Does Bishop Barron deny that hell exists? Does he think all people will be saved, no matter what? Is he convinced that all people will end up in heaven?
We receive emails and comments like these nearly every day at Word on Fire, partly because certain websites have wrongly attributed each of these views to Bishop Barron, at one time or another.
But does Bishop Barron really believe those things? Or are they distortions of what he’s taught and advocated?
The purpose of this FAQ page is to provide a one-stop source for honest people looking for clarity on the issue. In particular, our intention is to clarify what Bishop Barron believes about hell, damnation, and salvation, and to confirm that his views are within the confines of orthodox Catholic teaching.
For more from Bishop Barron, read his foreword to Hans Urs von Balthasar’s book, Dare We Hope That All Men Be Saved?
**Updated on October 7, 2019
What does Bishop Barron believe about hell and salvation?
Bishop Barron simply agrees with what the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches in paragraph #1821, where it says we should hope and pray for all men to be saved:
In every circumstance, each one of us should hope, with the grace of God, to persevere “to the end” and to obtain the joy of heaven, as God’s eternal reward for the good works accomplished with the grace of Christ. In hope, the Church prays for “all men to be saved.”
Does Bishop Barron deny that hell exists?
No. Bishop Barron does not deny the existence of hell, because to do so would be to deny permanent and authoritative Church doctrine. He agrees hell exists and is a real possibility for every person.
Does Bishop Barron teach we can have a “reasonable hope” all will be saved? If so, what does he mean by “reasonable”?
Yes, Bishop Barron is convinced we have a “reasonable hope” that all will be saved. But the first step in assessing and critiquing an argument is to understand the terms as its proponent is using them. It’s important to note how he’s using those two words in this context. First, he means reasonable in the sense that we have good reasons to ground our hope—namely, the cross and Resurrection of Jesus and his divine mercy. He isn’t make any sort of probabilistic judgment, as if to say reasonable means “very likely” or “quite probable.”
Second, we should recognize hope to mean a deep desire and longing, tied to love, for the salvation of all people, but without knowing all will be saved, thinking all will be saved, or even expecting all will be saved.
Is Bishop Barron a universalist?
No. Universalism is a heresy that has been condemned by the Church. Its adherents claim to know that all people will be saved. Universalism is a claim of certainty, to have definite knowledge about hell being empty.
But Bishop Barron doesn’t claim this. He is not a universalist. He doesn’t claim to know all people will be saved, nor does he even think or expect that all will be saved. Instead, he merely prays and hopes that all will be saved. It’s critical to make these distinctions.
Didn’t Our Lady of Fatima show a vision of many people suffering in hell?
Yes, as a warning of the torments of hell—not as a window into an unavoidable future. We know this because in the same Fatima appearance, she also gave us the Fatima prayer, commanding us to recite it often, begging Jesus to “forgive us our sins, save us from the fires of hell, and lead all souls to heaven, especially those most in need of thy mercy” (emphasis added).
Our Lady would never ask us to pray for something that’s impossible, so there must be at least a basic hope for the possibility that all souls can be led to heaven.
What are Bishop Barron’s views on hell and salvation?
Bishop Barron agrees with the inspired author of Hebrews that “it is appointed for mortals to die once, and after that the judgment” (Heb. 9:27).
He also affirms what the Catholic Church teaches: that “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” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1035).
Finally, he believes in accordance with the magisterium of the Catholic Church that we are saved by grace through “faith working through love” (Eph. 2:8; Gal. 5:6).
But as for whether any souls die in a state of unrepentant mortal sin—or to say it another way, who is in hell, or how many souls have been condemned—here is what Bishop Barron has said:
Catholic doctrine is that hell exists, but yet the Church has never claimed to know if any human being is actually in hell. . . . Is there anyone in this state of being? We don’t know for sure. We are in fact permitted to hope and to pray that all people will finally surrender to the alluring beauty of God’s grace.
Does Bishop Barron deny that hell exists?
No. He also agrees hell is a real possibility for all of us. In his own words:
When the Church says that hell exists, it means that the definitive rejection of God’s love is a real possibility. “Hell” or “Gehenna” are spatial metaphors for the lonely and sad condition of having definitively refused the offer of the divine life.
Human free will necessitates the existence of hell inasmuch as any one human being may freely choose to definitively and irrevocably reject God.
Is Bishop Barron a universalist?
No. Universalism is a heresy that has been condemned by the Church, and its adherents claim to know that all people will be saved. Universalism is a claim of certainty, to have definitive knowledge about all people being saved.
But Bishop Barron doesn’t claim this. He doesn’t claim to know that all people will be saved, nor does he even think or expect that all will be saved. Instead, he merely prays and hopes that all will be saved. It’s critical to make these distinctions between knowing, expecting, thinking, and hoping, otherwise much confusion will arise.
But, you might wonder, isn’t hoping that all will be saved basically universalism? Isn’t it at least “practical universalism”? The answer is no. There are important distinctions between the universalist position and the “dare we hope” view, and anyone trying to collapse these views into a single, easily dismissible position is guilty of sloppy analysis, whether intentional or out of ignorance. The distinctions matter, and must be recognized.
So does Bishop Barron think hell is empty, or that all people will be saved?
No. Again, Bishop Barron’s position is one of hope—not of thought, certainty, expectation, or even probability. While hoping and praying for hell to be empty of men, he does not know whether hell is empty, think hell is empty, or expect hell to be empty.
Bishop Barron simply agrees with Pope Benedict XVI’s position:
It seems to me that Pope Benedict’s position—affirming the reality of hell but seriously questioning whether that the vast majority of human beings end up there—is the most tenable and actually the most evangelically promising.
He also agrees with Pope John Paul II, who in a 1999 statement in the L’Osservatore Romano said:
Eternal damnation remains a real possibility, but we are not granted, without special divine revelation, the knowledge of whether or which human beings are effectively involved in it.
Note the inclusion of the word “whether,” which confirms Pope John Paul II considered the possibility that hell might be empty. When the statement was included in the Acta Apostolicae Sedis, the word “whether” was removed by editors, but its original inclusion affirms that Pope John Paul II held this outcome to be a real possibility.
Is Bishop Barron a theological “modernist”?
No, not if that term refers to someone who subjectivizes theology, believes all religions are equal, or that the Church should assimilate to the wider culture. Bishop Barron holds that Christ sets the agenda for the Church—not the world, not the culture, not custom or fashion. This means Christ sets the agenda for the Church’s theologians, too.
Bishop Barron believes today’s theologians should remain firmly in the tradition of the first theologians, the early Church Fathers, such as St. Irenaeus, Origen, St. Augustine, and St. Maximus the Confessor. And theologians should be steeped in the best of later Catholic thinkers, such as St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Anselm, John Henry Newman, St. Pope John Paul II, and Pope Benedict XVI, as well as contemporary orthodox scholars.
For a deeper look at Bishop Barron’s theological views, read his book The Priority of Christ: Towards a Postliberal Catholicism.
Hans Urs von Balthasar
Who was Hans Urs von Balthasar?
Hans Urs von Balthasar was a renowned Catholic priest and theologian. He was born in Switzerland in 1905 and died in 1988. He is considered one of the most important Catholic theologians of the twentieth century.
Not long after the Second Vatican Council, which he did not attend, Balthasar was named by Pope Saint Paul VI to the International Theological Commission. A decade later, Pope Saint John Paul II named him a cardinal of the Catholic Church. Unfortunately, he died shortly before the official ceremony.
At his funeral, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI) gave this endorsement of Balthasar’s theology:
What the pope intended to express by this mark of distinction [of the cardinalate], and of honor, remains valid: no longer only private individuals but the Church itself, in its official responsibility, tells us that he is right in what he teaches of the faith.
What have others thought and said about Hans Urs von Balthasar?
The prominent theologian Henri de Lubac called him the “most cultured man in Europe.”
Shortly after Balthasar’s death, St. John Paul II sent a public telegram in which he called Balthasar “a great son of the Church, an outstanding man of theology and of the arts, who deserves a special place of honor in contemporary ecclesiastical and cultural life.”
Among Balthasar’s most prestigious admirers today is Pope Benedict XVI. In 2005, the pope said this about Hans Urs von Balthasar, in a speech given at Vatican City:
I had the joy of knowing and associating with this renowned Swiss theologian. I am convinced that his theological reflections preserve their freshness and profound relevance undiminished to this day and that they incite many others to penetrate ever further into the depths of the mystery of the faith, with such an authoritative guide leading them by the hand. . . . Hans Urs von Balthasar was a theologian who placed his research at the service of the Church, because he was convinced that theology could be defined only in terms of ecclesiality. . . . I encourage all of you to continue, with interest and enthusiasm, your study of the writings of von Balthasar and to find ways of applying them practically and effectively.
What about the negative things said about the work of Hans Urs von Balthasar?
This is a valid question, but we must remember that every prominent thinker has critics. That includes St. Augustine, St. Thomas of Aquinas, St. Catherine of Siena, G.K. Chesterton, John Henry Newman, and Pope Benedict XVI—and Jesus himself. But having critics does not make one a heretic—having heretical doctrine does.
The important consideration is, are the critics correct in their critiques?
Balthasar was a deep thinker and a speculative theologian in certain respects. He tested ideas to see if they could stand, in the long run, with the final authorities of Sacred Scripture and Church teaching; that’s what theologians do. But as R.R. Reno reaffirms about Balthasar:
John Paul II and Benedict XVI felt no reservations celebrating Balthasar’s intellectual contributions to the Church. Balthasar may have been wrong or one-sided when he was bold and unconventional, but he was not rejecting or undermining magisterial teaching.
Avery Cardinal Dulles affirmed the same thing about Balthasar’s position:
This [dare we hope] position of Balthasar seems to me to be orthodox. It does not contradict any ecumenical councils or definitions of the faith. It can be reconciled with everything in Scripture, at least if the statements of Jesus on hell are taken as minatory rather than predictive. Balthasar’s position, moreover, does not undermine a healthy fear of being lost.
What should we know about his famous book, Dare We Hope “That All Men Be Saved”? What is its main thesis and arguments?
Balthasar’s main thesis is that we are permitted to hope that hell might be empty of men.
His thesis is not either of the following:
- We know that there is no one in hell.
- We are permitted to believe that hell is empty of men.
The following are key points of Balthasar’s argument in Dare We Hope:
- Given what God has accomplished in Christ through the power of the cross, we may reasonably hope that all people will be saved.
- The Church has never claimed to know if any humans are in hell, which leaves open the theoretical possibility of universal salvation.
- The Bible contains two kinds of passages regarding salvation and damnation: first, those that suggest two final outcomes for humanity—namely, heaven and hell (e.g., Matt. 25:31-46); and second, those that suggest the salvation of all humanity (e.g., John 12:32). Balthasar argues that these two kinds of passages are not meant to be synthesized. Rather, they are in contradiction with each other, and are meant to be read as two possible outcomes (either all will be saved or only some will be saved). While humans are still “under judgment” (which he concedes emphatically on the opening page of Dare We Hope and throughout), we neither can nor may bring these two kinds of statements into synthesis.
- The “universalist” passages (e.g., John 12:32; Eph. 1:9-10; etc.) rule out the certitude that many are in hell and justify at least the hope that hell might be empty.
- Important early Church Fathers (in the Christian East especially) including Gregory of Nyssa, Maximus the Confessor, and especially Origen of Alexandria, taught universal salvation or something quite close to it.
- Some saints—including St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein), St. Catherine of Siena, and St. Teresa of Avila—expressed, at least implicitly, hope that not one person would be lost.
- The Church’s liturgy (both the Holy Mass and the Liturgy of the Hours) includes prayers that petition for the salvation of all. These prayers are not just optional but commended to all the faithful.
Was Hans Urs von Balthasar a universalist?
No. Per the definition above, he did not claim to know or believe that all men will be saved. He remains firmly in the spirit of St. Paul’s humble ignorance regarding the final salvation of particular souls.
How was Hans Urs von Balthasar’s view on hell different than Bishop Barron’s?
In his book, Dare We Hope That All Men Be Saved?, Balthasar cites with approval these words from St. Edith Stein:
All merciful love can thus descend to everyone. We believe that it does so. And now, can we assume that there are souls that remain perpetually closed to such love? As a possibility in principle, this cannot be rejected. In reality, it can become infinitely improbable—precisely through what preparatory grace is capable of effecting in the soul.
Bishop Barron would not go so far as to say it is “infinitely improbable” there are people in hell. That language is too strong. But he does agree with Balthasar’s main thesis, affirmed by the Catechism, that we can pray and hope hell is empty of people.
How should we understand Jesus’ constant warnings about people going to hell or Gehenna?
Hans Urs von Balthasar recognized that the Bible contains two kinds of passages regarding salvation and damnation: first, those that suggest two final outcomes for humanity—namely, heaven and hell (e.g., Matt. 25:31-46); and second, those that suggest the salvation of all humanity (e.g., John 12:32).
He argued that these two kinds of passages are not meant to be synthesized. Rather, they are in contradiction with each other and are meant to be read as two possible outcomes (either all will be saved or some will be saved). While humans are still “under judgment” (which he concedes emphatically on the opening page of Dare We Hope and throughout), we neither can nor may bring these two kinds of statements into synthesis.
In light of the “salvation of all” passages (e.g., John 12:32; Eph. 1:9-10; etc.), the certitude that many are in hell is ruled out, and hope that hell might be empty is reasonably justified.
Doesn’t Jesus say: “For the gate is wide and the road broad that leads to destruction, and those who enter through it are many. How narrow the gate and constricted the road that leads to life. And those who find it are few” (Matt. 7:13-14)?
Yes, but we should keep two things in mind. First, this passage cannot be taken in isolation from other passages that suggest a more “hopeful” outcome. Moreover, this passage (or others like it) cannot be isolated without proper consideration of what Jesus accomplished on his cross.
This passage reveals an important truth: most people—indeed, most Christians—are not saints. If not for God’s grace, in fact, none would be saved. But even though the majority of us are stuck most of the time trudging along the “broad way,” there is still ultimately hope for us in the end, like the thief on the cross.
Note that Jesus describes many people entering through the gate that leads to destruction. He doesn’t say all those people—or any of those people—necessarily arrive at that destination. Perhaps they repent and turn around at some point after entering. Perhaps they encounter Christ along the way, and their sinful orientation shifts. In fact, Christ himself on the cross, as St. Paul says, has “become sin,” which means he has gone to the very end of that road to meet those who have wandered far from God.
Christians should work, pray, and hope to help people who are on that destructive path to change course and find instead the narrow road that leads to life.
We should not take any chances. As Balthasar affirms and re-affirms in Dare We Hope, we are each under judgment. Therefore, every person should seek the narrow way, now and always.
So basically, “reasonable hope” advocates are hoping that Jesus was wrong when he said there are people in hell?
No. This begs the question because it presumes what’s under debate, namely whether Jesus did teach there are actually people in hell or that there will be in the future.
This is certainly one way to interpret Jesus’ words, an admittedly common one, but it’s not the only way to interpret these words and, importantly, the Church hasn’t formally endorsed this interpretation as the exclusive way to understand these passages. Again, the Church has not formally taught that there are or will be people in hell.
It’s also worth noting that Jesus’ warnings about people ending up in hell were all spoken before his crucifixion and resurrection. In other words, they describe the state of the world and the destiny of souls before Christ’s saving work on the Cross. To ignore what Christ accomplished on the Cross is to miss the very ground for why supporters hope all may be saved.
This is why we can’t just take one saying of Jesus out of context. We need to read it in light of the cross and in light of magisterial teaching.
What about Judas? Don’t we know he’s in hell? Didn’t Jesus say it would have better if Judas had not been born (Matt. 26:24)?
For many, this is the most compelling of biblical texts for affirming that at least one person is in hell. For why else would St. Matthew write this?
This is a reasonable interpretation, but it is not the exclusive interpretation of the Catholic Church. The Church has not ruled, one way or another, about whether this passage means that Judas is in hell for certain.
The Church has made no authoritative declaration, based on this passage or any other, that any person whatsoever is in hell. Therefore, other interpretations remain possible (especially on Balthasar’s view, which does not require the synthesizing of such texts with other “salvation of all” ones).
What biblical evidence is there that all people might be saved?
Some examples of “salvation of all” texts include:
“And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” (John 12:32)
“He has made known to us the mystery of his will . . . as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.” (Eph. 1:9-10)
“This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” (1 Tim. 2:3-4)
“For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.” (1 Cor. 15:22).
“For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.” (Col. 1:19-20).
“Then as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to acquittal and life for all men. For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by one man’s obedience many will be made righteous.” (Rom. 5:18-19).
“For God has consigned all men to disobedience, that he may have mercy upon all.” (Rom. 11:32).
Has the Church definitively taught that hell exists?
Yes. “The teaching of the Church affirms the existence of hell and its eternity” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1035).
Has the Church condemned universalism, the knowledge that all will be saved?
Yes. The doctrine was formally condemned at the Council of Constantinople in 543.
Does the Church teach that “outside the Church there is no salvation”? What does that mean? Can people who are not formal members of the Catholic Church still be saved?
Yes, the Church teaches that “outside the Church there is no salvation.” This does not mean, however, that all who die as a non-Catholic have no hope of salvation. That doctrinal position, popularly known as Feeneyism after Leonard Feeney, a Jesuit priest who prominently held that view, was explicitly condemned by the Holy Office (now the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) in 1949.
Following that, the Second Vatican Council taught that:
He who gives to all men life and breath and all things, and as Saviour wills that all men be saved. Those also can attain to salvation who through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church, yet sincerely seek God and moved by grace strive by their deeds to do His will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience. Nor does Divine Providence deny the helps necessary for salvation to those who, without blame on their part, have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God and with His grace strive to live a good life. Whatever good or truth is found amongst them is looked upon by the Church as a preparation for the Gospel. (Lumen Gentium, 16)
This means that non-Catholics may be saved—though it’s no guarantee or certainty—by the grace of God and through Christ (and his Mystical Body) in a mysterious but real way.
So does the Church teach that it’s possible for non-Christians to be saved?
Yes. See above passage from Lumen Gentium, 16.
What does the Catechism teach about the hope of salvation?
The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that we should pray for all men to be saved:
In every circumstance, each one of us should hope, with the grace of God, to persevere “to the end” and to obtain the joy of heaven, as God’s eternal reward for the good works accomplished with the grace of Christ. In hope, the Church prays for “all men to be saved” (1821).
Does the Church require us to pray for the salvation of all people?
Yes. Besides the Catechism reference above, the Church’s prayers for all men to be saved are reflected in the prayers of both the Liturgy of the Hours and the Holy Mass.
Most of the greatest saints, theologians, and Doctors of the Church, including St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, believed there were many people in hell, likely the majority. Are you saying they’re wrong? That you know better than them?
No. We don’t know if they were wrong, and we also don’t know if they are right. We’re simply not in an epistemic position to make any sort of estimate or probability calculus about how many, if any, people are saved, and thus the position of hope.
Among figures who disagree with the “majority are in hell” view is Pope Benedict XVI. In his encyclical Spe Salvi, the Pope wrote that:
For the great majority of people—we may suppose—there remains in the depths of their being an ultimate interior openness to truth, to love, to God. Some recent theologians are of the opinion that the fire which both burns and saves is Christ himself . . . The encounter with him is the decisive act of judgement. . . . This encounter with him, as it burns us, transforms and frees us, allowing us to become truly ourselves. (Spe Salvi, 45-47)
His implication seems to be that “the great majority of people” are not damned.
What is also often overlooked, in light of these great saints and doctors in the Latin West, is the prominent speculations of the Eastern Church. The conviction that hell may be empty has been advocated by the likes of Origen of Alexandria, St. Gregory of Nyssa, St. Maximus the Confessor, and Isaac the Syrian.
Some people suggest that disagreeing with Augustine and Aquinas on this issue means you are “against them.” This isn’t true. Bishop Barron has proven to be one of today’s most enthusiastic advocates of both Augustine and Aquinas, even if he disagree with them on this particular topic.
If we can hope that all people are saved, what’s the point of Christianity? Why should a non-Christian ever consider converting?
One’s hope that all men be saved does nothing to undermine the fact that we are all under judgment.
The possibility of hell remains for each and every one of us. This is why in Dare We Hope, Balthasar writes, “It is indispensable that every individual Christian be confronted, in the greatest seriousness, with his possibility of becoming lost” (p. 64).
An analogy may also help: suppose you were trying to cross a dangerous river and I told you there was a sturdy bridge about two miles downstream, over which you could easily cross. But suppose you replied, “Well, that’s a long walk. Why can’t I just try to build a little raft and paddle across here?” I might say, “Well, you could do that, and it’s certainly possible you would still get across, but friend, why not take the surest, safest route to get across the river, one that many people have used and we know will work? Why risk your life with more dangerous alternatives, even if it’s technically possible they may get you across?”
A similar case can be made for Christianity. The Christian faith, and particularly its sacraments, is the preferred means by which Christ wants to save us. It may be possible to be saved without the sacraments, but why take the risk? Why not follow this sure, trusted, proven path toward salvation, which is the Christian faith?
If it’s possible all can be saved, what’s the point of evangelization? Why should the Church evangelize if people are going to be saved anyways?
This objection makes sense when directed towards universalists. But neither Hans Urs von Balthasar nor Bishop Barron are universalists. Neither one has claimed to know that all men are saved. They take a much more modest approach.
In fact, their positions should foster evangelization, not undermine it. Why? Because evangelization is the mechanism by which Christ wants to save all his people. It’s only because evangelists tireless work to spread the faith and lead people to conversion that we hope in the possibility of them being saved.
The God of the Bible delights in working through secondary causes. Therefore, the ardent witness of deeply committed evangelists, teachers, and missionaries might well be precisely the means by which God deigns to bring his people to eternal life. The hope for the salvation of all ought not to dampen the missionary spirit, but rather to stir it up.
If the “dare we hope” view did, in fact, undermine evangelical fervor, we should expect Bishop Barron and the ministry he has founded and directed to be tepid and fruitless. But on the contrary: Bishop Barron and Word on Fire remain world leaders in evangelization, and have inspired countless others to evangelize as well.
Hasn’t this “dare we hope” view led to a “practical universalism” in the pews? Even if it might be *technically* true, shouldn’t we stop promoting it?
If Catholics were taking their Marian devotion too far, would it follow that we should stop promoting Marian devotion? For example, in True Devotion to Mary, one of St. John Paul II’s favorite books, St. Louis de Montfort writes:
Every day, from one end of the earth to the other, in the highest heaven and in the lowest abyss, all things preach, all things proclaim the wondrous Virgin Mary.
Now, some might understand this to be saying that Mary is co-equal with God. As a result, they might worship Mary rather than venerate her. But would this mean we should do away with the book altogether, just because people are misreading it and applying it in their lives problematically?
The answer is no. What we should do is clarify St. Louis de Montfort’s position and correct the distortions—not get rid of his work altogether.
Similarly, we should not stop promoting the “dare we hope” view (or any other permissible view for that matter) just because people are misunderstanding and misapplying it. If a particular view is leading to bad conclusions, that doesn’t make the view false. If that’s happening, we simply need to correct the distorted interpretations and outcomes.
It’s important to recognize, though, that we’re now in the realm of prudence—whether it’s prudent to promote a particular view or not, given its ramifications. This is wholly different than whether the view in question is true or orthodox.
Are you saying it’s possible that Hitler is in heaven? Or at least not in hell?
Yes, it is possible. That’s not to say it is probable or expected. But we must acknowledge the fact that God’s mercy reaches to the very depths of godforesakenness to the worst of sinners, and remains on offer until every person’s last dying moment.
The bottom line is this: We cannot put limits on divine mercy, nor on the power of God’s grace at the moment of human death. As St. Faustina affirmed in her diary, “the greater the sinner, the greater his right to Your mercy, O Lord.”