intelligent blogs on the Interweb. Everyone should be following it. And you should tell us more about yourself.

  10. If everyone is going to heaven, why remain Catholic? Why not become a Methodist, Quaker, or Scientologist?

  11. I would just like to point out that Napoleon asked Pius VII (whom Napoleon had persecuted mightily) to be forgiven and to be received back into the Church, for which Pius gladly dispatched a priest to Napoleon for that purpose. So, it really *is* reasonable to hope that Napoleon has been saved.

    But he might have just a little time in Purgatory, so offer up a prayer for him...

    I concur with those who enjoy your blog, by the way. God bless!

  12. Now for my rant....

    "Balthasar argued that . . . we may reasonably hope that all people will be saved . . . we may entertain the lively and realistic hope that all people will eventually be drawn into the divine love."

    Balthasar. Is. Full. Of. Crap.

    Apparently, Balthasar never heard of Jesus Christ. Or, if he did, he never read about how Jesus proclaimed Himself to be the only way to God, that people who did not come in through the sheep gate (i.e., Him) were "thieves and robbers," that Jesus was the only acceptable sacrifice for human sin to a holy, righteous God.

    Balthasar has absolutely no understanding of the nature of atonement, which is fundamental to any basic understanding of Christian theology. And JPII was influenced by this guy? That explains a lot, a lot more than most of us probably would want to know.

    "If I am a true Catholic and a magnanimous fellow, then I hope (or should hope) that ... Stalin, Hitler and Pol Pot will be saved."

    If I am a man who values morality and justice, I don't want Stalin, Hitler and Pol Pot saved. Ditto bin Laden, al-Baghdadi and the rest of the Islamist terrorist gang. For one thing, it's quite doubtful that such men would want to repent, in the first place. That has to be taken into consideration. Assuming that they view repentance as out of the question, why should a holy, righteous God Who is a Father to the orphan and who hates the shedding of innocent blood save the fundamentally evil?

    God is not mocked, yet people like Balthasar and Barron do just that!

  13. One more thing:

    I am so damn sick and tired of this pseudo-spiritual sentimentality expressed by Catholics -- especially those in episcopal authority -- when it comes to evildoers. The fact that they communicate this lack of righteous as "compassion" is satanic!

    There's a reason why there are so few real men in the hierarchy.